Responding to an Essay on Fictivity
Salemi misapprehends the fictive nature of poetry. In an online proclamation, he writes: “A poem doesn’t necessarily have to represent anything that... the poet actually thinks or feels. A poem just has to be an effectively constructed poem, nothing else.” Never mind the tautological aspect (and I have removed his emphatic italics) of the second statement.
In essence, Salemi understands something about what poetry is, or how it operates: “When it comes to emotion poetry’s job is evocative, not expressive.” Where he goes astray, however, is when he concludes: “[D]on’t... tell me that the truth is more important than your art.”
One of my sonnets touches upon this very topic:
Deliberate fiction poetry or else
Fictive deliberation? Either way,
If not in fact the truth it always tells
Expresses our experience today.
Leaving aside his argument that poetry is sometimes fictional—yes, there never was a real floating ship as in “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” —poetry must touch bottom somewhere in a perceived truth on behalf of the poet. An “effectively constructed poem” cannot be stitched together out of nothing, for it to be of value to a reader, however airy and ephemeral words may be. So when a poet tells him, “I can’t change that word, because to do so would be false to the experience the poem is relating,” Salemi oversteps his editorial (or professorial) bounds in demanding it. Oddly, he falls into the same error he criticizes fellow academics of here: telling the writer what to say. His job is to take it or leave it.
Salemi, a professor of forty years, is talking to students: there is nothing overall wrong with much of his dissection of the “art” (as he would have it), yet, of all people, he should know, it is up to the poet to make his or her own choices. When Emily Dickinson gives us her famous dictum, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” she is not being flippant. Other poets have expressed the same thing in different ways. For Machado it was writing in “double light” (doble luz). Eliot felt Shakespeare was particularly devious in the way he concealed his slant. If truth will have a slant, there must be a grounding.
Put in another way: if art is to precede truth, there is no point in the endeavor.
Where Salemi gets confused, is in the translation of experience into “conformity with the entire range of syntax, idioms, and semantics that embody the language’s tradition and accepted usages.” For example, in one of my oldest poems up at this site, I wrote, to signify the seasonal shift, of “[t]he dead leaf found in our tenement.”
There are two things wrong with this: first off, it wasn’t a “dead leaf” that was found but something else—however the effect of literal truth would have been too jarring (a dead fly). The other, of course, lies in the word “tenement.” It is not quite literally true to transplant a building from New York’s Lower East Side into Chicago’s North; yet figuratively, the word provided an adequate (and accurate) description of what was essentially a slum building—albeit in a good neighborhood. [None of this addresses greater location: the scene opens on a beach in Taiwan, but the waves sloshing in the second stanza are Lake Michigan's.]
Salemi would not dispute the correctness in either case in translating the experience into recognizable terms; but where he errs—and where he counsels wrongly—is when he suggests that a poem may be fabricated whole-cloth. A poem—again, for it to be of value, or, which amounts to the same thing, useful—must describe a genuine experience, however slant in the telling. (Conflict arises when, for example, in a poem like mine about an angelic encounter, the reader or professor wants to assert that the stuff is “make believe” or fancy.)
The professional poet, of course, may construct a lament for someone he has not known; Michelangelo did as much in the design for a tomb he was charged with constructing. There—as with Longfellow and his shipwreck the Hesperus —you count on the poet to have lived to adequately translate his experience to his theme. Keats touched on something of the poet’s task: “You speak of Lord Byron and me—There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees—I describe what I imagine—Mine is the hardest task.”
The poet must keep true both to experience and to his reader (via his medium). Relinquishing either—admitting falsity—saps and sacrifices the “effectively constructed poem”. As an editor (and here let me reassure the reader that I have never submitted to Salemi's publication), he reveals himself embodiment of the workshop paradigm he critiques.