I don’t know if you’ve ever been commended for this, but I love that The Chimaera has so much poetry in it. I love to read poems and, damn it, your publication has a lot of them, unlike many on-line works. So I compliment you on the volume of high-quality poetry that is contained in The Chimaera. I can read other online magazines in a half-hour — some in ten minutes — but your journal is one that provides a much greater volume of reading enjoyment. Kudos for that! As an editor I know it is much more work to have a lot of submissions and poems, but the end product is worth the effort.
David W. Landrum
In your October 2007 issue, Quincy Lehr expertly pinpoints the problems with Joseph Salemi’s criticisms of the so-called ersatz in contemporary formal poetry. But even more admirable than what Lehr said was how he said it. Close readers will notice that, while Lehr adopts an antagonistic tone, he still takes pains to depict the substance of Salemi’s views fairly. This is a gesture of intellectual honesty that Salemi himself is unlikely to extend to his interlocutors. Salemi’s instantly infamous outburst on Sonnet Central last September provided just one example of this bent of mind, along with Salemi’s unfortunate tendency to respond to criticism by slurring his critic’s gender (to a woman: “If you can't stand the heat, get BACK in the kitchen”) or sexual proclivities (“rug-munch[er]”), or by making ham-handed threats of legal action (“I did not contact a lawyer after seeing [a] personally insulting poem on your website”). As Lehr notes, in “Our Ersatz World” Salemi vents his spleen less on writing than on writers themselves — not their poetics, their persons. Salemi’s defense of the essay presents more of the same, just less guardedly.
Salemi should, of course, be allowed to express himself however he likes. Indeed, I wish he would express his views with even more completeness and clarity, particularly to his employers at any of the various universities where he is an adjunct professor. And by the same token that Salemi may express himself, those of us who see his critical work for the intellectually dishonest airing of real and imagined personal grievances that it often is should be unafraid to describe it as such.
Too Many Cooks?
Generally, congratulations on a solid first issue. However, within the issue, there is one piece that continues to stick out for its almost remarkable godawfulness — Sally Cook’s “A Modernist Mess”.
From the title, one would expect a down-market version of Timothy Steele’s arguments in Missing Measures... except that for the life of me, I can find no reference to any significant Modernist person, place, or thing. While she ends with an exhortation to “throw the chamberpot of modernism and its contents out the window,” it’s unclear what we’re supposed to be throwing out. No, we instead get a scattershot denunciation of various trends in the twentieth century. After a casual reference to Ginsberg, we find that “Schools such as The Black Mountain, San Francisco, the ‘Beats’ and the New York School completed the descent of our poetry into a surrealistic and politicized hash of incoherence.” This denunciation is telling. Of course, certain of the poets whom Cook sees as a counterpoint to this abysmal decline in standards — Joseph Salemi and Leo Yankevich, for example — write highly politicised verse, but from a right-wing perspective. One suspects that Cook does not object to political verse, but rather left-of-centre political verse. As for incoherence, we all know what “Howl” is about. Denise Levertov is not a “difficult” poet, and for that matter, many of the poets associated with the movements she rather breezily dismisses are fairly easy to follow. But Cook isn’t really interested in critique. No, she’s riding on righteous anger, and Pound equals Williams equals Corso equals O’Hara equals Bernstein.
All of this makes it hard to know where to begin a counterattack. The number of sweeping generalisations, half-truths, and conflations in Cook’s essay is staggering, all to the point of saying that the last century is best written off — with perhaps the exception of a few poets in a particular wing of the New Formalist movement. It is a dim, dismissive, and dishonest essay, well below the general standards The Chimaera has set for itself thus far.
Quincy R. Lehr
Sally Cook’s response to Quincy Lehr’s letter:
Thanks for inviting my response to the letter you received concerning my essay “A Modernist Mess” (The Chimaera, October 2007).
This letter expressed disappointment that I offered no long explication of modernist poets, then complained “…it is hard to know where to begin a counterattack.”
Counterattack? Are some of us in a war?
Had I wanted to write a conventional academic paper complete with references, lists and footnotes ad nauseam, suitable for eternal grading by those who think they know better, I would have done so. Instead, I chose to paint with a broad brush. Hello — “A Modernist Mess” is an opinion piece!
Yes, I positively mentioned the contemporary poetry of Joseph S. Salemi and Leo Yankevich (Eek! The dread buzzwords!!). Just for the record, in the same sentence, I also named other interesting poets — T. S. Kerrigan, Margaret Menamin, Harvey Stanbrough, and Gail White. All are original and accomplished — none walk together in political lockstep.
I rejoice in good work. A juvenile, petulant, unexamined point of view holds no interest for me.
One hundred years isn’t all that long, and what we call modernism is not the last word by any means.
I agree with “William McGonagall III” (The Chimaera, October 2007) that his namesake was very likely not the fool he is now generally thought to have been.
The whole William Topaz McGonagall story is undoubtedly a fascinating one in the annals of poetry and of showmanship. What also interests me, however, is the question of who might be behind the persona of “William McGonagall III”. Would a genuine retired Arbroath haddock-smoker actually describe himself in those terms? I think not. And indeed an Internet White Pages search yields only four McGonagalls in Dundee, and no W. McGonagalls. That isn’t conclusive, of course — people can choose to be ex-directory. But as it happens I live in Scotland myself, and sometimes travel to Dundee. I was able to do some local ferreting around recently. And there is no McGonagall on the Dundee Register of Canary Licenses, nor on the list of Approved Goldfish Keepers! That does seem conclusive: the local bureaucracies are pretty hot on this sort of stuff.
The McGonagall pastiche is done with some skill (and the one in The Shit Creek Review is a tour de force). There’s also an indefinable Scottishness in the prose style. I think the puppetmaster of “William McGonagall III” is a Scot, obviously someone familiar with your journals, and probably one who contributes under his own name. I note there are at least two who fit the description. Let others follow the trail.
I gave up haddock for cigars myself, years ago.