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Notes on the long tradition of the literary burn (a P.S. to the Lang Leav kerfuffle)

From William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, to Dorothy Parker and Clare Boothe Luce, the literary dis has made for some of the most colorful and inventive language out there. But they might also lead to bigger debates on the written word.
Joel Pablo Salud | Mar 05 2019

You haven’t read honest-to-goodness bombast until you’ve read William Shakespeare: I would the gods had made thee more poetical.

Every bit the snob, one could almost hear the great English bard spew out spittle onto his contemporary’s face, the playwright Christopher Marlowe. But since it was not his thing to hurl wet pellets, as he was England’s most illustrious poet and playwright, Bill as I fondly call him, consigned this scathing line within the confines of his play, As You Like It.

Being famous in any age has its drawbacks. Even after death, Shakespeare faced scorn after scorn the likes of which would not have passed the watchful eyes of today’s “woke” generation.

Let’s take George Bernard Shaw’s estimate of Shakespeare as a fine example of a frontal literary assault. Some ancient cultures call it speaking ill of the dead.

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against him. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.”

Shaw, having displayed the force of genius behind his displeasure, barely survived the catastrophe he faced in British author Israel Zangwill:

“The way Bernard Shaw believes in himself is very refreshing in this atheistic days when so many people believe in no God at all.”

Writers verbally pummeling each other, clandestinely or out in the open, is as old as Jesus Christ calling religious leaders “You generation of vipers” and Theodore Roosevelt branding Woodrow Wilson a “Byzantine logothete”—whatever that was.

These literary fireworks were by no means uncommon. The history of writing had long been littered by spoken barbs and landmines, so much so that casting aspersion on either the author or his works had become much a part of the entertainment as the products of genius themselves.

Since we’re on the subject of genius, notice how these writers stayed true to their calling while in the thick of mocking one another’s reputation. I love the beautiful Dorothy Parker who, after having been slighted by Clare Boothe Luce as the latter opened the door and said, “Age before beauty,” quipped with classic wit, “Pearls before swine.”

These mêlées were true not only in literature but in journalism. We’ve all heard of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson making minced meat of U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon.

But as far as wielding the butcher’s knife is concerned, H.L. Mencken takes the bigger slice. Mencken lashed out on the 29th President of the United States, Warren Harding, with these words:

“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a sting of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line […] It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

Call it ad hominem, call it whatever tickles your “woke” fancy. You can even call it the wrong use of privilege by the privileged. Funny some would raise privilege, even elitist moorings. Aren’t we all, well, privileged?

In my opinion, and this is just me, to see two writers battle it out tooth and nail is a spectacle well worth the experience even while the smoke has yet to clear. They couldn’t help but elevate expletives and tirades into resonances that are both pleasantly execrable and, yes, deserving of our highest praise.

This brings me to the immediate consequence of a really good battle: A discourse on literature. Who would’ve thought something so naturally regrettable as two writers fighting would give birth to a long discussion on poetry? If such were the case, then shouldn’t we have more of it?

Let’s admit: Each and every writer holds to a different set of standards as to what constitutes good and great writing. Fine. That’s absolutely reasonable. Because if not for these standards, which lead us to the daily honing of the craft—the writing of poetry, above all—I mean, why even go to the hassle of writing a poem?

Anyone who has tried his hand on writing, regardless of the genre, knows it is the cause of our profoundest exasperation, if not altogether this lingering sense of defeat. The fatigue, the despair, to mention little of the royalties which are no better than an order of dimsum, topping these with the shuddering crescendo of criticisms that go with the penning of line after line, piece after piece: What could be more inconsolable?

Yet those who said yes to the summons of poetry hone their craft with such flair for lines and images there can be no mistaking where their fierce allegiance lies.

And so I ask, which I here posit as an honest-to-goodness question: What is poetry?

Better yet, what is the task of poetry? What purpose does it serve? Because after all’s said and done on the matter of what constitutes a poem or a poet, these bards must have some underlying purpose for sparing neither breath nor heart into each and every stanza.

This begs another question: Why go through all that trouble of elevating language if a poem, in the end, would sound like everything else?

Is anything and everything poetry? A line here, a clutch of lyrics there: Are these poems? Is it prose sliced and diced to sound like a badly sculpted pentameter? What differentiates a true poetic line from a bogus one? And if it’s bogus, if it fails to come within an inch of the defining standards on which the craft finds its matchlessness, should we continue to call it a poem?

Are there hard and fast rules? Or do we make up these “rules” as we go along?

Does anyone even have an answer?

I have always held the notion that there is no such creature as a “bad poem”. There is only the poem. Everything else is, well, not a poem. Perhaps, a poem may not have reached maturity during the writing of the first draft, but poets need to be able to tell between a poem and what is not from the start.

I am asking this because I’m no poet, not by any stretch of the imagination. I have long since abandoned the writing of poor excuses for poetry for reasons that are obvious: I don’t have what it takes to be a poet. However, I cannot say I’ve given up on poetry altogether because I, as in my youth, still love reading poems.

I am asking these questions not as a writer, but as a reader. Is there really a way to tell? There ought to be a way. All this honing, polishing and elevating language will be an exercise in futility if, in the end, one cannot distinguish a real poem from a bogus one.

And worse, if the poet will just end up sounding like everybody else.

Now I come to where the knuckle meets our two front teeth: Is Lang Leav’s work poetry? Who decides? Her millions of readers? Lang Leav? The academe? The prize-winners? Jurors in a literary contest? The venerable writer’s workshop? The bestseller status? The publishing house? Instagram?

This much is certain: In the Philippines, it’s not the royalties.

Who or what has the final say on the matter then? We all know even poets differ in their opinion as to what a poem is and what it is not. Who among our poets can honestly, and with conviction, echo Shakespeare’s words to another poet: “I would the gods had made thee more poetical”?

Surely, not Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta. Not in that article she wrote.

Anyone who has read Mookie’s essay on Lang Leav must acknowledge the fact that the title, “Leav and let live (What I learned from meeting Lang Leav),” offers a warm and welcoming tone when read into the article as its overarching context.

A bit too tongue-in-cheek in some parts, I have to say, like that mention, in passing, of the partner. But, by and large, convivial from the vantage point of one who admits that she was ready to “laugh off Lang Leav” until she got to the heart of the interview.

On the matter of the title, Leav and let live, a play on the idiom, Live and let live, carries with it its attendant meaning: The idiom speaks of tolerance regardless of differences in opinion and practice.

Let’s not even fool ourselves more than we have to: Poets differ from one another. They’re hardly a homogeneous lot. Many, if not all, poets or what-have-you have said something about Lang Leav’s works. Truth to tell, even about each other’s works.

Only Mookie Lacuesta dared open her thoughts to public scrutiny by publishing not reportage, but clearly an opinion piece.

Ergo, I dare any of my readers to read Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta’s article on Lang Leav—again—while bearing in mind the meaning found in the title.

I love Mookie’s article for its eye-catching candor. You have no idea of the countless occasions I had to interview people with whom I hotly disagree. I know what it’s like to laugh off someone’s ideas at the start, only to discover reasons where we can agree, or agree to disagree sans the pyrotechnics.

This is also my raison d'être for speaking to Mookie first before penning this piece. I find commenting off-the-cuff on a hotly contested topic grossly unacceptable.

I think of poetry as art that could stand on its own, regardless of whether it resonates to me or not. Call it postmodernist, call it l'art pour l'art, call it what you will. But if poetry must substantiate, even authenticate its existence on whether the audience could relate to it or not, then it ceases to be a work of art.

It becomes something else entirely: A hugot line or a do-it-yourself advice, which in themselves, if crafted well enough to pass muster, may fall very close to poetry. But, of course, that’s one huge if.

Poetry as the personal expression of the artist does not huff and puff for attention, not for its fluidity and hesitations, its own vision of what is in front of it. Resonance is left solely with the audience, not the poem. A poem exists solely for the purpose of giving flesh and bone to human expression.

It can, without bearing witness to the human condition and the struggles by which we are defined, hold its head up high if solely for the cadence and the dance, melody and song, the weaving of words whose end is to rise above the prosaic.

On the other hand, there are many poems, just as lofty, that we can relate to. These are poems which speak to us directly as though the poet had us in mind during the penning of a verse. I’m particularly thrilled by the works of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova for their courage to speak out in the midst of Stalin’s tyranny. Or Octavio Paz’s all because his poems speak to my Filipino-Spanish heart.

Yet, without second thought, I would graze on Ezra Pound’s Cantos—line after overbearing line—with nary the expectation of relating to it. I love each line no matter how it insists on pushing me away, what with strange names like Perimedes and Eurylochus, Ithaca, ell-square pitkin, girdles, breast bands, and the cadaverous dead forcing me to wince.

I read Pound’s poems out loud, pore over them in the dead of night, understanding little of what this fascist-loving lyricist had penned.

I’ve read quite a few of Lang Leav’s writings, as did Mookie (though not cover to cover) but have never got around to spending hours on them. I’ve read Mookie’s poems extensively because to me, she’s a poet and a damn good one.

Nonetheless, I make no pretense to being an authority on poetry as I am a mere essay writer. You are free to make your choices as I have made mine on who among the two is the poet.

We can all be different. And perhaps, after a brief stint together, we may never ever meet again. In the final analysis we can only be who we are—two writers hanging out in a posh Writers Bar no writer in his right mind would consider a second home.

Live and let live, as Mookie has learned after interviewing the Instagram sensation, Lang Leav. That’s about the gist of it.

As for me, I would the gods had made me more poetical.


Joel Pablo Salud is the author of fiction and nonfiction books. He currently sits as the editor-in-chief of the Philippines Graphic, the longest running political and literary magazine in the country. This article was first published online in the author’s Papercut Blogs.


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