The Starving Poet Ruminates On Air

by Joseph Salemi

...Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
—T.S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’

Socrates stood within the phalanx twice,
Wielding a spear for Athens during war.
Heroic virtue can breed forms of vice—
He grew into a garrulous old bore.

When Caesar conquered Germany and Gaul
And made Rome mighty at a crucial juncture,
Ambition swelled him into a great ball
That senators were all too quick to puncture.

Saint Paul was virtue’s sentinel, yet he
Lurched between exaltation and contrition.
His letters show the manic energy
One finds in salesmen who work on commission.

There's nothing good or holy or heroic
That hasn’t got a wormy obverse side;
And virtue, whether Biblical or stoic,
Is often the occasion of false pride.

The bravest soldier can be cruel or brutal;
The holiest saint, a priggish prating ass;
The finest scholar, just a simple noodle
Who floats in absentminded clouds of gas.

Criminals also can be sterling types
Who, once you get past their obnoxious deeds,
Are frank, devoted, loyal, with the tripes
To stare down hell to serve a comrade’s needs.

No sense in disentangling such strange knots—
Vice and virtue complement each other.
The immaculate implies a world of spots,
And infamy claims honor as a brother.

And so with us poor poets, a cursed race
Of verbal jewelers, who spend hearts and brains
In ink on paper, often with disgrace
And obloquy for all our careful pains.

To be precise, articulate, and glib
Engenders sullen hatred in the mob—
This is a vice that they cannot forgive:
We don’t speak like the average witless slob.

Though we have strung words perfectly like pearls
As no one else could, on the measured line,
This gift of language, in a world of churls,
Is seen as useless trifling, or a crime.