By Joseph Charles MacKenzie

James Sale, whom I happen to consider England’s best on the subject, states: “To write poetry with any degree of power, and to create true beauty without which the effort is vain, requires form and discipline.”

Of form and discipline our poet is never in want. Mr. Sale’s lyrical outpourings have enhanced the pages of many venues over his long career. As for me, I know him only quite distantly, as one of the shining stars of a small pléiade of poets to include Evan Mantyk, America’s top editor of traditional verse, Joseph Salemi, our nation’s finest classical poet, and of course, Samuel Gilliland, the great bard of Scotland. Within that illustrious cluster whose members constitute the Ars Poetica Nova movement spearheaded by TRINACRIA and the Society of Classical Poets, James Sale emits a personal radiance—a personality—which makes his sparkling collection The Lyre Speaks True a delight.

Without diverging too far into the kinds of forms the reader will enjoy in this collection, we can all of us appreciate Sale’s resuscitation of that most decidedly English of usages: the simple quatrain. Lentini preserved the old Sicilian quatrains of medieval fame as the basis of his invention, the sonnet. While their power would diminish as the Italian sonnet gained prominence in England, it was Shakespeare himself, in developing the English sonnet, who would find in their unique integrity the perfect vehicle of communication. While The Lyre Speaks True is a celebration of the English quatrain by a poet capable of giving it a certain flexibility, there are many other formal treats in store as well, rather like a display case of confections in the window of a French pâtisserie.

In other words, Sale is the poet of the smaller, tighter forms. Was Dante any different in this respect, if you really consider his terza rima as the sequence of poetical units it is? This is difficult territory for the best of our poets. In The Lyre Speaks True, Sale demonstrates a deft mastery skillfully packing a maximum of meaning into a minimum of space. The effect is often dazzling in its perfection. For this and many other reasons, I believe that James Sale is the foremost English poet of our time.

Part of the Salesian personality of these poems, as a matter of fact, is their Englishness. There is a jaunty exuberance, an undeniably English good humor, about so many of them, even among the most profound. To enter Mr. Sale’s collection is to walk into a historic, old pub in London, full of lively intellectual discourse and fine debate, not sotto voce and genteel, but ebullient and warm. The poet is content to share a story with you over a brimming pint. “I just got back from here where I did this…” Sale is that sophisticated British businessman you chance upon during a flight to Paris, of that world of tailored shirts and cufflinks, but who takes you aback in conversation by his engaging humanity, in Sale’s case, a humanity enlarged by the love of everything and everyone.

The Lyre Speaks True is therefore the poetry of one man’s journey into the orient of the imagination and the human heart, based on a lifetime of ongoing travel. The book is an invitation to accompany the traveler a few miles here and there along the way. One cannot read The Lyre without recognizing in Sale a man who embraces the world and life and other people.

The light of exotic eastern places scintillates in some of the poems. The gorgeous “Leaving the Bankok Sun,” based on the poet’s farewell to his eldest son in 2014, is unforgettable. We have all of us left a place or a person we love to catch a return flight back. Only a poet of Sale’s mastery can frame that experience so intimately, so personally, and with such unaffected lyricism. I see the poet gazing from out the window of his plane as he whispers the verses internally:

Leaving the Bankok sun
And flying West – West is where
The grave men lie
Who never see or feel the light…

Sale’s “The Port of Tears” is as fine a poem as Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”—a fortiori by its open-ended sense of the voyage’s danger. The metaphor of the Captain steering the bark of life puts the poem on the same level of Whitman’s “O Captain, my Captain!” The terza rima completes the poem’s classic look and feel:

The Port of Tears: yes, fit site for heroes!
What truth’s in it the Captain, rueful, knows –
Who turns from tears, the gift that God bestows?

Flight, the travel, directions, places, crossroads. The meditation of the journey flowers even in the soil of something exceptionally banal, as when the poet finds himself at a stoplight. Like Arthur Rimbaud assigning colors to the vowels—“A noir E blanc…”—only a thousand times better, Sale attaches to each of the three colors of the stoplight a metaphor of the human voyage as his verses orb into prayer. “I Am at the Traffic Lights” is well worth quoting in full:

Dear God
I am at the traffic lights.
There’s green and all life ahead –
Now time to race and take the lead.

Dear God
I am at the traffic lights.
There’s amber and a vague threat –
Some destiny that must be met.

Dear God
I am at the traffic lights.
There’s red and I am stopped.
Crossroads. Waiting for all I hoped.

Has this voyage a destination? Yes, I think the best possible. Sale sets his course on the face of the Father. Had he seen it in his earthly father’s face? The answer is found in the tragic verses of “Living with Father,” in which the poet reveals a very modern childhood of blows to mind and body. From this one poem, the reader suddenly comes to understand that the poetical voyage of The Lyre is not horizontal, but vertical—and it is this verticality which is one of the defining notes of the Ars Poetica Nova. Divine fatherhood, either explicitly or implicitly, underwrites the collection. The beautiful “He Blessed My Sons Within Me” is a reaching of that destination, the journey’s end, where the face of the Father transmutes into the poet’s own, restoring what was missing.

The Lyre Speaks True is more than poetry. It is also perfect essays setting forth the defense of traditional poetry. These didactic masterpieces recall the great prefaces of les poètes classiques of the Grand Siècle and manifest Sale’s generosity in laying out for us the timeless principles of his art. The Lyre Speaks True belongs in the hands of every reader who loves fine English verse and who wishes to participate in its continuation.





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The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments.


2 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    May I please remind our gentle readers that the force and vibrancy of the Nouvelle Poésie consists not only of superb poets like James Sale, but also of readers like you for whom the delectation of fine verse is a moral, if not a spiritual value. As civilization collapses in Europe, we Americans, by compensation, have only to reassert traditional literary values in supporting those who give voice to our noblest aspirations.

    This means not only talking about the Ars Poetica Nova poets, but purchasing their works as well. Almost everything we lay our eyes on today is ephemeral and empty. What James Sale offers is enduring and meaningful, truly worthy of the kind of sacrifices we make almost every day for far less meaningful diversions.

    “The Lyre Speaks True” is available at Barnes and Noble at:

    Or, for those who might like a fetching 20% off, I highly recommend Lulu, the revolutionary publishing giant at:

    Vive la Nouvelle Poésie!


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