Keeping the Door

Ant hordes scurried in purposeful files;
Angry, alert, full to demonic marching:
They came in batteries to batter:
_____But I kept the door.

Worms twisted achingly upwards into wiles
Of air and ever coiled most arching
On pathways which would be straighter, later;
_____But I kept the door.

Flies swarmed, furtive, across cow-spattered piles
Of filth scenting another kind of charging
On which they could clamber, puke, lather;
_____But I kept the door.

Butterflies in legions, larvae-bursting smiles,
All innocent as green is in Spring’s urging—
So did pity move me more, and rather.
_____Still I kept the door.

© James Sale from his collection, So Green, So Red


The Incarnation

or, Why Christ Went West

Deep in ol’ Depravityville
Sheriff was shot last Fall;
Six desperadoes seek to kill
And kill and then that’s all.

There’s Jake he hies from Borderlands
And knows what’s out beyond;
He ain’t afraid of anything,
Says he’s the cowboy king.

Then Dude’s a notch beneath the boss
And rides a wicked horse;
His eyes are like two crescents that
In silence slouch like cats’.

Silver’s a name to conjure with,
Though dollars serve their turn;
Of these there’s never half enough
And though their interest burns.

Ramone was always ma’s smart boy
And now mustachioed,
Ladies admire his low pitch voice,
And kiss warm as a toad’s.

Then Snake’s a-one with nasty twists—
A knifer in the back—
Seems dumb, but his strategy’s
More deadly than attack.

And Dutch is their big blue-eyed cheat,
Fingers like laughing teeth;
They’ll take a chance on any bet
And eat up their mischief.

Outside of ol’ Depravityville
Along the last ditch in
The Marshall says it’s time he will
Go as a child to men.

© James Sale from his collection, R



James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at and contacted at james@motivational He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition.

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25 Responses

  1. Leo Zoutewelle

    James, these poems are not to be enjoyed; they are to be admired!
    In both, the created atmosphere is overwhelming.
    Thank you!

  2. James Sale

    Well, thanks Leo – I’d like to think I write for others to enjoy, but I take it as a compliment that it’s not, in that my work as a whole is intense and highly wrought, and so perhaps only for those who wish to enter such a world. The inspiration for the first poem, Keeping the Door, is of course that most highly wrought of poets, GM Hopkins, and his marvellous sonnet: In honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, Laybrother of the Society of Jesus. That ‘feeling’ state of holding out despite all that happens, so marvellously evoked in Hopkins, is what I wanted to attempt. Thanks again – appreciate your support for my work.

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    To be sure, my comment was very much intended as a compliment. Thanks for the extended elucidation!

  4. James A. Tweedie

    James, I am intrigued by the second poem and its subtitle which suggests that the sheriff in the last stanza is a reference to Jesus, going “as a child to men” or, in the words of Isaiah, a lamb “led to the slaughter.” Is this your intent? If not, please explain the allusion.

    Also, I note the second and third stanzas do not follow the rhyme scheme of the rest of the poem. Knowing you and your work I cannot imagine this to be an oversight. I’m just curious as to why?

    I particularly enjoyed the first poem and the steadfastness it represented (well-explained in your comment). I’m not so sure it could have been written by an American poet–at least not in the same way. So-called “American exceptionalism” would make it even more tempting for folks like me on this side of the pond to make an exception for the butterflies!

  5. themindflayer

    Brilliant poetry. The first is fulsome and rich with imagery of the natural world, in all its decay and splendour. The second is more narrative, brooding, rather like the Westerns from which it derives its theme and setting. Underlying all of them is a subtle religiosity which I think is all the more powerful for its concealment.

    • James Sale

      Thank you – it’s really heartening you like it so much, and you are right: the first poem works through its imagery, whereas the second seeks a more narrative approach. Brooding is not a word that had occurred to me, but yes, it is like a brooding meditation on what is to come, but which in fact has already so powerfully happened.

  6. James Sale

    Hi James – thanks for your thoughtful responses. It’s an imperfect world and so an imperfect (and actually early) poem! It’s always dangerous to explain one’s work and often counterproductive, since it may shut-down interpretations that the author does not foresee. After all, I am an advocate of the Muse, and we do not fully control what we write when the Muse speaks; the imperfections, however, are our own. To take your first point, the sheriff is no longer a ‘sheriff’ in the final stanza, but is now another level of being: He is the Marshall – his authority is not local or localised, but operates across the whole cosmos of the West (as it were). In this way I am trying to point, metaphorically, to the divine origin of Christ, but without labouring it. So, yes, it is the lamb led to the slaughter – along the last ditch in – when corruption has reached such an intensity there seems no hope against the power of the six (and six btw because man(kind) was created on the sixth day and so its association with the Fall). The rhyme scheme will certainly not satisfy the purists, and I was aware of the irregularity but decided to keep it since I think it reflects the wild west and that sense of things being made up as they go along. If you read my recent review of CB Anderson’s poetry, you will find this issue comes up – clearly, I am now exposing myself to the counter charge of my own blemishes – or consistency of approach! However, we do not write poetry in order to achieve metrical perfection – in my view – we write it in order to convey the soul of what it is the Muse, speaking through us, wants to say. I mentioned above GM Hopkins, who could write metrically; indeed, his sonnet, Thou Art Indeed Just Lord, is, I think, arguably, the greatest sonnet ever written in the English language. But equally, he went off script and did some other brilliant things by violating the iambic meter. And let’s not forget the genius of Shakespeare who writing iambically in one of the greatest moments of human tragedy ever written – so brilliant, so painful, Dr Johnson could not bear to re-read it – and one line of it was, “Never, never, never, never, never’ – a perfect iambic line except … it’s pure trochee!! And how right, how mimetic: for his heart is failing; the iambic is a rising beat – no-stress, the heart beats; but trochaic is a falling beat: the heart beats and then it stops. How incredible is that? What we are looking for in great poetry is always a kind of linguistic reasoning that parallels the emergence of some important semantic point. If my poetry and rhyme scheme ‘befuddlement’ does not work for you, I get it, and please say so. But I’d prefer you read the poem without thinking about the stanzaic or rhyme structure first in order to ask yourself at the end, Is this striking home? I am glad you liked the first poem – and as for butterflies, well, I love them too, which is why they are the ultimate temptation. Sometimes it is easy to resist what we know is wrong and ugly, but what is beautiful is more seductive and siren like. Heck, James – I take the view that there are lovely butterfly-like children out there protesting about climate change – but really they ought to be in school. It’s all so beautiful, but listening to the media in the UK, the next step is giving 9-year olds the vote. You get my drift? I hope I haven’t gone on too long here, but you are such a thoughtful critic and responder, I thought I needed to – without in any way claiming merit myself for what I am writing – explain how things come to be in my world. Keep up the good work.

    • James A. Tweedie

      James, I’m sorry that you read my observation as a criticism. It was not so intended. Far from it! It was a mere passing curiosity. There was no doubt in my mind that it was intentional and, in any case, it did not distract at all from the narrative embedded in the poem. I was tickled to see you refer to it as an early poem. As I reread some of my own early poems today, I find, either from youthful naivete or from having been more open to the muse in those days, that they strike me as being surprisingly “true” and on point in spite of being somewhat “rough around the edges.” Some years ago I attempted to rewrite several of them but, in the end, gave it up insofar as the polishing, rather than making them shine all the more, seemed to leave them less brilliant than they were at the first.

      When I began to write poetry in high school, I tried to be honest. Then I tried to be profound. Then I tried to be perfect. Now, I am more interested in being honest again. If, sometimes, this means being less than “perfect,” then so be it! For me, I see this is a sign of maturing. As for you and so many others who post at SCP I am still trying to catch up.

      I also smiled (and nodded) as I read your comment about yesterday’s butterflies.

    • Peter Hartley

      Just as an aside to the tenor of this discussion I too believe, and have done since my schooldays, that G. M. Hopkins’s “Thou art indeed just Lord” is the greatest sonnet ever composed in the English language, with its Latin sub-title (if you could call it that) so felicitously and ably translated in its first four lines. For me the only things that come close are others among his so-called “terrible sonnets” culminating in “No worst, there is none”, with what must be the most powerful imagery that has ever been compressed into fourteen lines.

      • James Sale

        Glad to learn that the poem has had the same effect on you! One reason why it is such a great sonnet is that it is the whole book of Job compressed into 14 lines – that takes some doing!!!

  7. James Sale

    My dear James – no worries – we must all receive criticism of one sort or another; the important thing is whether it is valid or not. Questions of form are valid, but as my response makes clear, whilst I am – I hope – as classical poet through and through – form is not the final arbiter and I seek to shift the debate to include the effectiveness of a poem and how its linguistic resources achieve that. But – one has to be so careful – I am not saying ‘anything goes’ or abandon meter, since I happen to think that the iambic meter is the all but inevitable means to convey the deepest thoughts in the English language. We simply cannot escape it. So my words are addressed to those – like yourself – who are already singing from the classical hymn sheet, as it were! Re-writing one’s early stuff is, as I think you have found, counterproductive: you lose that shine that they had. As for the maturing, I agree too: ultimately we are seeking to be who we really are without the masks and images – as we will be before God of course, from whom there is no hiding. We cannot achieve it fully in this life, but we can travel a long way. The poetry is a record of that journey, which is why the Odyssey and The Divine Comedy speak so loudly – because they are journeys too, and thus representative for us all. Ah, butterflies – yes. From the same So Green, So Red collection, all that way back then, I did do one poem called Butterflies:
    They have been appointed and they must not
    Deviate. Air, there for them, on they float.
    They must in magic hoops be tracing loops
    And landing on egg-shine greenery
    In overt, covert shrubbery subtly.
    They have been anointed – mission is a must,
    And meaning so high above brown, brown dust.
    They enter the eye in pure delight, yet
    Their duty: turning beauty every way.
    Return beauty forever, and a day.
    Hope you like it – James

    • James A. Tweedie

      “…And landing on egg-shine greenery
      In overt, covert shrubbery subtly.”

      Something often seen, but rarely captured so blithely in words~

      “their duty: turning beauty every way…”

      If only each of us joined the butterflies in embracing this as our duty. What a different world it would be.

      • James Sale

        I am particularly glad you found and like these lines, James: it was an attempt to create a mimetic effect: the greenery/shrubbery are anapaestic in effect, weakening the iambic beat and thereby imitating the apparent weakness, fluttering of the butterfly’s movements. Thanks for your perceptive responses.

  8. C.B. Anderson

    By jeezus, you guys, I’ve never in my life read a more overwrought explanation of anything. Stuff the back & forth and get straight with it. Write a good poem, or else just forget about it. Nobody else understands what the hell you’re talking about. If poetry is thick, then prose must be all the thicker. Cut to the chase and let your pretensions wither. Speak not with a forked tongue, and let your language appeal to the young.

  9. James A. Tweedie

    C.B. I wasn’t writing to you or to anyone else. I was speaking to James and he to me. I do not believe that anything offensive was exchanged between us. Frankly, I don’t care if you or anybody else “understands what the hell (we’re) talking about.” As for writing a good poem, James has had three of them posted on this thread already. If you have something to say about them I would be interested to hear what you have to say.

  10. James Sale

    Hi CB, if you have never read anything so ‘overwrought’ before, then you simply have not read enough. You should ‘get out more’. Poetry stands on its own, but when enquiries are made it is important to answer them – as you did yourself in my review of your work concerning metrics. James and others have asked a series of questions concerning what I am doing and I am – without attempting self-justification – attempting to answer them according to what I know. It is the duty of criticism – that parasitic but necessary activity that accompanies all literature – to distinguish that which is established because it is right, from that which is right merely because it is established (as Dr Johnson observed). It would be better if you would help the enterprise as opposed to mocking it, and if you cannot help – because you haven’t read enough – then it would be better to say nothing.

  11. David Watt

    James, in ‘The Incarnation’ the descriptive imagery of:
    ‘His eyes are like two crescents that
    In silence slouch like cats’. conjures up the picture of a truly mischievous horse! This direct expression is a highlight for me.

  12. James Sale

    Thanks David – sometimes it is only one line or one image that captures our imagination and speaks, as it were, to us. But I am glad you have found that as something powerful for you. A great example of what you are talking about is from that long forgotten poet who wrote, A rose-red city, half as old as time – fabulous line and I think descriptive of the excavations of the re-discovered city of Petra in the C19th.

  13. David Watt

    Yes James, Petra does immediately come to mind with this eloquently descriptive line.

  14. Joseph S. Salemi

    When I first read poem 2, the title suggested to me (along with the narrative flow and the various names) that the poem was meant to be traditionally allegorical. The Sheriff-Marshall could easily be construed as Christ, to be sure. As for the men, it occurred to me that each might represent one of the seven deadly sins. “Jake” could be imagined as Pride, “Silver” as Avarice, “Ramone” as Lust, and “Snake” as Envy. I couldn’t fit “Dude” or “Dutch” into any of the remaining three sins, and in any case there were only six names.

    Since I am incorrigibly committed to Ordnung, I had to give up my allegorical interpretation. Like the Lewis chessmen, some pieces were just missing. But from what James Sale says above, I think we can read the piece as a modern (or impressionist) allegory — one where not only are expectations in meter and rhyme not always fulfilled, but the need for absolute clarity and one-to-one correspondence is not satisfied. This is not a criticism of the poem — just an attempt to see it in the light that its author intended. I may be wrong.

  15. James Sale

    Hi Joe – thanks for your thoughtful comments. Keep in mind, Evan was kind enough to give a second life to some poems by me that are nearly 30 years old and are not currently representative of my work, and you are right: there is a loose correspondence in several ways, which I accept may be a blemish on the poem. Most particularly, your observation, which I did agonise over at the time, of the seven deadly sins which would have been far more straightforward. But ultimately, when it was written I felt that it was complete and made sense; indeed, in a way I feel it was better in not being too obviously allegorical. Clint Eastwood is a great hero of mine, especially in his Westerns, and oftentimes there is that wonderful sense of mystery – the no name – of his presence and absence riding out, that too much pointing – or the complete chess set – would weaken. I accept that that may be not a very convincing justification, but your observations are correct. Thank you.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I love Clint Eastwood too — especially in the “Dirty Harry” films. Have they been shown in the UK?

      • James Sale

        Absolutely, Joe – love ’em, though nothing in his output matches for me his wonderful Westerns – The Outlaw Josey Wales I rate as my second favourite film of all time, and there’d be a couple more in my top ten. The scripts sometimes achieve a kind of poetry: e.g. from Josey Wales –
        Bounty Hunter: I’m a bounty hunter. A man’s gotta do somethin’ for a livin’
        Josey Wales: Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.
        Suddenly you see, in the Bounty Hunter’s face, a draining of confidence as Clint’s words sink home!! But yes, Dirty Harry too – I love all 5 of them! Of course, it’s elemental: the triumph of good over evil. Clint may be a rough diamond (as outlaw or cop), but his heart is invariably on the side of justice, real justice.

  16. Wilbur Dee Case

    I had not thought I would add to this thread; but there is so much in ‘t, I couldn’t help myself, or rather wouldn’t.

    1. Of all that I have read of Mr. Sale’s poetry @ SCP, these two poems are the ones I like the best, the first with its Hopkins-like cadences and the second with its ballad form; and, of the two it is the first I like the most, for its surprising language, its meaning, its engaging quality, and its imagery. Because it is so striking, it makes me wonder if I was wrong to have thrown away hundreds and hundreds of early poems and songs; perhaps there were things in them I do not see now.

    2. When I read the first poem, I immediately thought of Hopkins; in particular, despite all the differences, “Heaven-Haven”:

    “I have desired to go
    Where springs not fail
    To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
    And a few lilies blow.

    And I have asked to be
    Where no storms come,
    Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
    And out of the swing of the sea.”

    Dylan Thomas certainly knew his Hopkins; and so, it seems, at least in the first instance, Mr. Sale knew both. I heard Hopkins’ voice in Mr. Sale’s poem, even before his comments, because I too vigourously studied Hopkins in my early twenties. His poetry excited in ways that no writer, but Shakespeare had for me; so I am glad that “Keeping the Door” is moderately derivative; it makes me like it more. In this particular instance, I am at one with the mindflayer’s solid assessment.

    2. However, I do part company on the assessment of Hopkins’ sonnet “Thou Art Indeed Just Lord” as in contention for the “greatest sonnet ever written in the English language”. For me, in Hopkin’s oeuvre alone, I drew greater inspiration from many of his other sonnets. I concur with Mr. Harley about his point on the compression of Hopkins’ powerful imagery, as in “No Worst, There Is None”. Though again I defer from his pronouncement, Shakespeare’s dramas ever in my mind, and so many other sonnets from so many other writers in English…

    3. A note on Shakespeare: Through his dramas, Shakespeare uses trochaic verse for songs, prophecies, and intense emotional moments. The famous line from “King Lear” that Mr. Sale quotes is only one, and not that surprising for its violation of the iambic meter, though nevertheless absolutely brilliant in its context, among many others that he uses.

    4. I do disagree with Mr. Sale on his attitude toward meter. I think meter should only be broken purposefully (as Shakespeare does in the aforementioned line) , nearly never accidentally. “Butterflies”, though solid, is a bit heavy handed. Yet again, I prefer it to the poetry Mr. Sale is writing now. Even there one can see the magic of Hopkins at work.

    5. Unlike Mr. Anderson, I did not think there was undue “overwrought explanation of anything”. In fact, I would go so far as to say, that it is precisely that which is profoundly missing @ SCP. As to Mr. Anderson’s contention (as well, the Main Stream Media) to “let your language appeal ‘to’ the young”, I would revise that; and on one of the few occasions where I find I agree with Mr. Salemi, I think one should write ‘from’ one’s inner, truest voice…’for’ the young, id est, the future.

  17. James Sale

    Thank you Wilbur for your thoughtful comments; I agree with you in that this kind of running commentary about poetry, techniques and sources and influences and so on, are what we need to discuss on SCP more frequently. Also, I am delighted that you like Hopkins clearly as much as myself and Peter Hartley, and that he has been such a big influence. That you like these two poems is gratifying, but just as terrifying is the thought that one may not be as good now as one was then! I’d like to think I’m a better writer now but the reader has to be the judge and I respect that. I think that I agree with you in saying that meter should be broken purposefully, rather than randomly, although perhaps my view of what ‘purpose’ is may be wider than yours and certain other contributors to SCP. At the end of the day, what we stand for is form: without form, there can be no beauty; but as you yourself have demonstrated with your own inventions, form does not have to be just the ones we already know. One, of course, should always write from one’s inner, truest voice – the Muse. Thanks again.


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