"The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave DoréExtract from Canto 9 of James Sale’s English Cantos The Society December 8, 2019 Beauty, Culture, Poetry 24 Comments In Canto 8 the poet and Dante, accompanying him, encounter the next-door neighbour, Peter, who brutally murdered his wife for money. Escaping from there, they enter a lower hell where they are about to meet a famous Western political mass-murderer of the C21st who is forever condemned for his actions. Canto 9 (Extract from Opening) I do not know how long that tunnel was Down which I went, escaping Peter’s rage That burnt so impotently, but no pause In Dante’s rush allowed me time to gauge Exactly what happened, or what events I might have seen at each damnation’s stage; How many levels missed, then, as hell bent Downwards and lower, in some colony Where each shade busied itself like some ant Might? And, like ants, the sense of acts not free Because here genes irreversibly changed, Trapped in enacting their own felony Forever. Now I knew: nothing expunged The crimes, and knowing brought its special grief – Family, friends, neighbours, all lost, arraigned Before the bar of their obsessive briefs Which now they came to full possession of; Their portion, part, to always live in death, Unleashed from flesh, then from the source of love. How wearisome indeed, I could scarce stand To think, much less to feel its dread enough And know some punishment, some mighty hand Subjected all those living to its will; And here nothing against could countermand That will that wrought enmity to all ill; That would not countenance one twist of wrong, Or deviation to the way of evil. Miriam sang, long ago, her new song, Recalling how in the surging Red Sea What seemed impossible that hand had won And all of Pharaoh’s had come not to be. With one rebuke the whole Sea dried at root; Through depths exposed at last to scrutiny, A people touching soil before no foot Had felt—what release for it: no tons of water Pressed, merely the slight weight of human noughts: Those vanishing—every son, every daughter— On canvasses that time’s destruction brings In whirligigs and wildernesses later. For each one, yes, against their own soul sins, As Dathan, Korah and Abiram found, Like scorpions perishing from their own stings; Only unlike such piercings was the ground As Moses summoned the people stand back, And all the earth where Korah was, and sand Around his tents shifted to void and slack And down they went, still living … for a while … Till covered and lost in a soundless black. Dathan, Korah and Abiram: Jews who caused trouble for Moses during their exodus from Egypt. 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 www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition. Views expressed by individual poets and writers on this website and by commenters do not represent the views of the entire Society. The comments section on regular posts is meant to be a place for civil and fruitful discussion. Pseudonyms are discouraged. The individual poet or writer featured in a post has the ability to remove any or all comments by emailing submissions@ classicalpoets.org with the details and under the subject title “Remove Comment.” Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window) 24 Responses Leo Zoutewelle December 8, 2019 James, I do not understand enough of this poetry of yours to do it justice, but I understand enough of it to be deeply impressed. Thank you for this! Leo Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Thanks Leo for your kind comment and I am sorry for the delay in replying but I have been away on a short vacation. I am glad you are impressed; at the end of the day it is better for poetry to impress with its power or beauty or whatever, than for people merely to be able to analyse it. In this respect it is like music: we can be moved by it without understanding how music is composed. For more on what I am attempting to achieve, please go to https://englishcantos.home.blog – you will find there several SCP poets, including the editor, who have done some superb readings of my Dante inspired works. If you feel like contributing yourself, please do and contact me directly. All the best. Reply Joseph S. Salemi December 8, 2019 Excellent terza rima, James. Your book English Cantos promises to be a magnificent work. Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Thank you Joe: I hope not to disappoint, and the work continues to grow. We are organising a big celebration for 2021, Dante’s 700th anniversary of his death, and next year there will be a preliminary poetry/art exhibition that foreshadows this. This will be in June at a beautiful English historic country house. I am hoping by then the ‘hell’ section of the work (1 + 11 Cantos) will be completed and available, but of course that is only my hope. Your words are deeply encouraging. Reply J. Simon Harris December 8, 2019 So glad to see you’re making good progress on the English Cantos. This excerpt is great! I especially love the bit about Korah and the others at the end; that’s a striking Old Testament moment that doesn’t get enough play. Your last stanza reminds me of the closing lines of Inferno 26 (the Ulysses canto). I imagine the resemblance is intentional, but either way it is an intriguing connection: on the one hand, the sea opening to swallow up Ulysses, and on the other, the earth opening to swallow up Korah. Wonderful poetry. As always, I can’t wait to read more! Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Thanks Simon; it is perhaps the highest praise of all of any work to be told, ‘I can’t wait to read more’. Indeed, I am trying to write in such a way that that is exactly what happens: almost that the ‘poetry’ is subordinate to the narrative, and yet simultaneously the very tightness of the form makes you aware of its own propulsion. Your point about Ulysses is spot-on: how to emulate Dante without simply pastiching him. Of course, I cannot pretend to write at his sublime level but the opening up of the sea versus the opening up of the earth (in as you say the relatively unknown story of Korah) struck me as being highly suggestive. Hope you are making progress with your wonderful translations of Dante and we really must compare notes soon! Thanks again. Reply Shari Jo LeKane December 9, 2019 Iambic pentameter brilliantly crafted builds rhythm and impact to every stanza. Masterfully done! Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Dear Shari Jo thank you so much for your encouragement; I really appreciate it, especially as, despite what some may think, the interplay of meter and rhythm is something one – as you will know – has to craft: it is not enough to simply have regular meter if one wishes to impact the reader emotionally as well as mentally. I am pressing on with this work and your words help me in the task. Thanks again. Reply David Watt December 9, 2019 James, your terza rima is as intense and dramatic as the subject matter. I especially liked the line: “Like scorpions perishing from their own stings”. Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Thanks David, and that is exactly what I am trying to do: the form and subject matter must mirror each other if true impact is to occur. And I love the fact that the scorpion line you like is also one of my favourite lines from the section. All poets can sometimes be dense as to their own best or good lines, so when someone else confirms it, that’s a big relief! Thanks again. Reply Amy Foreman December 10, 2019 That was my favorite line as well, James! Well done, as usual, on this enormous undertaking! Reply James Sale December 11, 2019 Thanks Amy – you write such lovely poetry yourself, it’s great to know you appreciate what I am trying to do. C.B. Anderson December 9, 2019 Nice try, but, by Jesus, can’t you put together three good rhymes or instantiate iambic pentameter for more than half a line? Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Thanks CB for your comments; however, it seems you do not understand the gravity of the situation: things never run smoothly in hell – ask anyone who’s been there! All the best. Reply Theresa Rodriguez December 10, 2019 Many thanks James for your “English Cantos” excerpt. Very beautiful and compelling! Reply James Sale December 10, 2019 Dear Theresa, thank you for your kind words – beauty is a favourite word of mine, and the point of poetry is to find it even in hell or in the other unpleasant experiences and situations that life throws at us. If, too, the verse is compelling, then that is a bonus and we must read on. So – like you – I must write on and get more beauty and compelling words written. Thanks again – much appreciated. Reply Buceli da Werse December 12, 2019 In Book 9 of Dante’s “Inferno”, Vergil and Dante come to the city of Dis, at the sixth circle, heresy. This translation is by Courtney Langdon, 1918, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, unrhymed, in obeisance to Mr. Phillips. Quel color che viltà di fuor mi pinse veggendo il duca mio tornare in volta, più tosto dentro il duo novo ristrinse. Attento si fermò com’ uom ch’ascolta; ché l’occhio nol potea menare a lunga per l’aere nero e per la nebbia folta. “Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga”, cominciò el, “se non… Tal ne s’offerse. Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!”. I’ vidi ben sì com ei ricoperse lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne, che fur parole a le prime diverse; ma nondimen paura il suo dir dienne, perch’ io traeva la parola tronca forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne. “In questo fondo de la trista conca discende mai alcun del primo grado, che sol per pena ha la speranza cionca?”. Questa question fec’ io; e quei “Di rado incontra”, mi rispuose, “che di noi faccia il cammino alcun per qual io vado. The color cowardice brought out on me, who saw my leader coming back, the sooner repressed in him his unaccustomed hue. He stopped attentive like a man who listens; because his eyesight could not lead him far through the dark air, and through the heavy fog. “Yet we must win the battle,” he began, “unless… One such did offer us herself! Oh, how I long for someone to arrive!” I well perceived how, when he overlaid what he began to say by what came after, that these were words that differed from the first. But none the less his language gave me fear, because I lent to his unfinished phrase a meaning worse, perhaps, than he intended. “Into this bottom of the dismal shell doth any of that first grade e’er descend, whose only penalty is hope cut off?” I asked this question. He replied to me: “It seldom comes to pass that one of us performs the journey whereupon I go. In my Italian edition, from which these 21 lines come, the comments of Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi run to several pages; but that is not why I have brought these few lines to SCP. My purpose is rather simpler. It is simply to compare them to those of Mr. Sale. 1. I must admit I am of Mr. Anderson’s point of view about the meter. Note that Dante keeps his meter continually throughout, using elision whenever appropriate; and yet his sentences are every bit as relaxed as those of Mr. Sale—indeed, perhaps even more so. 2. Dante’s meter is livelier than that of Mr. Sale, or even that of Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind”, partially because of his unaccented endings, but also because of the simple purity of his language. I am ever swept away by the fineness of Dante’s linguistic structures. 3. Though I am not as much of a purist in rhyme as Dante was, still I am sure Dante’s rhymes would more easily satisfy Mr. Anderson than do Mr. Sale’s. Of course when Milton wrote “Paradise Lost”, he wrote without rhyme altogether. 4. But the main reason I have placed Dante’s lines upon this comment thread is to show his lack of (what I consider one of the great plagues of New Millennium poets @ SPC) enjambment. When Dante’s thought goes beyond the line, he places it in cadences that fit the line. And at the ends of his terza rimas, he inevitably has a pause. I like that. It seems like a brick or stone in a great cathedral, both complete and connecting. 5. Nevertheless, as I have stated before: “To attempt a Dantesque Canto is plucky, daring and audacious”. And though I may enjoy reading excerpts from Mr. Salemi’s “Gallery of Ethopaths”, what Mr. Sale is attempting is more on a level with Lind’s “The Alamo”, Glaysher’s “The Parliament of Poets” or Turner’s “Genesis”. 6. I have to admit my forays into longer poems have all been failures; partly because I didn’t have a line that worked. In “Sonnets from the Chinese”, a work of 59 sonnets on Chinese Modernists, the poetry has been stretched beyond satisfaction. In my 360-line “Roma” (from my twenties), though I used terza rima throughout in discussing the human as god/God—Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, and Jesus Christ—and I used a fifteen-line “sonnet”, the work is plagued by adolescent thought and enjambment. My Thesiad, an epyllion of 144 stanzas, where I used the seven-line stanza seen in Lind’s PostModern epic (also plagued by enjambment), the poetry is as slipshod as that of Mr. Sale. 7. And though I have toyed with epic ideas, I personally am not up to what I would consider to be a worthy effort in the realms of epic; and have come more and more to Edgar Poe’s position on the long poem, along with those writers, like Whitman, Pound, Hart Crane, and Ginsberg, who had visions of the epic, but failed utterly in the attaining of them. Still there is the vision, and no matter how bad the poetry of the New Millennium may be, every now and then we can see adumbrations of the epic on the horizon. And that may be one of our lasting contributions to English poetry of the late 21st century and beyond. Reply James Sale December 13, 2019 Hi Bruce, Thanks for your comments, which are always stimulating, even though, as I have said before, I often think you are plainly wrong. This is fascinating stuff and I have to try to prevent myself writing an essay on it all! But to be clear to begin with: in attempting to write in imitation of Dante I am not claiming or pretending I am as good as him. Let’s be frank, post Jesus Christ two poets, Shakespeare and Dante, tower above all others and it may be the case that only in the post-apocalyptic world where English is a dead language that another poet arises to compare with these two masters. But Virgil (Dante’s favourite) imitated Homer, and more to home: Dryden (All for Love) attempted to imitate Shakespeare, and Keats attempted to imitate Milton. These great models are there for us – all of us – and so in attempting to use them we mustn’t fall into the trap of the deadbeats (Whitman, Pound, Hart Crane, and Ginsberg) you mention. These no-hopers abandoned form – the classics – in order to be cleverer than the masters, and so fell into their own bottomless pit and FYI I shall be meeting some of them in a Canto I have yet to write. The quotations you give from Dante and his translator are fatally useless, precisely because you use a translation not in terza rima: if you want to compare like with like, then you might want to quote from Dorothy Sayers or Peter Dale’s translations, which are much more to the mark. Terza rima in Italian and in English are two different beasts, as you well know. Effects you might try in one, you would not in the other. The key thing is that the verse moves mimetically to reinforce the meaning, and on that basis I justify my own use of enjambment, although I fully accept it may not work for you. But then we come on to your central contention, which I must contend with, not to justify my own poetry, but to establish first principles of poetry. You align yourself with CB Anderson, a fine poet, and I strongly recommend you read my review of his work on these pages: https://classicalpoets.org/2019/09/17/review-roots-in-the-sky-boots-on-the-ground-by-c-b-anderson-kelsay-books-2019/ However, for all his fine poems he is mistaken in his insistence on metrical regularity, and so far as you agree with him, then you are wrong too: Shakespeare, Milton, Emily Dickinson and WB Yeats did not practise the kind of metrical regularity which you both seem to be preaching. Indeed, it makes for really tedious verse in the long run and needs to be discouraged for all, except novices who need to get the hang of it. Metrical substitutions are absolutely essential. Furthermore . you seem to be trying to extend CB Anderson’s type of critique by insisting on more technicalities: elision or enjambment and so on. My talk at the Princeton Club this summer (where I was sorry not to meet you) made the point (and this is covered in my article for the Epoch Times – see – https://www.theepochtimes.com/the-making-of-a-poem-courage-strength-and-kung-fu_3145658.html) that technique is the ‘kung fu’ of poetry, but it is only third in importance in terms of the result. Much more important than technique is thematic preoccupations, and more important still than that is the soul or muse of poetry. It is interesting to me that neither you nor CB Anderson seem capable on commenting on any of these two issues; but they are the heart of it. It seems to me you are like critics who endlessly comment on the handwriting style rather than the substance of what is being said and how that affects one. Actually, I am highly flattered that in your ‘put-down’ of my work as being alongside other contemporary ‘epic’ poets, some of whom I have reviewed, you also throw in Joseph Salemi’s work. As my review of his work makes clear, I think of him as a major poet, so I am glad I feature in the same sentence with him. It’s important to keep the right company! Anyway, that’s enough – thanks again – really appreciate the time you have taken to respond in this way. Reply Buceli da Werse December 17, 2019 I could have used a rhymed translation, like that of Michael Palma, to whom I wrote the following lines a decade ago, but I did not do so purposefully. Hmm. To Him Who Put Dante’s Inferno into English Terza Rima “Who loves the flowers/ Will never love me.” —Michael Palma Bright yellow and green, skunk cabbage appears in spring, where few plants dare to, in a bog too cool for corn, this dandelion writ large, thriving while stinking, surviving where so very many are forlorn. Reply James Sale December 18, 2019 Thanks Buceli. I find your meaning somewhat cryptic, but I assume you mean that Dante might not approve of translations of his DC into terza rima? Maybe you’re right, although actually, as translations, I prefer them to the more blank verse varieties. Michael Musa’s, though, as blank verse I really enjoy. But thanks anyway. Reply The Mindflayer January 2, 2020 A startling rendition of a classical scene. The final rhyme is exquisite juxtaposition, almost oxymoronically: “soundless” followed by a perfect rhyme “slack / black”. It therefore invokes so many meanings, just as real poetry should! Intriguing how it fits with the wider tapestry and meaning of “The English Cantos”. This extract is very self-contained, yet gets me thinking about what has taken place between Canto 2 and here! Reply James Sale January 2, 2020 Thanks for this – I really appreciate it. One cannot comment competently on one’s own work without sounding somewhat pretentious, although of course all real poets usually have quite advanced technical skills. The question, however, is always – for all the technique – does it work? Intellectually work? Yes. But more importantly, emotionally and spiritually; for poetry comes from the soul and so must speak to it in others. I am really pleased you like the final stanza here, as it seems you have ‘got’ what it was I am trying to achieve. This is a deep encouragement – thank you again. Reply Thomas WoodmanT January 13, 2020 I find this first class, James, as to me it evokes the real Dante sound and diction– plain and yet sombre (especially in Inferno) and with that terrifying sense of judgement, which goes so well with the style or rather is the style. Reply James Sale January 14, 2020 Thanks Dr Woodman – given your knowledge of the classics, that is praise indeed. Dante is basically incomparable, but there is no point in having huge role models without seeking to emulate them. I am glad you have picked up on an issue too that I am discussing on another poem’s site with Professor Joseph Salemi: namely, the importance of diction. Meter is one thing, rhyme another, but the importance of ‘humble’ diction is, as it turns out, critical: for this kind of poem, plain and sombre says it well; as is the fact that we can only arrive at a ‘terrifying sense of judgement’ (if at all) using such words, since abstractions, circumlocutions, recondite obscurities will totally fail to engage the reader. Therefore, I can only say I am doing my best with this challenge – but I am very aware of these issues as being central to poetry. Thanks again. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. 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