Personae and scene: Vergil and Dante, somewhere in the mid-region of Hell.

Honored Vergil, tell me where we’re going—
It’s hard for me to take in what you’re showing
Without some preparation. I can’t deal
With shocking sights that make my blood congeal.
Already I’m a quaking nervous wreck.

Dante, we’re not halfway through our trek.
Before I guide you to this special ring
I have to ask you for one little thing.

What is it, Master? Whatever you request,
I’m bound to honor it. I’m just a guest
In this dead world of spectral pain and fire.
I’ve come to see, then serve the sacred lyre.

That’s exactly what I’m driving at—
Dante, this next ring is not for that.
What you see here you cannot write about.
Keep your mouth shut, for without a doubt
It will not serve our honor to disclose
This special class of sinners. Heaven knows
They aren’t quite as bad as some we’ve viewed:
The heretics, the violent, and the lewd,
Or those the devils roast upon a spit,
Or gluttons in a rain of piss and shit.
Still, I want this circle to stay hidden.

Master, I will do what I am bidden.
But Vergil, just who are these chosen sinners?
And by what favor of the Triple Spinners
Do they escape the fury of my pen?

Dante, there’s a certain group of men
Who can produce great beauty if they try
By fashioning a pretty little lie.
These are the poets, and you know the breed,
For you and I are children of their seed.

But master, are the poets all in Hell?
This abattoir of foul sulphuric smell?

No, not all—but there are quite a few.
Let me introduce you to the crew.
First, there are the scum who scrounged for grants.
Here the demons stab them with a lance
Right in the rectum. Though they howl and yelp,
Their résumés won’t bring them any help.
They spent their lives brown-nosing derrières—
Now they get a violent thrust up theirs.

I can’t conceive a better retribution
For those who turned their art to prostitution.

These men here ran seminars and workshops—
The devils lift them high up, and each jerk drops
Onto a bed of upraised bayonets.
That’s the fitting punishment he gets
For conning fools and grabbing coed ass
And spouting lousy poetry in class.

Who are these who fill the air with pleadings?

They are poets who gave countless readings
As an excuse to socialize and drink.
We load their backs with lecterns. Don’t you think
A punishment of that sort suits their crime?
They’ll tote those lecterns till the end of time.

I notice there a pack whose horrid braying
Is donkey-like, but God knows what they’re saying.

Those are silly twits with MFAs
Who pay the price here of their wasted days.
We stuff them (like good Strasbourg geese) with theory
Until their minds are gone, and eyes are bleary.

I hear a piercing scream that starts to harrow
My very soul, and chills me to the marrow!

Ah yes, that’s someone who can’t keep the meter.
Hell considers such a bard a cheater
And so he’s stretched and broken on the rack
Until the vertebrae inside his back
Are carefully laid out in pure iambics.
That’s the only way to treat these damn pricks.

Vergil, is such punishment condign?
Not every poet can maintain the line.

If they can’t follow metrics, why the hell
Do they claim to be poets? There’s no smell
Here in the Devil’s Furnace that out-stenches
These limping, foot-shy poets. He who wrenches
His line-length out of kilter is a ninny
Who turns our golden art to something tinny,
And once down here he’ll pay for it in groans
As we set straight his sinews, joints, and bones.

Well Master, on this circle I’ll keep silence
Unlike the sins of carnal lust and violence.
I’ll write no canto on this ring of poets—
No reader of my Comedy shall know its
Presence in Inferno. But please tell:
Why leave unsung this little bit of Hell?

Dante, we are poets, you and I—
And when that holy calling goes awry
Our general reputation is befouled.
So therefore let this circle be encowled
Like hooded monks in cloisters closely pent
Unspeaking and unspoken of. They’ve rent
The fabric of our art to tattered rags.
They’re just a pack of whoring, worn-out slags.
Allow them not a taste of celebration
By writing of their well-deserved damnation.

I’ll add unto the pains these folk endure
A compound curse that leaves their work obscure.
They shall inherit, as their portion just,
The tongueless silence of the dreamless dust.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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28 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    One reason Salemi is the poet of the age is his ability to set timeless satirical verses in contemporary language often with an aspect of playfulness. His poems are truly classic in every acceptation of the term and will endure.

    Beyond questions of technique and form, however, are the scholarly foundations of his work, nowhere more clearly manifest than in “The Unknown Circle of Hell.” But these foundations, if one truly understands Salemi enough to let him enlarge one’s understanding of the past (the poet is also a professor of classics in a major university) are themselves satirical and timeless. This is something I always hasten to emphasize.

    Dante, I think in many ways, was the greatest of satirists when he wrote the Inferno. Satire is a high and noble art, one that coexists, harmonizes with, and is even quite often inserted into works that are not generally viewed as satire. And I will insist, as I have always insisted, that a poet who does not possess a comprehensive, linguistic, and bibliographic knowledge of the Rinascimento—in its relation, especially, to the classical poets—will never be able to write at Salemi’s level, and will only give us a “product of the self,” the mere opinion of an intellective outsider, and not an authentic continuation of tradition.

    One might say that “Unknown Circle” departs from Dante on its face, as Salemi gives us those perfectly limpid, flexible English couplets, instead of terza rima, the round Tuscan peg that some have attempted to force, always quite awkwardly, into the square hole of English. This is because Salemi understands that the terza rima is an organic development arising from the natural comportment of Dante’s dialect, and that the internal laws of our Germanic language, which are only magnified in our English prosody, could not be more different. To reproduce something of the effect that Dante’s verse form had on his audience, Salemi judiciously opts for his signature running couplets to move his narrative, and us, along in very much the same way.

    Salemi’s understanding of Dante arises from many years of reading the great master in his original Italian. Salemi has the right to comment on and reference Dante however he pleases, in this case to extend an often overlooked aspect of Inferno, the satiric aspect, into our own contemporary poetry. And he knows, Salemi, and has given deep thought to, the fact that Dante himself has placed a most distinguished group of shades in a region of hell called Limbo, to speak of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. And just to show you how far Salemi suggests we have fallen, if the reader will please forgive my pun, Horace was the author of an Ars Poetica that continues to be studied. While these virtuous pagans are deprived of the Beatific Vision, they are not positively punished.

    “Unknown Circle of Hell,” in a marvelous way, complements Dante’s reflection on poets and poetry, as Salemi trains the highly polished mirror of satire on our modern literary crisis.

  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Iambics / damn pricks; whoring, worn out slags–fantastic! (if you ‘ll excuse my chewing gum vulgarity).

  3. C.B. Anderson


    I enjoyed this immensely, and I especially enjoyed imagining those wretched modernist so-called poets getting what they deserve. I can’t wait for the motion picture version, directed perhaps by Mel Gibson. I sometimes engage in a type of self-torture by reading poems in THE NEW YORKER, POETRY, or online feeds from RATTLE, a rather successful journal based in California. Perhaps this some sort of penance for sins of which I am not aware I am guilty. But my heart was lifted when your verse informed me that payback time had finally arrived. You, Joseph, have always done your utmost to drain that other (howsoever unspeakable) swamp.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, I know your work. You will NEVER be in this circle of Hell. And I’m fairly sure you won’t be elsewhere in the Inferno, either.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Thanks, Joe. That’s reassuring. But if you ever read some of the stuff I once wrote to please the modern masters of the poetry universe, you might yet find a place for me in the realm of brimstone. I’ve since repented, and I hope I’ve been forgiven by the powers above. Those who continue in their offenses against nature receive great encouragement from the powerful editors in charge, and it is the editors who should be in greatest fear of eternal damnation.

    • Rod Walford

      C.B. if you are reduced to reading the “poetry” in RATTLE please……you MUST stop! Don’t do it to yourself – you will end up in therapy! I hope you and your family are well. Regards – Rod.

      • C.B. Anderson

        I thank you for your concern, Rod, but I like to read such crap because it reignites my conviction that I am doing the right thing.

  4. Rod Walford

    Well Mr Salemi that’s certainly giving it to them! I have to say I became a little mesmerised as I was reading and yes I confess it was pleasurable reading up until I began to wonder if I might end up in one of the groups you describe so well! Great job Sir!

  5. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –
    This is one of your very best, both in concept and execution. How can people dare to call themselves poets when they persist in a constant repetition of the same sloppy mistakes? You have rightly defined their ultimate punishment. .And don’t forget those editors who keep saying “you’re almost there — I would like to see you take them on a virtual tour of the nether regions. After all — they’re “almost there.”

    • C.B. Anderson


      That was very funny. Was it you who put the puncture in punctuation? I can disagree with you on only one account: These mistakes are not sloppy — they are deliberate and agenda-laden. European culture must be destroyed at any cost. I’ve always been happy that you and I, and some other close friends inhabit an equable island in a sea of utter turmoil. Be well, Sally, and let it be so for decades hence.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Sally and Kip —

      Yes, the editors of modern poetry magazines bear a great deal of the guilt for the destruction of genuine poetry. They are the ones who push Mainstream Mediocrity and “confessional lyrics.” They are the ones who tell submitters to “pare it down,” and “make it simple,” and “avoid the adjectives.” They are the ones who have a hard-on for emotional effusions and fake ecstasy.

  6. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    I was absolutely certain that, by now, someone would have indicated the ingenious intertextual device of the poem’s last verse in the quotation of Ingersoll which, of course, references Napoleon’s satanic pride and by extension the false poet’s self-love.

    Only poets possessing a very broad literary culture are ever able to use this kind of device to such effect if at all.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Joseph —

      I too wondered why nobody picked up on that Ingersoll quote concerning Napoleon and the vanity of human pride. It used to be familiar to everyone in America as an example of Ingersoll’s lush rhetorical style. H.L. Mencken often referenced it.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Well, our American nineteenth century was a high point of fine essay writing and well wrought political discourse.

        No wonder the status of the poet, as a representative of the learned class possessing greater knowledge than the common run of men, has been discarded in our time.

        Meanwhile, we see published only today in this venue, a review gushing over the very kind of counterfeit your poem mocks.

        I am with Rabelais when he speaks of “le Monstre Ignorance.”

  7. Joe Tessitore


    Are confessional lyrics examples of moral authenticity?
    Should a poet be at least “once removed” from his or her poetry?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      If confessional lyrics are nothing but the telling of one’s actual feelings, without the slightest aesthetic embellishment or elaboration, then yes — they are an example of what I have called “moral authenticity.” But if the actual feelings are merely the catalyst for aesthetic creation, and are reshaped and molded into something that is IN ITSELF beautiful or striking or arresting, then no — they are not “moral authenticity.”

      The difference is whether you insist on telling your feeling with tedious, brain-dead honesty, or whether you will be a true artist and trust to your aesthetic instincts to make something up that is BETTER and RICHER than the simple truth.

      Yes, you should be removed from your poetry. As T.S. Eliot said, the relationship should be “impersonal.”

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        By the way, the correct phrase that I employed is “moralistic authenticity.” I used the derogatory adjective “moralistic” because one notices that in most of these confessional lyrics, the poet is surreptitiously saying to his audience “Hey — look at me! I’m being REAL and HONEST and OPEN! I deserve credit for being a virtuous person!”

        It’s just another form of insufferable virtue-signaling.

  8. Joe Tessitore

    Thanks on both counts.
    I was going to ask about virtue-signaling as well.

  9. Rod

    I see nothing brain dead nor tedious about simple honesty if served with a suitable portion of humility. Whoever sets out to engineer something that is better or richer than simple truth is a politician not a poet ! IMHO of course.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It is certainly commendable if you speak with simple honesty and humility to an intimate friend, to your father confessor, or to a psychotherapist. But it doesn’t work in the arts. All art is about making something better and richer than what we see before us.

      Remember what Oscar Wilde said: “All bad poetry begins with genuine feeling.”

      • Rod Walford

        I take your point and your meaning but I still feel “enhance” or “embellish” might be a more accurate description than “better” .
        “Richer” – yes that I can understand. Regarding the arts – personally I can’t be doing with surrealist painters or writers of Haiku but I do love paintings of ships and rough seas. Some artists manage to magnify reality in their paintings just as some poets can but at the end of the day a rough sea is still a rough sea no matter how eloquently described in a poem. It cannot be made “better” methinks but certainly more striking. Just a matter of individual perception I suppose. Oscar Wilde was right of course but there is also the saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions………which brings us full circle I think!

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        We really have no argument, Mr. Walford. If you like paintings of ships in rough seas, you clearly prefer figurative, realistic painting to silly surrealist or minimalist or postmodernist garbage, and that’s why you are here at the SCP website. So we’re on the same side of the battlefield, so to speak,

        It’s a question of nature versus artifice. Which is better — to drink water from your cupped hands, or to drink it from a well-made ceramic cup? And better than a simple ceramic cup is a beautifully engraved silver cup. And better than an engraved silver cup is a magnificent French cloisonne cup with multicolored enamel designs. My point? All artistic endeavor attempts to create a BETTER reality, step by step, reaching towards higher and higher levels of achievement.

        Artifice always improves nature. A garden is better than a jungle. A castle is better than a cave. Finely tailored garments are better than animal skins. Vintage wine is better than water. Cosmetics and jewelry make a woman more beautiful than she actually is.

        A rough sea in itself is nothing but a lot of moving water. But a rough sea in an excellent painting is an act of FICTIVE MIMESIS, designed to appeal to our uniquely human sense of order, beauty, and design. It is BETTER and RICHER than the actual rough sea in nature.

      • Rod

        I am pleased we are on the same side and I thank you for your illustrations which I found most enlightening. I’m always willing to learn. I enjoy engaging with my tutor or even challenging if I feel moved so to do.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    If this witty and wondrous piece was available to me during my studies, I would’ve embraced the literary intricacies with delight. This exceeds an interpretation of the character of Macbeth in the persona of a John Wayne – “Is this a dagger I see before me?” has never been the same since. I applaud you for drawing me in and making me smile… with utmost respect.

  11. David Watt

    I really appreciated the modernist faux poets finally receiving their comeuppance. To use your drinking vessel comparison; this piece would be a striking French cloisonne cup.


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