"The Barque of Dante" by Eugène Delacroix‘The Unknown Circle of Hell’ by Joseph S. Salemi The Society April 8, 2020 Beauty, Culture, Epic, Humor, Poetry 28 Comments Personae and scene: Vergil and Dante, somewhere in the mid-region of Hell. Dante: 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. Vergil: 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. Dante: 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. Vergil: 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. Dante: 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? Vergil: 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. Dante: But master, are the poets all in Hell? This abattoir of foul sulphuric smell? Vergil: 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. Dante: I can’t conceive a better retribution For those who turned their art to prostitution. Vergil: 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. Dante: Who are these who fill the air with pleadings? Vergil: 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. Dante: I notice there a pack whose horrid braying Is donkey-like, but God knows what they’re saying. Vergil: 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. Dante: I hear a piercing scream that starts to harrow My very soul, and chills me to the marrow! Vergil: 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. Dante: Vergil, is such punishment condign? Not every poet can maintain the line. Vergil: 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. Dante: 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? Vergil: 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. Dante: 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. NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window) 28 Responses Joe Tessitore April 8, 2020 What a poem and what an ending – bravo, Doctor Joe! Reply Leo Zoutewelle April 8, 2020 Amen, and let me add, what a comedy! Delightful. Reply Joseph Charles MacKenzie April 8, 2020 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. Reply Julian D. Woodruff April 8, 2020 Iambics / damn pricks; whoring, worn out slags–fantastic! (if you ‘ll excuse my chewing gum vulgarity). Reply C.B. Anderson April 8, 2020 Joseph, 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. Reply Joseph S. Salemi April 8, 2020 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. Reply C.B. Anderson April 8, 2020 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 April 8, 2020 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. Reply C.B. Anderson April 8, 2020 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. Rod Walford April 8, 2020 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! Reply Charlie Bauer April 8, 2020 Well done and well said! Reply Sally Cook April 8, 2020 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.” Reply C.B. Anderson April 8, 2020 Sally, 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. Reply Joseph S. Salemi April 8, 2020 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. Reply Joseph Charles MacKenzie April 9, 2020 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. Reply Joseph S. Salemi April 9, 2020 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. Reply Joseph Charles MacKenzie April 9, 2020 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.” Joe Tessitore April 10, 2020 Joseph, Are confessional lyrics examples of moral authenticity? Should a poet be at least “once removed” from his or her poetry? Reply Joseph S. Salemi April 10, 2020 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.” Reply Joseph S. Salemi April 10, 2020 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. Joe Tessitore April 10, 2020 Thanks on both counts. I was going to ask about virtue-signaling as well. Reply Rod April 10, 2020 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. Reply Joseph S. Salemi April 10, 2020 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.” Reply Rod Walford April 11, 2020 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 April 11, 2020 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 April 11, 2020 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. Susan Jarvis Bryant April 11, 2020 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. Reply David Watt April 12, 2020 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. 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. Learn how your comment data is processed.