The Argument:

The Poet, having escaped the HellWard of European and corrupt politicians, emerges into the penultimate HellWard depth where he, with his guide, Dante, meets the Poetasters from America and Britain. These lost souls have denied Apollo and the real meaning and purpose of poetry. They have, thus, have been guilty of promoting a most heinous crime and so must finally encounter the River Lethe.

 

As Barquo found himself reduced to ash,
And I looked on, astonished by his fate—
How easily the self-important crash;

It seemed there is One whose patience can wait
Till just that moment when some reach their peak
Of evil, and then destruction looms—too late,

Another way’s not there, not what they seek:
Too long the training in perversity
For souls who love the darkness, laud the bleak.

But I was now somewhere constricting me:
A cave and entrance, slanting to a ward
Existing lower, with weird symmetry

Ahead. However, still I had my guard—
My master—Dante, whose hands dragged me forth
Until I saw the cave led to the mad,

The truly mad. This ward, full of such worth-
less individuals, claiming Apollo theirs;
And on each other’s heads, they placed the wreaths

Of laurel, as pretending they had shares
In Daphne’s victory, the evergreen
Apollo made, for true poets to wear.

Here even Dante wearied at the scene,
As if the heaven he was in could not
Protect him from writings, low and obscene.

To see such scribblings, such vagaries, blots,
More like graffiti than serious works,
Defacing truth, the while their authors gloat

As simians might whose fingers at nits pick;
Or primates in their hierarchies might
Preen themselves—keen on set-ups for their perks!

A sudden Howl ahead shook me with fright
As via the pointless air it blasted through,
Much as a tunnel is with dynamite;

But this was different and this was new—
At least a tunnel had a purpose, led
From one obstruction to a better view;

But this was pure calamity, and fed
On energy that had a darker take;
Conceived entirely not from soul, but head;

Fools thinking Apollo fooled, while they, ego-wracked,
Devised false words to undermine true meaning;
Theirs a license—to break rules, free their snake

Whose mantra hisses “freedom,” its scales gleaming,
But freedom’s far from brotherhoods they preach,
And those confusions which their failed explainings

Never explain—or poetry could reach.
For now, we came closer to the sound’s source—
Which much resembled a muddy, filthy ditch;

So little light and even less remorse
As one small man attempted to leap out
From the pitch that held him, but, lacking force,

His efforts sunk him back whilst still afloat.
He saw me, then, and howled anew, “Hey, you,
The weight of the world is love; this isn’t rot—

Never forget you don’t know till you do.
Help me escape this awful pit, and see
Sweet Kaddish, hey, my inner moonlight through.”

But at this Dante moved in front of me,
And gestured with a sign that seemed to stir
The mud, so it rotated, at first slowly,

As some laxed bit a knackered horse might spur
To pick up speed; and as it did, the lines
Within the mud began to form, emerge

With their distinctive feature: no design
At all! And Jinnsberg, excited the while,
Whooped wildly, hands splayed out, “This is all mine,”

Though speaking, words distorted to a howl,
I not sure then, did he say, “mine” or “mean,”
Or even was it “men,” his vowels, foul

And slippery, pure outages of his spleen,
Could not control his consonantal phrasing:
Instead of meaning, sound became a stain

That blotched the air, insisting on self-praising—
As if superb merit inhered in glug,
Or debasing language was itself pleasing.

But Dante, conjuring the ditch—now like a jug—
Whose contents whirled in the mud-storm that spun
Forcing Jinnsberg down, as water in a plug—

I saw those gimlet eyes, knowing their con
About to be exposed, his lifeline cut,
And only endless dirt to bite, chew on.

His fear, hysterical as a boil sealed shut
Beneath the skin, but bursting to explode,
Yet downwards forced as Jinnsberg surged up

One time more; and his works—“Madness: An Ode”—
Now like himself dragged down to where no eye
Could see such a detour from the right road,

Or plumb its depth—can madness satisfy?
But even as, finally, he disappeared—
With all the counterculture and its lies—

Where falsehood suffers, is no longer cheered
By all the rabble worshipping its shit-jelly,
So at that point another noise I heard:

Raphael mai amech izabi almi,
Repeated, bellow-like, a stuck refrain;
Then seeing one—sized like a redwood tree—

Gigantic, huge, but captured here in chains
Which fixed him from waist down into the earth;
Also, held arms strapped to his heart in pain,

As if gainsaid desire to vaunt his worth
In words, which now he never would be able
To do. “Behold,” said Dante, “Nimrod’s curse—

The cause of more than war, something too subtle:
Confusing all the languages of the world,
Rendering Adam’s poetry fitful babble,

As now you hear with Jinnsberg and his fold.
Indeed, you’ve more to hear before we’re done.”
He paused—I thought, a moment, looking old.

While Nimrod raged, he murmured to me, “Son,
I hoped to never see these giants more;
But for your sake I do. Let’s now press on.”

Which glad I was—the rage at Nimrod’s core
Seemed strong enough to break even his bonds,
Though forged in heaven, so safely secure.

“Tell me,” I said, as we marched this queer land
Of strange perspectives, deadening artifacts,
And gnostic nonsense no-one understood—

‘How is it poets suffer at this depth?
Why, then, this ward especially for them,
Below the dross of EU Federalists?’

“First, son,” he said, “be clear: not from the stem
Of laurel tended by Apollo do
These weeds emerge, infesting all that’s clean

And wholesome with linguistic dribble, spew;
Concoctions of venom, deep in their souls,
Produce old poisons, though revamped as new;

Forgetting, holy Psalmist, and the fool
Who says in his false heart, there is no God;
So godless, they must go to nothing’s hole

Where now you see them sinking; though they bob
Awhile, their manic energies consumed,
Last flickering of ego before it’s dropped

And in themselves they’re thoroughly entombed.
Why, here’s a famous poet wannabe,
Who pilfered laurels on his frantic climb

To be America’s biggest me, me, me!”
I looked and saw Wilt Witless yawping hard
With sounds barbaric and untranslatably

Full, singing self with multitudes of words.”
How pitiful he seemed, jaw in a lock,
Noise foaming forth, as spittle flew like birds

In sprays before his mouth which couldn’t stop
Its own inelegance from sounding trash.
As Jinnsberg sank, so Witless now was topped

By spit—his own reflux—turning to ash
All verses his deranged mind baptized art;
He himself pulverised in dirt’s dire crush.

Yet like Nimrod, the master-mind and heart
Of this cruel caprice leading nowhere,
So Witless in his pride was set apart.

Nothing that any said, any could bear—
Though living, citing names for lineage,
Was practice, necessary, de rigueur-

But each hated the other with furious rage;
And more, despised true poets writing true,
Inspired by beauty, goodness and what’s sage.

Part of their sentence, then, was hid from view:
Their splutter, like some hornet taking flight,
Alighted in their ears and stung them through—

Right through, to deafen first, then deaden right
By piercing up towards their addled brains:
So deaf they struggled, in their pickled plight;

The while their own malice surged through their veins.
Ultimately, all coherence would be lost,
Except a tiny soul, bleating, insane,

Bequeathing, as Witless did, vapid boasts
Of self-promotion impressing no-one;
For powerless as leaves on water float,

So they all struggled, and would still, till done.
But Dante, I knew, could barely stand it;
Knowing Apollo, the laurels he’d won—

Though he might, and could in one instance flit
To heaven—I sensed deep discomfiture,
So tried to turn him. “What about the Brits?

American poets—these—damned for sure;
But on the other side where England is,
Do poets there provide the classic cure?”

Mark Dante then—almost in hysterics!
When laughing ceased, and he regained himself,
His mood changed, (as by my question oddly fixed),

“Your poets, once upon a time, had wealth—
For Shakespeare showed the way of form with feeling;
Such that the Muse herself inspired real truth,

But now—” he indicated where the ceiling
Of the ward narrowed and space seemed confined;
Where English poets dealt more damned readings—

If that were possible—than Americans bound
In all their epic and expansive poses.
There was one seated, sighing a soft sound,

Who not in pain, might be as one who dozes
Quietly in Oxford chambers, dreaming spires,
With certain privileges which simply ooze

Off him—old world reticence which retires
Rather than brazen Yankee-doodle style;
But that would underestimate his fires

Which burnt as fiercely as any Witless wills;
And will’s the word, for that only accounts
For all his rubbish, dry as coffee spills,

As not one Muse his soul inspires, or mounts
Parnassus; for only there is sound light;
But check, real musing’s not what this one wants.

Instead, and nevertheless—to climb the heights
Though talentless. Thus, he stirred and I saw
A merry gargoyle grimace—its first sleight—

Corrupt his casual face, revealing more:
“Tell Tony,” he said, meaning Bliar PM,
“I really want it, add it to my score.”

The Laureateship, no question, his then!
On his terms too—as, ‘Let’s do a decade’,
So blot four hundred years with new-spun phlegm!

But wrong before: as now began to fade
That pain-free persona he had perfected;
And like a rotten wall, stripped of its façade,

Another being emerged, but defective.
The blond Adonis, Tony’s blue-eyed chum,
Who starred with Auden, Larkin; so connected

This mummy’s boy who knows, who goes, who comes—
To whom the English-speaking world presents
Its prizes in all of London’s glittering rooms;

Now feels his own substance, like skin, absent;
Now his soul roiling—as in boiling water—
Wants proof, some legacy, that’s cool as cement

To hold together pallid nonsense fought for
In that campaign begun so long ago.
Indeed, is he a poet? How be sure?

And how be certain he, or the world knows?
How not, like Laureates before, go down
Down, down to where chill streams of Lethe flow?

Remember—hot his collar now, and frowns
Disfigure that once perfect brow—their names?
Yes, Austin, Whitehead, Shadwell wore the crown,

As Pye, Bridges, Eusden, Tate, had their time;
And not forgetting those we have forgotten—
Rowe, Cibber, Masefield, Lewis—such a line;

All ones appointed by judgements gone rotten,
For whom Apollo never shone, or spoke—
Allowed the true sublime to be begotten.

The hell of it—to come round and be woke:
That is, to find such papers in his hand,
Crumbling to pieces from his ego’s shock,

Discovering no-one cares, or understands
One stanza or one line he ever wrote –
That poets be oceans; he is a pond.

The final proof? Poetry no-one quotes.
And now insouciance freezes, alters,
A rictus fixed on the river—there notes

How many poets faked it, till they faltered
To fall in Lethe’s stream of nothingness
Where in its coldest waste no sound is uttered.

I saw his larynx warble, quite muscle-less,
Unable to turn a phrase, describe his torture,
Though wordsmith once—with words like trots unleashed—

But now no words available to soar.
And so the dreadful stream flowed on and on,
And he—on fire—tipped over for his cure:

Imagine it! As Lethe’s surface shone
With all its frigid, fascinating foam,
Sir Handy, like a comet plunged straight down,

And as a coal in water hisses steam,
So Handy was—in his monstrous collapse—
Into that flux where being’s never been.

I heard, alongside the huge hissing, perhaps
One other sound, so low, inaudible
Except, I knew, as one escaping traps

Feels, and thus sighs: so deep, his source of trouble—
Now whisked away, already cooling, soon
No trace beneath the water, not one bubble

Left to proclaim he’d lived, because he’d gone
Along with his imposture, poetry too.
And I, despite myself, stood there, just stunned:

That last sound, was what? My soul in me knew –
And now perhaps as Adam did for Cain,
Not Abel, felt loss from his endless rue;

The wreck of will, the chance to be again.
I cried aloud. Sir Handy would not return;
His mother’s hopes—whatever—were in vain;

All might-have-beens lost, and now of hope shorn;
The river’s icy grip gave no release—
For Judas also could not be reborn.

Now Dante tried to comfort, bring me peace.
“Your tears, my son—misplaced and do you hurt.
Sir Handy had his honour, though but leased;

Like Pharisees praying, but not from their hearts;
They had their honours that they sought from men,
Whilst they ignored Him, he the Muses’ arts.

Compassion elevates the human mien,
But pity here is pointless and askew …’
I longed once more to see Apollo’s sun,

To see it shine where honeysuckle grew,
And turn to find the Muses by my side
Laughing with joy, and prompting me anew

To hear the song that Orpheus strummed and played.
Not this, not Lethe and its tuneless cold,
But still our exit my master delayed,

Pointing, as we quit the friendless fold,
Another edging towards the dark brink,
Who babbled on about her poetry sold;

Proudly, first Scot, first woman, and first dyke;
It’s all big history now with Laureateship—
And for the people, which is what they like!

I wanted to stay, see her verses slip
But Dante reprimanded me—“It’s gross,”
He said, “Enjoying that she writes pure shit.”

With that, what answer sufficed? At a loss—
My contradiction pity lately led—
I turned away: to be a poet cost.

Perhaps here, I too, became as bad;
Instead of curses it was time to bless,
For only blessings let poetry be made.

Closer she drew to the brink’s black abyss,
Like some white queen, who skipping in her pride,
Thinks—King abandoned—sharp moves win her chess.

I tried to help—shout across our divide;
But near those waters even my words died.

 

 

James Sale is a worldwide thought leader on motivation: he has had 4 books on the topic published by Routledge, and over 700 management consultants in 15 countries use his products. James is also a feature writer on culture for The Epoch Times. He has written poetry for over 50 years and has had 9 collections published. He won First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and his next collection, The English Cantos Volume 1: HellWard is due shortly. For more on this, go to https://englishcantos.home.blog. He can be contacted at james@motivationalmaps.com.


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12 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    Sorry, James,

    But I thought the technical deficiencies were as bad as the general idea. If you are lucky, my animadversions will generate a swell of sympathy in your favor, since it is currently out of fashion here to criticize dead verse. Be careful how you condemn the poetasters, lest you, too, be caught in the same web.

    Reply
  2. Evan Mantyk

    Dear James, thank you for the poem! I will have to disagree with Mr. Anderson. The topic is so teeming with life and resonating with the clarion call for artistic sanity in poetry that it seems to share startling parallels with Mr. Salemi’s recent work: https://classicalpoets.org/2020/04/08/the-unknown-circle-of-hell-by-joseph-s-salemi/

    I can’t imagine you two coordinated your efforts. (Perhaps you had a conversation?) Both works in tandem put the final stamp on the sad state of mainstream poetry today before, I believe, the last page in the chapter is turned.

    I especially enjoyed the Whitman and Ginsburg references. If someone has a good formal poem from Whitman, I would be interested in reading it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Whitman’s classic in form is “O Captain, My Captain,” easily found online. For something more obscure, try this:

      Joy, shipmate, joy!
      Pleas’d to my soul at death I cry,
      Our life is closed, our life begins,
      The long, long anchorage we leave,
      The ship is clear at last, she leaps!
      She swiftly courses from the shore,
      Joy, shipmate, joy.

      Whitman published this unrhymed but metrical bit in 1871, according to my grandmother’s college textbook on American poetry. The book also has “The Singer in the Prison,” a typical Whitman piece that in early editions included a portion subtitled “The Hymn,” to show what the singer was singing. It is written in rhymed hymn quatrains, each with its own couplet refrain. Shows that Whitman was capable of formal poetry. He tore off all refrains except the last in later editions, but “Chief American Poets” has them in notes. I’ll let my grandmother give her comment on Whitman from a college student of a century ago. She wrote, “Real material for poetry.”

      Reply
      • Evan Mantyk

        Dear Margaret Coats,
        My requirement was “good” and I have always found “O Captain” to rank “just okay” at best in the great expanse of poetry. The poem you provided is indeed a better example of Whitman in form. Thank you!

    • C.B. Anderson

      Let us not forget: the worst sin of all is to be boring.

      Reply
    • J. C. MacKenzie

      Mr. Mantyk, I do think Mr. Anderson is really the one making a call for artistic sanity here and I am pleased that you have referenced Dr. Salemi’s magisterial treatment of theme of “poetasters in hell,” because the decisions he made in composing that memorable piece are the kinds of decisions that might have saved Mr. Sales’ undeniably longish attempt from a perfectly reasonable criticism.

      While it is true that the terza rima can serve to translate Dante (we have the example of John Ciardi), the form is not really the most natural for our rhyme-poor language of English. (If it were, then Wyatt and Surrey would not have had to replace Petrarch’s sestet form in the sonnet.) What this means in practice are so many adjustments to syntax, so many forced rhymes, constant recourse to enjambment, and extensions that are seldom meaningful or forceful.

      Expecting the reader to “just deal with” these problems from the onset is one thing if the content is utterly compelling (and even then, would it hurt to consider a more natural form?), but here we have the pretty well-worn theme of “poetasters in hell.”

      Dr. Salemi avoided this problem altogether with his signature “flexible couplets” (I don’t know what to call them but they conform so well to his meaning), which could not be more naturally English. The verses move the reader along much more efficiently, at a perfect pace, giving us a sense that we are truly “getting somewhere,” which turns out to be the case. He sacrificed the terza rima precisely in order to translate its effect into English, ultimately making the piece more Dantesque than it would have been had he made the opposite decision.

      Adding to what Mr. Anderson calls “boredom”—obviously I can’t speak for him but suspect he is referring to all the “filler” material here—is the classic problem of the “inventory.” With Dr. Salemi’s Juvenalian satire, we are given types instead of names, first principles instead of mere opinion, and he always allows us, as adults, to discern the underlying “ethopathies” for ourselves, which is why we like reading him. Salemi assumes from the start that his readers are adults. In “Unknown Circle of Hell” he winks to his audience, as if to say: “You know the type, it’s this type that you’ve seen here…” And the reader, delighted that the someone has at last put a conceptual frame around the type, can only respond with laughter saying: “Boy, has this poet hit the nail on the head!” It’s high satire, an art, and Salemi always chooses his forms to great effect in the name of that art. The reader walks away from the text satisfied, having read something memorable.

      I don’t think this is the case here. The only thing I would add is simply that, generally speaking, in the absolute broadest sense, I do not believe, as a reader, that I need any version of Dante other than Dante’s, not a comic book version, not a post-modern version, not any other version. If I am going to make a journey into Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, it is going to be with the poet who prepared himself for that journey in the writing of the Vita Nuova, because I know that that journey will not end with Hell—as it does with the modernists—that the journey has a destination, a higher destination whose truth underlies each and every verse of the whole.

      When you stand on the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence, where the poet met Beatrice, and look down at the Arno flowing beneath it, you are immediately aware that Dante is a poet who is indissociable from his world, from that very real and very definite place from which he himself had been exiled far too often. Is this the case with any of his modern commentators?

      For, one can translate, comment on, be inspired by Dante’s verses, even make the a springboard for personal development and suppose that one’s readers are going to be automatically interested.

      But, alas, one can never really add to Dante. There was never a journey, in all of poetry, more complete than his.

      Reply
      • Evan Mantyk

        Mr. MacKenzie, you make some interesting points above. However, at one point you say:

        the pretty well-worn theme of “poetasters in hell.”

        I suspect there is some disconnect here. Your poetic genius has put you in touch with a higher level of reality, which is that these poetasters are all obviously in hell. You can see it in their words, their faces, their postures, and obviously their poetry. They are twisted and writhing in an eternal agony, even when seemingly happy. However, on the superficial level in which we mortals must dwell, the idea that Mr. Sale is illuminating to the general reader is extraordinarily novel and deeply compelling, precisely because it reveals such truth in the plain words that must make up poetry.

        On the other hand, if there are such works I am unaware of, I apologize, and it would be illuminating to post their details somewhere here.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Dear Mr. Mantyk,

        The real problem is simply this:

        If Dante needs a 21st-century re-write, then Dante is (A) no longer universal over time, (B) beyond the limitations of modern readership, and (C) insufficient in se.

        (A) cannot be true: Dante is certainly universal over time. His work continues to be published and sold throughout the world.

        (B) cannot be true: The re-writer is himself a modern reader. Are we to conclude that Dante is beyond the scope of his own re-writer?

        Nor does (B) have a practical application. Re-writing Dante according to the re-writer’s audience would simply replicate the limitations of that audience.

        (C) cannot be true: To say that Dante is insufficient in himself would contradict the literary record.

        Another objection would be that “prose commentaries are dry.” However, the virtue of commentary lies in what it adds to present knowledge, not whether it rhymes or has meter. Further, it would seem fair to ask if we have before us a real commentary on Dante and, if so, does it add to the knowledge of Dante’s truth over and beyond the insights provided by the following commentators https://dante.dartmouth.edu/commentaries.php.

        Finally, one is perfectly free to wonder if the Dante of the re-write is not really just the re-writer, which would put the re-write outside of Dante’s universe altogether, which, in turn, would seem to undercut the necessity of the re-write to begin with.

        If we see nothing of the Florentine, his spirit, his world, or his truth in what is either a commentary, a fantasy, a re-write, or something like personal therapy, then why should we be involved in this caricature of the Inferno in the first place?

        These are all questions that I think are perfectly fair, reasonable, and literary. Readers will have to consider them for themselves if they chose to do so. As for me, I am grateful for Mr. Anderson’s contribution.

      • Evan Mantyk

        Mr. MacKenzie, I don’t think Mr. Sale was attempting a Divine Comedy re-write or commentary. He, like Dr. Salemi, is using the framework of the Divine Comedy to make a commentary on the state of modern poetry. However, I suppose only the poet himself could say for sure what he was attempting when he set out to write. My sense is that both poets are paying homage to Dante in their works, like Virgil to Homer, like Dante to Virgil.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    James, the idea of putting bad poets in a deserved hell is great. You had more courage than I did, because you actually named names!

    Ginsburg and Whitman deserve their drubbing, as do Shadwell and Cibber and the rest. But I do have a soft spot in my heart for John Masefield, whose work I have loved since childhood.

    Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    James, you clearly had fun writing this—A fanciful and over-the-top screed, venting steam and spleen on our hapless, Modernist colleagues, who had their day in the sun and now find themselves as irrelevant as Maynard G. Krebs. No doubt there is also a subterranean ward filled with Middle School saxophone players. I can’t wait. There is some clever writing here that sustains the mock classical atmosphere throughout. A needed breather from the heavy, darker tone of previous cantos. In some ways it reminds me of Herman Hesse who placed Brahms in a private purgatory as punishment for having wasted too many notes in his musical scores.

    Reply
  5. Leo Zoutewelle

    Awesome! Although much of your Canto 11 went past me, I was, nevertheless, deeply impressed. And gradually and increasingly I began to find myself in the same environment as often was created by A. Roland Holst, deeply immediate, severe and passionate. A wondrous work, James!
    Leo

    Reply

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