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No Letters

“An odd thought strikes me: we shall receive no letters in the grave.” —Dr. Johnson, from Boswell’s Life

Of all the things which I enjoy and have
To lose them, then, in death, which soon I must,
Grieves so, as thinking too becomes pure dust:
We shall receive no letters in the grave.

It’s true: my garden’s been one no path paves,
Yet weeds produce their special scents and joys;
And children won’t let go last summer’s toys:
We shall receive no letters in the grave.

I’ve had the power, and fought foes with staves,
And written poems spiralling to the stars;
I’ve driven large, expensive, flashy cars:
But shall receive no letters in the grave.

My heart is gripped—I love you—see, my waves?
It’s goodbye, messages don’t come my way;
Not Samuel, and you no witch, I say:
I shall receive no letters in the grave.

.

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Decay Again

It began with great intention:
Lead the good life, avoid foul play,
True heart always, conscience umpire.

It gained—too small, almost, to mention—
Stains, washed out once, but then they’d stay,
Heart about its iron empire.

It quashed all rules but self attention,
Self seemed a creamy plaque by day;
By night heart’s tooth’s a very vampire—

It fed without the least compunction
Upon most helpless, human prey,
Vein-punctured, heaving in heart’s quagmire.

It might have stopped but no prevention,
No courage either to gainsay,
Which meant its destiny’s for fire:

Helpless, restless, and without unction.

.

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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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25 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Very thought-provoking–both, Mr. Sale. You beg the question, when did any of us last receive a letter?
    The repetition of “helpless” in “Decay” hits hard.
    I admit, however, I can’t make anything of the witch / Samuel reference.
    2 punctuation questions: 1) do you need that comma before “my waves”? I don’t sense that you’re addressing them; 2) wouldn’t “self attention” benefit from a hyphen?

    Reply
      • James Sale

        Wicked, JD, wicked!!! Possibly, as well, a consummation devoutly to be wished – unlike letters, which are always welcome! Greetings to Abilene!

  2. Andrew Benson Brown

    Lovely elaboration on the Johnson quote. I believe he was on his deathbed when he said that? Most people would probably focus on never seeing another sunset or some such rural cliché (or not driving flashy cars, as you say—presumably along scenic coastlines as opposed to sitting in traffic). For the urbane man of letters, though, letters would indeed seem to be the worst sort of loss. And in response to Mr. Woodruff’s question above, I would say that “we will receive no emails in the grave” doesn’t quite have the same effect of gravitas.

    Feel like ‘Decay Again’ could be in the ‘Hell Now’ section of your Divine Comedies collection. Given the current purgatorial focus in your narrative verse, I hope this preoccupation is not indicative of a regression to a stage you are already supposed to have passed through! Love the image of the self as a ‘creamy plaque’ upon the heart’s vampiric tooth. The underdeveloped selfhood of the selfish person would indeed just seem to be a layering over thoughtless desire and greed.

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    Thanks Julian. Ha! You are far too modern; I am a recidivist, so get letters all the time, and expect to receive them for a short while even after I am dead, as the news of my demise will not reach some in timely fashion. It’s bad form to explain your own poems since it means they have not worked, but FYI the reference is two-fold: first, less importantly, an allusion back to Samuel Johnson whose quote I am unpacking; second, more importantly, Samuel and the witch of Endor episode (1 Samuel 28), which you may recall was King Saul’s attempt to literally communicate with the dead – and the prophet Samuel was summoned up. I am saying that unlike Samuel I won’t be able to come back and communicate with my beloved. And yes, the comma is necessary as I am speaking in colloquial fashion and this I think strengthens the imperative of ‘see’; and self-attention could be hyphenated, but I don’t think the meaning is any less clear by my not doing so. There are an awful lot of these self- or self words in management: self-esteem or self esteem, self-development or self development, and dozens more. Different publishers take different views on it – as long as sense is not impaired I don’t think it matters. Hope this helps you and thanks for your point on ‘helpless’.

    Reply
  4. James Sale

    Thanks Andrew. I think Julian’s points are perfectly in order, although they are a timely reminder of our modern age: I never expected anyone to suggest that letters were so old hat we’d never expect them to be sent. And indeed, the use of the word ’email’ (and BTW Julian, this another word where the pesky hyphen can be considered; for didn’t it use to be e-mail?) would require a totally different kind of poem. I have to confess Andrew that you are extremely perceptive: no, Decay Again is not a regression to HellWard and its ilk. We are now climbing the mountain of Purgatory, or as I call it, StairWell. No Letters is a recent poem of mine, but Decay Again is not – it’s one from the archives and was written well before I started the Divine Comedies/HellWard project. Back catalogue then. Or, back-catalogue then? Nah! But I wish Julian hadn’t mentioned those hyphens – they can plague one’s whole day! Cheers and thanks again.

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      “Hmm,” answered Julian, “you’re probably right” (about the punctuation), and I’ll try harder to curb my pedantic editorial tendencies. Yet am I all alone in being vexed at being addressed “Hi Julian” in emails, as if “hi” were an adjective, or at sentences and clauses opening “and, …,” as if a breath were needed one word after a punctuation? (At this point we might agree that the American convention of punctuating before the close of a quotation is confusing.)
      Thanks, too, James, for clearing up my confusion on witch / Samuel: I certainly shouldn’t have needed the help!

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Thanks Julian – as for ‘Hi’, isn’t that an American convention that we have imported? I used to say ‘hello’ to people, but have gotten into the habit of saying ‘Hi’, and even writing it! So far as emails are concerned, Hi is a lot quicker than Hello, and brevity is the essence of the form. Appreciate your taking the time to consider my work – thanks again.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, I love ‘No Letters’. I like Dr. Johnson’s quote, the repetition of it, and the images the poem conjures along the way. “We shall receive no letters in the grave” is a timeless observation that touches my heart with the significance and wonder of the written word, and the power it has. In this day and age of ‘flashy cars’ – material extravagance, and visual technology, those personal communications have become secondary… we should make the most of them while we still can. Your poem makes me want buy a heap of stamps and get out my fountain pen!

    I like the inspirational rhyme scheme of ‘Decay Again’ together with the descent from ‘great intention’ to the rot of self absorption then hell… or at least, that’s what I think your poem says… the full meaning is like that fanged vampire dancing on the periphery and taunting me with its mean intent. I don’t know whether I should let him in or not.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Susan – it’s great to get so full-bloodied a response (watch those vampires!). And in particular, thanks for commenting on the rhyme/off-rhyme scheme which is an essential part of the ‘drill-down’ or meaning as we get to the ‘bottom’ of the poem. I like to maintain that technical features are not the primary reason for reading poetry, or writing it for that matter; but as you know yourself from your own considerable technical abilities, there comes a point of fusion where meaning shapes a form and then the form starts shaping the meaning and driving it to a finer climax which – because we have used form – delights as well as instructs.

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Susan, don’t let that vampire in! James has a clear progression in those third-line rhymes, and once you encounter the vampire, only quagmire and fire await.

    James, that is quite a powerful use of imperfect rhymes to hem in the perfect ones in “Decay Again.” I’m not sure it inspires me to dredge up imperfectly rhymed verses from my own archives, but I’m glad you brought this one to light. The map is very easy to read.

    Like Julian, I failed to make the jump from Samuel Johnson to Samuel the prophet at the end of “No Letters.” But now that you have explained the last bit, the whole poem is enjoyable. Can’t say whether I like the garden stanza or the flashy car stanza better. You make me think of how many kinds of staves there might be in that boot!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Margaret for your noticing the rhyme scheme and how it works, always gratifying, as I’ve said to Susan JB. And there is probably truth in your and Julian’s observation regarding the Witch of Endor – it may be too arcane a reference; it certainly will be for general consumption, but as I am on the ‘classical’ poetry site I think I can get away with it. And, actually, if I think longer about it, and think of so much ego-centric and solipsistic free verse that is out there today, perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to have an allusion that is at least about some highly significant incident. Why, kids in schools would derive infinitely more benefit from having to look at the Witch of Endor scene (for one thing, it’s gripping) as a by-product of reading my poem than any number of free-verse, politically memed, mish-mashed scribbles from so-called and muse-less poets!

      As for the imperfect rhymes, well, we are having a big debate on this currently, as you well know: it all depends on the context. Sometimes perfect rhymes are exactly right, but sometimes not. A most brilliant example of a poem that seems to me to require ‘imperfect’ rhymes (in this case, consonantal rhymes) because of its subject matter is Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting – a masterpiece and one of the truly great poems of the C20th. Thanks again.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I agree that puzzling out an allusion in a classical poem is a useful process, as much for experienced readers as for students who may be encountering the background story for the first time. Both kinds of readers need to trust the poet that they will indeed find meaning–and this is where all the private, solipsistic allusions in modernist verse do harm. Readers learn to think their efforts will never be rewarded, and thus they pass over any difficulty as incomprehensible.

      Something of the same happens with imperfect rhyme. I know I would have to explain the rhyme in “Strange Meeting” to students, whether old or young, before they would accept it as rhyme. The young, though, are more likely to be delighted at learning a new kind of rhyme, and to discover for themselves how it suits the topic. As well, less educated general readers are more likely to accept imperfect rhyme that sounds “close” to other rhyming words in a poem.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Thanks Margaret – yes, we all need to make poetry delightful (which is not of course to say naive or evil-avoiding) so that we extend the range of those who want to read it. Children are a sort of perennial clue as to what to do, since they love the musicality of sound effects effortlessly. We are on the right lines when our sounds delight!

  7. Paul Freeman

    Dad Joke Alert: I plan on being buried with all my writing paraphernalia so I can do some de-composing.

    Thanks for the reads, James. FYI, I was a prolific letter-writer until the 2000’s, when it became clear no one was writing back anymore. I do occasionally sit down to fire off a quick email (‘E-mail’ as it was a few years back) and half an hour later find I’ve written the equivalent of a two-page letter.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Paul, I admire your candour – how many others of us also might have to testify to the failed forms we have used in our lives? As for the joke, it is good; but surely not relevant to you – it is the free-versers who need to de-compose, start again, begin to understand what poetry is! Keep writing – one page or two, or give it four! Thanks.

      Reply
  8. BRIAN YAPKO

    James, these are both wonderful poems full of unexpected rhymes, rhythms and compelling thoughts. I’m partial to the phrase “poems spiralling to the stars” but I also am intrigued by the tone of “No Letters” which tackles a terribly painful subject with no small amount of wit and, perhaps, a little self-mockery (those “expensive, flashy cars”) but which audaciously runs the gamut of human experience by going from children’s toys to invoking the Bible with the reference to Saul and the Witch of Endor.

    “Decay Again” is worth two or three readings to appreciate how truly clever it is as a narcissistic roadmap straight to Hell. The ABC rhyme scheme really brings home the idea of cyclic repetition and escalation of the subject’s ever-increasing moral depravity.

    Well done on both!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Well, marvellous Brian, your comments: we all want discriminating critics of our work, and you seem to have really got what I am trying to do. So thank you. And you may remember that when we did our little ‘show’, one of my questions was about your own favourite line in your own poem. If I turn the question on myself, I am so pleased that you like ‘And written poems spiralling to the stars’, for that is my own favourite line in the poem – it’s the word ‘spiralling’ that does it for me as I am sure you appreciate. Excellent – thanks.

      Reply
  9. Norma Okun

    “We shall receive no letters in the grave.” I have read the autobiography that Boswell wrote and the meaning of the correspondence between Boswell and Johnson is priceless to me. I cried reading the book because they truly defined “friendship” to me. I love the use of letters in your poem. It meant a lot to me.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      It’s great to learn that the poem spoke to you and picked up some echo of that wonderful friendship from long ago. Boswell of course is priceless – so bizarre how someone so flawed could uncover so much. And Dr Johnson is unquestionably my favourite writer of the C18th; I am member of the Johnson Society in the UK. Regards!

      Reply
  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, ‘No Letters’ has inspired the sonnet below. It’s in memory of my brave friend, Ev. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ev decided to write her then 12 year old daughter a letter for every future milestone. We may receive no letters in the grave, but I know one lucky and beautiful young lady who received letters from beyond it.

    The wonder of being on this site is the inspiration I get from fellow poets and commenters. James, thank you very much for yours. I hope you like the result:

    Letters From Beyond

    When death’s breath stained her lungs and called her name
    She summoned songs a daughter longs to hear;
    A kiss of ink to soothe the mourning pain
    A hug of words to mark each milestone year.

    She tucked away her praise until the day
    Her girl could claim each precious, gracious gift
    Of words a doting mother has to say –
    That voice of joy that gives each step a lift.

    Her love and laughter, pride and smiles of hope;
    Her blessings and her dreams for happiness
    Were waiting in each glorious envelope
    For days the reaper told her she would miss…

    Those days when mothers play a vital part
    With words straight from a noble, selfless heart.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Apologies for the delay Sue but I am now on the last day of a 12-day exhibition of poetry and art at Upton Country House and Park, and it has been somewhat time consuming (though fabulous) – as has Father’s Day, as I know you know. Really enjoyed your poem, sad as the story is – to be able to reach out from beyond the grave is perhaps an astonishing achievement, though it is not something I want to do myself. I guess I have to trust myself that those I love are in the hands of a greater power than myself, and therefore – my job done – they are secure in that sublime love.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        James, thank you for reading my poem, and thanks again for the inspiration. The exhibition sounds delightful – what a busy, interesting and joyful life you lead… I love it! I also like your take on my poem. I feel much the same as you. Life is short and full of unexpected twists and turns that interfere with long term plans, which is why I never make them. It’s also important that those who love us know exactly how much we love them… as regularly and as emphatically as possible. 🙂

      • James Sale

        Yes, Susan, without wishing to sound judgemental, the idea of leaving messages to loved ones after one’s death (aside from a duly authorised Will) seems to me to smack of someone who hasn’t really accepted the idea of dying and so still wants to make ‘effects’ in the land of the living, still wants some sort of control. When I had my near-death experience it was very clear to me that I could let it all go. But each to their own; I hope it did some good, but the danger is, the daughter never fully gets on with her life since her mother keeps ‘interfering’ with it!

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        You have a very valid point, James, a point that has me thinking deeply. I have never thought of my friend’s action as wanting some sort of control. She was only young at the time so I can see how she may not have come to terms with death, even though she appeared to have. Your near-death experience has brought with it a wisdom I respect, especially since reading the thoroughly entertaining and enlightening ‘HellWard’. Thank you!

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