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To Winter

for John Keats

Where are the songs of spring? Now moving west
All of us are into winter finally:
Threadbare, lackluster, shorn-sheer, and with a limp
Stepping down to die flatly, not climb.

Ay, where are they? Not only songs for asking
But every living composition called
A person, whose note’s sounded but bungled,
Like hare-lips hissing through a blocked bugle.

Thy music too. And mine. No eastern promise
Revives what in the west is now flat out:
Each tune is lifeless, each mind is mental,
The dead impermanent inspiring doggerel.

Or sinking as the light extinctly dies.
Instruments are just a-jangle, but sound
Hardly matters when poetry’s aground

Still waiting past winter some surprise.

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Against Troy

Standing on a plain
Unhelped by any elevation,
His mission before is clear:
Civilisation again.

In the distance is far
Along with city walls’ projection
Up, out, warning Beware
This journeying means war.

Weeping with back turned
So none might see or share his sorrow,
Being discouraged thereby
When what is can’t be returned,

Achilles without
More murmur—his poetry in mind—
With Myrmidons moves
Against Troy with one great shout.

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Both poems first published in The Other Side Collection from Hesperus Press, 1985

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James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated by The Hong Kong Review for the 2022 Pushcart Prize for poetry, has won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, and performed in New York in 2019. He is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. His most recent poetry collection is “HellWard.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit https://englishcantos.home.blog


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25 Responses

  1. Damian Robin

    Dear James, or Mike, or whoever who,

    There is something amiss, I must tell you,
    at the start of stanza three.

    Perhaps it is only that “thy music too”
    is missing a capital ‘T’.

    Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Hey, James… I just fixed the typo. I would love to hear you read these out loud. Mike

      • James Sale

        I see – I only saw the fix – and so thought I hadn’t made a mistake! But now I come to really look at it, I have to say I didn’t in the first place (although no need to change back, Mike!) Evan has correctly posted the poem I submitted to him and ‘thy’ is without a capital letter, although it starts the line. Why? Because all 4 italicised lines are from the last stanza of Keats’ To Autumn and whereas 3 of them do have capitals, the phrase ‘thy music too’ does not – so who am I to change a jot of Keats? I wanted to keep the quotation exactly as Keats wrote it; so thanks Damian, but as is so often the case, the poet has a logic other than grammatical formality. But it’s not a big deal, and so leave it if you want, Mike. And thanks for the offer: I shall get a recording of both to you shortly. What fun! And the recording won’t distinguish between capital or not, hey-ho!

  2. Michael Pietrack

    This was phenomenal:

    “Or sinking as the light extinctly dies.
    Instruments are just a-jangle, but sound
    Hardly matters when poetry’s aground“

    I too would love to hear you read these, especially the first poem. I can hear you reading stanza one with slow acceptance.

    I liked the word choice on flatly. One dies flat of course, but also music falls flat and voices sing flatly. Pregnant with meaning!

    Hare-lips hissing also gave me that smile of a reader’s satisfaction.

    You’re a master for a reason…

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Michael – really appreciate these warm comments and will seek to get an audio done soon. ‘Flatly’ is a curiously flat word and I’d like to think it’s position is improved by being where it is rather than splitting the infinitive: to flatly die! Best wishes.

      Reply
  3. The Mindflayer

    These are both brilliant poems, but “To Winter” is truly outstanding. It seems perhaps a commentary on the state of modern poetry. From the golden Spring of the ancient masters, we have moved through the intervals of Summer and Autumn (the use of lines from Keats’ “To Autumn” seems deeply significant on a symbolic level – implying, perhaps, that Keats represented the Autumn of English poetry, aka, the maturation but also “fall-ing”) and now arrive at Winter. Though it seems desolate and stark, yet there lies a promise of renewal that is cathartic and uplifting. Truly sublime. My favourite line has to be: “But every living composition called / A person” It’s a wonderful metaphor – aligned with the ancient idea of the world as sound – but also beautiful in terms of its sound (alliterative) and rhythm.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Mindflayer: you are absolutely right about To Winter. If Chaucer is the Spring of English poetry, then Shakespeare is the Summer, and the Romantics are the Autumn (their favourite season, epitomised by Keats’ poem which I quote from). As for the Modernists, well of course they begin with ‘April is the cruellest month’ because they hate life and love death – and so remain stuck in Winter. However, with new poetry from the likes of some of the SCP poets, a new ‘surprise’ awaits the dead civilisation … Hope, that great, great virtue!

      Reply
    • Michael Pietrack

      Joseph, I didn’t make the connection to poetry, but now it makes sense:

      when poetry’s aground

      I took it just for growing old, but true, classical poetry is dying out like a fading song.

      Good point on “composition”!

      Reply
  4. ABB

    A bit dizzying to think how these poems were first published nearly forty years ago. I should start referring to you as Sale the Venerable.

    I like the last stanza of Against Troy, especially the parallel of being ‘without / More murmur’ and moving ‘With Myrmidons.’ Am guessing the phrase ‘his poetry in mind’ references Achilles’ early education by the centaur Chiron. His back is turned not only against his troops, but against his own past and the life of the mind.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks for this Andrew and always you make extremely perceptive remarks. Commenting on one’s own interpretation is invariably to fall short, but I would add one other thing about Achilles. Just as Alexander had Achilles as a role model and kept the Iliad close to him, I feel Achilles himself was always aware of his reputation and that is always in warrior cultures connected to poetry; for it is only the poets who can keep your memory alive. So while totally brutal in one sense (though not forgetting that Dante had him in Hell not for violence but for ‘love’), in another it is not incompatible with the intense desire for poetry – indeed, he is a sort of living poem! Troy, of course, represents not the high point of a civilisation, but its decadent nadir which requires a new virility to overthrow it. One cannot help but reflect on the West now, for if it will not renew itself and its intellectual vigour, it too will be overthrown.

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, I’ve read the multi-layered ‘To Winter’ a few times now – very clever. I love the way you weave Keats’ historic words throughout bringing with them your grave message for all those who appreciate fine poetry… poetry that is under constant attack and is struggling for survival. The reading adds to the significance of the message. Thank you!

    Reply
  6. James Sale

    Always a joy to hear from you Susan, and I am glad you find it ‘multi-layered’ – the ideal reader is going, therefore, to have to read it a few times to extract whatever value is there. Let’s both persist in the effort to help poetry live again – along with all our wonderful colleagues here at SCP!

    Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    James, when I read the first words, I thought “Ubi sunt?” All the more, when the question is repeated at the beginning of stanza 2. I pulled out my folder with copies of ballades to see how many actually use this motif for which the ballade is famed, and what kinds of answers poets make to the disappearance of everything they wonder about. There are occasional ubi sunt ballades in the medieval period, but what an onrush in the late 19th and early 20th centuries! And not much positive outlook. When we get to e. e. cummings, his refrain says, “Who dares to call himself a man?” You outdo him with the person “whose note’s sounded but bungled.”

    In fact, it is Keats (with your first two quotes of him in a single line) who goes on to see the absence of spring songs as an opportunity. His catalog of what nature does in autumn makes it sound like spring-plus-more for the poet. Did you start teaching motivation about the time you wrote these poems? And for winter poets and persons, can we not perform better than we do, if we take a careful look at the nature of winter as Keats looked at the nature of autumn? Thanks for your thoughtful winter surprise!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      You are a precious jewel on the pages of the SCP, Margaret – your comments are always so insightful and educative. We are fortunate to have you here. As modernists go, I rate ee cummings as one of the best; so I am glad you think I ‘outdo’ him, though I’d really like to outperform him – period! Indeed, I think outperforming the modernists generally is the sine non qua of what we are doing at SCP, since if we can’t – God help us – we may as well read them!

      And yes, ubi sunt is such a great theme: the dark and backward abysm of time that defeats us. But I take your very important point: that Keats was seeing something vital in Autumn, which is true of all the seasons. Perhaps I have been too negative about winter – of course it is the season for incubation, preparation, for the life to come. In that sense we must learn from it, and there is a lot to learn from winter; however, if post-modernism is what we learn from modernism, then I am not sure much was learnt by those who inherited the tradition. The good news is: the time is now to come out into a new spring, a new summer even, if we can but harness the real lessons from the disintegrations of the C20th and its follow-ons.

      As for me, thanks for the query regarding motivation: I set my motivation business up in 2006, and my first book (of 5) on the topic for Routledge was published in 2016. So the actual answer is no. No, but with a qualification: what we are doing consciously is one thing, but what is happening subconsciously – what the spirit of Life is doing with us – is quite other than what we think. I see in my own life a complete pattern that I did not think, devise, plan, control, in any meaningful way – motivation was always part of my life but I did not realise it till the turn of the C20th. Thanks again!

      Reply
  8. Alena Casey

    “To Winter” is an exquisite poem that I could read over and over again.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Alena, please do – and tell your friends to as well!!! So pleased you enjoyed the poem – to have discerning readers is a great joy! Thanks.

      Reply
  9. Anthony Watts

    James,
    I like your quirky way of putting words together – a seemingly studious avoidance of the (potentially soporific) smooth iambic line – the result sometimes reminiscent of Hopkins (“Threadbare, lackluster, shorn-sheer, and with a limp / Stepping down to die flatly, not climb.”)
    The meaning behind “To Winter” provokes much pondering and questions such as “Is poetry really ‘aground”’ or is it just that the literary establishment has completely lost the plot and is only promoting stuff that accords with their own set of Wokish criteria (which have little to do with truth or beauty)?
    I can’t comment on “Against Troy” without my shameful ignorance of classical literature becoming apparent.

    Reply
  10. James Sale

    Thanks for your observations, Anthony – I like your word ‘studious’! And also – given this is a relatively early poem by me (1985) – your spotting the Hopkins influence. Which is true: my great heroes from that period are Hopkins and Yeats. When one is young or younger, escaping from the pull of greater poets’ style is tricky. I’d like to think my writing now is stylistically entirely free of these overt influences, but of course only others can be the judge of that. Then you come on to the really interesting question: is poetry aground? The Muse is never aground, as you know yourself in your own wonderful poetry; but you are right: Wokish criteria have hijacked the agenda and sadly the weaker minds that cannot perceive either truth or beauty get drawn into the orbit of producing hogwash and claiming it is poetry. Alas, the day! Still, let’s do what we can – and I hope to see some of your poetry on these pages some day soon.

    Reply

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