The Unknown Circle of Hell

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.

About Joseph S. Salemi

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.