Time moves in cycles—an ouroboros, if you will—and it is exciting to observe trends that seemed dead and gone forever return due to the cyclical nature of reality. We’re currently experiencing a complete resurgence of the Slasher genre, and a renewed interest in Horror overall. The existence of streaming services such as Shudder, and the popularity of modern films such as the Fear Street trilogy, are testament to this revival. What this says about our modern world, I leave to you, but certainly the narratives we invest in tell us something about who we are.
To be fair, Horror has always had a way of hanging on, and surviving cultural movements (even when banned or prohibited). It is one of those genres that never fully goes away, because human fear never truly goes away. It is far more impressive when a genre such as classical poetry makes its grand return.
In the wake of modernism and post-modernism—the deconstruction of spiritual beliefs and national identity—and the advent of free-verse, classical poetry has been out of fashion for the last half-century. It is far beyond the scope of this review to explore the deeper reasons why here. However, what we can explore is how the genre is seeing a slow, steady, but powerful resurrection.
In 2020, my own father James Sale published an epic written in terza rima called HellWard, echoing the form Dante used to craft his magnum opus The Divine Comedy. HellWard, whilst classically influenced, is based on my father’s very real personal experience of battling cancer. This is very revealing on a number of levels. It shows that poetry has never been the province of solely the elite, because real poetry, the poetry that influences culture in unimaginably potent ways, is always about true, human, relatable experiences (finding our way home, to our own soul (The Odyssey), or losing a loved one (The Iliad)). In writing HellWard, my father found a way to translate Dante’s sojourn into hell into a contemporary experience of fighting cancer tooth and nail. He has synthesised real trauma with myth
HellWard is the first instalment of The English Cantos, which will similarly mirror Dante’s tripartite model exploring hell, purgatory, and heaven. Whilst I am obviously biased, I am genuinely in awe of this book, and how it has captured the imaginations of so many. There have always been poets, either self-publishing their work or otherwise; this is not necessarily indicative of a revival of anything, especially when so much modern poetry reads like solipsism. But a popular, classically formed poem emerging in the maelstrom of Covid-19 and other catastrophes, now that begins to resemble the beginning of a movement!
On the heels of HellWard comes Legends of Liberty, a new mock-epic poem written by Andrew Benson Brown. Benson Brown’s poem styles itself after Lord Byron, particularly Don Juan, and whilst the “mock” elements are certainly laugh-out-loud, there is no denying that the poem is serious at its heart and has some important things to say about modern society, the way history is taught in schools, literalism, where Western civilisation lost its way, and much more. Whereas HellWard is written by a Brit, Benson Brown speaks for an American audience, although his truths are universal. He deals with Thomas Jefferson confronting his sins in the inferno, with the battle for America’s independence from the British, and how new technology has shaped the landscape of war. However, Benson Brown never falls into the trap of giving a tedious, preachy history lesson, as many so-called poets do. His scenes have a surreal quality which at times is used for hugely comic effect, and at other times, to evoke mythic grandeur:
“Their bayonets cast beams — reverse sundials
Dissecting the empire’s diurnal span
That cast so many shadows on the globe.”
There is so much to unpack from three lines like this. The image of the bayonets catching the light mirroring the ancient spears of the Greeks in The Iliad, but he does not stop at merely aping the original, but reverses the image, whereby we come to associate the weaponry with the oppressions of Western empire. We move from the “beams” of the bayonets, aka light, toward the “shadows” cast across the whole world.
Benson Brown has a gift for aphoristic wit, a compact statement that seems to encapsulate the entirety of a gigantic concept. This is essential for writing mock-epic, which is often as much a commentary as it is a narrative, for example:
“And wear beliefs as circumstance permits.
They’re diplomats by trade— we call then hypocrites.”
This is where poetry shows its strengths. Form is not a restriction, it is a tool that can produce mimetic effects upon the reader when deployed by a master wordsmith, which Benson Brown assuredly is. In the words of Kurt Seligmann, form is “not resented as a coercion but rather welcomed as a liberation from the tyranny of chance.” The genius of rhyming “permit” and then half-rhyming “diplomat” (which “tricks” the brain into thinking the verse is done), only to then complete the couplet with the rhyme “hypocrites” amplifies the comedic effect by virtue of misdirection. The fact that permit and hypocrite is a “perfect” rhyme also conveys cleverly that “hypocrite” is the true term for the type of person he is describing.
But Benson Brown does not only use the rhyme scheme to comedic effect. As I said before, the poem is serious at heart. There is a sense of mourning lost values and ideals, exemplified by how many heroic American figures are now forgotten, save for in obscure annals and Benson-Brown’s own poem (these obscure sources are extensively referred to in the poem’s copious notations, often witty, amusing, and informative). This sense of loss is perhaps no better exemplified than in the incredibly dense couplet:
“Of petals, perfect in their fair proportions.
What nature nurtures, time adopts, and chaos orphans.”
From here, we have the full journey of a human life encapsulated. A petal, like a child, is made perfect. Nature nurtures it, which in itself is a clever play on words, referring to the endless debate as to whether we are more influenced by “nature” (our genes and biology) or “nurture” (what we are taught and experience). Benson Brown’s line here seems to appropriately suggest both play their part. In growing up, the child is taken under the wing of Time, entering the ouroboros of existence, before being orphaned by “chaos”. There are a number of meanings here for “chaos”. In one sense, we all become orphans eventually, as our parents must die. But in another, we are orphans in the sense we have to find our own way through life’s “chaos” and complexities. This is only scratching the surface of meaning.
Even if you are new to American history, or indeed to poetry, I highly recommend you read Legends of Liberty. It is witty, humorous, moving, and unlike anything you have read before. Classical poetry, much like Horror, is coming back from the dead in the hands of skilled writers like Benson Brown. The least we can do is give it a warm welcome.
You can purchase Legends of Liberty below: