Poetry Friday: The Young Inferno

Having immersed myself in Dante at university, and while living in Italy after that, I was intrigued by the notion of John Agard‘s The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln, 2008)… How could it be possible to bring a fourteenth century work of poetry, no matter how seminal, to a young, English-speaking audience, when most of them would never have heard of him? Well, Agard has managed to bring this up-to-date parallel to Dante’s Hell very much alive and, judging by Little Brother’s reaction, they will then want to know about the “Old Inferno” too. The poem is ambitious, exciting and relevant – an exhilarating journey!

There are thirteen cantos of varying lengths, divided into tercets plus a single, climactic line at the end. The young narrator’s guide is Aesop, who leads him through the circles of hell, giving introduction and explanations, and telling a couple of his own fables along the way. Agard’s version of Hell contains a mix of modern and ancient inhabitants – some of whom may be a little surprising at first, like Einstein. And I love the ending, where the boy emerges through the floor of a library, of all places, to come face to face with his Beatrice…

Satoshi Kitamura‘s black and white illustrations are, as ever, superb – atmospheric, grotesque, witty – they complement Agard’s verse perfectly. My boys have been intrigued and a bit scared by the whole book and Little Brother (definitely put off Mammon!) has learned a lot about urban culture… we were at our Town Feast last week-end and he stood outside the door announcing that he was going to be a bouncer! It’s no surprise that The Young Inferno won this year’s UK-based Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Poetry Award; or that it is is being adapted for the stage (I’ll be watching its progress with interest…).

Here’s a taster from the ninth and final circle of hell:

‘…History knows me as Attila the Hun
Who ravaged countless cities in the Balkans.
But deep down, I’m still a family man…’

‘That’s enough,’ my teacher said to Attila.
‘Don’t burden the boy with your excuses.
I know we can’t all be Nelson Mandela.

But whatever your race, your shape or your -ism,
I’ve got news for warmongers and tyrants:
Hell’s Ninth Circle will be your five-star prison.”

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Anastasia Suen over at Picture Book of the Day


3 Responses to “Poetry Friday: The Young Inferno”

  1. Aline Says:

    Sounds like quite the book! I must admit, though, that this book—not to mention the original Inferno—intimidate me. I’m not sure I would be comfortable sharing it with young readers… I suspect my discomfort comes from not being particularly well-read when it comes to classics. Do you think you would have felt the same way about the book had you not read Dante’s work? Well, either way, I admire you for introducing your kids to this sophisticated book. And I really admire them for “getting it”!

  2. Marjorie Says:

    I think one of the things that Agard and Dante have in common is that they are both addressing a contemporary audience. That might sound a bit obvious, but what I mean is that the people they talk about have a currency and there is no need to explain who they are/were. If Agard had kept Virgil as the guide, it would have less appeal, I think – but children still grow up with Aesop’s Fables so there is an ancient character they can immediately feel at home with. In his short introduction, Agard makes some very interesting points about Dante’s relevance to and impact on young Italians – I suppose it’s a bit like English schoolchildren being immersed in Shakespeare at school from an early age.

    To be honest, I didn’t think Little Brother, at age 8.5, would go for it and I didn’t exactly hand it to him: he picked it up himself because it was lying around. More fool me – because he has certainly pondered it deeply. I would say that generally it’s more suited to older readers, aged 10+ and that it has the potential to make people not be afraid of Dante! So go for it, Aline!

  3. Sally Says:

    I’ve got to see if I can find this! Thanks for the suggestion, Marjorie. Who would’ve thought of a kid-friendly Dante? That’s just brilliant!

    Sally