Frederick Glaysher claims to be an epic poet, and furthermore to have written an epic poem, The Parliament of Poets. This is a huge claim and an astonishing ambition. Is he? Has he? Before responding to these two important questions by reviewing his book, let me outline why I think this is such a big deal. The word epic is used very loosely, but usefully, nowadays. We might say that the film, Ben Hur, was an epic, or that some highly dangerous expedition across Antartica was epic, and this is useful because the word conveys a sense of scale and importance; but that is not what we mean when we talk of an epic poem.
To put this in context, in my view the last complete and true epic poem in the English Language was Paradise Lost written by John Milton in the C17th, and apart from that poem there are only two others: the anonymous Beowulf from old English, and the unfinished Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser from the C16th. Don Juan, by Byron, is perhaps a true mock epic and apart from that the only poet since Milton who has come remotely close to writing in the epic style is Keats with his two sublime, but unfinished and maybe unfinishable (even had he lived), Hyperion fragments. Yeats was an epic poet by nature and impulse, but did not write an actual epic. This brings us to the C20th and all the phoney poets (Brits and Americans alike) claiming to write epics, ‘modern epics’, but doing no such thing. The most egregious example of this would be Ezra Pound and his Cantos: unreadable and undecipherable tosh masquerading as a work of genius in the manner we are nowadays too familiar with in conceptual art and music. Indeed, only two types of people ever read the Cantos: university professors who make a career out of untangling it; and wannabe poets who write just like that (except of course completely differently – solipsism smears the pane in its own way: there’s a brown smudge, but here’s a green stain) and naturally vote for models justifying their own inanities. (As for modern epics of the ‘human mind’ - beginning Wordsworth, Whitman et al – these, despite their odd purple patches, seem extended and tedious forms of narcissism).
It would take me too far from this review to define epic poetry, but if it means anything the clue to its essence is in the word ‘style’: there is an elevation of style, the sublime is never far away despite all of man’s in humanity to man, some value system that is profoundly important to us as people informs the epic poem’s journey; epic poems never trash what it means to be human – they raise us up. That is why Pound’s Cantos are not epic (or even poetry): they are a form of Gnosticism, and they imply a higher learning that plebs cannot access, only those ‘in the know’. In short, The Cantos are anti-democratic, just as Pound was. The true epics delight all intelligent peoples throughout the ages because they speak to them in a language they can understand even when that language is ‘elevated’.
So Glaysher has structured his epic in twelve books, like Milton, but the actual model for how the work progresses is The Divine Comedy of Dante. As Dante is guided through the three levels of existence of his Catholic model, so now Glaysher in a fine conceit imagines – or envisions – himself on the Moon and being led by an assortment of poets and writers (not just Virgil) from every continent, country and clime back to the Earth some four times in order to learn lessons that prepare him to become an epic poet and actually write the poem. Indeed the poem ends like Dante’s poem does; he leaves us with the ‘love that moves the sun and stars’; compare with Glaysher who ends his supernal vision with ‘dancing/across an endless field of space and stars’. The poem is at least 9000 lines long, and in true epic simulation has a ‘prefatory ode’ and, imitating Milton, a note on the versification; there is a claim in this that the verse approximates to blank verse, but I cannot agree that it does, although that is not necessarily a criticism.
What is extraordinary, however, is the language, and so the style. There is a curious mixture of archaicisms, ordinary language, inversions, and modern colloquial slang. A surprising number of lines actually end with either the indefinite or definite article, which I find difficult to fathom why. But the opening address in Book 1, Homeric or Miltonic in scope, gives a flavour of the archaic:
“O Muse, O Maid of Heaven, O Circling Moon,
O lunar glory of the midnight sky,
I call upon thee to bless they servant’s tongue,
descend upon thy pillar of light,
moonbeam blessings, that from my mouth
may pour at least a fraction of the love
I hold for thee, sweet blessings, for service
to God’s creation, and His Creative Word,
the Bible’s thundering verses, Brahma
of the Upanishads, Allah, the Compassionate,
Bhudda’s meditative mystery,
Confucius and the Dao. O Great Spirit”
But actually, this is really good writing, moving even, and the surprising thing is: Glaysher sustains the momentum of the poem for all Twelve Books! So although I do not think the versification is regular or recurrent even in any metrical sense, he has somehow shaped a line which successfully drives the narrative forward. Further, because his vocabulary is enormous, and because he does switch so frequently from one style to another, one is never bored – the poetry stimulates. In fact is almost whacky! For example in Book 3 we get a discourse on the Greek heroes from “Bob” (Robert Hayden, Glaysher’s mentor), which is pretty classical, but followed by Glaysher’s persona reflecting:
“I thought who needs warp drive when I’ve got Queen Mab”.
It’s a strange collocation (warp drive/Queen Mab), but it works; and there are literally hundreds of these intersections between then and now, and words that bring them into focus and juxtaposition.
Thus, although Glaysher seems archaic in places, because the poetry is about such current issues that concern us – namely, the fate of planet Earth and humanity more specifically – and because the linguistics are so varied and skilful, we realise that this is a poet working for deliberate effects, and not one who has only read poetry from three hundred years ago. One fabulous quality of this poem is its clarity and luminous quality. I love the fact that despite the wide ranging topographical and lexical references this poem is easy to understand and follow: it is a poet writing for people, not one trying to be clever, and not one concealing their lack of poetry in obfuscation.
I take the view, therefore, and surprisingly to myself, that Glaysher is really an epic poet and this is an epic poem! One can hardly congratulate him enough, then, on this achievement, since it has been so long awaited. Of special interest to members of The Society of Classical Poets is Book 6. Keep in mind, the journey of the poet from Earth to Moon and back again involves visiting all the continents on Earth and engaging in dialogue with all the poets across all time. Book 6 covers China and much of its sentiments will ring a very pleasant note with supporters and followers of Falun Gong: there is a fabulous expose of political corruption in China, with lines like:
“The Marxists have proved the worst in all
of human history. Insatiable lust for blood.
Only university professors in my country
continue to worship at their sanguine shrines.
They always claim it’s ‘for the people’.
but never get around to asking them
what they want. Duty and heaven forgotten.”
Please note too the arch humour against the US university professors who still argue for Marxism; there is actually a lot of humour in the poem. Thematically, too, it is epic: it is about the survival of the human race, despite – Dantean-like – facing the full horrors of human history. It could be argued that in places the language is clichéd, but given the length of the poem the idea that every line and image could be ‘fresh’ and concrete is as absurd as FR Leavis, the famous English critic, seventy years ago slating Milton because his language wasn’t ‘concrete’ like John Donne’s; in other words, Leavis completely missed the point of epic and how to write one: if every line had to be imaginatively engaged with, then we’d never get beyond Book 1. Homer knew the dawn was rosy, so no need for a fresh metaphor every time the dawn was introduced.
Finally, then, having accorded Glaysher what I conceive to be the highest honour in poetry (to be an epic poet), I ought to point out what I perceive to be two shortcomings in this amazing work. One is aesthetic and one is theological.
First, aesthetically, whilst the work kept my interest from beginning to end, and is full of curious and inventive situations, I think it does suffer from a lack of dramatic tension. Although the poet suffers (indeed is mutilated at least twice: losing his head at one point, and having his heart ripped out by Octavio Paz at another!), there is never a sense that he can actually die or lose everything, apart from the laurel of being a poet. It is one dialogue after another – interesting yes, but not really dramatic in the way that Homer, Virgil and Milton are dramatic. Of course, as Dante is the model, then perhaps that is not surprising: even Dante can hardly keep up the tension in his endless dialogues as he ascends. I personally have yet to meet anyone who thinks the Purgatory and the Paradise superior to the Inferno; and of course Dante’s poem benefits from the tighter topography of three imaginary locations. There is a gain but also a dilution in having the Glaysher’s persona visit all the continents – a sort of dissipation of effect.
More seriously, perhaps, as a weakness of the poem is my theological objection to it. In Book 8 he says:
“Milton shall guide you from here on your
pilgrimage through ancient and modern times,
many peoples, revealing their creeds as One.”
Tennyson then challenges him with:
“What are you doing for the Federation
of the World?”
So what we have is the problem of the world’s sufferings to be solved via federation (great in the USA but try the European Union for starters!) and through what the persona clearly believes is the ‘oneness’ of all religious beliefs. There are of course no practical solutions as to how this might be achieved, but in this fervent hope there is a strange paradox: basically, Glaysher offers a sweeping critique of modernism and the modern world, which I largely agree with. Further, I love the fact that he invokes and even believes in the Muse – how antiquated can you get? But at the same time he seems to swallow one of their most pernicious falsehoods, one so dear to so many liberals and bleeding hearts: namely, that all religions are one and teach the same thing when you get down to it. Syncretism in other words. Yes, there is a sense in which one can track similar ethical and moral principles across some religions, but any deeper acquaintance really produces the opposite impression. And common sense tells us that one doesn’t become a Bhuddist because one thinks it’s the same as being a Catholic; one becomes a Bhuddist (or any religious type) because one believes it to be a superior path or way to the truth of reality, else why would one convert at all?
Given this superficial understanding of religion, I think there is a failure to address the deep philosophical issues that derive from them and drive human behaviour for good or ill. To mention two specific areas that are glossed over within the poem, but are core dramatic points, say, in Milton: can human beings save themselves (there seems to be an underlying assumption that they can in Glaysher’s poem) or is salvation (or to use another religion’s term for this: nirvana, for example) bestowed as an act of grace? Religions, indeed sects, really do differ on this question and it is fundamental to how we behave. Or take another one: predestination and free will. These questions are really superficially covered in Glaysher’s poem, but in Milton the whole power of the narrative comes from understanding the freedom of Adam’s (and Eve’s) will and exploring every avenue of what freedom of the will means; there is that wonderful prelude in hell where even the devils are debating the issue – fruitlessly!
Thus, Glaysher has written a masterpiece, but a flawed one. He should take heart, however, as most critics seem to think Paradise Lost is a flawed masterpiece. You just can’t please everyone. I strongly recommend Frederick Glaysher’s poem and hope he will find a larger readership for it. It is real poetry and we need to support real poets wherever we find them. I only wish he could be English – but there you go – he’s an American, and he’s written the new epic. Congratulations, Frederick Glaysher. I look forward to reading more of his work. His book can be found at http://amzn.to/1XkmMOI