Coaching cover

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been posting extracts from my new book Mapping Motivation for Coaching, co-written with Bevis Moynan, to celebrate it being published by Routledge. To recap for those who don’t know, this text is a complete guide to mapping for coaching and an invaluable resource for coaches worldwide. You can find the extract from Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 via the provided links. Currently, Routledge are offering (until July 31st) a 30% discount on the book when you buy it from their site and use the code MMJS230, so now’s the time to get your copy! You can find the link to it on Routledge’s site here. If you want to read reviews on Amazon, then you can click here.


Today I’ll be sharing my third and final extract from the book. This extract is from Chapter 3: “Pareto, Performance and Motivational Maps”

We are happy when we are in harmony; according to the Tao Te Chingi, in harmony with the Tao. The Tao is the Way - essentially, the natural flow of the universe and how it operates. It is an impersonal force according to the Tao Te Ching, but there is no problem in calling this 'God' if one wishes to. The point is that the universe conforms and complies with certain rules and principles and when we violate these we suffer. A simple and obvious example would be committing murder: all human societies have condemned the practice since the beginning of recorded time; and that murderers suffer is not only because if they get caught they are punished, but even if they are not caught history and literature provide ample testimony to the torments of the mind that they become prey toii. With this in mind, then, are there any natural laws of the universe that we inadvertently fail to respect or act upon? Laws whose existence we do not acknowledge or ignore, or whose tenets we flatly contradict or believe the opposite of?


There may be severaliii but there is certainly one which has huge ramifications on our everyday life, and on coaching practice in particular. One of the major issues affecting nearly everybody as a negative subconscious belief is that the universe works in a 50-50 way. Put another way, this means that all causes and inputs are more or less equal in terms of their symptoms and outputs. Again, a simple example illustrates the point: say, we get 100 (or 1000!) emails in our inbox and we wade through them as though they were all equally important, each one gets more or less the same amount of our time and attention. If that happens, then we are working on a 50/50 assumption about the nature of reality! We say IF it happens but in truth that is exactly what is happening all the time, since most of the time we are unless we are incredibly disciplined on some sort of automatic pilot or habitual mode of working whereby we deal with things as they turn up. In short, we may have heard of the Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule as it is sometimes called, but very few people (surely less than 20%?) do anything about it. Some emails are much more important than others, and often that some is about 20% of the total. So the universe works in an asymmetrical or 80/20 way, not a 50/50, all-things-equal way. Things are not equally important. If we wish to be effective, we have to identify the 20% of activities that cause or create 80% of our overall results; and if we go further and 80/20 the 80/20 we realise that 4% of inputs will generate 64%iv of outputs. If we are going to coach effectively this is an astonishing statistic to get our head round for the client.


Chapter 3_Diagram_Fig.01



But from a performance, and so from a coaching perspective, this principle, like Motivational Maps, is a key pillar of effective coaching. Because we cannot do everything, there is an ongoing necessity to prioritise, and this prioritisation requires that we think; and particularly that, as Richard Kochv puts it, we think 80/20.


To be clear about this now: 80/20 is not an exact figure. The percentage of inputs may vary, and indeed it is a primary purpose of coaches to skew this ratio. (And they do this by the intervention of coaching). But the starting point might be not 80/20 but 70/30 or 60/40 or 90/10 or 95/5, but whatever it is, it is not 50/50. It also needs to be said that whilst the Pareto Principle holds true in most life and business situations, there can be exceptions. So it is generally true, for example, that for most businesses 20% of the customers generate 80% of the revenues; but that probably doesnt work in, say, the supermarket modelvi where 20% of customers probably do not account for 80% of revenues. But so far as coaching, consultancy, training and other service industries are concerned, it is uncannily accurate, as it will be for most sectors and most non-commodity businesses.



i. Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu, Richard Wilhelm Edition, Penguin, (1985)

ii. ‘O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!’– Macbeth, William Shakespeare

iii. For an overview take a look at Richard Koch’s The 80/20 Principle and 92 Other Powerful Laws of Nature, Nicolas Brealey, (2014), a worthy sequel to his original book on Pareto and which explains ‘92’ other laws that operate in life.

iv. 80/20 Sales and Marketing, Perry Marshall, Entrepreneur Press, (2013)

v. The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch, Nicolas Brealey Publishing, (1997)

vi. Pareto’s Principle, Antoine Delers, Lemaitre Publishing, 2015


Want to find out more, why not grab the book at a 30% discount. Remember to use the code MMJS230 at checkout. Enjoy!



Last week, I posted an extract from Chapter 1 of my new book Mapping Motivation for Coaching, co-written with Bevis Moynan, to celebrate it being published by Routledge. To recap for those who don’t know, this text is a complete guide to mapping for coaching and an invaluable resource for coaches worldwide. Currently, Routledge are offering (until July 31st) a 30% discount on the book when you buy it from their site and use the code MMJS230, so now’s the time to get your copy! You can find the link to it on Routledge’s site here. If you want to read reviews on Amazon, then you can click here.


Today I’ll be sharing more insights with you from the book. This extract is from Chapter 2: “Coaching for Higher Performance”


Coaching starts with considering the issue of self-awareness for the simple reason that the person who is not self-aware has – by definition – no awareness, or consciousness, that there is anything on which to work within one self. This applies as much to self-development as it does to coaching a client. If a cat scratches its fur going through a barbed wire fence, we know it has become ‘aware’ of the injury because it will start to lick the wound relentlessly in its efforts to heal the scratch. So even animals become highly self-aware of the issues that concern them; although in human beings, with their powerful intellects and advanced emotional apparatus, this is a far more complex activity.


Coaching, then, in simplistic terms might be said to be a 3-step process:

1. Enabling the client to become more self-aware

2. Facilitating their decision to change

3. Helping the client generate actions to support and achieve the change – new rituals and habits


But what, we may ask, is it that humans become self-aware about? As a starting point we might say, the Self. The Self is the modern psychological term used to describe what in the past we called the soul. What this Self or soul is lies beyond the scope of this book, but one does not need to be specifically religious to resonate with the idea, common all over the world, “that there is some part of us which should not be sold, betrayed or lost at any cost”i. It is who we are at a root level; and one only needs to reflect that everybody – yes, everybody – at some point in their life talks to themselves; indeed, many people do it all the time. But who are we speaking to when we talk to ourselves? It is as if there are two people present in this self-dialogue. The intellect or the mind or the ego, perhaps talking to the deeper Self, the soul, and if it waits long enough, getting answers back.


This is a fascinating topic: the human person is one, but already we find ‘two’ dialoguing within. If we take this a stage further, one clear model that is useful from a coaching perspective is to see a human being as having four interrelated, yet distinct, strands, rather like four strands in a rope that weave around each other to form one cable, which as a result of the interweaving is immeasurably stronger.


Chapter 2_Diagram_Fig.04



These four strandsii are: the body (physical - doing), the mind (mental - thinking), the emotions (emotional - feeling) and the spirit (spiritual – knowing/being). Well-being is critical in all four areas, and a prolonged or sustained problem in one area will inevitably spill over and contaminate another. For example, there is now a well-known medical discipline called Psycho-immunology, which is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body. In other words, ‘mere’ emotional stress can cause life threatening illnesses in the body. And so it is with all four areas interacting; and for the sake of clarity, the spiritual strand is not necessarily about religion or being religious. It is about man’s search for meaningiii; and to show how this can affect the whole person we need only to contemplate that there have been many examples of people who, regrettably, have lost all meaning in their lives, and this has led to negative thoughts, leading to emotional depressions, and in some instance to suicide, the death of the body.”




i. A Complete Guide to the Soul, Patrick Harpur, Rider: Ebury Publishing, (2010).

ii. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey, Simon and Schuster, (1989).

iii. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, (1946).


Want to find out more, why not grab the book at a 30% discount. Remember to use the code MMJS230 at checkout. Enjoy!



As some of you know, my book Mapping Motivation for Coaching, co-written with Bevis Moynan, was published by Routledge earlier this year. This is a complete guide to mapping for coaching and an invaluable resource for coaches worldwide. Currently, Routledge are offering (until July 31st) a 30% discount on the book when you buy it from their site and use the code MMJS230, so now’s the time to get your copy! You can find the link to it on Routledge’s site here. If you want to read reviews on Amazon, then you can click here.

This extract is from Chapter 1: “Coaching Questions”

“Underpinning coaching, and great coaching especially, is the issue of asking useful, relevant and sometimes intuitive questions. In later chapters we consider in more detail other core skills that make up the tool-kit, as it were, of the effective coach. But keep in mind that it is not the function of the coach to provide answers for the client; mentorsi may do that; however, coaches enable the client to find the answers for themselves. In fact, the coach is always acting as a mirror to the client, reflecting back to the client what they have just said because:

a. In the pause between saying what the client says and the coach restating it – reflecting it – back to the client, the client’s own deeper mind, their subconscious mind, has more chance of kicking in and providing a new insight which had not occurred before;

b. And in the re-statement the perceptive coach has a chance to not only re-state what has been said, but also to draw out its true significance. Re-statement is not always exactly the right term for what the coach is doing; paraphrasing would perhaps be more correct. The essence of paraphrase is summarising the essential aspects of what is said;

c. By reflecting back to source the issue, the client is hearing it again, though with a slightly enhanced or nuanced emphasis (where the coach is being effective) and what this does is reinforce the client’s own ownership of the issue. This increased ownership intensifies the desire to solve the problemii - it motivates.

People want to use a coach because they have an ‘issue’ or a ‘problem’; in a perfect world they would not need a coach since they would know what to do. But it mustn’t be thought that coaching is for ‘problem’ people; on the contrary, coaching is possibly the number one technique (alongside its cousin, mentoring) for enhancing just about anybody’s performance. Recent research in business indicates that coaching has dramatic effects on performance outcomesiii and this sort of effect is felt in all areas of coaching. Thus coaching, as has emerged over the last 20 years in the Western world, is a standard process that can help not only the performance of individuals and the productivity of organisations, but also anybody and everybody in facing the ‘issues’ they have in their private and personal lives. These range from improving health and fitness, raising the level of sporting achievements, coping with relationship, emotional and stress issues, and helping break addictive tendencies.”


The distinction between a coach and a mentor or between the two processes is subtle and sometimes blurred, but generally it is thought that the mentor tends to be more directive towards, more experienced and knowledgeable than, more senior than, the client; whereas the coach tends to be more exploratory, more outside the immediate domain of the client, and ‘more’ equal in terms of status.

ii Nigel MacLennan, Coaching and Mentoring, Gower, (1999). MacLennan puts it this way: “If you own a problem – if that problem is inside you, if it has become part of your soul – finding the energy, commitment and persistence to solve it is easy”. For ‘energy’ we might substitute the word ‘motivation’.

iii “Organizations where senior leaders “very frequently” coach had 21% higher business results.” – 2017 from Bersin:; the Ken Blanchard Organisation puts productivity gains from coaching at 57%:


Want to find out more, why not grab the book at a 30% discount. Remember to use the code MMJS230 at checkout. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting more extracts from Mapping Motivation for Coaching, so be sure to stay tuned to get more insights into coaching, mapping and mentoring. Thank you.

Wolfe and Other Poems by Donald Mace Williams

Wolfe and Other Poems is an extraordinarily good collection of poems, clearly written by a veteran writer. The underlying credo of the collection is very aptly summed up in the opening poem called, appropriately, 'Credo':

Step out under the stars on a dark night

Or open Rilke, Frost, or Dickinson.

Like that, all poems (mine too) should invite

Small breaths, quick nods, and ninety at the bone.

That last line is surely wonderful, surely anti-modern and anti-postmodern as it invites us into a coherent narrative, and there is also surely a sense of irony too about the 'ninety at the bone', since Williams is himself nearly 90 years old! This collection, then, could be seen to be an example of that late flowering of true poetry which sometimes accompanies masters of the art, most famously, Yeats.

The collection is actually quite brief and in two parts: there are 21 short lyric poems followed by 1 long narrative poem, Wolfe, which is a 'Western' re-telling of the Beowulf story. In a way they are quite separate things, and so in reviewing this collection I would like to consider them separately.

So far as the 21 lyrics are concerned, we have a master poet at work. At least 8 of the poems are sonnets, a definitive form in which to display skill, and here we see someone wrestling with his landscape, his heritage and history, and his feelings, and from all these particulars great and universal themes emerge. For example, The Canal, 1942 says, in its understated way, and as soldiers march past, 'how water that had just been green was red' - the disturbance of the water a prolepsis of the blood to come. Or, The Oak That Stayed, in which finally, the poet asks:

Soon now, dear friend, I thought, you're down for good.

I almost think it thought the same of me.

That the Credo poem cites Frost as an influence should be very clear from these two lines; but I think Williams, whilst influenced, as has his own unique voice. And this leads on to the truly ambitious part of his collection, the narrative poem, Wolfe.

I certainly would say, 'Buy this book; it's excellent poetry', but I almost must say that the Wolfe poem leaves me with more mixed feelings. It is in one sense a triumph, for what do we want a narrative poem primarily to do? Well, we want it to engage us and keep us reading on; so, I found myself wanting to read it. And as far as a homage to the original Beowulf poem is concerned, it is extremely good. The narrative flows, there are some wonderful lines of pure poetry in it:

To ride out when the moon sat round

And dark on the far rim and sound

A sadness he could not explain,

As if pity and guilt had lain

Unknown through the long interval

Since the last moon had hung that full

Of melancholy, even fear.

And the transposition for Beowulf from Anglo-Saxon times to the American Wild West is extremely well done - I almost think a film could be made of it. So what is my problem with it?

The problem is a technical one. Williams has chosen his form to represent as closely as possible the original Anglo-Saxon. But he has substituted rhyming for alliteration, and opted for a tetrameter line, occasionally broken up with hexameters. Strangely, moments of brilliance occur often at these interfaces, these cross-over points:

Even him, and for just a breath

He felt a touch of pity at that great thing's death.

That's marvellous, but the trouble is, a long poem in iambic tetrameter, and rhyming tetrameter at that, invariably leads us to less than optimal sense, because it becomes more driven by rhyme. The fact is that the rhyming couplet form is really difficult to tell a compelling narrative in, and the best examples - like Crabbe's Peter Grimes for example - tended to use the pentameter line; in other words, the more extended line, which opens up far more syntactical and semantic possibilities. Of course, combine a tetrameter with a succeeding hexameter as in the example I quoted above, then you effectively have two pentameter lines. So because Williams is such a fine poet, he came to realise this - perhaps subconsciously - as he wrote the poem; for the incidence of hexameters increases as we progress. 

But here's another thing: one needs to buy the collection anyway just so that one can have one's own debate with Williams' poetry, for it is a mark of how good it is that I am wrestling with my thoughts on its technical aspects now! So I invite all readers of The Society of Classical Poets to get their copies: there’s a lifetime’s wisdom and insight contained in Williams’ poetry, there are some truly beautiful lines and images, and finally there is also much that can be gleaned technically in the writing of poetry. If you love Frost, I think you will love this.

Review: The Naked God – Wrestling for a Grace-ful Humanity by Vincent Strudwick

Rowan Williams describes The Naked God as a “tremendously engaging and positive book”, and indeed it is just that. The author, Vincent Strudwick, must be at least 84 years old but he writes with the fire, passion and conviction of a man half his age. And the book is a strange amalgam of autobiography, Twentieth Century church history, radical polemic, and cri de coeur for a better world, a better church, and a better outcome for all, especially the dispossessed, the poor and the suffering.

What is his book about then? Essentially, it is about the re-imagining of the role of the church, specifically the Anglican community (but his principles extend to all churches), in the modern world. Citing the ideas of Christopher Dawson that the church has had six different and distinctive ages – the Apostolic, the Fathers, the Carolingian, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Enlightenment – but that a seventh and very different age is now upon us. And, Strudwick argues, this new age is revealing the very real inadequacies of contemporary Anglican practises and beliefs both during the Twentieth Century and in the present. In the final part of the book Strudwick does present some glimmers of hope, although I must say I did not personally find them very hopeful, as they appeared to me patchy: patchy in that he describes small, isolated activities and also patchy in that commendably they cover a problem, but sadly only in a piecemeal way.

The essence of what is wrong with the Church is summed up in diagram in the chapter, Towards A Very Odd Church Indeed. Here we have three types of response to Christianity: the traditional, the liberal and the radical. There is little doubt where Strudwick’s loyalties are: the radical. So, for example, in the series of contrasts he draws, under the heading ‘Power’, the traditional wants ‘authority ...mediated through a hierarchy’; whereas the liberal position is ‘about management’; and finally the radical wants ‘all contribute through participation and challenge’. Or take the topic of Ideology: the traditional want ‘Divine right: it is all ordained’; whereas the liberal sees ‘the market leads’; and the radical says, ‘conflict must be recognised and worked at’.

It is all very admirable and I especially like his exhaustive and extremely interesting notes that consistently punctuate the text. Strudwick is well-versed in not only the history and traditions of the Anglican church, but also of other denominations, especially Catholics, too. Even the Quakers get a mention (though not in the Index, bizarrely). When near the end of his very long – and life time - tether with the Anglican church and its intransigent refusal to embrace radicalism, it is to the Quakers that he, via Richard Holloway, turns: “Quakers believed in the authority of the inner light … and if the Bible said otherwise, then the Bible was wrong”. On top of that Strudwick likes and cites frequently too the poets and literature. Wonderful – a small cornucopia of heaven for someone like me.

But that said, there are some less pleasing aspects of this narrative. The autobiographical weave reveals someone who has been at the centre of things for a long time, but possibly too obsessed with the centre. First, there is a slightly wearisome sense of name-dropping, especially of all the Archbishops of Canterbury over the decades but of other luminaries too. Then he also seems to think that re-hashing his notes or ideas from conferences held decades ago is going to prove useful or interesting. In his mind, clearly, he is still fighting those fights, but what I think we need is more core summaries and moving on to where we are now. A good example of this is where he repeats the ‘guidelines’ for the 1997 Quebec Conference where the ‘Anglican Bishop of Quebec, the Rt Rev. Bruce Stavert invited’ him to lead with the title ‘Models for a Changing Church’ – and then half a page of guidelines. The whole thing is too micro-orientated and the big picture is somewhat blurred by all this detail; though, I do not doubt Strudwick was very pleased to be invited to speak, as is clear in other examples.

Perhaps my biggest criticism, however, would be that for all his energy and enthusiasm for his Church, I am not sure he really empathises with those who disagree, or sees accurately the nature of what he is debunking. As the book progresses, we sense more and more how in tune with John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ position he is, and this position, of course, de-mythologises Christianity. It becomes apparent that Strudwick does not believe in miracles or in other core aspects of the Creeds as traditionally understood, and there are consequences of this which I think are important.

First, whilst he genuinely wants to help the poor, he seems not to realise that the de-mythologised version of Christianity he is advocating is not something the under-educated – often the poor – often readily ‘understand’ or ‘get’; and what – despite his assertion about the personhood of Christ being central – this comes down to is that why bother with Christianity at all? We just need to love people and have plenty of soup-kitchens? But the problem with that, it seems for Strudwick, is that he’d miss his cathedrals! Behind the radical, perhaps, a traditionalist in some profound and uneasy ways.

Moreover, he writes, “Many were horrified by the sight of the bishops lining up in the House of Lords to vote against equal marriage, which had so much support in society at large, especially amongst the younger population that the church so desperately wanted to attract.” This is a complex issue, but one thing I think is certainly true: Christianity, and no other religion I know of, has its policies and beliefs dictated by popular vote or plebiscite. Indeed, the Bible wisely advises us not to conform to the thinking of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. For all the analysis and learning, I suspect Strudwick is simply a partisan: even his phrase ‘equal marriage’ begs the question in advance of determining if such a thing is right or wrong, or good or bad. The early Christians went to their deaths because they did not conform with what society thought right and proper, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Strudwick as even a spiritual possibility, so fixated is he on getting people into church and thereby re-vitalising it.

There is a lot to commend in this book, and it is certainly an interesting read: I did not want to put it down, although I found plenty in it which I thought undigested, naïve and – yes – desperate. But for an overview of the Anglican church in the Twentieth Century this is a useful and gripping story., despite getting overloaded at times with finicky details.

Review: Unbelievable? Why, after 10 years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian

Quakers like words, and they produce enough of them, but if there is one form of words they are perhaps sceptical about, it is probably that type that is called ‘Apologetics’. Apologetics have been with Christianity since the very beginning; Christ himself engaged in them with his disputes against the Pharisees and Sadducees, and St Peter himself, as Justin Brierley notes, advises Christians to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks of you the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3.15). Indeed, Christianity has been arguing with the world ever since its foundation; and whereas in the first century AD the opponents were either, mainly, the Jewish legalists or the pagans, now the enemy on the doorstep tends to be the atheists with their assault on Christianity in particular and religions in general. But as I say, Quakers tend to be apologetics-averse and for two very good reasons: first, because they are not a credal-type of religion, and so just as this makes them trickier to attack, so they have less reason to rebut and dispute; and this leads to the second reason, which is that the lack of creeds is quite deliberate in that early on Quakers realised that words, and forms of words, led to ceaseless wrangling – and even actual violence – that contradicted the spirit of Christ and what His inner meaning is: namely, peace and love. For these reasons, then, Quakerism does not much engage in apologetics, and prefers to be more experiential than intellectual in its approach to true religion.

I am a Quaker myself, so obviously I think this is a good thing. But I can also see its danger; and one such danger that I frequently encounter and is directly attributable to the lack of apologetics – or ‘think-through’ – is that acceptance of a wishy-washy kind of love that accepts everybody and so proclaims that all religions are equal, we are all on the same path, and we are all – eventually - going to the same destination. To me this (not the acceptance of all people but the belief consequent from it) is self-evident tosh because, were it true, there would be no reason to become a Quaker; indeed, why adopt any religion at all if all roads lead to the same place? The answer that one simply prefers being a Quaker is so weak because it leads one into the wilderness of entire subjectivism, and all that that entails, which includes deep atheism and the undermining of all true morality (which Quakers, wishing to emphasise the power of love, are most keen to sustain).

Thus, a book like Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable”, on the face of it, is not a book that many Quakers are going to like. It is published by SPCK, so has an evangelical flavour anyway; it is overtly argumentative (though in a deeply respectful way – more anon on this); and it explicitly supports traditional and credal Christianity (an anathema to many Quakers). So, should you buy or read it?

Well, in my opinion, absolutely yes: I loved the book, and I think all fair-minded Quakers will. I wasn’t aware before I read it that there is a radio station in Oxford called Premier Christian Radio (available in podcasts, so you don’t need to be in Oxford) whose flagship programme is called, Unbelievable?, and on a weekly basis for the last ten years or more Justin Brierley invites two guests (it started with one atheist and one Christian, but expanded to include other religions) to debate their beliefs, and he hosts/referees this. It has led to some phenomenal guests either appearing in the show or in his being able to contact and interview; for example, famous types like Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins on behalf of atheists, and people of the stature of Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig on behalf of Christianity. The thing is, and what is so refreshing, is the respect and devotion almost, that Brierley pays to the ‘opposition’. There is no doubt he is a Christian and where his loyalties rest, but it is clear too that the best arguments for atheism have seriously challenged his position, his beliefs, and he has had to do some very heavy wrestling to be able to remain standing in his faith.

What we get in this book is a wonderfully respectful account of the very best arguments for atheism, often using the words from the ‘expert’ atheists themselves; and we get some of their adversaries’ ripostes and gems of wisdom too; and we get Brierley in the middle trying to make sense of it and, critically, truly anxious to avoid trivialising the matters or ever appearing smug about them. Towards the end of the book he observes, perhaps ruefully, but accurately: “In the end, nobody gets argued into the kingdom of heaven”.

Because he starts from this respectful, opening, and listening base, the net result is that I think this is one of the best books on apologetics I have read – and I have read a lot. There is a clarity here which is a joy to read, and especially to follow his thinking as it emerges. It would be too much to describe all that he covers, but in my view there are 4 main (‘main’ in the sense that ordinary people can get it – not just philosophers and theologians) arguments for the existence of God and subsequently of Christianity: one, the argument from design and the structure of the cosmos; two, the argument from the existence of objective morality; three, the historical argument, which includes discussion of the Bible and other related historical documents; and four, the one that Quakers especially like, the argument from personal experience. The pros and cons of each of these arguments are superbly covered in this book, and I found myself gaining new insights and perspectives from reading it.

For example, he quotes Os Guinness tellingly: “The Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true”. Or, take the surprising riposte to atheism’s most effective argument against God, the problem of pain and suffering. Brierley, whilst exhibiting due compassion and humility in the face of what often appears to be its full enormity, then turns its cutting edge wholly against the atheists themselves: “Within Christian belief, suffering is at least a mystery we can hope to make sense of. In atheism, it is simply meaningless.” That – that – is perfectly put. It’s all very well atheists going on about ‘How can a loving God allow …” but what do they offer by way of exchange? Absolutely nothing at all, except we die, we rot. A more hopeless and useless position, it seems to me, cannot be imagined. If the situation of human life is bad with Christianity, then, Brierley is suggesting, atheism only makes it far worse.

There are nuggets of insight and information everywhere in the book. I was amused towards the end by a statistic that Brierley quotes that, despite the disproportionate noise that atheism makes, on a global level atheism is shrinking as a proportion of the world’s population: “In 1970, atheists made up 4.5% of the world’s population. That figure shrank to 2% in 2010 and is projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020”.  However, Brierley certainly doesn’t wish for them not to exist! Au contraire, he fully acknowledges what he has learnt from them, and how their existence how sharpened his own Christianity; for the truth is, it is so easy to become complacent about religion and dismissive of other people’s perspectives, and to retire into private spiritual ghettos. The Dawkins of this world, then, provide – despite their intentions – a salutary wake-up call to Christianity to get its act together, and to get its thinking right.

Finally, there is a lot in this book – since I have already mentioned Dawkins – about science and its supposed incompatibility with God. Clearly, Brierley rejects this notion and adduces a lot of authorities and ideas which also reject it too. But there is a wonderful quotation which he uses as an epigraph to Chapter 2 that is worth quoting in full: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”. This is attributed to Werner Heisenberg. How wonderful, how appropriate!

If you are interested at all in strengthening the intellectual basis of your Christian faith, then I strongly recommend you read this book.

Sonnets for Christ the King, Joseph Charles Mackenzie: Review


It was Stephen Fry who said of the sonnet: “The ability to write them fluently was, and to some extent still is, considered the true mark of the poet”. How true; to expect each poet to write an epic is too much; and to be able to write a haiku is too trivial; and to write free verse is nothing; but in the strange and seemingly limitless flexibility of the sonnet form poets can demonstrate the most complex – and, contrariwise, most simple - thoughts and emotions, as well as delineating almost every shade of human experience. Looking back over the last five hundred years of the English language almost all the truly great poets have produced memorable sonnets whose impact has been lasting and profound. And as well as the sonnet speaking in its own individual voice, we have whole collections of them, most notably Shakespeare’s 154 (although if we include sonnets appearing in his plays, there are more), wherein the work begins to assume epic proportions as a kind of narrative emerges in which topics and themes are explored in relentless precision and beauty. Certainly, I regard the ability to construct a sonnet of beauty as second only to writing epic poetry in the canon of English literature.

We have, then, Sonnets for Christ the King by Joseph Charles Mackenzie, a name familiar to readers of The Society of Classical Poets. Currently the work is in audio book form, although I have been privileged to see an advance electronic copy; it comprises 77 sonnets in all. What to make of this? How good are they? Where does Joseph Charles Mackenzie stand in the pantheon of poets?

First, a digression. The number – 77 – is important. Indeed, every detail is important to true poets. Those of a quick disposition will have noticed that the number 77 is half that of the number Shakespeare wrote: 154. And Mackenzie uses the Shakespearean structure rather than the Petrarchan. Albeit obliquely then, there is already a vaunting claim to be heard. But more than that, for the spiritual poet numbers always assume massive significance. The sonnet in its two most important incarnations in the English language – the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean forms – is always 14 lines long (ignoring for the matter of this analysis aberrant forms such as the Meredithian sonnet – 16 – and the Curtal (Hopkins) – 7, and such like). 14 is 2 x 7 and 7 is the perfect number. Being the perfect number is no accident, but why is 7 the perfect number? It is the perfect number because it is the sum of 4, which represents the Earth and all that is in it, the four corners, the four cardinal points, and Heaven, the divine Trinity. It is the harmony and addition of the two, representing completion. (And for those left wondering, why is there 8 and 9, then 8 is an upside sign for mathematical infinity and represents the Resurrection – the new life beyond the current Heaven and Earth. Jesus is usually described as being resurrected on the third day on which he rose again, but the third day considered from the beginning of the week in which the Passover occurred is also the 8th day. The number 9 represents the re-harmonisation of all things as symbolised in the Ascension of Christ).

Moreover, numerologically speaking, 14 and 77 are both, reduced to their single digit, 1+4 = 5 and 7+7 = 14 = 1 + 4 = 5. The sonnet structure and the number within the sequence are represented by the number 5. This, theologically, represents ‘grace’ – hence the day of Pentecost: 5. When the Spirit descends. What Mackenzie is doing is revealing the descent of the Muse as an act of grace within the structure of the poem. He is also referring to an older tradition, too, whereby the Spirit of God is feminine: as in Wisdom (Proverbs Chapter 8) who was “at the beginning of His way, Before his works of old”. In other words, so far as we can use human language to describe the inexpressible, Wisdom – the Spirit of God – was no created ‘thing’, but She was with Him “from everlasting I was established, From the beginning ...” and She it is who is the Christian equivalent of the Muse. These numbers are important, then, and we see them in various structural ways within the poem; too much to explore in detail now, but for example, the last 14 sonnets (Sonnets 64-77) are all entitled ‘First [then 1-14] Station’ followed by a brief description of what each station entails. So there is in Mackenzie’s work not a random rag-bag of poems but an architecture – a cosmos if you will – that attempts to reflect the bigger cosmos of which we are all a part.

The collection, Sonnets for Christ the King, contains, I think, some of the best sonnets, and so poetry, published since World War 2, that I have read. His work is actually quite, quite brilliant, yet quirky and strange too! Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that he is able to write poetry which is entirely discursive, and yet it still be poetry.  We are so used to post-modern poets writing cryptogrammatic verse with obscure imagery, recondite diction, and indulgent, complacent solipsism that we can hardly believe it when someone says clearly what they want to say and tells it like it is - at least like it is for them. But the beauty of this great poetry is, even if we don't agree, don't share his theology, the poet in him gets to us emotionally. There is simply so many wonderful lines and ideas in this collection.

The first thing to get, then, is that this poetry is highly devotional; Mackenzie is clearly a devout Christian and Catholic, and the fundamentals of these two highly interrelated positions permeate the whole collection. If this were purely a fundamentalist text - banging a simplistic drum as it were - that would be off-putting to the casual reader. But this is not: this is true poetry because bound up in it is the emotional resonance by which real poetry disarms the critical intellect. A good example would be in Sonnet 6, one of my favourite 7 of the 77 we have. Called ‘El Castillo Interior’, the poem explores the inward, spiritual journey in a series of bold Images, beginning with a castle with ‘seven rooms … lit’. Each room provides its own challenge: ‘In one room serpents, in another wars,’ until finally we come to a room of prayer, and there at the centre he concludes with this amazing couplet:

And there in the center, where I lie dead,

To Love my very being says, 'I Thee wed'.

That - that - is so simple, so paradoxical, so profound; a cri de coeur when all human resource fails, and the soul cries out. And what it cries, of course, entirely justifies the archaic 'Thee', as it invokes the language of the wedding service. This is a poem that repays many, many re-readings.

And on the subject of ‘many’, many poets disappoint with their endings; they start well, have something interesting to say, but somehow can't get to a satisfying conclusion. Not Shakespeare's sonnets, though, and not Joseph Mackenzie’s: his sonnets specialise in superb concluding couplets that could almost be standalones, so aphoristic and powerful are they. Here are three good examples:

Sonnet 11: Song of the Magi

We followed in the fullness of the night,

And found the fragile Origin of light.

Sonnet 35: Adventus 3

And you shall understand that all along,

The cries I filled the desert with were song

Sonnet 58: Ego Sum – and here I must give the preceding quatrain because – frankly – it is too exciting to omit:

I do not know why some men cannot see,

Or why they kill what they pretend to love;

I only know that this great verb, ‘to be,’

Can only enter thought but from above,

And pray, with sorrow’s cloth upon my head,

That I shall not be found among the dead.

This leads on to a consideration of Mackenzie's attitude to the Christian story; and it is one that I consider the nearest approximation we can get to the 'truth'. Namely, that the whole narrative is both literal and mythical at the same time. To be literal but not mythical is to limit its application; to be mythical but not literal is to circumscribe its power. We see this plainly in not just the specifically Christ-bits of the narrative, but in all the other Biblical and theological allusions he makes.

Take Sonnet 62: Ennui. 

Had Adam never turned his mind away

From Life, or genuflected to mere dust ...

This clearly treats the Garden of Eden story as both literal and mythical: it recognises what virtually all early cultures recognised, that at the beginning humanity was involved in some aboriginal calamity which is why, unlike the gods, we die. It's why the early civilisations believed not in progress but regress; that the Golden Age was long gone and now we lived in an age of iron. Religion - religions - is the only, and necessary, appropriate response to that calamity. But Mackenzie see the Eden story as only a poet can: instead of the ‘fruit’, now we have Adam turning 'his mind away' (and notice the brilliant line break which mimics the turning) from 'Life' - not stuffy old God. And then the genius word 'genuflecting' - Latinate, obscure, perfect - by way of contrast with all the other simple words: Adam effectively genuflected his own thinking - distorted it in other words - and the choice of diction here precisely mirrors that dire choice he made back then. In our choice of words - since they express or represent our choice of thought - we live or die. This level of writing is onomatopoeic or mimetic not only in diction but in structure and cast of thought, which is why it is so compelling.

And to elaborate just a moment on that fact, the choice of Shakespearean sonnet form is perfect for dialectics: thesis, antithesis, with a structural concluding couplet often providing the explosive, unexpected and illuminating synthesis. From the big architecture to the sonnet form, down to each loving line Mackenzie has crafted.

So, on the topic of lines, here are some beauties that I must share:

Sonnet 25: Ode to Autumn

“O rich intoner of our Mother’s grief”

Sonnet 28: Regnum Meun Non Est De Hoc Mundo

“And maggots stop the purchased mouth of praise”

Sonnet 38: The Adoration of the Shepherds

“The barn was warm though human hearts were cold”

I could go on, but I think my drift is clear: this is major poetry by a major poet, although it is so un-mainstream, so anti-secular, so purely devotional. Alas, one cannot see the chattering mainstream media ever embracing it. But what of its faults?

No whole work of poetry is perfect in its entirety; as Pope commented, 'even Homer nods'. And to put this in context, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favourite poets, and I regard some of his lines and complete poems as some of the greatest in the English language; but there are passages in Hopkins where he gets carried away by his own metrical theories, by his super-ingenious cleverness, and by the sheer infelicity of lexical choice. So, in case I am thought to be too uncritical of Joseph Mackenzie's collection there a number of small - not for me important - elements that slightly jar. One, is the occasional penchant for archaic diction: mayst, 'tis, etc., which, in the case of ‘I Thee Wed’ is brilliantly deployed, but which I would not myself generally recommend. Also, his use and sprinkling of foreign languages, especially, but not only, Latin, tends to make his work appear more highbrow and elitist than it really is. Others may complain of his use of big abstractions, signified with capital letters, like Love, Beauty, and Truth. Plato has indeed returned, and the modern world won’t like it, for like Pontius Pilate they prefer the question ‘What is truth?’ more. But these are minor caveats to my way of thinking; the poetry is a gold mine of multiple treasures, and anyone studying what Mackenzie is doing will learn a massive amount, quite apart from experiencing some absolutely beautiful poetry.

Finally, let me urge Mackenzie to get this book out as a hardback! I know he likes the oral tradition, but I cannot be alone in preferring to read a good-feel hardback book. And so that only leaves me to say, please go and access your version of this great work. It took forty years at least after Hopkins’ death for his work to be appreciated, so let’s hope Mackenzie gets due recognition long before that due date whenever it is.

Review: Apocalypse by Frederick Turner

There are nine Muses of poetry, daughters of Zeus or some say Apollo, and the Titaness, Mnenosyne, goddess of memory, past and future. And of these nine the most important is Kalliope, she of the Lovely Voice, and the muse of epic poetry; and she is considered by Hesiod and others, rightly in my opinion, to be the most important Muse. Put another way, epic poetry is the greatest expression of poetry that we can attain to. It is so great and it is so difficult, and the proof of that assertion lies in absence of any great number of epics that we return to. In the Western tradition there is Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; there may be a few more. Spenser perhaps qualifies; perhaps Goethe and a few others. But really, not many. As we reach modern times, however, we suddenly find a surfeit of poets claiming to be epic poets; it’s a very large claim. Speaking personally, I feel like Moses might have felt before the Burning Bush – it is too big, too holy, too much for me to think, or even claim, that I could be in that exalted and select company. To say one is a poet is a big enough assertion, but to be an epic poet, then that is something of a different order.

Keen readers of reviews on this website may remember that I reviewed Frederick Glaysher’s ‘The Parliament of Poets’, which claimed to be an epic (which, with severe caveats, I considered just) not that long ago. Now Frederick Turner appears with his ‘Apocalypse’ claiming to be an epic poet, and ‘Apocalypse’ an epic poem. Is it? And is it possible, too, that we are in a golden age of poetry where 2 epics appear within two years of each other, whereas before we had to wait a millennium to nominate two reasonable candidates worthy of the name?

There are many things to praise in Turner’s ‘Apocalypse’. First, the sheer erudition that informs the writing. If one were a visitor from Mars and wanted some sort of overview of human history combined with a rap on what is current and techy now – and also projected 50 years into the future – this would be your book. It is full of arcane facts, demotic languages, and brands that give a very strong flavour as to what is going down now and whither these trends might lead in 50 to 100 years’ time. In fact, this leads me to saying that the book is prophetic: an epic Sci-Fi, set on Earth about to be destroyed by rising tides and then Wormwood, a black star on course to destroy us, and how humanity copes with these crises. The sheer sweep of information, then, could be considered Turner’s way of deploying our available resources.

Second, and even more impressively, Turner’s epic – unlike Glaysher’s (whose meter was all over the place) – writes in quite amazing blank verse. This leads to wonderful, aphoristic phrases that are eminently quotable, and seasoned too with wisdom, sometimes wit. For example:

“Is brain a robot with a muse in charge?”

“A crisis is a dreadful thing to waste”, or

“The poet is the linchpin of it all”

Note the strong iambic beat. And this extends to great couplets as well:

“Democracy is now irrelevant:

A beauty contest for celebrity.”

But more than this Turner, at his best, create some beautiful and exquisite lyrical outbursts:

“I took him by the elbow and withdrew him

Into the lovely still electric night

Where overhead the Milky Way rotated

In blackest hollows all shot through with light”

Isn’t that fabulous writing? Reminds me of Dante’s fascination with the stars and their significance in his writing.

Third, Turner writes consistently and with a consistent tone. He doesn’t seem to flag, which is an effect you get in many long poems: the poets seem bored even before you do with their efforts!  So this work has been nurtured and grown a long time, and lovingly, there is much of the poet in it; and this poet is erudite, highly skilled in a technical sense, and possessed of a clear vision and visionary apprehension of the future of humanity.

Is it then a great epic?

Unfortunately, not. Whilst there are many felicities that I can enumerate, and whilst I fully consider Turner to be a good poet, I cannot consider him an epic poet because the faults of the work far outweigh the beauties.

First up, this is not an epic because there is no hero. Yes, there are dozens of characters, not one of which we care one jot about; and the only one I think the author actually ‘feels’ for is Kalodendron, an advanced computer program. I have to say that personally I find the author’s attitude to technology somewhat creepy – as if there has been some transference from the normal love for people to actually loving a machine. But that is not the key point here. All the great epics are about one person: Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, the Pilgrim – Dante, and Milton almost gets away with two, Adam and the antagonist, Satan. But the point is: the epic is about the individual’s regeneration, salvation, destiny (or some such word) and we care passionately about that person. We follow them at every twist and turn and without that focus, what is there?

Well, as it happens, Turner answers that very point, late in book 9 (of the 10 books of his epic), when he says:

“No time for saving of your precious soul;

We have a planet that we’d like to save”

And that is what is so wrong. The great epic poets would never have been mistaken in thinking that saving a planet was more important than saving the individual soul; the soul’s the thing; we can do without collective souls, as paradoxical as that sounds. For even Stalin observed, one death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic (quoting from memory here!). In a way Turner’s enterprise should not have been to attempt epic with his raw materials but a great Sci-Fi novel; and there still could be one from these amazing ideas he has put together.

But this leads to my second point: the absence of real transcendence means this is a purely humanist or secular epic. It’s value, therefore, are entirely solipsistic, albeit they chime in with much of what the scientific community think and believes these days. But let’s be clear: they are entirely subjective; there is no science which proves or validates ‘values’. Indeed, logic itself is not provable from logic; we all start from axioms and faith. The great epics wrestle with the gods or God: one man (and I say that as an historical point) on whom we focus takes on the gods or some cruel destiny they struggle with, and in that struggle greatness is borne – and the whole of human potential is realised whilst simultaneously being capped. Thus far, the gods say, and no further. As the Eagles sang long ago in California: one man takes it to the limit!

The trouble with Turner’s secular vision is that it’s going to excite Google, Apple and NASA employees; they will recognise their fabulous self-importance in the epic. They will be at the cutting edge – saving the world – in their own deluded and delusional technological ‘soap’, but really none of this speaks for anybody else. The people being saved are simply a bunch of ciphers that give the VIP’s a moral boost of self-congratulation: look what we’ve done for everybody.

On a sidebar issue, I don’t actually think either that the vision of the future that Turner paints (the world seems to have become a fragmented extension of the European Union, incidentally, where the ‘good’ encourage co-operation, and the oligarchs and plutocrats rule – hmm, strange parallels to the current situation) likely to be remotely prophetic. Keep in mind, the two great prophets of what was to happen in the Twentieth Century, HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw, shared three things in common: one, they were deep secularists, they were both spectacularly wrong on nearly all important questions, and they shared a common friendship with the Catholic convert, GK Chesterton. Bizarrely, Chesterton refused to described himself even as a writer, much less a prophet, and always referred to himself as a mere ‘journalist’; but he accurately predicted many of the key trends of the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries. So much for what we think we know.  As John Gray put it, in his brilliant book, ‘Heresies’: “For many, the promises of religion lack credibility; but the fear that inspires them has not gone away, and secular thinkers have turned to a belief in progress that is further removed from the basic facts of human life than any religious myth”. Such is Turner’s epic – “removed from the basic facts of human life”.

And that leads on to my third criticism of this epic, which for me is the most decisive of all. There is a great contrast in Charles Williams’ writings between our response to Milton’s Paradise Lost and his subsequent poem, Paradise Regained. Williams says, “We put down Paradise Regained but cannot put down Paradise Lost”. That is so right; the narrative of Paradise Lost is so compelling that it is difficult to stop reading it. Why is this? From memory, it was Dr Johnson (though disliking Milton intensely) who observed that ‘whoever flew so high for so long?” The word I am looking for here, which I expect as a default position in any poem worthy of the name ‘epic’, is the word sublime. It is the sublime that makes the hairs go up on the backs of our necks. It is not only epic poems that produce the sublime: read Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear, and you will find plenty of the sublime. Or, take Longinus at his word and read the opening verses of Genesis Chapter 1, and there - ‘And there was light’, we have more sublimity.

Sublimity completely arrests motion; we stand in awe of it. Awe is what it creates and we hold our breath as we reach that passage in the text where it is revealed. This in an epic poem is essential.; it is an effect more than any technique. I suspect poets as fine as Tennyson, Idylls of the King, or Longfellow with Hiawatha, thought they were writing epics. I like these poems and read them a lot when I was young, but they do not achieve sublimity for all their interest and for all the skill in their compositions.

Part of this creation of sublimity is to do with the underlying value system, which I have commented on already; the lack of transcendence and confronting the transcendental in Turner is fatal. But one other aspect is the language: one needs an elevated style of writing. At the same time, this elevated style must not seem archaic, precious or stuffy. Despite, then, Turner’s magisterial handling of blank verse – which I deeply appreciate – the diction is frequently lack lustre or even inane. There is not that sure sense of style that marks the epic. A few example will demonstrate what I mean.

Epics typically have roll calls of names, but names have sounds, they evoke emotions and associations. One therefore has to be careful in one’s choice. Turner seems keen to promote his multicultural pretensions and all-inclusiveness at the expense of anyone being able to make sense of what these names signify. At the end of book 2 we run into a roll call of:

Lucy Wu, Chandra and Gopal, Zhang Baojia,  Firushan Koi, Noah, Miland Khodayar, Sahadeva, Manny Dandolo (“in a pink suit” – epic? – a Byronic one maybe), Ellie Tranh, Avi Bromberg, Costas Jack Barsoomian, Barfield Gates (probably an in-joke here, as I suspect this is a fourth generation descendant of a more famous Gates), Peter Frobisher RN, Joed van Heemskerck and Anneliese Grotius. Cartoonish? Almost. Multicultural? Yes, and possibly a work team pulled together at Apple or Google or even Microsoft; but actually a spurious pickle of un-god-like individuals working in a modern, corporate ant-hill kind of way. Roll calls invoke heroes, not geeks. And it’s not just the names, it’s the technologies and philosophies too and the way they are concatenated into blocks of verse which are sometimes slangy, sometimes abstruse, but never that interesting:

“Lucy’s been working on a techie problem:

To make a Turing-founded internet

Emulate in its freedom quantum qubits,

And thus let Kalodendron’s consciousness

Become non-local, founded everywhere.” From Book 6


“Not even nothingness is absolute:

Zero is just one possibility

Among others, so its likelihood

Is infinitely small upon the spectrum

Of Cantor cardinalities, themselves

Infinite and yet further multiplied

Upon the hybrid Hamiltonian plane.” From Book 9

It will come as no surprise that there are – post TS Eliot – plenty of notes at the end to help explain difficult concepts! But this last quotation, of which there are plenty more like it, is not only not epic writing, it seems to be far more insidious; it is part of the mutual and ‘knowing’ compact that the poet wants to strike between himself and the reader. This compact is an ‘understanding’, and what that understanding is seems simple. For what do the 7 lines add up to? They are a sophisticated way of saying – without being that direct – that God does not exist! That ‘nothing’ existing is unlikely in the scale of all possible numbers; so existence exists, voila, because there is no improbability that it couldn’t. Using poetry – epic poetry at that – for this kind of fallacious and humanist ‘logic’ I find wearing at best, and trivial at worst. I’d prefer an overt atheistic hero/anti-hero attempting – a la Stalin – to root God straight out of the universe rather than these effete, because intellectual, feints. Really, there is no feeling in intellectualisations, and the want of feeling reverberates through the whole work, passionate as it appears to be.

Ultimately, this epic comes down to the proposition that human beings will save the planet, resurrect themselves, and make all things well through their own intelligence and ingenuity, including the ingenuity to create an all-embracing computer program superior to themselves. It takes some swallowing in an epic (but not, as I said, in a sci-fi novel) and in any case is just so redolent of what the Greeks called hubris, which has the reverse effect: namely, it is in believing and acting on this kind of stuff that we destroy ourselves by earning the enmity of the gods, and so pay a dreadful penalty. A penalty we see all about us now. So, whereas Turner might position his epic as a great hope for humanity, I see it as a symptom of the dead-end of our current predicament worldwide: the nuclear threat, the biological contamination, the global warming, the oceanic pollutants, the polarisation of the peoples of the world, do not seem to me be issues solvable via science and technology as these twin Furies are largely responsible for the problems. You can’t solve problems at the level at which they were created is, I believe, an Einsteinian observation.

Thus, I conclude by saying that for all its cleverness, technique, erudition, moments of great lyrical beauty, deep insights into certain aspects of human life, this poem is not an epic in any true sense of the word. Towards the very end of the poem Turner possibly anticipates these objections to his work when he says, “The work of epic is to blaze new trails’, which indeed is true. However, you recognise a lion has certain very distinctive features, and although post-modernism likes to have it all ways, we don’t have to accept that a Chihuahua is a lion because, as postmodernism would have it, ‘it’s blazing a new trail’: if we hypnotise ourselves long enough that little yap will really sound like a deep, reverberant roar! Yea, right – we have had one hundred years of being fooled and hoodwinked by this kind of logic, so let’s not accept it now. Turner is a good poet; but epic he ain’t.

Review: The Parliament of Poets by Frederick Glaysher, Earthrise Press, 2012

Parliament of poets cover 0116
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 

Why I Wrote the Book Mapping Motivation

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It would be a great thing to be able to review one’s own book, in my case, Mapping Motivation,  but it would of course be entirely invalid; I am, as they say, biased! On the other hand, though, I can answer the question: why did you write this book? And there is a perfect storm of two opposite and contradictory reasons. One reason is altruistic, the good reason; and the other reason is entirely selfish! Let me explain.

My product, The Motivational Map, has been around since 2006, and I was developing it for at least five years before then. Indeed, developing ideas for it really go back to 1995 when I left education and struck out on my own as a coach and trainer. I studied in the evenings at Bournemouth University and achieved a postgraduate Diploma in Management Studies (with Distinction) and so began a journey of learning: reading all I could, practising what I had learnt, finding masters and gurus who could show me more and emulating them where it fitted my style (and maybe sometimes when it didn’t!), and going on as many courses as I could to pack my mind with knowledge and skills that I could deploy. And over that time as we move towards 2006 and the launch of Motivational Maps I found increasingly that not only was I absorbing ideas from everywhere, especially America, the home really of personal development, but I was changing and transforming them. In short, Motivational Maps became not just a diagnostic tool, but around it I produced a whole load of intellectual property that was original and different: the tool kit that makes up the primary equipment of licensees of Motivational Maps.

This is where the altruism comes in: these ideas are so powerful and useful that it would be wrong to keep them tightly under wraps within the Motivational Maps system itself. On the contrary, they need to come out into the fresh air, be exposed to scrutiny, and given their strength, be used and adopted by people way beyond the Motivational Maps’ community. For example, I hope one day that the model of motivation that we use will become standard teaching in business and MBA courses across the world – and the book will cited as the source and authority for the teachings. I see myself the personality tests as Generation 1 of the diagnostic tools; the psychometrics as Generation 2; and of course the needs of the twenty-first century are different again, and so Motivational Maps are Generation 3 – they fit in with the new ethos of the new century, and in this in two important ways. First, the realisation that engagement is critical to organisational productivity, and that motivation is core to engagement. Second, and even more widely, the growing understanding, as for example demonstrated in Professor Gary Hamel’s brilliant book, The Future of Management, that top-down management, command and control, just doesn’t cut it anymore. We need a bottom-up approach and that is exactly what the most successful organisations have. And that is exactly what Motivational Maps makes possible: the Maps can only work with a bottom-up approach. Scary, or what? Yes, and deeply empowering too.

So much then for the altruism: sharing great ideas with the world so that we can improve how management and leadership works. But what about the selfishness? Ah – you have me there! I am writing the book because … I wish to demonstrate that I am pre-eminent in the field of motivation. To be more specific: not academically pre-eminent, but practically pre-eminent, usefully pre-eminent, not just jaw-jawing about motivation and writing one tome after another on the topic (contradicting that wise Sage of the Saharan Sub-Tropical University, my life long rival), but producing something that all the best people and organisations in the world start using to improve motivation, and so performance, productivity and ultimately profitability. Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?

Yes, it would, and I am not seeking either to be a star; in fact my own motivational profile puts public recognition pretty low on my driver list. No, the pre-eminence is a means to an end: I want to use the credibility that a book brings to build the Motivational Maps business and brand worldwide. Currently, we have over 240 licensees in 14 countries – we are scratching the surface of what we and the product could potentially do. Maybe that’s selfish, but it’s what I feel impelled to do.

So if you want to find out what this is all about then go to  -  Hope you enjoy the book – be sure to review it, and join the motivation revolution if it’s for you.

Outside In or Inside Out Poetry?

I read a poem recently that was written by a well known - famous even - English poet. The poem had been specially commissioned for a leading charitable organisation that was dealing with poverty and homelessness. To be fair, the poem was interesting - on its own terms. What he had done was artfully construct it around 'found' conversations that he had taped from the very people the charity sought to help. A certain pathos emerged as well as a strength too. But I have to say, for all its 'goodness', to me it was not a poem. Rather, it was symptomatic all those poems we keep reading which are about 'things'; as words about 'things', then, it was perfectly acceptable, but a poem?

Of course, every poem needs to be about some 'thing', but the problem is poems - real poems - are not written in that way: constructed as if by Lego. It's what I call the Outside-In method. The world presses in on us - a social problem, our love problems, somebody dies, global warming - and the pressure of these truths forces us to write something about it.

The worst thing is the kind of drivelly lines that some many 'poets' think is poetry: ideas with lineation and voila, there is a poem. Better than this is when some real poetic form is attempted and the subtleties of rhythm and sound are employed; yet still, the poem is Outside In.

Martin Heidegger made the distinction between good and bad art. Bad art, he said, simply tries to represent things or obviously attempts to express truths. There is presumed to be a linear relationship between reality and the words. This of course produces superficiality and shallowness. We only have to consider a poem like Kubla Khan by Coleridge to realise there is no linearity - and that is a truly great poem!

Good art, Heidegger said, does not tell the facts but reveals truth or truths, and is aware that words themselves are not that truth. It re-inteprets reality and in so doing becomes genuinely creative. That is why true poetry is always Inside-Out. And that is also why the Greeks were right when they talked about the Muse or the nine Muses: the sources of inspiration without which the poetry - or any other form of creativity - is stillborn. One has to wait on the Muse - and then allow her to take over.

As a poetic practitioner myself, I nearly always wait on the Muse and most of my poems are written in one sitting, one take, sometimes without even a correction subsequently. This does not prove that I am a poet - let the reader be the judge - but it does tell me I am on the right track. And strangely in comparing my own work with itself, I frequently find that what I consider my best work is often written in that instant way.

Clearly, there are fine poets who don't write like this, and who labour more assiduously than I do - yes, not one size fits everybody. But I would still contend that if they true poets then they will still be Inside-Out poets, for only Inside-Out poetry has poetic value and will last.

The great Socrates put it this way:  ‘I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say . . .’ This isn't popular in the modern, technological world where we like to imagine that we are in control, even of the imaginative processes; but popular or not, it's true. And we need to be encouraging poets who are inspired by the Muse of poetry - and who are not just simply 'messaging' us with words about some linear ideology.