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.