Poets’ Quarterly. My Odyssey as an Epic Poet: Interview with Frederick Glaysher

“My Odyssey as an Epic Poet: Interview with Frederick Glaysher.” Poets’ Quarterly / Spring 2015 (April 6, 2015), w/ Arthur McMaster, PQ Contributing Editor. [Reprinted here slightly revised. A few brief paragraphs added, starting, “For many years I couldn’t figure out how to start writing…”]
Author of: The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays. September, 2014. Hardcover ISBN: 9780982677834. Earthrise Press, 230 pages;
and The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem. Hardcover ISBN: 9780982677889. Earthrise Press, November, 2012. 294 pages.
Author’s website: fglaysher.com

Arthur McMaster: You published two books, within two years of each other, books that I find want to be read together. Your essays The Myth of the Enlightenment lays out the conditions for your fine epic poem The Parliament of Poets. Can you please tell us about how you came to take on such out-sized challenges?

Frederick Glaysher: Sure, I’d be happy to. Thank you, Arthur, for giving me the chance to speak with you and your readers, to put on record my odyssey as an epic poet.

Frederick Glaysher, March 1, 2015

Frederick Glaysher, March 1, 2015

Largely leaving aside my whole history of growing up an omnivorous reader, by the end of high school, I was already thinking of myself as a poet and regularly keeping a journal. I was especially already drawn to Robert Frost, including his prose, and other writers whose lives were marked by an independence of spirit, shall we say. When it came time to think about college, my intuition spoke emphatically that I had to take the road less traveled by or I’d end up like everybody else. It wasn’t rational, rather deeply intuitive—a gut feeling that I couldn’t fully articulate. But already I understood that the best writers were not made by universities. So while all my friends goose-stepped off to college, I chose to go off to an old farm in Oakland Township, Michigan, adjacent to where I grew up in Rochester. I spent a couple of years there reading and writing, trying to find my own voice. It was where I really read deeply into Walt Whitman and Emerson, and other poets that have remained essential to me throughout my life. Eventually, I felt I was ready to hold my own in a university, felt ready for it, needed it, and began my more conventional education, but I really became a poet on that farm.

Looking back now from over sixty years old, the writing of my epic poem finally behind me, I think another major threshold occurred in 1977 in a theater class that I took in Interpretative Reading. It was there I learned that the Greek rhapsodes would travel throughout Greece reciting Homer. I was thrilled by the idea, and it set me thinking. My experience in that class of performing a passage from William Wordsworth’s “Michael” clinched it for me. Though overwhelmed and intimidated by the prospect, I began to consider writing an epic poem and then traveling around the world to recite it, reviving the ancient art of the rhapsodes and Homer. By 1982 I had written my first draft of a plot outline.

AM: And a fine major work it is, Frederick. I want to come back to the core idea, however, which challenges conventional thinking about man’s “intellectual evolution,” where spirituality is clearly a prime mover, but just now I would like to ask you to go back several years to your poetry influences. I know that you studied with Robert Hayden. What did his work mean to you, as a younger man?

FG: Without repeating too much what I say about Robert Hayden in the three essays that I have already written about him, in my books The Grove of the Eumenides and The Myth of the Enlightenment, I would say, yes, studying with Hayden was transformational, all the more for me since Hayden himself, when he was a young poet in the 1940s, had studied with W. H. Auden at the University of Michigan. I was very much taken then with T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and that personal connection to the Tradition, if you will, has always meant a lot to me. Still does. On the other hand, I have found that people often want to read my biography too much in terms of Robert Hayden. I had been thinking of myself as a poet and studying and writing for at least eight years before I had ever met Hayden. So while I am the first one to say I owe him a lot, I don’t owe him everything. In fact there were many things about my biography and intellectual interests that he never understood, couldn’t understand, even wrongly advised me about, yet such things proved exactly what enabled me to write my epic poem. Again, the strength of my independence and self-reliance saved me.

AM: Let’s go to your more recent work, The Myth of the Enlightenment, and I love the implications from that title, what part of that research and writing are you most proud of?

FG: The Myth of the Enlightenment draws from a very long undercurrent of study in my first book of essays The Grove of the Eumenides. I’m really building on and extending from that first book of prose, bringing many themes to fruition. So, to my mind, The Myth represents my arduous struggle to bring into unity and coherence the diverse strands of my life-long intellectual and spiritual psychomachia, with East and West, represented, say, by Tolstoy, Milton, Tagore, and Saul Bellow, among others. Part of all that is the struggle of traditional conceptions of life and religion with modernity, ranging over the last five hundred years, and longer, with what Czeslaw Milosz insightfully called “the fad of nihilism,” and Bellow scathingly referred to as “knee-jerk nihilism,” my opponent throughout all my books. In The Parliament of Poets and The Myth of the Enlightenment, I believe I have slain that Beast, and hope, in time, word will spread, and my books will find more readers who can recognize and understand the importance of that victory. The historical record demonstrates that all recorded civilizations have been capable of major transformation in the past when essential to save themselves. Those that were incapable of such epochal shifts destroyed themselves and passed into oblivion. World civilization now stands in the balance.

AM: And now for the piece de resistance. Your epic poem The Parliament of Poets runs to some 290 pages—one poem. Epic indeed. And it is a striking volume. I would like to see more of this kind of serious work. We find mythology and folklore, such as Merlin, worked with so cleverly, but also biblical antecedents and other, related, creation myths—I mention Baal—moving elegantly to such literary figures as Chaucer and Tolstoy. Throughout we find, pardon the cliché, man’s inhumanity to man—the Russian Gulag… Help our PQ readers understand how you put it all together. The planning for this must have been daunting.

FG: Yes, it was daunting. Right from the beginning. In all honesty I was overwhelmed by the notion, taking on such a challenge, but, unbidden, the shaman call kept coming, the undeniable demand, that I, as Emerson wrote, which I once quoted to Robert Hayden, visibly shocking him, “Say, ‘it is in me, and shall out.’” Looking back, I believe it was the independence of those years of solitary study that helped give me the necessary tenacity of spirit, as well as the intuitive sense to recognize that there was no other literary form in which I could fully express what I felt about life. Early on I realized that I had to go directly to the great epics and poets to learn how to write it. Although I had read by the mid Eighties several academic books on epic poetry, for the most part, they weren’t helpful. I left them dissatisfied, except for E. M. W. Tillyard’s book on epic poetry and one of his articles. That period of study culminated in my long essay “Epopee” in The Grove of the Eumenides, the last one in the book, looking to the future. I talk more about Tillyard in an Epic Poetry Workshop I gave at the Austin International Poetry Festival, in 2012, in a YouTube video.

AM: I suspect that few of our readers will recognize the name Tillyard. Can you help? Please go on.

FG: Unlike the New Criticism and other fads in criticism since, Tillyard was a real scholar worthy of the name, not a theorist or sophist, still largely in the old historical, humanistic, practical, useful mode of criticism. His scholarship was of crucial importance to me, for it helped me understand, at a fairly young age, what I was up against and how to proceed, go about actually studying for and writing an epic poem. I consider Tillyard an example of the role scholars have in building civilization, not tearing it down. There was no comparable help I ever found elsewhere. I was largely on my own and had to figure out almost everything for myself. In fact, I soon realized almost all of the prevailing scholarship and fads in culture and poetry would lead me astray from my chosen task, if I allowed it. By the early to mid Eighties I became aware that I was training my mind to the task of writing an epic poem. As Virgil had written three books, I paced myself from there on, deciding I would follow his example, writing a book of lyric poems and dramatic monologues, then a book-length narrative poem telling a longer story, working up to and leading to my ability to write an epic poem, with many personae. Similarly thinking of developing my narrative ability, I wrote my master’s thesis on the narrative poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson.

AM: Can you tell us more about other influences?

FG: All of this, of course, was aside from the necessity of finding and achieving a Vision of our historical, global moment. Some of the great historians and scholars of religion and myth proved to be the most helpful, such as Arnold Toynbee’s many works, most of which I’ve read, especially Mankind and Mother Earth and his Gifford Lecture on religion. Most of the books by Huston Smith, too, beginning even in the early Seventies, were very important, as was Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Instead of the linear approach of Virgil and Milton in the in medias res, I felt my recognition of Jung’s formidable understanding of dreams and modern psychology required a more dream-like phantasmagoria, slightly “smudging” it, like a painter, with his thumb, toward the logic of dreams. And I, of course, read all the great epic poems, East and West, revising my notes and plot outline, again and again, over decades of study and reflection.

For many years I couldn’t figure out how to start writing, wasn’t ready. So I just kept reading and studying, following and trusting my desultory intuition to take me where needed, making notes, jotting down details and choice tidbits. Into my fifties, during the winter preceding my actually beginning to write in the early spring of 2008, I had a few key realizations that began to open the doors for me. I read somewhere that Virgil had first written out the Aeneid in prose and then polished it into verse. However apocryphal that may be, it made me realize I could do the same, coupled with the rhetorical strategy of outlining an essay or piece of oratory, epic plot in this case.

Instead of being shot out of a cannon or ascending to the moon tied to vials of hot air, as in Cyrano de Bergerac, and so forth, my life-long fascination with fairy tales, Mother Goose, and children’s literature came to mind, along with Robert Hayden, solving the major problem that I struggled with for decades of how the Persona would get to the moon.

Another major insight came about when I read of a 19th Century American writer who wrote his best book when he made his own personal struggle to write it part of the story itself. I have always considered myself a fairly private person, solitary and loath to share much of my most personal life with strangers, so it was not easy to confront the possibility of sharing my inner-most self with the reader. I can’t emphasize this enough. Though very painful for me, I think allowing the reader into my inner struggle to create an epic poem deepened it on many levels of meaning and nuance, and makes it hopefully much more engaging for the reader, for the Persona becomes archetypal, beyond my small self. I had to grow within to do that and my characters too had to grow, even, I’d like to think, in the vignettes, into the deepest psychic levels where I am truly trying to resolve the conundrums that I have brooded on all my life. I think and hope readers can feel that, for they also have that sacred place of consciousness.

Analogous to the importance of Virgil to me, Dante not only led to my realizing that I could meld his canto within the twelve-book form of Virgil and Milton, but also that his “deep structure,” as I think of it, given near the end of Canto XVII of the Paradiso, “if it all be penned,” would dovetail almost perfectly with my own more universal spiritual experience and outlook and struggle to affirm the universal, transcendent sovereignty of God, which came together with the Rose Image of Mother Earth. I watched Joseph Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers when they were first broadcast, and many times thereafter, helping me to begin to understand the Image of Earthrise.

AM: Jung is so often at play in these highly intellectual inquiries. Can you speak to your sense of the spiritual?

FG: All sanctimony aside, with all humility, as the descendant of Christians from several of the 60,000+ denominations, I have always been moved by and savored, from my first reading it in high school, the counsel of Christ to “pray to your Father” (Matt 6.6), and by, in the various great religions, similar guidance to pray and meditate. As a very young person, I found myself drawn to daily prayer and meditation, usually morning and evening, already when I was in my early twenties, often back then for an hour or two a day, though the more sober “householder” stage of life necessarily shortened that. As usual, I prayed daily throughout the years of writing my epic, often turning to God, asking for help and guidance, meditating on how to proceed, resolving many literary problems through prayer. Prayer and meditation have been and are still important parts of my life as a man and a poet. There is a Mystery in consciousness, and in prayer we can experience it. I believe prayer is essential to develop the deepest levels in ourselves of what it means to be a human being, our deepest levels of consciousness. Naturally, all this is reflected in my epic poem. I hope this conveys somewhat how I grappled with actually writing my epic.

AM: Thank you. I want to take you to a question that should let you vent a bit about American poetry today and your observations on current themes in that poetry. You sir are not a conventional poet. I know that you have taught poetry, but I sense that you see yourself as somewhat of an outrider. Is that fair? Will you comment?

FG: Yes, from my earliest years, I’ve always thought of myself in opposition to much of what has become the prevailing, conventional modes of literary and cultural thinking and writing, academic and otherwise, without even trying, to my mind, and very much beyond postmodernism and all its clichés and assumptions. Part of it stems from my early interest in world religions and in the United Nations, my life-long study of history, East and West, all of which began in high school. I’ve gone deeper and deeper into both ever since, in terms of literature, history, spiritual outlook, evermore what I think of as universality, while I fear much of the culture, around the world, has become more insular, parochial, closed off, superficial, and self-obsessed with backward, retrograde flights into imaginary pasts, which plague us, or has sunk into nihilistic and secular modes of thinking and utopias. Nihilism is an extremely dangerous, dehumanizing reduction of the fullness of life, of the 200,000 years of Homo sapiens on this planet. I consider it more of a threat than even fanatical Islam. We must not fail to understand and remember that dis-eased, nihilistic rationalism, along with its companion materialism, has produced the most oppressive, bloodiest episodes of the last hundred years.

AM: Good point. How has the work been received?

FG: I’m grateful that a fair number of people have read and reviewed my epic around the world and have responded very favorably. I have at times been surprised to find that some readers respond only to one chapter or another of my epic and its respective worldview, respond only to the exclusivism which they already hold or value, while not perhaps hearing the full symphony, what I’d like to think is a song of the fullness of human existence itself. I suppose that stands to reason, so to speak, and indicates somewhat where and how we human beings still need to grow and evolve, are evolving. In our age of extreme, even ridiculous specialization, many know little outside their box, cutting them off from the plenitude and complexity of life, substituting narrow, dehumanizing ideologies. In this way nihilism has us in a stranglehold.

So, in an age of Balkanization and fragmentation, I have always sought unity, what might bring the disparate parts together, harmonize what divides and threatens humanity, through the Supreme Power of the Imagination, our most distinctively human capacity. I still cling to my life-long hope that a global, universal epic tale might help heal the wounds of modernity sufficiently to make the difference, before it is too late. In our corrosively cynical, fragmented state, it can seem most fail to have the imagination to appreciate the possibility. I continue to hope that a point will be reached at which that will begin to change. The Power of Art to reach and touch the souls of humankind must not be neglected and dismissed. Art is the magical Power and language of the gods.

As to my experience with Academia, I’ve repeatedly left the university, found it unconducive to my intellectual and spiritual development and growth, which has always been very painstakingly slow and hard won. Because I understood early on that the university doesn’t own or represent the Tradition, I’ve always been able to walk away from it when necessary, what I consider five times, last in 1996. I’ve always felt that much of the university has lost and betrayed the Tradition.

AM: I cannot let you go without asking this next one, in my assumption that you are a deeply contemplative poet: what are you working on now?

FG: For a long time, and especially the last two or three months, I’ve been thinking again about writing an essay tentatively titled “Quantum Physics and Poetry.” I feel there’s a need perhaps to spell out in prose some of what I’m writing about in my epic poem, to help the reader, as Whitman said. I first read about Quantum Physics in about 1973 in a book by George Leonard, called The Transformation, and then went on to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, reading many other works through the years. In my epic, of course, I wasn’t writing a science textbook, but, I’d like to think, absorbed and synthesized some of the implications of Quantum Physics, at very deep metaphorical and metaphysical levels, to reach into the human psyche.

Rhapsode Amphora

Rhapsode Amphora

I believe Quantum Physics changes the nature and meaning of all of the traditional religious and spiritual terms, which is very difficult to convey to people. I fear it may take another five hundred years and sheer hell for humanity fully to understand. Modernity has left people often exceedingly distraught over religion when such needs not be the case. Minds on all sides tend to be indoctrinated and snap shut before understanding can even begin to take place, as Allan Bloom understood. I do address Quantum Physics in my epic, in what I think is the best way, in the language and epistemology of poetry, though also in The Myth of the Enlightenment. I’ve been thinking, too, for quite a while now of writing an essay on Dante and Cervantes, in terms of their own engagement with Islam.

To my surprise in late 2013, I had the startling thought of writing another epic poem, which had never occurred to me before, so intent was I on The Parliament, though more of a dramatic narrative, perhaps somewhat like John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Having spent over thirty years on The Parliament of Poets, I doubt I have enough time left for another full-scale epic (laughing).

And then on a shorter time-scale, I still hope to live out that rhapsode dream, at least a little, maybe for a few years, if I’m lucky, somehow, though in this world, at my age, I know many dreams never come true, but serve to inspire us toward our better angels. No matter what happens, I’m grateful that I have been allowed to finish my epic. I feel fulfilled as a man that that dream has come true.

Frederick Glaysher

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