Kuan- yin, in “Water Moon” position, Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an, China
Buddhism and Modernity
I find the “water moon” position of the Chinese Buddhist statues of Kuan-yin, right knee raised, with the right arm extending over the knee, one of the most beautiful and evocative in Buddhist art. That’s what the Chinese call this pose. I saw one statue of it at Shaanxi History Museum in X’ian, China, that is truly a national treasure, in carved stone, that’s very famous. Buddhism has what are called mudras, stylized hand positions and other poses, all carry various meanings symbolically. I use or refer to several in my epic poem, because for Buddhists they carry a great deal of meaning and suggestive emotion, and so on.
I finally finished my epic, and it’s available online as a hardcover and ebook formats. There’s a long section with Kabir that I hope speaks well to Sikhs, though he’s really a pre-Sikh poet. It’s his universal perspective that is important to me. I think much of that spirit is what the world needs today, globally, East and West. One of the qualities of modernity is the rigidity of its abstractions, whether East or West, codifying its disjunctions. They often stand in the way, barring a deeper understanding of modern experience than the knee-jerk nihilism of the academy, chanting its mantra of the “Enlightenment,” just as bigoted, isolated, extremely fragmented and convinced of the truth of its exclusivism as any Christian fundamentalist.
Whose Buddha? Whose West? East? Modern life is much more complex and fluid than the traditional categories and the attempts to “return,” “restore,” “recover,” and so forth, in each case, around the globe. The tiresome morality tale of the ascendant Enlightenment is just as flawed. Kabir, Rumi, others, speak to our time because they were early voices of the realization of Unity.
I’ve read the Tao te Ching many times throughout my life. To my mind, one who has spent his entire adult life reading in all the religious and literary traditions, East and West, and lived in Japan, traveling all over China, the “categories” are not as tight and neat as many argue… especially on the lived, human level. Given modern experience, I have often thought, What’s the difference between going back to Jesus, back to Lao-si, or back to Buddha? The idea of *exclusive* truth, East or West, is a misconception. I believe the realization of Unity, as in Rumi, Kabir, and others, human oneness, is a much more profound response to human experience, especially given all the upheavals and change that marked the 20th Century.
Ultimately, while it may, has, and will appeal to some, Buddhism is not compatible with Western civilization, which has usually always been a highly active and vigorously alive culture.
There’s a rare article on the realities of Buddhism in much of Asia, on the ground, as it is often lived, or not, in The New York Times. Of course, though, typical of The New York Times, one might say… yet this is the Buddhism I witnessed, at times, in Japan, thirty years ago, as later in China, and this experience runs throughout the modern literatures of Asia, as I suggest in my book The Grove of the Eumenides.
The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem, by Frederick Glaysher, takes place partly on the moon, at the Apollo 11 landing site, the Sea of Tranquility.
Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, calls all the poets of the nations, ancient and modern, East and West, to assemble on the moon to consult on the meaning of modernity. The Parliament of Poets sends the Persona on a Journey to the seven continents to learn from all of the spiritual and wisdom traditions of humankind. On Earth and on the moon, the poets teach him a new global, universal vision of life.
All the great shades appear at the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquility: Homer and Virgil from the Greek and Roman civilizations; Dante, Spenser, and Milton hail from the Judeo-Christian West; Rumi, Attar, and Hafez step forward from Islam; Du Fu and Li Po, Basho and Zeami, step forth from China and Japan; the poets of the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana meet on that plain; griots from Africa; shamans from Indonesia and Australia; Murasaki Shikibu, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Austen, poets and seers of all Ages, bards, rhapsodes, troubadours, and minstrels, major and minor, hail across the halls of time and space. One of the major themes is the power of women and the female spirit across cultures. Another is the nature of science and religion, as well as the “two cultures,” science and the humanities.
That transcendent rose symbol of our age the Earth itself viewed from the heavens, one world with no visible boundaries, metaphor of the oneness of the human race, reflects its blue-green light into the darkness of the starry universe.
To clarify, since I have repeatedly met with incredulity, I have stated that my epic poem is the first one in the English language in 345 years, not that it is the best, which is a judgment for readers and critics to make. For it is arguably nothing more than a statement of fact, which has been said by many poets and literary critics through the years and decades, to say that there is no epic poem in the English language worthy of the name since Milton.
Longfellow’s Hiawatha is not an epic, but a narrative poem, while William Cowper’s The Task, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock and Dunciad are all mock-epics, as is James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, a farcical Ouija board fantasy, a would-be mock-epic, at best, and so on.
I have written a serious epic poem within the Western tradition and English letters, and I draw from the epic traditions of all civilizations, East and West. No poet could write such a poem without realizing it, for the epic requires not a moment of inspiration, like a lyric, but an act of will, over many years, even decades, which is one of the reasons why it has rightly been judged as the most demanding literary form.
John Milton, it should be noted, realized what he had written, and was not reluctant to say so, even within the poem itself. His prose, for instance, demonstrates he understood for decades what he was up against and strove to vie with the greatest poets of the epic tradition. It may shock readers today who are habituated to small, personal, postmodern songs of self to hear someone make the claim, as I do, that I have written the first epic poem in the English language in 345 years, but it is merely to lay on the table, so to speak, the manuscript that sets on my desk. It is not something I am dreaming about writing. Those days are at long last, for me, in the past. Now it is time for others to judge. No person who hasn’t read it, however, can make the claim that my epic doesn’t exist.
Derek Walcott’s Omeros is not an epic but basically a novel in sprawling narrative verse. The Prelude is a rambling study of Wordsworth’s own mind, as has often been said; Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book is another narrative story, not an epic properly speaking. G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse is a narrative in a ridiculous meter for an epic, with a quaint subject. There are a lot of those since Milton, none of which are epics. Byron never finished Don Juan and famously admitted he had no plot, no epic theme, just sat down and started cranking it out, didn’t know how to end it, and died without finishing it. When writing my master’s thesis on E. A. Robinson, I read several of his book-length narrative poems, as I had for years prior, some of which are masterpieces in their own right, unjustly neglected, but definitely not epic poems. William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, though lovely and evocative, is small potatoes, leaves much to be desired, and nevertheless is not ultimately an epic.
While I love Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and think it’s one of the greatest books in the English language, one of the models of my own verse, I must concede that it is not an epic, but a retelling of selected portions of the Arthurian myth. The title of Walt Whitman’s poem says it all, no matter how much one emphasizes its symbolic qualities, a mere seventy-five pages in most editions. Having read much of Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson more than twenty years ago, I assert they do not merit the title, the latter of which was patched together by a scholar, completely disqualifying it from the running, Olson himself never having finished it. While many want to laud The Cantos as an epic, Ezra Pound admitted to Donald Hall in a late interview, in one of Hall’s early books, that he had no plot or vision, didn’t make any sense, and the fragments remained unfinished at his death. Robert Southey’s Madoc was plain weird, and, anyway, never stuck to the culture. C. S. Lewis’s adolescent attempt, the Dymer, is not even a contender. Peter Dale Scott’s Seculum trilogy constitutes a politicized pastiche that fails to rise from the personal to the epic tradition. Frederick Turner’s subject and structure are fit perhaps for science fiction, but not epic poetry. Anne Waldman’s PC trilogy falls short both in terms of form and theme. There are other odd-ball, would-be epics, none of which qualify, fail to find a way to grapple with modern life and yet evoke and honor the Tradition.
As much as I’ve always delighted in Tolkien’s Trilogy, reading it in its entirety by the fireplace to my own sons when they were young, Tolkien’s “The Fall of Arthur,” which he himself had the good sense never to finish or publish, a mere forty pages, was derivative. It’s very interesting that he attempted an Arthurian epic prior to writing The Hobbit and his other books, and then put it aside, along with any pretension to poetry. It is a good example of how every scrap of a great writer will eventually be dragged out to the light of day by those of lesser judgment. The opening lines quoted are doggerel. And two hundred pages are not enough to constitute an epic poem, very much a typical narrative length. I doubt many serious serious and capable readers will ever make the mistake of taking Tolkien’s self-rejected attempt at Arthurian legend as an epic, though it doubtlessly helped him to find his real talent as a writer, prose.
That Tolkien wrote a handful of lines of verse in the Triology does not make Tolkien a poet. Note how rare they are in the vast field of his prose. The real poet sustains that, over an entire epic poem and career, not a few scattered lines here and there, much of which is actually children’s verse. Tolkien could not sustain it; he didn’t have the talent, but he did have the vision. I do agree with W. H. Auden’s essay on Tolkien, wherein he makes the point that the Trilogy is the only *positive* vision in modern literature. I would like to think I learnt a lot from Tolkien in that regard, though working in a different form and meter, and that lessons from him run deep into my own epic, in poetry.
Also like E. A. Robinson’s long narrative poems, based on Arthurian myth and legend, the novelist John Gardner’s attempt at an epic, Jason and Medeia, is a narrative poem, without a new vision of life for today, mostly in prose, but based on the Greek myth of Jason and the argonauts and his wife Medea. That is to say it is a derivative retelling of a story which he himself did not originate, unlike Virgil and Dante. While Milton may have drawn the basic story of Adam and Eve from the Bible, he made a real epic poem of it. Gardner didn’t do that and wasn’t capable of it. The lines in which Gardner attempted to write poetry do not deserve the name, the few lines in which he attempted it, and he chose a meter which no real epic poet in the English language would have ever been tone-deaf enough to use.
And so the story goes. Mere narratives and novels in verse do not constitute an epic. Nor do sequences, series of poems, pastiche, etc. Redefinitions of what is an epic fall short of the standard and demonstrate merely how desperate of a strait modernity is in, stretching the definition of epic to accommodate the diminished state of affairs, which is not to suggest I believe one must slavishly follow a formula. I draw from all the great epics, creating, I hope, a new, contemporary interpretation and form of the tradition, East and West.
Part of the problem readers have today is that it has been so long since an epic poem has been written that perhaps many no longer know what one is. And, of course, the true epic, in any Age, will redefine for itself and its Age, what in fact the epic is, what constitutes it, will of necessity have to do so, yet, I assert, must honor the Tradition to qualify as such, and not as a mock-epic, but a serious vision of the time. I addressed this problem in an Epic Poetry Workshop I gave at the Austin International Poetry Festival in September, 2012: https://youtu.be/9vPGP1ygY_s
If there’s one I’ve missed, after over thirty years of studying the epic form, I’d appreciate hearing about it. I’d love to read it. Name it.
My epic poem is finished and sets on my desk. It was serialized throughout the past summer in the manner of Charles Dickens and other 19th Century writers on my ebook site, Earthrise Press eBooks. It will be published in hardcover and as an ebook, in both the Mobi/Kindle and ePub formats, in November.
I survey the epic tradition of Western civilization, both ancient and modern, in a forty-page essay, “Epopee,” in my book The Grove of the Eumenides: Essays on Literature, Criticism, and Culture, available worldwide. While I discuss the fine narratives of Archibald MacLeish, his Conquistadors, and Robert Penn Warren, his Brother to Dragons, they are not epic poems.
The Parliament of Poets is not only the first epic poem in the English language in 345 years, but also the first global, universal epic, one that raises a world-embracing vision for our time. That is what I set out to write as early as 1982. It is up to readers to decide whether or not I have achieved what I set out to accomplish. I state merely what has been my goal for over thirty years and is now available as a printed book and ebook.
ANN ARBOR—On September 22, 29, and October 6, the theatre company, Apollo’s Troupe, will stage the theater adaptation of the poem, The Parliament of Poets, written by Michigan poet Frederick Glaysher and published in 2012 by Earthrise Press. Continue reading →