I’ll first outline in brief the experiment of the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston, from 1949 to about 1960, and sketch a little how it looks now given the life of our country and culture during the intervening fifty-five years, and then suggest the value the experiment might still hold for today. In 1964, Beacon Press and Meeting House Press published Kenneth L. Patton’s book A Religion for One World: Art and Symbols for a Universal Religion. Patton presents what he calls the history of the experiment of the Universalist Charles Street Meeting House, at the foot of Beacon Hill in Boston…
The notion has been raised that my poetry is about “ideas.” I assure my readers that there are, in that sense, no “ideas” in my poetry, for it has been my life-long ambition that Fancy, that highest form of epistemology, might reign in that estate, as in the great epics around the world, East and West, Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Alas, we human beings are dying all around the world because of “ideas”! So, I said to myself, let us journey to the Moon, beyond the world of “ideas…”
Yet in another sense, if you’re really interested in knowing where my “ideas” come from, I invite you to read my five literary books, which together represent more than forty years of study of Western and world literature, world religions, history, and philosophy. In The Grove of the Eumenides, I concentrated especially on the rise of nihilism in modern culture and its spread around the globe, ending with essays looking to the future, on the United Nations and epic poetry. My study for that book forms the foundation of my epic poem, while much of The Myth of the Enlightenment was written concurrently with my epic and was where I resolved many issues, as I wrote my way through it.
When I was in about my mid-twenties, I had decided that I would follow the example of Virgil, who wrote three books, two often thought of as leading up to his epic poem. When I had looked around at many of the “prominent” poets back then, I felt that I didn’t want to write thirty or seventy books of lyric poetry but, as they say, “cast all my lot on one book.” And so my two books of poetry are where I very much felt that I was developing the ability that I needed to write an epic poem, by writing lyrics that developed my voice and sense of language, grappling with what seemed to me the “ruins” of the 20th Century, Into the Ruins, along with a number of dramatic monologues in which I first experimented with “putting on the mask,” of a character, and speaking through personae. With The Bower of Nil, I surveyed Western philosophy and Buddhism in Japan, speaking through a few characters in a dramatic book-length narrative poem, telling a story of an academic philosopher and his family, with wider symbolic implications.
In broad outline, this is how I thought and think of my own personal journey toward writing The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem. I invite you to make the Journey and read my four other literary books, which should help you understand what my “ideas” really are and their sources.
Last year I also discussed my development as a poet in “My Odyssey as an Epic Poet: Interview with Frederick Glaysher,” with Arthur McMaster, Contributing Editor, Department of English, Converse College, in Poets’ Quarterly (Spring 2015). ” You might find it of further help in understanding the sources of my ideas.
“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.” —Werner Heisenberg. 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”
The great scientific contribution in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory.” —Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, 1958
“All of us living beings belong together in as much as we are all in reality sides or aspects of one single being, which may perhaps in western terminology be called God while in the Upanishads its name is Brahman.” —Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel Prize for Physics, 1933; My View of the World (95)
“The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, 1954 Oxford UP (8-9)
“For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory… [we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tsu have been confronted.” —Niels Bohr, Foundations of Quantum Physics II (20)
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” —Max Planck, theoretical physicist (1858–1947)
After having had a class in high school in world religions in which I had done all of the reading, East and West, the scriptures of all of the major world religions, as a young poet I read George B. Leonard’s book The Transformation: A Guide to the Inevitable Changes in Humankind, in 1972, when it first came out. He was the vice-president of the Esalen Institute and one of the most articulate and far-sighted persons in the then-emerging human potential movement on the West Coast. It’s not an exaggeration to say I devoured his book, reading and rereading it. Unfortunately, Leonard’s book has perhaps somewhat fallen off the map, but it still speaks insightfully to the core problems of today, the need for a new sense of human consciousness on this planet. Following Leonard’s citations, I branched into Alan Watts, Carlos Castenada, Buckminster Fuller, Ram Dass, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indries Shah, Rumi and Attar, and others basically open and universal in outlook, especially the many books by Arnold Toynbee and Huston Smith, the latter beginning in the early years of the 1970s. Leonard also introduced me to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Quantum Mechanics, and ever more into Leonard’s general openness to the East and to new conceptions of what is human, all of which I found myself still grappling with more than thirty-five years later, when I wrote my epic poem The Parliament of Poets. Leonard sums up The Transformation when he writes, “The time is overdue for the emergence of a new vision of human and social destiny and being.” We are now in the full flood of that time.
Similarly, Ervin Laszlo, long recognized as one of the most thoughtful and perceptive voices of the new consciousness movement, has written that many people are increasingly experiencing and awakening to a shift in consciousness, to “a subtle sense that we have lost touch with ourselves, and with the world” and that “we are in a race with time.” “We either make it together, or we may not make it at all.”
Having continued studying the Old and New Testaments and Islam with formal study in each at the University of Michigan, I came to feel that the traditional conception of religion, grounded in exclusivism, has become much of the problem, East and West, while the value of the way we actually live, mixed and poured together, especially in democratic pluralism, too often receives insufficient recognition by what purports to be “religion.” Quantum Physics intimates a whole new way of understanding “religion” that can help heal the psychic wounds of modernity.
Part of our current problem, of our cultural moment, given the extreme degree to which we’ve become so fragmented, is that much of the culture, especially the academy, insufficiently understands its own claim of exclusive truth, its own meta-narrative, so locked in has the time become to various forms of exclusivism based in nihilism, if not atheism, that it is closed off to any type of spirituality, including even what Quantum Physics suggests, and so nihilism has not only Western civilization in a death grip but much of the world.
Broadly, much of the university, especially the humanities, to the extent that its vision of life entails nihilism, cynicism, endless formalisms, Marxism, frivolity, which cannot be questioned, but are held in sacrosanct exclusive possession of the truth, usually justified with vague to perfunctory, knee-jerk allusions to the Enlightenment, as though that settled all of the profound human questions that people have asked throughout the ages for the rest of eternity, constitutes and represents the dehumanization of our time, i.e., both the traditional religions and nihilism are ironically sinking in the same boat.
Traditionally, “real religion” was always defined in terms of exclusivism, the challenge now is to realize that in a world of Quantum Physics “real religion,” ipso facto, can only be defined in terms of universality, which is why the proponents of exclusivism who still cling to the old forms, whether “religion” or “secular,” continue to lose ground, while the torch has passed to other hands, though often not informed to the same degree historically and culturally, which creates its own type of problematic fragmentation, yet seeking what’s open, universal, beyond the old limitations that have created all the trouble in the first place.
The Greeks and other ancients wrote and recorded scientific discoveries in poetry because they believed it was the best language in which to convey the implications, often of unity and oneness, in terms of a universe composed of atoms, which is also partly my thinking behind writing, The Parliament of Poets, because it is the best language with which to grapple with the implications of Quantum Physics. Similarly, I’d argue, the great Sufi poets realized there were things which can be said best only with the tongue of poetry…
The global confrontation with the mode of thinking in the old exclusive forms impels our Age to come to terms with resolving the negative baggage of modernity, of the Enlightenment, in a way that is both intellectually and spiritually satisfying and acceptable to people, broadly speaking, ideally, from all walks of life and points of view, traditional and secular, East and West. I believe Quantum Physics now makes that possible.
While not formulaic, I think it’s the imaginative and artistic exploration of what the meaning and implications of Quantum might be, for human consciousness and otherwise, that can help us understand the problematic dimensions of the traditional claims to exclusivism, in a more universal, moderate, peaceful, and scientific framework. Equally, the problematic dimensions of science become Scientism needs to confront the spiritual implications of its own research in the fullness of the cultural perspective with which only the humanities and traditional religions can suffuse, enrich, and enliven it, with a new understanding of our common humanity, implicit in Quantum Physics, which can be brought to fruition and the attention of the general populace by the cooperative efforts of both humanists and scientists, understanding now the seriousness, necessity, and urgency of resolving the conflict between the “two cultures.”
In The Transformation George Leonard has a very choice quotation from the astronaut Neil Armstrong, from a dinner party conversation his daughter had had once with the first man to walk on the moon, looking back at Mother Earth, words I have remembered and reflected on for decades and try to honor in my epic, like a story around a campfire:
“I want to tell you one thing. When I first looked back and saw the earth there in space, something happened to me.” And then, in a lower more intense voice, “I’ll never be the same.”
Such experiences of “I’ll never be the same” constitute the bedrock of what it means to be human, life after life, exploring it, widening the individual’s consciousness and deepening the possibilities of our own self-understanding as a species on this planet, suggesting who we are and ways to save ourselves during this time of ongoing global crisis and transformation.
I’ve been asked, “Your love and associations with Indian religion and continent is realized…any particular reason Frederick…!”
A flood of memories come back. Too many for a short reply. So I’ve decide to answer the question here on my blog.
My earliest memory of India is when as a very young boy, somewhere probably between six to seven years old, playing in my Grandmother Glaysher’s basement, I became aware of a modest bedroom in the corner, with little more than a bed and nightstand with some books on it, a few of which I came to understand later were by Albert Schweitzer. It was the bedroom of my Great-Uncle Bill who served in Her Majesty’s Army in India. He never married and in old age, dying of cancer, doubtlessly from too many cigarettes, spent his last days with his brother’s family, living in their basement. He died in 1956, before I was old enough to have any memories of him. But everyone spoke of him with awe and love. He had served Her Majesty in India. For my English people, that still meant something and they passed it on to me, especially my Aunt Amy who never lost her English accent and used to love to tell me stories of Uncle Bill and England while making me English milk tea with biscuits, pouring into me awe for both England and India.
In sixth grade, about eleven or twelve years old, I stood up and fervently recited a poem for the first time in my life, in Mr. Bird’s classroom, for an English assignment. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Though set in the Crimea, not in India, I mention it because I know that at the same time I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and “Gunga Din.”
“Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen…
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
It was only much later, in my early twenties, after having read a few of Albert Schweitzer’s books, having matured eventually beyond, that I began to understand what Colonialism was and the complexity of those issues. But for that young boy standing up in class, he was thrilled at all that heroism under fire, poured his heart into it, like Uncle Bill who served in Her Majesty’s Army. Mr. Bird defended me against the jibes of school mates, and I felt he treated me a little differently after that. It was one of the first experiences that I had ever had that there were men in the world who respected and thought highly of poetry.
A major threshold in my life came late in high school in a class in world religions. The text book was the old warhorse of instruction, The World Bible (Viking 1944 ed.), a selection of scriptures from all of the major religions. I did all the reading, including from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Buddhist Dhammapada which have stayed with me all my life as standards and touchstones. Not all the nihilism of modernity can stand up to the wisdom and spiritual depth of such scripture. My understanding of India deepened significantly during that semester, making me want to study and learn more, which I did, before long, in an undergraduate college level course in world religions and a class in Non-Western History, which included a survey of Indian history from the great Emperor Ashoka through all of the Mughals up to the arrival of the British. It was the first time that I had heard of Emperor Akbar to whom I was immediately and strangely attracted, never forgetting him, but mulling over his importance, year after year, sensing there was something there in his history that was incredibly important for me and my writing. I found myself many times during the rest of my life going back to Emperor Akbar, and what he meant to me, as in my book-length narrative poem, The Bower of Nil, drawing on Tennyson’s poem “Akbar’s Dream,”only coming to fruition in my epic poem. Akbar’s great-grandson Dara Shikoh and his book The Mingling of Two Oceans became very powerful influences on my thinking too. I feel it is unfortunate that India has somewhat forgotten Dara Shikoh and his book.
I should mention that in high school I had a part-time job in a store where I actually met for the first time someone from the Indian sub-continent, a young Buddhist woman from Sri Lanka studying at a local college. As I saw her a few times a week for nearly a year, since I had the duty of fetching supplies for her, she and I became friends and often joked like younger brother with older sister, sometimes talking about her life back home. Knowing her was a very real experience, on a human level, of a person who believed in some of the things I was already reading about. In the almost entirely white suburban world of the early 1970s, in Rochester, Michigan, she was a breath of fresh air, a delightful person. She always wore, of course, the most beautiful saris, which were very exotic for that time. As I was wont to say with other friends, “There’s life outside Rottenchester.” I was soon lighting out to find it. Rochester has now become enriched with people from all over the world, including India. Witnessing that change taking place over the decades, as I would return to visit family, and then eventually return to care for my elderly mother and raise my own children here, has been very important to my understanding of modern life.
As a student at the University of Michigan, I chose to live for a semester at the The Ecumenical Center, a church-operated residence building for international students. By chance, my roommates were two Indians and an African, the last from Nigeria. Looking backing, it was a further excellent introduction on a human level. One of my Indian roommates was a Christian named Bagavandoss from then Madras, and the other a Hindu who regularly read from the Upanishads. As they mildly held, from time to time, different opinions on various issues, I developed a sense of the complexity of life in India, that there was a wide variety of outlook, as in the USA and elsewhere, not simplistically the “mystic East.” Much of that kind of dynamic I try to evoke in my essay on Indian literature, traditional and modern, “India’s Kali Yuga,” in my book The Grove of the Eumenides(2007), where I also mention Uncle Bill.
Somewhere in my experience I should mention reading the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore for many years, beginning in the early 1970s, eventually writing two essays on him in my book The Myth of the Enlightenment (2014); developing and teaching a course in Non-Western Literature during the early 1990s, including the major Indian classics; while in 1995 I was a National Endowment for the Humanities scholar on India for eight weeks at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, where I read further into Indian literature and culture, focusing on the turmoil then taking place in Ayodhya, as well as Chishti Sufism and traditional culture and modernity.
I should include a few years of participation with a local interfaith group in which Indians from the nearby Bharatiya Temple, Jains, and Sikhs were very active, as well as people of other persuasions, while I was writing my epic poem.
Much of this is a rough sketch but I would like to think that all of this and more came together for me somehow in my epic poem.
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 →