Review: Apocalypse by Frederick Turner, Ilium Press, 2016 The Society March 19, 2017 Essays, Poetry, Reviews 29 Comments By James Sale 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” “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, creates 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.” 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 can “take 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 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) is remotely prophetic. Keep in mind, the two great prophets of what was to happen in the Twentieth Century, H.G. 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, G.K. Chesterton. Bizarrely, Chesterton refused to describe 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. According to Charles Williams’ writings, there is a great contrast in 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) Or, “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 T.S. 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. Apocalypse: An Epic Poem is available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. Frederick Turner is an internationally known poet, lecturer, and scholar, and Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. James Sale FRSA has been a writer for 50 years, and has had over 30 books published, including 7 collections of poetry, as well as books from Macmillan (The Poetry Show vols 1-3) and other major publishers on how to teach poetry writing. Most recently his poems have appeared in the UK in: Dawntreader, Towards Wholeness, Quaker News and Views, The Bournemouth Central Library Exhibition; in the USA in The Anglo Theological Review. His latest collection of poetry, The Lyre Speaks True, includes his prize winning poems from The Society of Classical Poets’ 2014 anthology. Related Post ‘The Discovery’ by Rebeca Parrott “She vanished to the wood,” they said. “Forget her—that strange and sickly child.” A child? Your face was no more childish than mine. And ... Tell the world:FacebookTwitterTumblrPinterestRedditLinkedInEmail 29 Responses G. M. H. Thompson March 19, 2017 A rather fascinating discussion of the epic. It makes me dream of attempting one. Reply James Sale March 20, 2017 Thanks GMH – give it a go – personally, I am not even sure where to start, that’s how immense the project seems to me. But we all need encouragement – go for it! Reply Joe March 20, 2017 An immaculate review brimming with insight – not just about poetry but about the state of literature and politics today. Has the epic ever been so well-defined? I don’t think so! Reply James Sale March 20, 2017 Thanks Joe – you are very kind. Ah, to be able to write the sublime – that’s the thing! Reply Dona Fox March 20, 2017 Thank you, James Sale. A thought provoking review. As I examine a number of the points you raise I see broader, or should I say more common, applications also. Again, thank you. Reply James Sale March 20, 2017 Thanks Dona – appreciate your reading what is an ‘epic’ review, at least in length. I do hope that others too can see applications from these ideas. I believe them to be important for poetry generally, but also aligned with classical poetry specifically. But – hopefully – not just parroting experts from the past, but giving their meaning a contemporary twist or turn. Reply B. S. Eliud Acrewe March 21, 2017 Mr. Sale rhetorically asks if it is possible we are in a golden age of epic poetry, having just reviewed two works, Frederick Glaysher’s “The Parliament of Poets” and Frederick Turner’s “Apocalypse,” two works which fall into that category. I suspect Mr. Sale’s answer is probably not; but he is right to bring up that possibility for several reasons. Something is in the air. Two other writers, Michael Lind, with his “The Alamo,” and its excellent attendant essay on epic poetry, and Esther Cameron, with her “The Consciouness of Earth,” show that epic poetry is definitely in the air. As Aristotle has acutely pointed out, “epic poetry agrees with tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type,” yet they “differ in that epic poetry admits but one kind of meter…and in its length.” Of course, the meter of ancient Greece and Rome in epic was the dactylic hexameter; and the epic genre’s early great practicioner was Homer. The epics, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” early set the standard for excellence in epic composition. Many following epics, such as “Beowulf,” the Old English epic of 3182 alliterative lines, as fine as it is in its own way, are narrower in scope and shape. And so, too, I think, are these recent epics. Mr. Sale was correct in pointing out that Glaysher’s metrical line “was all over the place,” unlike Turner’s, but then Turner’s, as well as Lind’s and Cameron’s were also iambic pentameters. Lind even went so far as to use rime royal stanza ababbcc, introduced into English by Chaucer, as in “Troilus and Criseyde” and “Parliament of Foules,” and used by Shakespeare in “The Rape of Lucrece.” Here is a random stanza from the 6006 lines of “The Alamo,” quite competent, the language clear, and yet it is a bit choppy. Run-ons are scattered throughout Lind’s epic. Its cadence isn’t in the line itself, but rather runs like finely polished, disciplined prose. “The lava landscape, though, is cooling fast, when Lee strides out of Appomattox court, the age of molten borders will be past in North America. To the report of rifles Maximilian, far from court, subsides, and with him France’s Mexican imperium sinks in oblivion.” Nevertheless, I’m constantly surprised at neat turns of phrase in “The Alamo”; and it is indeed a striking poem. To compare, here is a random stanza of Shakespeare’s from the 1855 lines of “The Rape of Lucrece,” quite competent, and though the language is a bit absurd, it is neatly struck. Inversions occur throughout Shakespeare’s narrative poem; but notice how the cadence fits the line. “Her breasts, like ivory globes circled with blue, A pair of maiden worlds unconquered, Save of their lord no bearing yoke they knew, and him by oath they truly honoured. These worlds in Tarquin new ambition bred; Who, like a foul usurper, went about From this fair throne to heave the owner out.” It is the clarity I enjoy in Lind’s epic, and the positioning of words in Shakespeare’s narrative poem. Lind, in some ways, shares the convolutions one finds in the over ten thousand lines of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Here are nine random lines from Milton’s Book 8, which show his unique and solemn cadence. “So spake our Sire, and by his count’nance seem’d Entring on studious thoughts abstruse, which Eve perceaving where she sat retir’d in sight, With lowliness Majestic from her seat, And Grace that won who saw to wish her stay, Rose, and went forth among her Fruits and Flours, To visit how they prosper’d, bud and bloom, Her Nurserie; they at her coming sprung And toucht by her fair tendance gladlier grew.” I really chose the lines at random so as not to favour any of the three poets. I did not choose particularly good lines; and one can see in each of the writers positive qualities, and, I believe, negative qualities, too. Shakespeare never wrote an epic; Milton at first sought out material for an national epic on ancient Britain; he decided on a Hebraic topic; and Lind, a Texan, went to the history of Texas for his epic. In a moment of distraction, a decade ago I wrote an unsuccessful, 1212-lined epyllion, “Thesiad,” after Plutarch, using Lind’s form. But why was I writing about a famous Greek character in 21st century America? Though I learned much from my utter failure, as I imagine Keats did in his abandoned epics, which Mr. Sale has spoken highly of. In light of that, here is a comment from an essay by Martin Aske. “Bernard Blackstone notes that the epic age had already passed ‘centuries before Milton; only his colossal seriousness and virtuosity made possbible the limited success he achieved’, So Milton himself is threatened with belatedness; far from being a monument ‘of equal height and glory’, Paradise Lost would then be a monumental inscription on the sublimer Text of Antiquity, an epitaph to the history of epic. In which case, Hyperion, written in the wake of Milton, deviates still further from the mighty models of the past: the Keatsian text is a monument to Paradise Lost which is a monement to an earlier (and higher) sublimity. The history of epic would seem nothing more than a series of increasingly pale repetitions, in which the ‘presence’ of an ‘original’ becomes more and more problematic. In the Fall of Hyperion Keats will honour ‘all the dead whose names are on our lips’, but it may be that the old writers will prevent speech, stifle the modern poet’s voice, precisely because their names will not go from his lips.” In the 20th century, several Modernist American writers were themselves toying with the idea of epic, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane, to name three, all relatively unsuccessful. In their own ways, I believe, they were trying harder than Lind, Cameron, Glaysher, and Turner were in striving for an epic line; but, in my mind, their failures were even worse than Keats’ were. But lest this turn in to more than a brief comment, I must end here, with merely gratitude for Mr. Sale’s comments…again. Reply James Sale March 22, 2017 Thanks BS – this are all good points you make. Your reference to Lind sounds really interesting and perhaps one I should look up. But of course there are more than 2 epics currently doing the rounds; I only mentioned the ones I have been asked to review for The S of CP. But recently I read Tim Miller’s To the House of the Sun, which is another enormous tome – a “long narrative poem in 33 books”. There is a lot about the American Civil War in it – an epic theme surely – but although book 1 starts off promisingly enough, you start to become uncomfortable as the ampersands multiply and every other line starts “&” and the ghost of Whitman appears in full force. The poem being 360 pages long AND – or is that ‘&’? – being another 257 pages long! I need say no more on this kind of epic writing as I lost the will to live long before the end. But I love your points about whether it is at all possible to write an epic now. The tantalising thing is: if Keats had lived, could he have pulled it off? I love the two Hyperion fragments. But my suspicion is: no. If ever there was a poet of epic disposition, then surely it was Yeats, whose lyrics have always been a model to me of elegance, beauty and power; but he never really got to attempting one, such was, I believe, the internal difficulty of getting there. For that is where one has to be to find it – internally first – before the outflowering. And you are right: Milton’s was an astonishing performance, like one born late in time, yet … Reply Joe March 22, 2017 This is a fascinating thread to read. Really incredible insight here. I’m learning a lot. I’m particularly interested in the point raised by B. S. Eliud Acrewe that each subsequent epic might be considered a ‘pale monument’ to a prior sublimity. I agree that the older generation of poets do ‘stifle’ the voices of the younger precisely because of their pervasiveness, but I also think that is quite an upsetting suggestion, as it implies we are in a hopeless state of entropy and can never regain the heights of former poets. As a writer and a poet, I refuse to accept this. I believe it IS still possible to write a true epic, however, I would controversially argue that the medium of the ‘epic’ has shifted to the lyrical novel. I know there are many amongst you will immediately decry the suggestion that prose can rise to the heights of poetry, but I believe in certain instances it can. If we follow Coleridge’s suggestion that poetry is ‘the right words in the right order’ & take into account James’ assertion that the epic needs to create the ‘sublime’ and a sense of ‘awe’, William Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition’ can assuredly be considered an epic. The writing here is infinitely more precise than in many poems, the imagery is synesthetic, the language is beautiful rather than functional. While it may not follow a recognised poetic meter, it does have cadence and rhythm. The climactic catharsis of this story, where the hero Cayce Pollard finally comes face to face with ‘the maker’, is delivered with these lines: ‘In the darkened room whose windows would have offered a view of the Kremlin, had they been scraped clean of paint, Cayce had known herself to be in the presence of the splendid source, the headwaters of the digital Nile she and her friends had sought. It is here, in the languid yet precise moves of a woman’s pale hand. In the faint click of image-capture. In the eyes only truly present when focused on this screen. Only the wound, speaking wordlessly in the dark.’ – I personally think that is sublime poetry, even more so when you understand the wider context of this in the novel; however, I welcome all thoughts & counters! Reply James Sale March 22, 2017 Thanks Joe – a great contribution to this debate, and I emotionally agree with the proposition that it still should be possible for epic poetry to be written in the English language. Now I need to read this Gibson book as you have so strongly endorsed it! Reply Joe March 22, 2017 Thanks dad! Glad you agree. As you say, Yeats was an epic poet who never wrote an epic in the strict sense, and I think much the same about you! I’d also argue that while it may not have sufficient length to be considered a ‘true’ epic, Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ is also an epic, certainly in the power it evokes! Here is the opening line of Neuromancer, Gibson’s most famous book and the one you have: ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ Again, that smells like epic to me! James Sale March 22, 2017 Thanks again Joe and for reminding me of Browning’s Childe Roland poem, which does actually create the sublime effect, especially in the last stanza. It’s certainly a mini-epic and strikes that true heroic note that is so difficult to attain. Morte D’Arthur doesn’t get there because as with so much of Tennyson it is too passive; the ending of his Ulysses, whilst a fine poem, and ‘sounding’ heroic, encapsulates his problem: no active verb in ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’ – some day, one day, he’ll escape from the land of the Lotus Eaters, but not today as infinitives multiply! Arthur Mortensen March 29, 2017 Interesting review, but I think you need to sharply differentiate between classic epics, which tend to be as much poetic (and often founding) myths as anything else. Science fiction of the type Turner is involved with in this work, much like that of Greg Bear, requires strong acknowledgment of a radically different kind of world and existence. Even consider modern history — there were no epic heroes in the world wars; there were instead epically heroic groups, such as those who withstood the onslaught at Bastogne. The hero as leader of such a group, as in Turner’s piece, is plausible; a single Marvel comic book hero simply doesn’t work except in Marvel comics. I think Turner’s group is just right for modern epic. Reply James Sale March 29, 2017 Thanks Arthur for your view, but obviously I don’t agree with it, except in the sense that I agree that there are heroic groups – but then there were in Homer, for even Achilles had his Myrmidons. The absence of a central hero whose destiny we fully embrace and care about is a fatal weakness in an epic, and if the argument be that we are in a different world now, then so much the worse for that world. Part of my position anticipates this objection anyway when I comment on the secular nature of Turner’s epic: I don’t accept the truth or validity of the secular enterprise and hence regard attempts to claim Turner as a true epic spurious. You mention Marvel – and rightly, the world wants epic heroes of course, even in that diluted format. The strange paradox is that 200 people max will ‘appreciate’ Turner and 20 million will enjoy Marvel – and yet you suggest that Turner is working as an epic and Marvel is not. That’s how the secular elite work, alas. Still, it’s not for me to dictate what you like – even if I could, which I can’t – I only secretly pray that you have at some point, if not now, worked for Apple, Google or Microsoft and then my dream has come true! Reply G. M. H. Thompson March 29, 2017 I strongly agree with Mr. Sale on this point; even modernist attempts at the epic in other mediums, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s terribly-overrated ‘Battleship Potemkin’, which wholeheartedly ascribes to the myth that the modern age is the age of “The Group” (it was communist propaganda, after all), use everyman representatives of the mobs they view as the true “hero” of their works to serve as their focus of attention, or defacto hero (unless they are total rubbish (which many of them are, I know, believe me)). In the case of Battleship Potemkin (which is a film-epic of the birth of the Soviet State, the battleship quite obviously serving as a metaphor for Russia), Grigory Vakulinchuk is the hero who stands for the mob. But even here, the hero is perhaps not merely an everyman, as he might have been meant to be seen as an allegory for Lenin (although that is just a pipe-theory– I have no idea when exactly the script was written, and as Lenin died on January 21st, 1924, and the film premiered on the 21st of December, 1925, it is entirely conceivable that it was written before Lenin’s death and had nothing to do with him; yet there were many other heroes of the Russian Revolution (most of whom I have no knowledge of), and Grigory Vakulinchuk could easily be a symbol for any one of them, or perhaps an amalgamation of all of them). Another (and much more entertaining) of Eisenstein’s propaganda film-epics, Alexander Nevsky (which is a film-epic about much the same (although not entirely) propagandizing allegory as Battleship Potemkin, namely the rise of the Soviet Union), uses this same device of an everyman hero who stands as a personification of ‘The Group’ (or more accurately, ‘The Mob’), this time with three different characters, Gavrilo Oleksich, Vasili Buslaev, & Vasilisa (although Vasilisa is much more of both a prize and a principle of moral action than she is a real character (in classic fashion, the tyrannical Left here ends up being as much of a creature of the vices it decries so stridently as its imagined opponents (it doth protest too much, methinks))). Importantly for its improvement of quality over Battleship Potemkin in this critic’s eyes is the central focus of the film and true epic-hero Alexander Nevsky– watching the two films in succession should lend some light on the importance of having a true epic-hero at the heart of any attempt at making an epic, be it in film or verse. James Sale March 30, 2017 Thanks GMH. And thanks Frederick. Regarding your response, Frederick – I have mentioned Paradise Lost as having possibly two heroes; and as for Gilgamesh I think there is one hero, although Enkidu does create an interesting alternative, but he is no more the hero than Patroclus in the Iliad, the friend of the hero in other words. We could go through all your examples, and the Arthurian legends are a particularly interesting case study. But I think the central points of my critique remain in place: unlike the Arthurian Legends you cite, or even Genesis, your work does not have one character of any interest or for whom I feel one jot of emotion – your characters are ciphers, mere geeks, on whom you hang the plot to save the world; and again I point to the lack of any transcendence in your work. To think you can counter the central objections by finding a mere fact that somewhere there is an epic that has more than one hero is to miss the substance of what I am saying for the triviality. Of course, I accept there will be some who think your epic is more relevant to the modern world and our situation, but I disagree for reasons I think I have made clear – alongside some appreciation of the finer aspects of your work. Frederick Turner March 30, 2017 I don’t usually respond to criticism, but I respect the mission of the Society of Classical Poets (and believe that my many books and essays rehabilitating classicism may have had much to do with its very existence), and feel I should correct any factual misapprehensions into which its readers might have been led by Mr. Sale’s review. I have already failed artistically with Mr. Sale, and he has every right to read as he reads and to express his opinion. I am grateful to him to have taken on the task at all, as reviews of serious contemporary poetry are becoming very scarce. But beside the error of suggesting that epic constitutionally involves a single central hero, easily corrected by a wider reading of the genre, and already grudgingly admitted, there are several others. The first is the implication at the beginning of the review that Apocalypse arrives on the scene, like Glaysher’s poem, as if out of nowhere. In fact my two earlier epics, The New World (Princeton U.P., 1985, reprinted by Ilium Press in 2011–with a single central hero, by the way) and Genesis (Saybrook/Norton, 1988, reprinted by Ilium Press in 2012), prepared the ground for the several epics that followed, such as Lind’s The Alamo. The second is the argument that contemporary science and technology has no place in epic. Odysseus and Achilles use the full panoply of up-to date nautical, architectural, agricultural, military, metallurgical and culinary technology belonging to Homer’s time; indeed, Homer anachronistically provides his 11th century BC heroes with some gadgetry not available until 3 or 4 hundred years after their time. Milton gives his devils artillery, speculates about Galileo’s astronomy, and includes copious references throughout to seventeenth century technology, world exploration, biology and physics. Virgil and Dante do the same. The science and technology of our own time is as essential to our epoch as theirs was to them, and no claim for an epic of our times could be made that ignores the fact that we don’t use chariots and bronze shields any more. Indeed, the artistic challenge is precisely to domesticate the burgeoning new vocabularies and ideas of our own times into the meaningful matrix of epic. Even if the significant actors of our times are geeks, it behooves us as artists to take them seriously as human beings rather than dismiss them with contempt. Our sons and daughters live in that world, and I write for them, including Joe, in this thread, who admires, as I do, the geeky poetry of William Gibson. By the way, I have nothing to do with any of the information technology companies Sale despises. I use their extraordinary devices to communicate and learn, of course; he used them to write and disseminate his review. I regard epic as an active and prophetic force in society, a way of articulating a culture’s deepest problems, opportunities, dangers and triumphs so that we are better able to deal with the future. The poem contains state-of-the art designs for dealing with real and very terrible threats to all human life: a climate catastrophe in the near term and a cosmic accident, such as we observe daily in the distant universe, in the long term. If the “transcendental” view, as Sale urges, involves not taking charge of our future and that of our planet, but accepting our doom dealt out by an avenging god, then perhaps it is that view that fails to measure up to epic. Epic cannot escape the heroic, the struggle to victory or defeat. To align the poem with polluters and environmental destroyers is simply to misread it. Noah Blazo, the canny central figure in the poem, is the inventor of a solar technology that renders fossil fuel obsolete, and the techniques described for global cooling are also huge stimulants to species preservation and new speciation. There are in the poem plenty of cautions against hubris, including that of people who think they know what God wants. Apocalypse is composed in the genre of Science Fiction, one of the most healthy, vigorous, and popular forms of contemporary art. That genre indeed has its conventions, which, I believe, are closer to the epic conventions of the past than any other kind of writing today (as I’ve argued in my monograph Epic: Form, Content, and History). If one doesn’t like Science Fiction, fine; I do not much like detective stories, horror fiction and mainline domestic fiction. But I acknowledge that great literature has been and can be written in those forms. I deliberately published Apocalypse in two formats: as a serialized and e-book SF verse novel with the rambunctious genre press Baen, with its hundreds of thousands of fan readers, and as a dignified and beautifully-produced small-press volume for readers of poetry. To say that the poem is essentially secular is to suggest that one hasn’t read a very large part of it. The Sermon on the Sun by my Pope Francis III in Book 8 has actually been used for a devotional purpose by one pair of readers, as have other poems of mine in various religious contexts, and the extensive affectionate, critical, sympathetic, and respectful references to many religions, not to speak of the more mystical passages of spiritual experience, attest to a full embrace of the idea of the divine. One might legitimately argue with the poem’s radically immanentist theology, but it is a theology, and one much closer to the Judeo-Christian sense of the divine as embodied in time than to the Platonist reconstruction of the earlier full-blooded theology, which placed God outside time, passion, and life. Sale’s review suggests that there is no central character in the book, no thread of continuing consciousness. He seems to have missed the obvious one, as obvious as Dante’s in the Divine Comedy: the fictional narrator himself. A troubled, even tormented character, reluctant to tell the story he must tell, he must come to terms with his own nature, as does Dante; many readers have recognized him as a psychologically dramatic figure of some interest. By the way, unlike my narrator, I am myself heterosexual, in case the presence of a gay character created a problem empathizing with the story; some people are still repulsed by such issues, and if any potential reader might be, though the topic of homosexuality is only a small part of the story, I advise him or her not to read the book. The review also fails to recognize the poem’s own blistering satire on the passive consumer culture in Book 8. Or perhaps that part of the poem went unread; it also included Francis’s sermon. By no means should the reader construe the book as a complacent paean to social media or mechanization. My terraformers deliberately cut themselves off from the yammer of social media in order to retain their creative and meditative mission. Mr. Sale might have recognized a friend to his own skepticism about modernity. But I evidently failed to encourage a deeper reading, and an opportunity for a meeting of minds has sadly been missed. James Sale March 30, 2017 Hi Frederick – I hate to fall out with as fine a poet as you; indeed, we are getting off to wrong start in many ways. If your book had been simply described as a narrative poem then I reckon my review would only have focused on its many beauties, some of which I alluded to, like your lyricism, blank verse and so on, but many I did not. There are many extraordinarily powerful scenes in this – who could forget, for example, Ala’s revenge in book one on the husband she murders: “”They found him in bed there four days later, /Beheaded, with his penis in his mouth, /Everyone always has to sleep sometime.” But the trouble is the word ‘epic’ – it creates an expectation which I do not believe you have fulfilled. You are a good poet, you may be a great poet; but epic I demur from. And, also I think it unfair for me or anyone else to have to go back through your whole oeuvre to see where all this fits or whether you did or did not inspire others. The question is: is this book an epic? I agree it makes a great narrative, it should be a science fiction novel, but is not an epic in the true sense (and btw I have not conceded about epic in my supplementary comments – but do we want a book length dispute?). But just as I need to be fair to you – you are a fine poet – but also need to be fair to the review process. I certainly have read the volume from beginning to end. And I do not regard the whole Pope thing as being religious except in the way that humanism likes to ape religious language, ceremonies and ideas by planting ersatz versions of them in abundance. I am not surprised you have people using your Pope Francis sermon as their substitute for a real religious experience; that’s what humanists do! Let’s take two lines from that sermon: “So much for sacrificial deicide: / A doctrine for the childhood of our morals” – that is surely patronising and something that not even 100 years from now I could ever imagine a Catholic Pope saying; and I am not a Catholic. It is pure post-modernist with its ‘we-know-better-than-morality-morals’. And this slightly superior attitude to morals now and morals then is precisely what, alas, is evident everywhere, including in your own response. What is the point of the fictional narrator being homosexual? Achilles is bi-sexual and his whole wrath stems from this aspect of his sexuality. There is a necessity for it. But your gay narrator serves no such purpose; the sexuality is arbitrary; it’s as if you just want to be ‘modern’, with it, cool – hey, if you don’t like it, don’t read my book. I think it would have been a better poem if the narrator had been heterosexual like yourself; then, at least, there would have been a chance you may have empathised with your own hero. As it is, I feel nothing for the narrator, except for some of his turns of phrase. The Pilgrim in Dante, by way of contrast, feels very aligned with our sense of the poet himself, given that all are constructs. But I want to end – and I shall add no more – on a positive note: this poem has much to commend it, any poet could learn from some of your techniques, especially your blank verse and the brilliant and versatile way you use it. So congratulations – this poem has many beauties in it and I am sorry I simply cannot award it the ultimate accolade. G. M. H. Thompson March 29, 2017 I strongly agree with Mr. Sale on this point; even modernist attempts at the epic in other mediums, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s terribly-overrated ‘Battleship Potemkin’, which wholeheartedly ascribes to the myth that the modern age is the age of “The Group” (it was communist propaganda, after all), use everyman representatives of the mobs they view as the true “hero” of their works to serve as their focus of attention, or defacto hero (unless they are total rubbish (which many of them are, I know, believe me)). In the case of Battleship Potemkin (which is a film-epic of the birth of the Soviet State, the battleship quite obviously serving as a metaphor for Russia), Grigory Vakulinchuk is the hero who stands for the mob. But even here, the hero is perhaps not merely an everyman, as he might have been meant to be seen as an allegory for Lenin (although that is just a pipe-theory– I have no idea when exactly the script was written, and as Lenin died on January 21st, 1924, and the film premiered on the 21st of December, 1925, it is entirely conceivable that it was written before Lenin’s death and had nothing to do with him; yet there were many other heroes of the Russian Revolution (most of whom I have no knowledge of), and Grigory Vakulinchuk could easily be a symbol for any one of them, or perhaps an amalgamation of all of them). Another (and much more entertaining) of Eisenstein’s propaganda film-epics, Alexander Nevsky (which is a film-epic about much the same (although not entirely) propagandizing allegory as Battleship Potemkin, namely the rise of the Soviet Union), uses this same device of an everyman hero who stands as a personification of ‘The Group’ (or more accurately, ‘The Mob’), this time with three different characters, Gavrilo Oleksich, Vasili Buslaev, & Vasilisa (although Vasilisa is much more of both a prize and a principle of moral action than she is a real character (in classic fashion, the tyrannical Left here ends up being as much of a creature of the vices it decries so stridently as its imagined opponents (it doth protest too much, methinks))). Importantly for its improvement of quality over Battleship Potemkin (in this critic’s eyes at least) is the central focus of the film and true epic-hero Alexander Nevsky– watching the two films in succession should lend some light on the importance of having a true epic-hero at the heart of any attempt at making an epic, be it in film or verse. Furthermore, I would contend that there were heroes in the Second World War, both at the time and looking back– there was Winston Churchill and F.D.R. and Uncle Joe and Monty and Eisenhower and Patton and de Gaulle (and many more) after all, celebrated in the newspapers and newsreels (and if you were German or Japanese, there was Hitler and Tojo and the Desert Fox and the Emperor, but I’m not German or Japanese, so I don’t have to pretend that homicidal maniacs are heroes). And there are heroes even today who are quite widely acclaimed, for who is LeBron James if not a hero? And Bob Dylan? And a certain former intelligence worker in Moscow? Frederick Turner March 29, 2017 Epics with multiple heroes: the Iliad, the Shahnameh, the Heike, the Three Kingdoms, the book of Genesis, the Mahabharata, Paradise Lost, Njal’s Saga, the Volsung Saga, the Song of the Nibelungs, Jerusalem Liberated, the Kalevala. Epics with two central characters: the Popol Vuh, the Gilgamesh Epic, Parzifal, the Arthurian proto-epic, The Journey to the West. Etc. Reply Frederick Turner March 30, 2017 Sorry, of course the Arthurian epic belongs in the “multiple heroes” category. Reply Frederick Turner April 1, 2017 Mr. Sale, your rejoinder is a handsome and fair-minded one. I would like to respond on three points, though. The quotation about sacrificial deicide is out of context: the idea is seen as part of a series of construals that begins with the earliest religions of our species and develops in contemporary Christian theology (like that of Hans Urs Balthazar) into the profoundest kind of moral reflection on our relationship with God. It is not a secular sneer (and I know that sneer indeed) but an idea based on the evident moral development outlined in the Bible, from the primitive ideas of Cain and Nimrud to the canny opportunism of Jacob to the forgiving Joseph, the liberating Moses, the compassionate prophets, and the climax of moral insight in Jesus. The ten commandments do not even appear until late into the second epic of the Bible, Exodus; we were not ready for it before that. Cain in killing Abel (and Jacob in cheating Esau) have not disobeyed God, because he has not yet told them not to do it. We must learn some things by experience, and by the effort to find metaphors in our old vocabulary to describe that experience and codify it for later use. A moral language must be built, as it is in a child–from sheer desire, to fear of punishment, to obeying or defying incomprehensible rules, to duty, to justice, to consideration, to true charity, each stage providing the vocabulary for the next transcending insight. If humanism is love and admiration for humanity, a desire for its betterment, and a sense of solidarity with it, Jesus was the greatest of all humanists, and I consider myself a humanist in this sense, as well as a follower of him. I think all humanism has in it an element of the divine, and a theism that is not also a humanism is very likely to be at best a gnosticism, at worst a diabolism–in either case, unChristian. And it seems to me that the only person qualified to assess the genuineness of somebody else’s devotion is God. Your characterization of my emergent cyber-angel as a human invention misreads the explicit text. She emerges, to everybody’s shock and surprise. She is an incarnation, so to speak. My epic is not intended as a religious text, and it is designed to be meaningful to non-religious people: but discerning readers have recognized the relationship to Dostoyevsky’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor and before it to the gospels themselves, where the prophet in his own country is unrecognized, rejected and murdered because he brings a terrifying liberty. To me the current churches (and of course the mosques–less so the synagogues) are all in various ways obstacles to the true process of incarnation, and my fable is a way of suggesting this rather radical notion. Human initiative is indeed required to permit incarnation to take place. Mary’s virtue and consent, her magnificat, and the moral development of the chosen people, are required for the advent of the divine. Perhaps, too, the technological and political magnitude and enduringness of the Roman Empire was needed to amplify that moment in Palestine. My epic describes the way in which humanity might prepare for the gift and allow itself to accept it. That preparation today would necessarily involve the astonishing scientific and technological affordances of our time. Michelangelo’s Adam reaches up toward his creator, and the spark between their fingertips, like electricity itself, goes both ways. Perhaps my epic speaks in a quieter voice than my previous two epics–but C.S Lewis more that 50 years ago told me in a wonderful letter to “curb my magnanimity”–Keats’s advice to Shelley–and the exact idiomatic middle style I chose for Apocalypse was the “still small voice” that I felt was needed after all the bluster. Reply James Sale April 2, 2017 Thanks Frederick – I think if anyone could bear it we should either interview each other or write sequential chapters in a book about our views on epic, history, humanism, transcendence and etc! But one feature of the modern world that I must resist is the tendency of the critic to be above the writer, which cannot be – the last word is yours, you are the creator here, and I am happy to see, once again, the astonishing erudition you bring to all your words. Reply Frederick Turner April 2, 2017 I’m overwhelmed with PhD dissertations right now, but I’d be up for some kind of conversation, maybe a bit later in the spring. Thanks for the invitation. James Sale April 3, 2017 OK – I did say if anyone could bear it! But speak later – all the best – James Wilbur Dee Case April 7, 2017 Mr. Sale, you are a bit of an epic hero for even daring to read Frederick Turner’s “Apocalypse,” which is something I would not do, for there is hardly anything anyone has said about the poem that has suggested it could appeal to me. At least you quote it, unlike Frederick Turner in his responses to you, attempting to point out something positive about the language. I’m sorry but your positive remarks are not convincing to me. I also must disagree with you, Mr. Sale, for I believe that it is indeed an epic poem in blank verse, another one of those, like the semi-appealing Postmodern epic of Michael Lind and the solemn Baroque epic of John Milton, neither of which uses iambic pentameter as brilliantly as Dante in his “Divina Comedia,” or as facilely as George Gordon Byron in “Don Juan,” nor which has kept me company for a hundredth as long as either of Homer’s edited, spectacular epics or Vergil’s concentrated, classic epic. But we can learn from even competent writers, can we not? Nor do I for a minute believe that Mr. Turner’s poem had anything whatsoever to do with the “very existence” of the Society of Classical Poets. I do, however, agree with him that he has “failed artistically with Mr. Sale”; but that, in and of itself, does not alone impinge upon the quality of Mr. Turner’s work—whatever that may be. People disagree. I also agree with Mr. Turner when he says “reviews of serious contemporary poetry are becoming very scarce”; that is one reason why I am thankful for Mr Sale’s insights, which we can take or disregard as we will. Though Mr. Sale had a great deal of strength to plow through “Apocalypse,” I doubt he’d have enough to power through “The New World” and “Genesis.” And yet, Mr. Turner does have a flair for good epic titles, does he not? I also agree with Mr. Turner that technology and science are requisites for a modern epic, and that we should “domesticate burgeoning new vocabularies.” However, the significant actors of our times are not “geeks”; that is a poor vocabulary choice. Odysseus was not a geek; he was a “man skilled in all ways of contending…and many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of.” Reply James Sale April 8, 2017 Ha!Ha!Ha! Wilbur – you make me laugh: you can certainly punch with your left and right equally! I am not so bothered by poor vocabulary in prose, or its shorthand, if the meaning gets across; however, I think in poetry poor vocabulary is a serious defect, which curiously is why in principle the ‘domestication’ of burgeoning new vocabularies is fine, but in practice extremely difficult to attain, especially if the aim is epic. We cannot ignore the connotations and origins of our language, which is why the Authorised Version of the Bible – and the American Standard Version too for that matter (which is my own favourite translation) – still reads in large portions like epic. Try substituting modern ‘language’ into this – as many have done – and the effect is very different. Why – it renders the text into clearer prose, and prose here is invariably prosaic. But as you rightly point out, ‘people disagree’, and each has their antennae attuned differently – a good thing! Reply Frederick Turner April 8, 2017 A thoughtful comment on an unread book. O tempore! O mores! Reply Esiad L. Werecub April 9, 2017 Mr. Turner is right, I must say, to use the Ciceronian phrase, “O tempora o mores,” in deploring the brutality of our age. However, is there anyone not invoking it these days? Of course, he is referring to Mr. Case’s disinterest in even reading “Apocalypse.” Now I do understand not wanting to read various works. I find myself in the exact same position in not wanting to read James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” or for that matter, epics, like Statius’ “Thebaid” or Southey’s “Thalaba” or Edwin Arnold’s “The Light of Asia.” But I think Mr. Case should have at least pointed out what keeps him back. Is it the science fiction? the blank verse strategy? because he thinks it does not fuse gods and glory? because he does not think it “gathers all the trails of consequence”? because he’d rather read Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”? because he thinks it fantails like a Moby-Dick by Nemo rather than by Ishmael? Does Mr. Case think the iambic pentameter isn’t fine? What about this line? “Noah claps the lights on. In the deep green water.” Does Mr. Case think there is no alliteration? What about this line? “Have you been prying in my private parts?” Does Mr. Case think the narrator is not self-conscious? What about these lines? “I’m going to have to give some backstory. I can’t, as airy lyric poets do, Just pick the bits that make a pretty posy And leave the rest to common knowledge. No. I’ve got to make the common knowledge gel From scratch, and I’m a rotten choice for it…” [Pindar and Horace, inter alia, don’t really fit Turner’s definition, do they?] Does Mr. Case think there aren’t similes? or even an occasional variant spelling? What about these lines? “The Oort Cloud’s unimaginably thin, Perhaps one atom in a cubic meter, But anything that moves as fast as Wormwood, Twenty-five thousand klicks per second, must Meet trillions of such atoms in a day.” Does Mr. Case think there aren’t metaphors? What about these lines about salmon? “Twisting their calm fish visage to a snarl, A samurai’s stark grimace, with an eye Of insane gold.” Does Mr. Case think he doesn’t invoke previous epic writers? What about these lines? “Come on, old man, let’s step out one more time, Like those brave musketeers, into the light; It’s time for Ulysses’s final voyage, To sail beyond the gates of Hercules.” Does Mr. Case think he isn’t slangy enough? What about this line? “Lucy’s been working on a techie problem…” Whatever the case may be of the quality of Turner’s “Apocalypse,” his attempt, like Esther Cameron’s previous 7000-word epic on the environmental crisis, “The Consciousness of Earth,” which Mr. Salemi has called “a staggeringly ambitious and powerfully conceived philosophical epic of great scope,” shows us, at least, one aspect of these “O thrilling times, o mortal rhymes.” Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.