My Odyssey as an Epic Poet: Interview with Frederick Glaysher

Arthur McMaster, PQ Contributing Editor

Frederick Glaysher holds two degrees from the University of Michigan, one a master’s degree in English. The author or editor of ten books, his epic poem, The Parliament of Poets, is partly set on the moon, at the landing site of Apollo 11, and was published by Earthrise Press in late 2012. The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays appeared in September of 2014. His website is
Arthur McMaster: You published two books, within two years of each other, books that I find want to be read together. Your essays The Myth of the Enlightenment lays out the conditions for your fine epic poem The Parliament of Poets. Can you please tell us about how you came to take on such out-sized challenges?
Frederick Glaysher: Largely leaving aside my whole history of growing up an omnivorous reader, by the end of high school, I was already thinking of myself as a poet and regularly keeping a journal. I was drawn to Robert Frost, including his prose, and other writers whose lives were marked by an independence of spirit, shall we say. When it came time to think about college, my intuition spoke emphatically that I had to take the road less traveled by. It wasn’t rational, rather deeply intuitive—a gut feeling that I couldn’t fully articulate.
I understood that the best writers were not made by universities. So, while all my friends stepped off to college, I chose to go off to an old farm in Oakland Township, Michigan, adjacent to where I grew up in Rochester. I spent a couple of years there reading and writing, trying to find my own voice. There I read deeply into Walt Whitman and Emerson, and other poets that have remained essential to me throughout my life. Eventually, I felt I was ready to hold my own, felt ready for a university, needed it, and began my more conventional education, but I really became a poet on that farm.
Looking back now, from over sixty years, and with the writing of my epic poem finally behind me, I bring to mind another threshold that occurred in 1977. This was a theater class in Interpretative Reading. There I learned that the Greek poets known as “rhapsodes” would travel throughout Greece reciting Homer. I was thrilled by the idea, and it set me thinking. My experience in that Reading class, performing a passage from William Wordsworth’s “Michael,” clinched it for me. Though overwhelmed and intimidated by the prospect, I began to consider writing an epic poem and then traveling around the world to recite it, reviving the ancient art of the rhapsodes and Homer. By 1982 I had written my first draft of a plot outline.
AM: And a fine major work it is, Frederick. I want to come back to the core idea, however, which challenges conventional thinking about man’s “intellectual evolution,” where spirituality is clearly a prime mover, but just now I would like to ask you to go back several years to your poetry influences. I know that you studied with Robert Hayden. What did his work mean to you, as a younger man?
FG: Studying with Hayden was transformational. He was all the more so for me since Hayden himself, when he was a young poet in the 1940s, had studied with W. H. Auden at the University of Michigan.
I was very much taken then with T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and that personal connection to the Tradition, if you will, has always meant a lot to me. Still does. On the other hand, I have found that people often want to read my biography too much in terms of Robert Hayden. I had been thinking of myself as a poet and been studying and writing for at least eight years before I had ever met Hayden. So, while I am the first one to say I owe him a lot, I don’t owe him everything. In fact there were many things about my biography and intellectual interests that he never understood, couldn’t understand, even wrongly advised me about, yet such things proved exactly what enabled me to write my epic poem. Again, the strength of my independence and self-reliance saved me.
AM: Let’s go to your recent work, The Myth of the Enlightenment, and I love the implications from that title, what part of that research and writing are you most proud of?
FG: The Myth of the Enlightenment draws from a very long undercurrent of study in my first book of essays The Grove of the Eumenides. I am really building on and extending from that first book, bringing many themes to fruition. So, to my mind, The Myth represents my arduous struggle to bring into unity and coherence the diverse strands of my life-long intellectual and spiritual psychomachia, with East and West, represented, say, by Tolstoy, Milton, Tagore, and Saul Bellow, among others.
Part of all that is the struggle of traditional conceptions of life and religion with modernity, ranging over the last five hundred years, and longer, with what Czeslaw Milosz insightfully called “the fad of nihilism,” and Bellow scathingly referred to as “knee-jerk nihilism,” my opponent throughout all my books. In The Parliament of Poets and The Myth of the Enlightenment, I believe I have slain that Beast, and hope, in time, word will spread, and my books will find more readers who can recognize and understand the importance of that victory. The historical record demonstrates that all recorded civilizations have been capable of major transformation in the past when essential to save themselves. Those that were incapable of such epochal shifts destroyed themselves and passed into oblivion. World civilization now stands in the balance.
AM: And now for the piece de resistance. Your epic poem The Parliament of Poets runs to some 290 pages –I would like to see more of this kind of serious work. We find mythology and folklore, such as Merlin, worked with so cleverly, but also biblical antecedents and other, related, creation myths – I mention Baal – moving elegantly to such literary figures as Chaucer and Tolstoy. Throughout we find, pardon the cliché, man’s inhumanity to man – the Russian Gulag… Help our PQ readers understand how you put it all together. The planning for this must have been daunting.
FG: In all honesty I was overwhelmed by the notion, taking on such a challenge, but, unbidden, the shaman call kept coming, the undeniable demand, that I, as Emerson wrote, which I once quoted to Robert Hayden, visibly shocking him, “Say, ‘it is in me, and shall out.’” Looking back, I believe it was the independence of those years of solitary study that helped give me the necessary tenacity of spirit, as well as the intuitive sense to recognize that there was no other literary form in which I could fully express what I felt about life. Early on, I realized that I had to go directly to the great epics and poets to learn how to write it. Although I had read by the mid-Eighties several academic books on epic poetry, for the most part, they were not helpful. I left them, dissatisfied, except for E. M. W. Tillyard’s book on epic poetry and one of his articles. That period of study culminated in my long essay “Epopee” in The Grove of the Eumenides, the last one in the book, looking to the future.
AM: I suspect that few of our readers will recognize the name Tillyard. Can you help?
FG: Unlike the New Criticism and other fads in criticism since, Tillyard was a real scholar worthy of the name, not a theorist or sophist, he being largely in the old historical, humanistic, practical, useful mode of criticism. His scholarship was of crucial importance to me, for it helped me to understand, at a fairly young age, what I was up against and how to proceed, go about actually studying for and writing an epic poem. I consider Tillyard an example of the role scholars have in building civilization, not tearing it down. There was no comparable help I ever found elsewhere. I was largely on my own and had to figure out almost everything for myself. In fact, I soon realized almost all of the prevailing scholarship and fads in culture and poetry would lead me astray from my chosen task, if I allowed it. By the early to mid-Eighties I became aware that I was training my mind to the task of writing an epic poem. As Virgil had written three books, I paced myself from there on, deciding I would follow his example, writing a book of lyric poems and dramatic monologues, then a book-length narrative poem telling a longer story, working up to and leading to my ability to write an epic poem, with many personae. Similarly thinking of developing my narrative ability, I wrote my master’s thesis on the narrative poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
AM: Can you tell us more about other influences?
FG: All of this, of course, was aside from the necessity of finding and achieving a Vision of our historical, global moment. Some of the great historians and scholars of religion and myth proved to be the most helpful, such as Arnold Toynbee’s many works, many of which I’ve read, especially Mankind and Mother Earth and his Gifford Lecture on religion. Most of the books by Huston Smith, too, beginning even in the early Seventies, were very important, as was Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Instead of the linear approach of Virgil and Milton in the in medias res, I felt my recognition of Jung’s formidable understanding of dreams and modern psychology required a more dream-like phantasmagoria, slightly “smudging” it, like a painter, toward the logic of dreams. And I, of course, read all the great epic poems, East and West, revising my notes and plot outline, again and again, over decades of study and reflection.
Analogous to the importance of Virgil to me, Dante led to my realizing that I could meld his canto within the twelve-book form of Virgil and Milton. But I also saw that his “deep structure would dovetail almost perfectly with my own spiritual experience and struggle to affirm the universal, transcendent sovereignty of God, which came together with the Rose Image of Mother Earth. All sanctimony aside, with all humility, as the descendent of Christians from several of the 60,000+ denominations, I have always been moved by and savored, from my first reading it in high school, the counsel of Christ to “pray to your Father” (Matt 6.6), and by, in the various great religions, similar guidance to pray and meditate.
AM: Jung is so often at play in these highly intellectual inquiries. Can you speak to your sense of the spiritual?
FG: s a very young person, I found myself drawn to daily prayer and meditation, usually morning and evening, already when I was in my early twenties, often back then for an hour or two a day, though the more sober “householder” stage of life necessarily shortened that. As usual, I prayed daily throughout the years of writing my epic, often turning to God, asking for help and guidance, meditating on how to proceed, resolving many literary problems through prayer. Prayer and meditation have been and are still important parts of my life as a man and a poet. There is a Mystery in consciousness, and in prayer, we can experience it. I believe prayer is essential to develop the deepest levels in ourselves of what it means to be a human being, our deepest levels of consciousness. Naturally, all this is reflected in my epic poem. I hope this conveys somewhat how I grappled with actually writing my epic.
AM: I want to take you to a question that should let you vent a bit about American poetry today and your observations on current themes in that poetry. You, sir, are not a conventional poet. I know that you have taught poetry, but I sense that you see yourself as somewhat of an outsider. Is that fair? Will you comment?
FG: Yes, from my earliest years, I have always thought of myself in opposition to much of what have become the prevailing, conventional modes of literary and cultural thinking and writing, academic and otherwise, without even trying, to my mind, and very much beyond postmodernism and all its clichés and assumptions. Part of it stems from my early interest in world religions and in the United Nations, coupled with my life-long study of history, East and West. This study began in high school. I have gone deeper and deeper into both ever since, in terms of literature, history and spiritual outlook. I add evermore what I think of as universality, while I fear much of the culture, around the world, has become more insular, parochial, closed off, superficial, and self-obsessed with backward, retrograde flights into imaginary pasts, which plague us, or has sunk into nihilistic and secular modes of thinking and utopias. Nihilism is an extremely dangerous, dehumanizing reduction of the fullness of life, of the 200,000 years of Homo sapiens on this planet. I consider it more of a threat than even fanatical Islam. We must not fail to understand and remember that dis-eased, nihilistic rationalism, along with its companion materialism, has produced the most oppressive, bloodiest episodes of the last hundred years.
AM: Good point. How has the work been received?
FG: I have found some readers respond only to one chapter or another of my epic and its respective worldview. They respond only to the exclusivism, which they already hold or value, while unable to hear the full symphony of our time, of human existence itself. In our age of extreme, even ridiculous specialization, many know little outside their box, cutting them off from the fullness and complexity of life, substituting narrow, dehumanizing ideologies. In this way, nihilism has us in a stranglehold.

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

As to my experience in Academia, I’ve repeatedly left the university, found it unconducive to my intellectual and spiritual development and growth, which has always been very painstakingly slow and hard won. Because I understood early on that the university does not own or represent the Tradition, I have always been able to walk away from it when necessary, and last in 1996. I’ve always felt that much of the university has lost and betrayed the Tradition.
AM: I cannot let you go without asking this next one, in my assumption that you are a deeply contemplative poet: what are you working on now?
FG: For a long time, and especially the last two or three months, I have been thinking again about writing an essay tentatively titled “Quantum Physics and Poetry.” I feel there is a need perhaps to spell out in prose some of what I am writing about in my epic poem, to help the reader. This may seem disconnected to some, but I first read about quantum physics in about 1973 in a book by George Leonard, called The Transformation, and then went on to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, reading many other works through the years. In my epic, of course, I wasn’t writing a science textbook, but, I’d like to think, absorbed and synthesized some of the implications of quantum physics, at very deep metaphorical and metaphysical levels, to reach into the human psyche.
I believe quantum physics changes the nature and meaning of all of the traditional religious and spiritual terms, which is very difficult to convey to people. I fear it may take another five hundred years and sheer hell for humanity fully to understand this. Modernity has left people often exceedingly distraught over religion when such needs not be the case. Minds on all sides tend to be indoctrinated and snap shut before understanding can even begin to take place, as Allan Bloom understood. I do address quantum physics in my epic, in what I think is the best way, in the language and epistemology of poetry, though also in The Myth of the Enlightenment.
To my surprise in late 2013, I had the startling thought of writing another epic poem, which had never occurred to me before, so intent was I on The Parliament, though more of a dramatic narrative, perhaps somewhat like John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Having spent over thirty years on The Parliament of Poets, I doubt I have enough time left for another full-scale epic (laughing).
And then on a shorter time-scale, I still hope to live out that rhapsode dream, mentioned earlier, at least a little, maybe for a few years, if I’m lucky, somehow, though in this world, at my age, I know many dreams never come true, but nevertheless serve to inspire us toward our better angels. No matter what happens, I am grateful that I have been allowed to finish my epic. I feel fulfilled as a man that that dream has come true.
Arthur McMaster’s poems have appeared in such journals as North American Review, Poetry East, Southwest Review, Rhino, Rattle, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination. He has two published poetry chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Poetry Initiative, in 2008. His latest book is a memoir: Need to Know, Journey of an American Intelligence Officer to College Professor and Poet. Arthur holds an MA degree from University of Maryland (International Relations) and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. He teaches creative writing (poetry and fiction) and 20th Century American literature, at Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC.