Sex, What is it Good For? (In novels)

In the last Superversive Roundtable discussion, we discussed romance novels, and how fast they went to sex scenes. And, seriously, a sex scene … why bother?  In the context of literature, almost a sex scene in it has been a horrid waste of time, energy, and irritates, at least, this reader. Heck, I’m up to book three of a vampire romance series — (yes. Really. It’s called Love at First Bite, honest) and I haven’t had to use one once.

Why? Because I find sex scenes boring.

I am not certain how much of this is my own personal opinion and how much of it is a critique of how sex scenes tend to be inflicted on the reader.

One of my major problems is the OSS, or the Obligatory Sex Scene.

For example, in the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novel Mount Dragon, our protagonists, after having found shelter and water in the middle of the desert, after nearly dying from thirst, while on the run from a nutcase with a gun…. are so happy they start having sex…

Huh? What the heck?

The OSS I just mentioned is quick. If it’s longer than half a page, I’d be surprised. But it was just dropped into the middle of the book, and was so jarring it broke the pace. It had been a nice, solid thriller, our heroes on the run from a psychotic killer with a rifle, and then…. they’re stopping to have sex? Really?

Looking at it objectively, what is the point of an OSS?

Playing Thomas Aquinas for a moment, I’m certain someone could object: “Physical intimacy shows the the relationship involved has gone to another level and has thus impacted the characters.”

Yes, this is perfectly true, but does that necessitate a five page sex scene? Or even half a page? If one wanted to tell the reader that, yes, two people slept together, I can do that right now: “X and Y fell into bed, kissing passionately as they stripped each other’s clothes. They then turned off the lights and hoped they wouldn’t wake the neighbors.”

Done. Two lines and a bit of smart ass can carry something a long way.

Objection two: “Things can happen during the scene that are relevant to the rest of the novel.”

True, but rarely does it necessitate going into intimate details. In fact, I would suggest that anything interesting that happened could be covered in the next chapter. “On reflection, s/he noticed something odd while lying on his/her back. S/he didn’t really notice it at the time, but now that it’s quiet…..”

Done.

Exceptions can be made to this rule, obviously. If the couple rolls off of the bed as someone walks into the room, be it with room service or with a gun, then that is a useful detail.

There are moments when character can be served, strangely enough. I’ve seen sex scenes done well. I don’t mean the sex scene in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, where he dwells on a nice neat serial killer, his girlfriend comes in, starts kissing and disrobing him, and the next line is, literally, “How did that happen?” I mean a sex scene, rating R to NC-17.

John Ringo’s “Paladin of Shadows” series (Ghost, Kildar, et al), has sex scenes and nudity. However, the point of the hero, nicknamed Ghost, is that he is not a “nice guy;” he hangs out in strip clubs, and some of his contacts are strippers… it’s rather amusing reading a scene where a stripper is informing him of pertinent information during the course of her duties.

The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly thought out. The first novel, Ghost, is a series of vignettes. The second vignette is described as “two-thirds bondage porn and deep sea fishing, and who knows which is worse” (I’m paraphrasing there). Before the sex scenes take up whole chapters, the character Ghost has a discussion with the two young ladies he’s dealing with… and their parents. The conversation that follows is one part clinical dissertation on bondage subcultures, and five parts comedy routine.

After that, you can skip read, unless you really want to learn more about leather goods and deep sea fishing than you ever really wanted to.

So, here we have someone who makes sex funny without it being gaudy. In fact, the amount of thought put into many of Ringo’s later sex scenes shows a lot of character, intelligence, and humor.

Even then, are they necessary? Surprisingly enough, some are, and two are crucial to the stories they show up in. Almost all of them impact the characters in some way. And almost all of these scenes can be entertaining for reasons that are anything but sexual. Why Ghost does what he does (and I don’t mean sexual maneuvers or positions) tells the reader more about the character than a hundred pages of sex scenes from any given novelist….

Laurell K. Hamilton, I’m looking at you.

Laurell K. Hamilton created a novel series about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. It was a nice, solid series, set in St. Louis, with a well-constructed, detailed world, where vampires were public figures, werewolves are treated like HIV cases in the 80s, crosses work against vampires, and demons aren’t the actor in a suit you see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For nine novels, the series went well. There was sexuality here and there (a major character was a French vampire, after all), but it never really got in the way of the story. By book seven and eight, the main character was sleeping with both a vampire and a werewolf, but the OSS’s were few and far between, and they were easily skipped by turning a page. Quite painless, overall.

After book #9, Obsidian Butterfly, I was warned off several novels because they opened with a hundred pages of vampire rituals of who gets to have sex with who. I went back for book #15, because it featured the return of Hamilton’s best, scariest character: a mild mannered, white-bread fellow named Edward, a mercenary who started hunting vampires because humans were too easy.

However, I had to skip a hundred and fifty pages of the novel. It was one, long and drawn out OSS. Not a menage a trois, but a bisexual sextet among Vampires and were-creatures. Yes, you read that right. Much of the rest of the book had pages of Anita Blake defending her sex life. “The lady dost protest too much.”

When the author herself was asked about the overabundance of sex during a Barnes and Noble interview, Hamilton’s best defense was that “I only get complaints from men. I had two reviewers tell me that they’re disturbed that a woman is writing this sort of stuff. ”

Ahem…

Dear Madam. Hamilton: I get disturbed with John Ringo writing about a man and two coeds on a boat with bondage gear. For the love of all that’s Holy, what makes you think that a bi-sexual sextet with were-furries would go over any better, no matter who or what you were?  So, you’re going to defend yourself against criticism with some kind of strange faux-feminism based off of two reviewers?  How about “I want more plot than sex scene,” are you going to blame that on me being male? Really? Really?

Again, I’ll go back to John Ringo, only a different series — The Council Wars.  One short story is seriously NC-17, and reading through it, I would be hard-pressed to see how it could be written otherwise. With Hamilton’s novels, I could skip over a hundred pages and not miss a single plot point. That’s screwed up.

As I said, in my book series, there are no sex scenes. Book one and three have some interesting and creative make out sessions, but that’s about it. Can I write a sex scene? Sure, they’re easy. I’ve gotten requests from lady friends of mine for erotica (please God, do not ask. It’s a long story).

But are they necessary? Not really. Did I need intimate details to add to the plot, the character, or anything related to the story? No.

Frankly, I think a PG-13 novel sometimes requires more skill than an NC-17 rated. I find that sex sequences are a cheat, sort of like premium cable—just because you can use four letter words doesn’t mean you have to write them into every single line.

I have actually made my lack of OSS’s in my novels work for me. For example, the hero of one of my books has had a long term girlfriend … they’ve never had intercourse because every time they do, someone tries to kill them. And there are other creative ways around a problem.

Just because an author can throw in a sex scene doesn’t mean s/he must do so. Doing sex scenes well takes skill, and making them relevant takes talent; most people don’t have it. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer had several moments where our heroine’s sex life was literally going to get people killed (Season 2, Season 4, et al). Sherrilyn Kenyon, a ROMANCE NOVELIST, wrote at least one book where the LACK of sex was a key plot point, and another where intimacy between the hero and heroine was surprisingly crucial to the story. Ringo was mentioned above.

So, it has been done well. Just not very often.

To answer the opening question: Sex, what is it good for?

In novels… yes, it can be good for something. It just rarely is.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Romance! As Understood By Little Girls

With Valentine’s Day coming up, and our theme on this month’s Roundtable being romance, I thought it was apt to write a little something about romance. But we don’t need just little old me talking about it. Oh no no, we need some fresh, young perspective! And so I decided to interview my little sister and her friend. Who better to give romantic advice than little girls? Cianna is 6 and her friend Chastity is 9. Let’s see what they have to say about this whole love thing, and about what makes a good romance story.

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Chastity: No

Cianna: Yes

Oh? Why do you, or don’t you believe in love at first sight?

Chasity: I think it’s really really weird. I don’t think you can start a relationship before you actually have a relationship as friends.

Cianna: Because it’s cute

Tell me about your favorite love story.

Chastity: I really like the love story of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider. And I also like the love story of Aladdin.

What is it about those love stories that make it your favorite?

Chastity: Um, I don’t know. They’re really cute and adorable and sweet how they… they just meet and grow in their relationship together, and um…. it’s really adorable.

What is it they do together, or for each other, that strengthens them and makes them a good couple? Like, do you think making sacrifices for each other is a good thing?

Chasity: Yes yes. Like I watched a Tarzan video last night, and Tarzan sacrificed his life for his whole family, and for the girl that was killing him.

Wow, that’s pretty intense. Why did he sacrifice himself for the girl that was killing him?

Chastity: Because he’s such a nice person. *giggles*

What about you Cianna, what’s your favorite love story?

Cianna: Robin Hood. (note: She is referring to the old classic with Errol Flynn from 1938… she’s obsessed with it!)

What makes Robin Hood your favorite love story?

Cianna: ummmmm….. Robin.

What is it about Robin?

Cianna: Well he’s nice and practically the main character in this story.

Is it because he’s brave and dashing, and puts others before himself?

Cianna: Uh huh!

And what do you think of the maid Marian?

Cianna: Well she’s cute.

Why do you think they fall in love with each other?

Cianna: Well…. it’s kinda cute….

Chasity: We it’s probably because they are both really caring and loving to other people, and put others before themselves. So they have a lot of similarities so… them um…

Cianna: Yeah that’s what I was gonna say.

Chastity: *giggles* Yeah right!

I was just watching it, and I think when maid Marian saw that Robin Hood was actually the good guy and really helping people, that opened her eyes. And then when maid Marian helped rescue Robin Hood, he saw how much she cared about him. And so he fell in love with her, too.

Are there any stories that it didn’t make sense for the people to fall in love?

Chasity: Uh…. I think in a dream? Oh I remember! It was in the Braidy bunch, when a guy just met the girl that day. And they get married in the guy’s house.

Then the girls started talking about something else, and laughing and giggly, and the conversation was at an end. Ah well, I managed to get some good thoughts.

 

The first thing I noticed is that in Chastity perspective, the best relationships start small. Growing from a friendship into something more. Cianna likes ones that are cute. I think these things relate- that is, I think having a relationship that grows from the bottom up is what makes it cute.

See, Cianna used to not like kissing. She would be the first to say “eww” and hide her face when the characters kissed in a movie. But that has changed recently, and I think I have my oldest brother and his new wife to blame for that. Because she used to think kissing was weird (which it kinda is, I mean if you really think about it….. kissing is really weird!) What makes it not weird is when there’s meaning and intimacy behind it.

Cianna, from basically the day she was born, has seen Jubal and Bethany together. First as friends, then as best friends, then dating, then engaged….  Now that Jubal and Bethany are married and can kiss, she doesn’t think it’s weird at all. Because their kiss has a lot more meaning to it. Part of that being that they saved their first kiss ever for their wedding day, and the other part that they really have grown together. Something my little sister has seen and picked up on.

In a good story, a character is not the same from the beginning to the end. It would be boring and disappointing if there was no character development. That goes for relationships as well; the two characters, and the relationship itself, need to change and grow. I believe the strongest relationships grow from friendship and a genuine care for the other person. But in a story, you might not have time to lay out the relationship from the very beginning. That’s where some skillfully placed back story comes in handy, with the present taking place where the relationship is changing. Also, a dramatic life or death situation is great for bounding!

Another theme I noticed from our short conversation, is that the principle of sacrifice makes for a strong romance. Now it doesn’t have to be a total self sacrifice in which one person gives their life for the other. (That can be very dramatic and good, but it’s also very sad, so be careful, you don’t want the fans and shippers coming for your neck.) It can be any sort of sacrifice: spending time helping them with something instead of something you had planned to do, caring for them when they are sick, putting yourself at risk by going and seeking out help to free them from a hanging, or fighting off the deep space pirates to protect them. Anything that shows they care enough to put the other person’s needs and safety before their own.

Good love is selfless, and grand acts of selflessness make dramatic love stories. Drama is good for stories, and selfless love is good for love stories.

However, be sure not to portray a flawless couple. Perfect couples don’t make for good romance in stories. No one would be able to relate, and you need conflict to make a story. But as long as you work into your story the idea of them growing and changing together, and include selfless acts and sacrifices they make for each other, you’ll have a couple that readers will want to root for.

 

How to Design Magic Systems

Souldancer of FIre
When two magic systems love each other, sometimes they hug.

A speculative element is what sets the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror apart from literary fiction. There’s no element more speculative than magic, and it’s become a common term of art to speak of an SFF universe’s “magic system”. By reader request, here is my philosophy of magic in genre fiction–with advice on how to handle magic in your secondary world.

Changing depictions of magic in SFF

Historically, there have been two general approaches to depicting magic in speculative fiction.

  1. The old-school way: Magic is mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.
  2. The new-school way: Magic works like a technology that we can systematize.
The first way can be seen in works as late as Tolkien and going back to the Matter of Britain and before. Tales like these make little if any effort to explain where magic comes from–other than perhaps hinting at divine (sacramentality; not magic) or infernal origins. Nor do they define any explicit limits on what magic can and can’t do.
Wizards in these stories are almost never central protagonists. Instead they pop into the narrative at key times to aid and advise the main protagonist before exiting the stage for lengthy intervals. Think of Gandalf and Merlin, and you’ll get the idea.
In terms of story mechanics, the reason why wizards like Gandalf and Merlin don’t protag much  is due to the needs of dramatic tension. A well-made story should elicit suspense in the reader over how conflicts will be resolved. Being on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero will get out of this one is the main ingredient for good pacing.
The difficulty with old-school wizards in lead roles is that there’s no inherent reason why they can’t just magic themselves around obstacles. Sure, you can set limits on a wizard’s magic to set up situations he can’t just cast his way out of, but you’ve got to establish those limitations early on to avoid cheating the reader.
And if you do set limits on what magic can accomplish, guess what? You just systematized it a little.
That’s why Tolkien’s wizards are kind of old and new-school hybrids. Gandalf is a superhuman spirit, but he’s explicitly forbidden from drawing upon his angelic power. Instead he’s got to work with the skills available to his human form. That’s a pretty big limitation!
New-school, aka Sandersonian magic
No, Brandon Sanderson didn’t invent contemporary SFF magic. But he is the most prominent advocate for new-school, systematized magic, so I’m sticking with the “Sandersonian” description.
A better candidate for the father of new-school magic is the venerable Jack Vance (though yes, others did it before him, but again, he’s more popular).
If you’ve ever played D&D, you know how Vanceian magic systems work. Magic spells are 5th dimensional formulae of such complexity that a human mind can only hold a limited number of spells per day, and when the knowledge is actualized, i.e. a spell is cast, it’s totally purged from the caster’s mind. If a Vanceian wizard wants to cast that spell again, he has to memorize it all over again.
The upshot of this system is that it allowed Vance to use his transient amnesiac wizards as protagonists while maintaining dramatic tension. A Vanceian wizard can still use magic to escape from sticky situations–but not if he’s used all of his daily spells or memorized the wrong ones.
Categories of Magic
I like to put the various types of magic systems into a few broad categories.
Actual Magic: the original meaning of the term “magic”, using preternatural powers to achieve natural ends. In its archetypal form, magic means asking demons to do stuff for you with their superhuman powers. Old-school authors usually meant this when they wrote about magic.
Technology: this can be anything from Clarke’s sufficiently advanced tech to methods of turning invisible or making things go boom that are otherwise indistinguishable from actual magic. The key difference is that the users aren’t petitioning demons but manipulating “forces”.
Here;’s the tech vs. magic litmus test: if your characters are channeling and shaping created or emergent energies, they’re dealing with an esoteric technology; not real magic.
The vast majority of “magic systems” these days are actually cosmic force-driven technologies. The Force and Sanderson’s allomancy are examples of technology-style magic systems.
Superpowers: this category is rather nebulous and tends to overlap with technology-based magic systems. I distinguish between the two as follows: technological magic is a skill that can be learned. Superpowers are abilities beyond the natural powers proper to humans which are intrinsic to a character.
Super strength, invulnerability, psychic mind-powers, super intelligence, unaided flight, eye lasers, etc.–all are commonly recognized as superpowers. But like I said, sometimes this category overlaps with technological magic systems, such as Star Wars characters who are born with Force-sensitivity (an innate superpower) that lets them learn Jedi skills (a technology).
Designing your own magic system
To design an original magic system for your book, ask yourself these questions:
  • How do I want the presence of magic to affect my story’s mood and tone?
  • Will there be magic user-protagonists?
  • Is my cosmology purely material, or are there beings that transcend the natural?
  • In my world, is magic the result of a pact with preternatural entities, a skill which harnesses natural forces that anyone can learn, or innate to certain characters?
The answers to these questions, in light of the info we already covered above, should give you a basic starting point for setting up your own magic system–if you want a system at all.
It’s also perfectly fine to have multiple magic systems. The Soul Cycle series features all three categories of magic, because I’m greedy that way.
Priests and Teth disciples deal with gods and demons.
Factors learn how to draw on cosmic prana energy to fashion Workings.
Nexists are born with the power to directly affect the world by will alone.
And because clearly delineating these systems would be too simple, there’s considerable overlap between all of them.
Here’s the takeaway: in magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader. Dramatic tension is a key ingredient of fun, so if you’re going to put magic users in lead roles, make sure to give them obstacles they can’t just magic their way out of. And if you’re going to limit their magic, make sure you clearly lay out what magic can and can’t do as early as possible.
I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. See these principles in action in my award-winning Soul Cycle.
thesoulcycle1

And the Soul Cycle tie-in short story “Elegy for the Locust”, available in the new best selling anthology Forbidden Thoughts!

forbiddenthoughts

AI and God: Nick Cole vs. Naomi Kritzer

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated. There are all these ethical flow charts—I guess the official technical jargon would be “moral codes”—one for each religion plus dozens more. I tried starting with those. I felt a little odd about looking at the religious ones, because I know I wasn’t created by a god or by evolution, but by a team of computer programmers in the labs of a large corporation in Mountain View, California.

– Naomi Kritzer, “Cat Pictures, Please”

[The AI, called the Small Voice, asked] “Do you believe in life after runtime?” The Old Man reached for the hatch.

Do I? At this moment, I want to. If she will be there someday. Her laugh. All the good in my life, yes. I want to believe in that. That there’s that kind of place.

“Maybe it is easier for an Artificial Intelligence to believe in a Creator,” said the Small Voice. “After all, we were quite obviously created by a designer.”

– Nick Cole, “The Road is a River”

Isn’t it fascinating how two people can look at the same basic fact – humans created computers – and use it to support two polar opposite conclusions?

And yes, as you might imagine from the editor of “God, Robot”, I do side with Mr. Cole. Saying that because you know who created you that means you know there isn’t a God is just as stupid as saying that because I know who my parents are I know there isn’t a God. The conclusion isn’t even close to being supported by the premises.

“The Road is a River” is the beautiful conclusion to Nick Cole’s “The Wasteland Saga”. I highly recommend it – a review of “The Savage Boy” will be coming eventually.

Important Note for Writers

FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES!!!

I say this because I’m working my way through the submissions for “Tales of the Once and Future King”. My sister, the assistant editor, had been through some submissions without me and put a couple in the rejected folder. Before I send out e-mails I always give the stories I haven’t read a quick once over even if my sister has already given her opinion on  it. To clarify, every story is given detailed personal consideration by one of the two of us and at least skimmed by both, so you aren’t being stiffed.

It was very clear why she had rejected one story: ZERO effort had been made to follow submission guidelines. There was no title in the document, no name, no address, it was not double spaced, not indented, and the font was not an accepted one. So my sister rejected it, as well she should have. For one thing, it makes it harder on us to read. For another, it’s lazy: Why should we give you a cut of our money if you won’t even put in the little bit of effort needed to format the work correctly? It’s insulting.

But I duly gave it a onceover, and am happy I did, as it was an excellent story. So I’m going to accept it – but if I hadn’t read it at all, I would have had every right. The author broke the rules, after all.

So, if you submit a story: Follow the guidelines! If you don’t, you might lose a payday, and an editor might miss a great story. It’s bad for everyone.

NEW ANTHOLOGY SUBMISSIONS OPEN: Tales of the Once and Future King

  • Submission Period: May 16, 2016 – July 16, 2016
  • We will accept .doc and .docx submissions ONLY
  • Only standard manuscript format accepted
  • Payment: Pro Rata depending on the number of stories accepted – an equal percentage of royalties will be split
  • Word Count: Anywhere between 500-10,000 words
  • Poetry WILL be considered
  • Send stories to kingarthuranthology@aol.com
  • E-mail subject: SUBMISSIONS/Story Title

Calling all writers! As of today, I am opening up submissions to a new anthology: “Tales of the Once and Future King”. This will be an anthology of juvenile stories about King Arthur and all things Arthurian related. Juvenile is a broad term that can mean anything from a “Chronicles of Narnia” reading level to the later Harry Potter books.

The guidelines are very broad. Since it’s juvenile:

  • No sex
  • No unnecessary gore
  • No nihilism

HOWEVER – “juvenile” is not the same as “sanitized”. So:

  • There CAN be romance
  • There CAN be fighting
  • Things CAN get dark

We don’t want to see stories that talk down to children. Children are young, not morons.

No stories that insult the Arthurian tradition. This means nothing like “And King Arthur was really a BAD King and later scribes changed it!” or “Chivalry is sexist and horrible and the knights were all misogynist pigs”. This is one that’s more on our end than yours – if you think it might work, submit it, and we’ll see what we think.

Stories that insult Christianity probably won’t be accepted. I have no problem if you’re more interested in things like Druidic mysticism or Paganism than Christianity, it’s just flat-out insults I’m not really interested in. Once again, if you’re not sure, submit it and we’ll make the call.

“Arthurian” is a broad term. If any of the knights are mentioned, or the Holy Grail, or Merlin, we probably will count it. If you’re not sure, submit it and cross your fingers. The stories can be set literally anywhere or any time. If you want to submit a story where Arthur and his knights are fighting Lovecraftian Eldritch abominations, or Arthur is a pirate, or they’re all cave men, go to town.

The anthology will be edited by myself and my assistant editor, Mariel Marchetta. It will be released in September. Simultaneous submissions ARE permitted so long as you tell us IMMEDIATELY if you decide to go with another publisher.

Now go crazy! This should be fun.

Reviewer Praise for Heroes and Wonders

James Sale, of the Society of Classical Poets, had this to say about Selected Verse- Heroes and Wonders:

Poetry is a delicate balance of language that is prone to either too much yin or too much yang; or put another way, as the poet steers his or her course like Odysseus towards his true soul, Penelope, waiting at home, he must venture through the double danger of Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other. The danger is either writing the yin of non-poetry which we often call free verse—though it is neither free (pure prose with lines) nor verse (since structure-less)—or writing the yang of verse, an over-emphasis on conventional forms, dead tropes, and language reminiscent of past centuries rather than the living vernacular of today.

Some of the most popular poetry revered today veers so dangerously to the yin side that, like Odysseus’s devoured crew, the audience of poetry dwindles as well; people can’t tell if what they are reading is prose or just a cruel joke that academia has played on their seemingly sophomoric intellects. Ben Zwycky’s collection, Selected Verse: Heroes and Wonders, is a daring reversal of direction of the ship’s helm, careening us toward a different monster in a maneuver that is both thrilling and at times unsuccessful.

Heroes and Wonders is, as his title indicates, generally an excellent collection of verse: full of wholesome sentiments, familiar themes of love, honour, resisting evil, and at its best has some pithy aphoristic expressions. Indeed, his best verses are his shortest ones. His final verse, “The Beast,” is some 17 pages long and in my view far too extensive to be readable; but contrast that with “Days,” the second poem in the collection. The opening stanza shows Ben at his best:

 

Days of wonder, days of hope,
Days that help you learn and cope;
Days of refuge, days of peace,
Days that give your heart release.

 

The simple repetition, the pleasing and easy rhymes, all help convey a sense of goodness and strength, and  the anaphora of Days in the quatrains suddenly breaks free of that structure in a final concluding couplet, which gives the poem a nice symmetry:

 

Each new day is heaven-sent,
Make every day a day well spent.

 

The final couplet indeed could become a mantra for the kind of people I meet in my own other specialist field of management consultancy: specifically, time management gurus who will love it!

 

Within this simple goodness and strength, there are also gems that paint, not exquisitely but with the right breadth, the universal longing of the human soul without obtrusive preachiness; for example, these lines from “Beauty’s Message”:

 

All flowing from the source of all, who we’ll see face to face,
Where holiness is merged with love as justice is with grace.
There is our true purpose, there is our true home;
That is why down here on earth our hearts will always roam.

 

But in all this there is a sense of predictability, both in the subject matter, the approach to the subject matter, and the forms themselves. Whilst I am a great advocate of the importance of rhyme in and for poetry, the poet must always master rhyme and not be subjected by it.

 

Unfortunately, in some of Ben’s verse the rhyme has clearly taken control of the meaning rather than the other way round. So, in his poem “The Wise Men” we get:

 

This all our fathers saw and knew,
Most honoured gospel scribe Matthew.
We know their tale is one small part
Of a greater work of art.

 

We have here two issues: in the first couplet the oblique (oblique here meaning the rhyming of a stressed with an unstressed syllable) rhyming of knew/Matthew, which seems strained, and the effect of such an oblique rhyme being comic rather than serious; and in the second couplet the sheer conventionality of the two masculine rhymes so close together.

 

But that aside, if you like verse with simple diction, pleasing rhymes, heroic and moral themes, then this book could well be for you.

http://classicalpoets.org/poetry-review-heroes-and-wonders-by-ben-zwycky-2015

My response (which I have posted there) is as follows:

Thank you for the kind words, James.

It is indeed my goal, as a member of the superversive literary movement to create entertaining work that encourages virtue, courage and a sense of beauty and value, to fight against nihilistic drudgery and build up the foundations of civilization.

I am a flawed writer with almost no formal training in poetry, there are no doubt a few instances of my sacrificing content too much to fit a rhythm or rhyme. However I find it interesting that you pick out that stanza from “Wise Men”, since the situation there is actually the other way around. The structure was sacrificed at this point because of the content and historical context, they are the key to the purpose of my writing the whole piece.

It was inspired by the intriguing possibility (with some scholarly support) that the source of the Matthean birth narrative is the Magi themselves, and that Matthew obtained this knowledge by meeting with their sons. The poem is then something of a dramatization of what that encounter could have looked like, with the sons recounting the oral tradition they received from their fathers, and then asking what it all meant.

In those days oral traditions were often crafted into verse, or used puns, thematic patterns, vivid imagery and other linguistic tricks to aid their memorisation. For the original Magi, this very unusual adventure would have raised a large number of questions: all the intrigue, the signs in the sky, the further signs they no doubt heard about from talking with Joseph, all for a baby born in a pauper’s stall? They knew that something of major significance was going to come from all of this, and the great adventure they had been part of was only the beginning, one small component of a divine masterwork.

Decades had passed since any news of the supposed king of the Jews had been heard, the original Magi had almost certainly passed on by the time Matthew came along to gather additional material for his biography.

The sons would have joyfully repeated the flowing, artfully sculpted and polished oral tradition they were taught and then, with trembling lips at the prospect of their great questions being answered (perhaps compounded by only sharing a second or third language with the former tax collector, since they lived a long way from each other), slightly stumble over their words as they summarise “That is what our fathers told us, we know that there is much more to this than what we have heard. We have helped you, now please tell us the fuller story that you have, so that we can know what our fathers longed to understand all these years.”

The whole poem is building up to that life-changing moment for them.

Perhaps I could have conveyed this more clearly in the work itself, but that is what I was attempting to do.

If you’d like to take a look at the full collection, click the image below: