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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

ROBERT BLY POETRY AND BANJO PICKIN

emilie brzezinski

I've been reading a fair amount of poetry the last several months. It started when I bought Louise Gluck's Collected Poems last year. It waits in a stack beside my reading / movie viewing chair beside my reading lamp, a floor lamp that is a half inch chrome pipe from floor to lamp and shade. I like a simple lamp. Louise Gluck inspired me to take John Berryman's, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, off the shelf to read a poem whenever the notion strikes. Bought a new book of poems by Bill Nixon, Brazen Throats, that concern Vietnam war. Then I brought down from the shelf Robert Lowell, then Robert Bly, May Swenson, Gregory Orr, Greg Kuzma and George Seferis, one at a time over a period of weeks. I went ahead and bought Robert Bly's new Selected Poems, Stealing Sugar From the Castle. These others I like an awful lot, but Bly satisfies what I want from a poem. That's not absolute. Like John Berryman's book, Love and Fame, takes my breath from first page to last. I feel in sync with Robert Bly's flow somehow. It's been at least twenty years, even more, since I've dipped into my poetry books. I read Bly in the past, in the decade of the 70s. I probably read more of him than any of the others of the post WW2 American poets. His book, Light Around The Body, satisfies me immensely. Bly wrote an anti-war poem of Vietnam called The Teeth-Mother Naked At Last. It is ten verses and eight pages. It's powerful. I heard Bly read it at a reading in 1975 or 76, College of Charleston. He read it powerfully, dramatically, loud without bombast, furious, making his statement on war in poetry. Poetry and pop songs that deal with politics die at the moment the political issue is over. Political poems date as quickly as fashions. I have a cassette tape of Bly reading Teeth-Mother. I played some of it for my old Regular Baptist preacher friend, Millard Pruitt, some time in the 1980s. He listened closely and said, "Who is that, Buck Shaw?" Shaw is a preacher in the county. I had to laugh inside. If Bly knew an old Appalachian preacher in the old way took hearing him read Teeth-Mother for an old-timey hillbilly preacher, Bly would love it. Giving it some thought, I imagine he'd be happy with the likeness. It fit. Bly was preaching, speaking dramatically with rhythmic emphases, the way the old-timers preached.
 
emilie brzezinski
 
Bly gets down and dirty in Teeth-Mother like the great anti-war song of the time by the Fugs, Kill For Peace. It went farther than any of the other anti-war songs of the time. Bly in Teeth-Mother does not tiptoe over modest sensibilities. He puts you in the fighter pilot's seat dropping napalm on a village. He puts you inside the grass hut when it explodes. He takes us on a flight roaring over jungle and rectangular fields driven by jet engines. The opening three lines:
 
 Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck.
 Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets.
 
 Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep over
          the huts with dirt floors.
 
 
This reading of the Teeth-Mother, half a century after the war that in Vietnam now is called the American War, the poem has not dated one minute. The war is historical by now, but Bly's poem has immediacy that brings it into the present moment, now, as we speak. I feel in the presence of important writing. After thumbing through the pages when the book arrived, stopping at short verses for brief previews, I went to The Teeth-Mother Naked At Last the first time sitting down with it. Read it three times so far. I love its rhythms. The words make their own rhythms. It has a good flow for reading aloud in a small auditorium, Bly a poet who draws a good-sized audience in the university world. He gives a good reading. Poets, who tend to be inward people, often don't like giving readings, and many are boring in the delivery. Bly holds the audience attention as a stage performer whose performance is talking, like a preacher. In the time I witnessed him reading he wore a big serape all the time. I took it for a stage prop, like musicians in bands have their stage shirts, that is in bands where they wear shirts. The serape gave color and pizzazz to his plain Minnesota protestant person. I don't know, but imagine he came up in Scandinavian Protestantism, in his case Norwegian. The preacher I grew up influenced by was Swedish from Minnesota. He was so hard core the Southern Baptist Association would not accept him though he tried every year to get in. He was zealous.

emilie brzezinski

Robert Bly's poems excite me in a way similar to how good lyrics in a pop song can excite me, like the Rolling Stones', Wild Horses or Brown Sugar, or like Jane's Addiction's Mountain Song and Pigs In Zen. Just now went to YouTube to hear Mountain Song. I'm remembering seeing the band in 1991 on their last tour, and what an ecstatic experience it was hearing them at concert volume, the guitars, the vocals. I've taken a moment to read about a dozen of Bly's poems picked randomly. In one way, his writing is natural with a smooth flow, and in another way, he goes into the subconscious dreamscape within using the "magical realism" of Latin American writers unto seeming obscurity. Example from a poem found opening the book randomly, The Sympathies of the Long Married:

          Let's not drive the wild angels from our door.
          Maybe the mad fields of grain will move.
          Maybe the troubled rocks will learn to walk.

He takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary, as does Henry Miller in his prose in a different way, his own way. The present moment is full of associations from the past, from our deepest feelings to our deepest mind that includes insights from the higher self. I feel like Bly's poems start as an attempt to reach the higher self, a line at a time, a step at a time, he finds his way and enters a new world of understanding that includes the soul's understanding. Having this review of a poet I admired almost half a century ago, I'm finding subconscious influence of what I've learned from Robert Bly is at work unconsciously in my own writing, in my thinking, same as I found reviewing Henry Miller's writing. I had no idea how much Miller influenced my thinking and writing. Miller helped me to pay attention to the people around me, to appreciate each person's unique place at the center of the universe. I suspect Bly acted as a guide for me in his approach to a poem, in his search for the higher self within, to include the dream as reality, the same as looking out the window, seeing a donkey switching its tail and grazing, even to appreciate that which I otherwise might not. Bly's poems can be a discouragement to a young poet in the same way the banjo picking by Fred Cockerham can make a young banjo hopeful say, I'll never be able to do that no matter how much I practice or how long I live. Bly, like Cockerham, makes it seem so simple even a beginner could do it. But when you pay close attention to what he's doing, it can be like listening to a high school senior's valedictory talk to a second grader, over the head and unimaginably complex. For some, it becomes a goal. For others, it can be discouraging, not allowing that Fred Cockerham was once a beginner, too, learning his first chords and figuring out how to hold the strings down to make them ring and not go thud.

emilie brzezinski

I'm thinking of young Cheyanne, just turned seven, holding her first banjo looking for how to make the chords she could remember with her left hand, striking the strings and they go thud. It didn't matter. It was the first time her fingers had touched tuned banjo strings. Just that it made a sound delighted her. Of course, the adult impulse is to say you have to hold the strings down tight to make them ring, you don't hit the strings like that, you do it like this, giving instruction: I know more than you do. I said to myself, This is the first time she's ever held it, leave her alone, let her teach herself; that's how it's really done. I let go of my ridiculous mind and joined Cheyanne in her delight that she made the banjo say something. Didn't matter what, just let it say whatever it had to say. I feel an impulse to play for her Alice Gerrard singing, I'm goin around this world, I'm a banjo pickin girl, goin around this world, baby mine. But I don't want her to hear advanced banjo pickin yet, don't want to discourage her before she starts. That's for later when she finds the music. I want her own fascination to be her guide. Holding it, making sound with it, brings her light to the surface and makes her glow. It seems a deep inner need like she knew the banjo from a lifetime past. I'm recalling a time my banjo pickin friend Jr Maxwell told a guy who came to him asking Jr to teach him bluegrass banjo. Jr said, "If you can't figure it out for yourself, you don't want to play." I'm not going to hold Cheyanne to that, or anything. Will only encourage, not push. In my own writing as art form, not holding "art form" as something lofty, but everyday life, I am following the way of the mountain musician. It's not about money. It's about fun, having fun. It's not called playing because it's work. It's about going with your own style, what works for you, because it's fun. It's about playing better all the time, steps at a time, reaching for the best you can make it every time. It's called playing by ear. The ear tells the fingers what to do. There comes a time in the mastery of making music that mind leaves altogether, leaves an open passageway between ear and fingers. That's when the music flows. Writing the daily blog is my own form of banjo pickin, setting the music in motion and flowing with it. The most fun I have in any day is the day's writing. It's play. I listen to the rhythm as I write, and even sometimes leave mind in the writing. My own personal search is for a balance between head and heart, in the writing as well as in the living, to honor the feminine as well as the masculine, allow them to dance. Thank you, Robert Bly, and thank you, Henry Miller, for pointing the way for me to follow my own path, not somebody else's.

emilie brzezinski
 
 
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1 comment:

  1. Wow TJ,.you have such a deep understanding of life. How to live it..How to lead by not leading..how to guide by keeping still...I was never exposed to poetry so I do not have an understanding of the different poets as you do but enjoy reading them thru you...This DCP has not only brought me new friends but new knowledge in feilds I had never dreamed of before...thanks for a nice e read with my coffee this morning

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