Poet Special: Works by Bill Yarrow (June 2013 / 13.12)

Poet Special: Works by Bill Yarrow (June 2013 / 13.12)

Bill Yarrow

We Don’t Need No Education

You were sitting with your vexed complexion,
your dour shoulders, your hoarse aloneness
in the front row of my English for Unwed Mothers
class, and I hadn’t yet read your essay on “Miscarriages
of Injustice,” nor had you read Montaigne’s “That Men
Are Justly Punished for Being Obstinate in the Defense
of a Fort That Is Not in Reason To Be Defended,” and it
wasn’t yet Thursday 2004 when we would be sitting
on the curb in front of The Sikh Community Café
where you were telling me, “The body is a lost temple
of bliss,” and the smile on my face was palpably inapt,
and I blurted out, “There’s an ill energy that emanates
from your precise heart that I find attractive,” to which
you replied, editing me with a surgeon’s cruel disinterest,
“You mean it’s an attractive ill energy,” and I said, “Yes,
that’s what I mean,” though that wasn’t what I meant at all,
and the sun was pursuing the moon in an ineffable dance
of unlikelihood and redress, and you were wearing
your father’s shoes though I remember thinking what
large feet you had, learning later that that was unfair
and untrue, learning later that your heart, like all hearts,
was fuzzy, not precise, that your candor was a sham,
that you were neither a mother nor unmarried, that my
interest in you was usury, not interest at all, that I was
a man not in full but in fullishness, a false Montaigne,
whose chin beard, though elegant, was the merest bravado.

~

Cento (from “Christian Morals” by Sir Thomas Browne)

1. Annihilate not the Mercies of God by the Oblivion of Ingratitude
2. Punish not thyself with Pleasure
3. Be not a Hercules furens abroad, and a Poltroon within thyself
4. If Avarice be thy Vice, yet make it not thy Punishment
5. Owe not thy Humility unto humiliation from adversity
6. Make not the consequence of Virtue the ends thereof
7. Love is not to be made by magnifying Glasses
8. Cato is much to be pitied who mangled himself with poyniards

~

The Clod and the Pebble

            (After William Blake)

“Lightning has more longevity than I,”
said the clod. “That,” said the pebble
“is what comes of not being hard.”
“Hardness is just not in my nature.”
“Then accept your fate: you will be crushed
into mud, while I will retain my form.” “Yes,
you will retain your form and that ensures
your fate: to be shot from a slingshot
at sparrows, to skim forever the surface
of a pond, to be a bitter irritant in a shoe.
But I, I, am part of a larger whole. I will build
a house, I will dam a stream, I can be a salve.”

The stiff ego of the pebble—indistinguishable
from the soft haughtiness of the reddish clod.

~

The Concord of This Discord

-Love is a bottle
         unopened

-No, love is a skein
         unwound

-Love is a portrait
         unpainted

-No, love is a road
         newly paved

-Love is a rushing
         of blood

-No, love is talking
         in tongues

~

The River of the Parched Spirit

patriotism
said Johnson
is the last refuge
of a scoundrel

                   folly
                   said Blake
                   is the cloak
                   of knavery

                                      religion
                                      said Marx
                                      is the sigh
                                      of the oppressed

                                                               anxiety
                                                               said Kierkegaard
                                                               is the dizziness
                                                               of freedom

                                                                                          music
                                                                                          said Shaw
                                                                                          is the brandy
                                                                                          of the damned

                                                                                                                     the river
                                                                                                                     of the parched spirit
                                                                                                                     waters the desert
                                                                                                                     of the thirsty word

* * *

Author’s commentary: Sam Rasnake asked me what these five poems have in common. Here’s my best guess:

In “The River of the Parched Spirit,” I was playing around with a specific type of metaphor that I call the A of B. Shelley’s “the thorns of life” from “Ode to the West Wind” [“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”] is a famous example. Allegorical works are rich sources of these phrases, e.g. “Bower of Bliss” in Spenser’s Faerie Queen or “Slough of Despond “in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Though the appeal of bald allegory faded, the appeal of these kinds of phrases never did. You find them everywhere: from Ginsberg’s “Howl” (“windows of the skull,” “the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago,” “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,” “the three old shrews of fate,” “the last gyzym of consciousness”) to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (“great beacon light Yarrow Headshot 12.3.12of hope,” “seared in the flames of withering injustice,” “still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity”). To me, they are the essence of poetry in that they unite an abstraction (the B term) with something concrete (the A term). That’s what I see as the work of all poetry, whether specific poems employ these kinds of phrases or not.

The form has been much parodied, as in the Jack Clement song “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart,” popularized by Johnny Cash or Paul Craft’s “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through The Goalposts of Life,” popularized by Bobby Bare. Here are the opening stanzas of each:

         From the backdoor of your life you swept me out dear
         In the bread line of your dreams I lost my place
         At the table of your love I got the brush off
         At the Indianapolis of your heart I lost the race
         ___
         Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life
         End over end neither left nor to right
         Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
         Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life.

In my poem, I wanted to see what would happen if one lined up serious examples of these kinds of metaphors side by side. Could discrete and diverse examples form a narrative? Would they just fly apart or could they cohere?

Coherence is what I was after in “The Concord of This Discord” whose title comes from a line in Act V scene 1 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Theseus: “How shall we find the concord of this discord?” The coherence I sought was formal. Of course, the poem, like “The River of the Parched Spirit,” is composed entirely of metaphors. To write “love is a skein / unwound” is just an inverted way of writing “the unwound skein of love.” Back to the A of B again.

“Cento” (another way of saying “found poem”) has an A of B metaphor (“the Oblivion of Ingratitude”) in the first line, but only if you read “Oblivion” as concrete, which I suppose it could be. I always thought of it as abstract as in Dylan’s “the waters of oblivion” from “Too Much of Nothing.” I love that phrase; it haunted a lot of my composing. Then I visited the Detroit Institute of Art and, upon seeing John Martin’s alarmingly great painting “Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion” (1812), realized the phrase had been around a lot longer than I thought! I still like it anyway.

The poem, random lines grabbed from one essay of Sir Thomas Browne (it was Borges, by the way, who led me to Browne), rather than pinning the abstract to the concrete, moves intentionally from generalized ideas in the beginning to particularized images at the end: from “Pleasure” and “Avarice” to “Glasses” and “poyniards.”

William Blake wrote “The Clod and the Pebble” and put it in Poems of Experience. It’s one of a number of concretely allegorical poems (see also “The Garden of Love” and “The Human Abstract”) in that volume. The phrases in my concluding couplet look like A of B metaphors: “the stiff ego of the pebble,” “the soft haughtiness of the reddish clod.” They look like A of B metaphors but they are not; they are not metaphors at all. Reversing the concrete and the abstract terms in A of B phrases changes the phrase from metaphor to noun and possessive adjective: “the soft haughtiness of the reddish clod” = the reddish clod’s soft haughtiness; “the stiff ego of the pebble” = the pebble’s stiff ego. Anthropomorphism, allegory’s cousin.

“We Don’t Need No Education”—title from Pink Floyd. A of B metaphor (“an ineffable dance of unlikelihood and redress”) made ornate, that is to say, surreal. Puns abound. As in Montaigne.

What do these five poems have in common? What Hamlet said to Polonius: “Words, words, words.”

Bill Yarrow is the author of Pointed Sentences (BlazeVOX 2012). He has been published in many print and online journals including Thrush, DIAGRAM, Contrary, and RHINO. He is a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film. Two chapbooks (Twenty from MadHat Press and Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku from Červená Barva Press) are forthcoming in 2013.
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About bluefifthreview

Blue Fifth Review, edited by Sam Rasnake, Michelle Elvy, and Bill Yarrow, is an online journal of poetry, flash, and art.
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6 Responses to Poet Special: Works by Bill Yarrow (June 2013 / 13.12)

  1. Darryl Price says:

    This is why Bill Yarrow is one of my favorite poets, he thinks about these things, but he doesn’t overthink them–he lets them ride out of his imagination wild and free, even if his work ethic kindly and strongly holds the reins in place. Terific!

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  3. Kaori Kitao says:

    I like your poems because they are not easy. You make me work hard; I have to read them over and over, think about them, and read again. I found your comments illuminating, too. You did explain a common feature in the five poems, which are so different in form. Metaphor. But metaphor is virtually a synonym for poetry. I liked , in particular, though is charming, too.

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