Robert Taylor is an artist, poet, musician, husband and father, and one of the key founders of the Asatru spiritual movement. Everyone who knows Robert knows that he is a man of many words, a constant flow of consciousness. I have read the interviews that he has participated in over the past few decades, and what I find missing as a topic of discussion is poetry (though some might consider him to be first and foremost a poet). I wanted him to have the opportunity to pontificate for a literary audience as it has been my privilege to be a receptive listener over the past nine years.
(“Coffee With the Poets” interviews
are conducted by Christina.)
[My Sweet Robert takes his coffee with one spoon of sugar and just enough Half & Half to make it caramel-colored. This is an exact art of which there are consequences for deviations, and only his double-sized Barnes & Noble mug with the faces of famous authors will suffice for serving!]
But when they do,
A new world is born.
(R. N. Taylor, 2003)
Robert, I know that you have salient insights into so many subjects, including poetry, so here we are at the hub of our mutual respite. We speak of the magic of poetry, and you are remarkably seasoned with your testament on this subject. Share to your heart’s content.
I have for a long time tried to understand what it is about poetry that can create a sort of magic. It is not a simple thing, to be sure. The question of how and why is sort of like the long-standing question of what exactly poetry is. The final word is never in on that. So many have tried and in the end only wrote their own subjective thoughts on the subject, so here are mine added to it all.
The magic of poetry is that one’s words can affect another even in a physical sense in a remote-control way, particularly when poetry is recited as opposed to simply being read off a page. The very same can be said for music.
I recall in the autumn of 1999, I was the keynote speaker at a gathering known as the Death Equinox Convention in Denver. I was asked to give a talk on the Millennium and wanted to try something just a little different than is the usual faire, so I decided to do my talk and follow it with a poetry reading. I chose something that would tie in with the theme of the talk. After the reading, on cue, my friend Bob Ferbrache and I did a mini concert of songs to conclude the event. He had practiced a number of songs for the purpose. When we finished, the audience was cheering for us to do an encore. Unfortunately, we had not even thought of the possibility of having to do an extra song. I felt a bit cornered at that moment but sang a song a capella. When the song ended, I saw tears rolling down the cheeks of a few ladies in attendance. I had not performed in about thirty years on stage and it took me by surprise that I had touched someone deeply enough to elicit tears of emotion. That was a magic moment for me. Previous to this, I have on many occasions played a guitar and sung one of my ballads for guests at a party and have been told by people that chills ran up their spines. That established for myself how powerful music and poetry can be. The same has happened on occasion when I was rhapsodizing a poem around a campfire or parlor. I’m sure many poets and musicians have experienced similar reactions from others they were performing for.
It is not just relegated to sentimental things, either. It can rouse people to a fighting fury such as martial songs and revolutionary ballads and poems. Erotic poems can titillate. The entire palette of human emotions is subject to the magic of poetry and music. They are as such, or can be, powerful magic incantations that echo and resonate long after they are finished. Real poetry comes out of the crucible of the poet’s soul and for it to speak to another person’s subconscious mind is a magical event, a form of telepathic communication: one soul speaking and resonating with another soul.
Robert Graves, the Welsh poet, defined real poetry as having the effect of making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck (in other words, a physical reaction to words and thoughts, images and metaphor).
In fact, the earliest poetry was mystical and religious incantation. It was an integral part of ritual and rite—i.e., the hymns of the Rig Veda from India which extend far back in origin to primordial times. So also was music and drama. They probably share the same origins as poetry. I have often thought that the first poets in a sense were those who articulated language itself. The first poet would be the individual who spoke the first word.
Much of poetry’s archaic magic has been lost to repetition and the loss of techniques which developed over a very long time of oral literature. There were proscribed forms for every occasion. Lyric was one thing, lament and dirge another form, epic another and so forth. Poetry has often reached so sophisticated a level that the perfect form of expression was codified. Welsh poetry is a fine example. There are so many forms that come down from their oral tradition. This was the technics of poetry that bards and skalds and others who pursued poetry as a profession were required to learn in their studies and pursuit of poetic idioms. The Irish also had a highly formalized system of poetic training. If I recall, it took about twelve years to win your spurs as a real and accepted bard. That gives you an idea of the importance of poetry to archaic oral cultures. The poets were the historians and memory of the tribe. Without them, the tribe no longer had a known history of the past and probably no real future as a group, either.
Poetry as so formalized an institution (as existed in pre-written times and for a long time afterwards) was only possible through royal patronage. We have seen the age of kings and queens pass, and this needed patronage. There has never been great profit in being a poet since then. In a sense, poets are the last vestige of the aristocracy of the human race. That they still exist is a bit of a miracle, I think. It must be some primal and innate calling or vocation in the spectrum of man, one that will always be with us in the same manner as all the other twelve archetypes: the healer, the warrior, etc..
The use of meter as such can have a hypnotizing effect and also reach into the subconscious as rhythm as well as by way of a medium of thoughts. I recall reading something from Poe aloud to my father and cousin one evening. Afterwards we went to sleep. I awoke several hours later with the verse form rolling along in my mind and just about every thought that came to me was in that meter. It obviously had reached me under the radar of thought and resonated with me subconsciously (another aspect of the magic of poetry).
And poetry has served me in certain ways throughout my life to a positive effect in almost a magical sort of way. Many of my love affairs began with poems scripted to ladies. Poetry was the arrow that found their hearts. One short couplet won me my second wife. And as for you, Christina, you know yourself the power of poetry in the realm of love. It was our mutual poems that brought us together. I have another story concerning the magic of poetry that I will save till later in this interview since I see a question that pertains to it.
So, due to some quirk in me as a person as well as subjective experiences, I have always stayed on the path of poetry. It has nearly been like a religious avocation throughout my life, the crux of who I am. Most other things have played second to it for better and for worse.
When we got together in 2003, the first thing we did was paint the receiving room red and name it “The Red Salon.” It is now our poetry library, and the concept that gave birth to our website and private micro-press. This is a prime example of your weaving poetry into all aspects of your life. Explain the value of such.
Yes, that was one of the first things we did on your first visit here as I recall. I put you to the task of helping me with it. I was doing the roller brush and you were trimming with the paint brush. Of course your being a woman and I a man, we didn’t always see eye to eye on the décor. You didn’t like the metallic geometric shapes I had displayed. Far too masculine, you said. So I made the small concession of removing them in favor of more flowery feminine accoutrements. Yes, we did weave our love of poetry into that project. But being an artist (graphic and fine) as well as a musician, I have applied art to so many facets of my life. It just goes with the territory—everything from décor to fashion, to structuring the day, to ambiance and love-making. All of daily life is thus hallowed much more greatly by the deft application of art and artfulness.
I have always had many books. I bought my first book when I was twelve years old and the process never stopped. It only got worse until I had so many books that I have never as yet had them all up on shelves (despite the fact that we have a fifteen-room Victorian house). The books always exceed the available space. But most dear and important to me are my poetry books. They always have been my foremost treasure. So it was good to get the thousand-plus poetry volumes all together on shelves in one distinct room—a sepulcher of the soul, for poems are the language of the soul. Whenever I sit in The Red Salon, I am always aware that I am surrounded by the souls of all of these poets, past and present. In this small room, life makes the metamorphosis from prose to poetry. Like when we have our Red Hour, which implies coffee, conversation on poetry and reading. In those moments, the world seems perfect to me. I am altogether contented and fulfilled by way of the conversation, the setting and of course the company of another who feels the same as I do.
Ah, thank you. You reiterate Ezra Pound’s stating that poets are the antennas of the human race. Would you care to elaborate?
That is a quote from his ABCs of Reading. It implies that poets, being the most sensitive and receptive members of the society, have a built-in or innate talent for being the first to intuitively anticipate the coming future. I would have to agree in the main with this. I suppose it would, however, vary from one poet to another. Even poets are not absolutely of one persuasion. There is a wide variance of personalities and natural predilections in that sense. Some poets are avant-garde in making things new. Others, however, are staid traditionalists who never wish to break the rules of form and style. Both are of value to poetry. One maintains the past and the other forges into the unknown and sometimes finds new pathways to pursue.
Some poets get pretty arrogant from their side of the fence in debates of avant-garde versus traditional poetry. You say that poetry is the language of the gods, that articulation in itself is the employment of the vehicle of sound for divine communication through the flesh. This, in my opinion, supports the theory of right hemisphere brain activity (namely, inspiration and its offspring, creativity) being the most direct and potent manifestation of divine thought. The right hemisphere in the moment, “in the now” as you would say, would be the avant-garde poetry as opposed to traditional which concerns itself with timelines and metrics, with order; the avant-garde with chaos, right? So are the gods telling us to relax when we speak and let chaos make way for others to order it as they will, or to relax and then structuralize?
The earliest extant poetry is that which is considered sacred and of God or the Gods. Of course Gods did not write books but instead were believed to inspire them in the minds and souls of men. That being the case, then poetry would in fact be the language of the Gods (at least within the context of sacred texts, most of which are written in poetic form).
The right lobe of course is the creative and imaginative side of the brain. However, without the left lobe it would probably be mostly chaos. Meter itself would have to be the structuring process to inspiration, that which would give form to the content in a coherent way. So it is a combination of the two. If the structure becomes too proscribed and rigid, then I would suppose it would inhibit the visionary element of the poetry. If poetry were but the visionary side of creativity, then it would lean towards incomprehensibility. One could picture an oracle spouting off his divine message in the way Rimbaud did in his poetry. It might have style. It might also have a way of conjuring images through its symbolism, but it would certainly not be altogether coherent. Symbolism is largely a case of this. It would seem that a balancing of intelligence with inspiration would be the best manner to communicate. An endless barrage of metaphors and images without context leads to obscurity in communication, or communication on the most rudimentary level. Many poets (past and present) have done just that as a reaction to overly formalized poetry which is in some sense robbed of the élan vital of inspiration. Finding that optimum point would be a part of the poet’s craft. The power of a poem would have something to do with how well the crafting is executed.
Getting back to the beginning of your question and statement, I do not believe that all that is written either in poetic form or claiming to be poetry is the voice of higher inspiration speaking through the writer. Some poetry is simply a human contrivance. That varies from one poem to another, from one writer to the next. In all cases, poetry comes out of what seems to be nowhere. It is, therefore, the ultimate blank canvas before it exists.
I never cease to learn from you! That’s why you have the pedestal. Now, many of us see the same oceanic effect of the Internet on poetry. Do you think there is any hope of the centuries-old standard being reclaimed, or might you say that Western poetry is dead or declining? Why or why not?
Well, it is certainly not a dead art. There are so many people writing poetry these days. I am sure that the internet has induced more poetry to be written because suddenly there is this large worldwide audience to write for. With an avalanche of poetry on the Internet, one simply has to sort the wheat from the chaff. All of it is not worthy or good, but there will be sparkling examples of that which is very good and worthy of the name of poetry. The Internet is sort of like satellite television insomuch as if you do not like something, then you turn the channel to something else. On the Internet, you simply click on something else. Same process. Then again, the value of a given poem has something to do with the audience. One person’s preference may not be another’s. Same with art of any kind.
That’s why I don’t hold poetry contests. The opinion of one “judge” means next to nothing, really.
My own preference for poetry is to hear it read by someone capable of reading it well or of it being rhapsodized in a dramatic manner that brings the words to life. That is what helps to make the poetry of Shakespeare resonate so well with people. As a result, I write for the voice and ear. If it doesn’t sound right to me, then it isn’t right to me. That’s my own litmus test or criteria. I think I read well, at least my own words, and have done a lot of spoken-word recordings with music for a background. Overall, I have been satisfied with the results.
I’ll share just a few links at the bottom of this interview.
Unfortunately, not every poet is a good reader or rhapsodist. I once began to form a group of poets to be named “Wordsmiths.” It was for the purpose of bringing poetry back to the spoken word. My slogan was “That words might live.” The project did not go very far, but several years on, what became known as Poetry Slams did. Generally, it consisted of poets reading from a stage in a barroom. I did quite a number of slams when I lived in Chicago and it was a new thing. It certainly helped me in doing spoken-word poetry. It honed my abilities. I have often been amused when someone reads a poem by me in script form and it does little for them as such. Then they hear me do a dramatic reading and they are awed by it. It always is a confirmation that poetry reduced to the printed page alone is weak in effect compared to when it is dramatized and made vibrant by the human voice. After all, that is where it began, long before the advent of the quill and vellum.
In relation to oral poetry, we also have the listener. The listener is another side to the equation. Unfortunately, people today overall have little capacity to listen acutely. To fully appreciate and to extract the meaning from a poem requires that the listener have focus. Thirty-second spot commercials on television and all the other non-interactive things out there that provide lazy entertainment do not prepare people for this ability to focus.
I have often thought that the riddle (which must go back as far as poetry) was a device for teaching youngsters how to focus and to listen while at the same time providing some entertainment insomuch as using imaginations and analytical abilities.
The riddle demands by its very nature that the listener concentrate and center with their mind, taking note of every word and its relative weight within each phrase transmitted, for each phrase is a part of a verbal puzzle which helps to compositively provide the key to the solution. As a result, it prompts the listener to concentrate in the same way or degree as is required of the listener in understanding and appreciating poetry. It forces the mind to creatively imagine how the fragments fit and form a composite picture. In this sense, it may well have been consciously employed as a vehicle by the listening and learning within a tradition based upon oral transmission and memorization. The riddle would have the effect of inducing the young to acquire these skills while at the same time having fun, something that the young most always have a genius for. It would additionally enable them to develop their problem-solving/analytical facilities. The solving of a riddle or any problem that demands mental labor on our own behalf become the lessons and knowledge that we remember best.
As for poetry being dead as an art form, I would have to point out that it has taken refuge within the lyrics of songs and in the thirty-second commercial and jingle (the latter being the worst fate of poetry and word craft—worst insomuch as its goal being to sell some material thing and also because it fulfills whatever need people have for poetry in their lives in a bastardized form). Even the larger amount of top forty music is little more than repetitious extended commercial jingles.
Interesting. On that corrupted note, let’s get into academic poetry.
It seems to be a sort of poetry mafia in a sense. There is this “inner circle” that sets the standards and keeps all within the academic community. They usually get grants to publish thick journals. Poetry as taught in schools becomes somewhat all the same in approach. When I read some of these thick journals, after a while I get the feeling that they were all written by one individual. Of course maybe many of these poets would not even be writing poetry save for what they have learned in school. This is not, however, to say that all of it is bland or less than great. There are gems at times. I have nothing against academia per se’. It often turns into mutual admiration societies of people giving awards back and forth. As for government-sponsored endowments to the arts, I am against that altogether. I don’t think people who work and pay taxes should support art that they may never even experience or see, let alone like. It also creates more bureaucrats to administer these grants and so forth. I’d think if you want to be an artist, swim or sink on the merits of your work.
I agree, and what comes to mind is an anthology titled Best New Poets (2008 series) edited by no less than Mark Strand. The editing of course is flawless and the work is well executed but primarily crude in subject, seemingly emphasizing the degeneration of society and allowing this crudeness to define modern poetry. Anyway, back to you: describe your own poetic style, your approach to poetry.
I began writing prose poetry. Then I was living with a friend who was a lyricist for a band, and eventually I tried lyric writing for music. Music seemed like one of the few places that poetry could have a context or much of an audience today. Not that all lyrics are poetry; much of music lyrics are little more than repetitious jingles as I said before.
One of the problems from a poet’s side is that people today have short-term attention or focus—no patience. Everything is brief and simplified for them so they seldom develop the focus necessary to really listen to poetry or even read it. My own father seemed very concerned when I announced that I wanted to be a poet. He immediately told me that no one can make a living at it and that I would spend my life starving as a result. Later when my poetry was set to music, it suddenly became accessible to him and he was one of my greatest fans afterwards. For music, the basic English ballad form is best. End rhyme. It is not sophisticated in any way, but it works. If I innovated in any manner, it was with my long ballad poems like “Legends” and “The Ballad of Robert de Bruce” which attempted to capture epic poetry in miniature. Also, some of my poems that were never intended for music ended up as music and worked out well. My music collaborator, Nicholas Tesluk, has a real talent for that. Outside of being a guitar virtuoso, he is for me the perfect collaborator. I have chiefly been the lyricist and he the composer of the music, but not absolutely. We have both done music as well as lyrics for our musical duo, Changes.
In addition to this, I have also done spoken-word poetry in collaboration with a number of other bands as well as solo projects. Though my musical collaborations are what I am best known for and have the widest following, I do continue to write poems not intended for music. I am very satisfied with that which I have done in collaboration with bands and individuals like Allerseelen in Austria, Der Blutharsch, another Austrian band, as well as Werkraum in Berlin with Axel Frank. In fact, Changes’ album Lament may possibly be the first music album to have spoken poetry between the songs. Axel Frank, a talented musician, provided the musical scores that accompanied my readings. In that album we took poetry off the printed page, so to speak, and made it an integral part of our presentation. I presently have about six collaborations for readings on various forthcoming albums by other bands as well: metal, industrial and folk. In doing these, I feel that I am helping to move poetry out to a larger audience and possibility. Nevertheless, I continue to release chapbook collections in printed format as well.
I enjoy making these for you, but I miss the old charm of your early editions. A few lucky readers will know what I am talking about (string binding, jackets, layered bands, thick fonts, etc.).
Another approach I have used sporadically has been the pattern poem of calligramme. These are poems in which the typography forms a pattern or picture in some way reinforcing the message of the poem. This came about where I would see a pattern in my mind at the same time I was writing some thought or poem. These are essentially typographical devices. I have always had an interest in typography. Generally, the poems I have done in this manner are brief thoughts.
I will provide a link to your typographical devices at the bottom of this interview.
I have also written haiku. Haiku has helped me to tighten my other poetry and make it more compact. I always strive to be succinct. In written poetry, I favor a mix of rhyme and non-rhyme, often in a staggered pattern. I feel that this keeps it from getting trite or too predictable. Where my poetry will go from here is a case of following my Muse. I may continue to loop around in the same manner or find new ways to expression—only time will tell. I do feel that I have developed my own idiom and signature to my work, which is always one of the goals of modern poetry and writing in general.
My working method often is to take a group of poems and to work them over. Usually I find that the best time to do so is after waking up when I still have a clear mind and am in an alpha wave state. I have done some every day for a month and generally I find something to change: a word, the sequence of lines and so forth. Other times I write something with minor corrections on the spot and leave it as such, but it is those poems which I consciously craft that I like best.
And where does your Muse fit into all of this?
For most, the term Muse is a metaphor for inspiration. I can understand that and accept that metaphor. However, I think somewhat beyond that definition due to experiences I have had in relation to it. Well you have heard this story many times. I will try to spare you of the longer version and keep the embellishments to a minimum. But you did ask for it. LOL.
I like what story I know is coming, and that’s why I ask.
This experience occurred in the late sixties or early seventies. It was a time of a truly dark night of the soul for me. I had recently divorced and was out of work and facing the inevitable bills and rent. I had no idea where I would get these monies. So with these problems and marital disappointment I was as close to suicide as I have ever been in my life. It was my habit at the time to be up usually at least till dawn and sometimes later working on oil paintings and writing poetry. These occupations were my harbor in the storm at the time.
Usually while I painted I would have music, the radio or even TV on in the background. I used to watch the first UHF station in Chicago which went off the air at midnight. The final program was called “Heart of the News” and featured a beautiful lady who re-capped the news and weather of the day while dressed in a negligee as she reclined on a heart-shaped satin bed. At the very end of her show, she would read a poem (usually by Byron or Keats or someone of that type). One evening, she solicited poems from her viewers, so I sent her about twenty of my poems. She seemed delighted with them and said she would spread them out over the month so as to give me maximum exposure for my work.
One night, I worked on an oil painting straight through from drawing to completed painting, about a thirty-six or so-hour stint. I was exhausted and very depressed about life. I laid down and at some point I had a vision. The most beautiful Goddess-like woman came to me and caressed my brow and told me that everything would be alright. She admonished me to always be true to myself, and I have been. I suppose this vision came in what is termed a hypnogogic state, that twilight between sleep and wakefulness. Her beauty transcended all words of description: her eyes as blue as the sky; her hair, golden yellow; and all around, her aura of rainbow colors. A few hours later the phone awakened me. It was the lady from the TV show who told me how much she liked my poems and that a friend who did some advertising for the station had read some of my poems and said that they were very concise. She said he wanted to offer me a job as a copywriter for print and television commercials, and that even if I wasn’t interested in the position, he would still like to meet the person who had written the poems. A few days later, I was hired at a very large salary and all of my economic problems instantly were solved.
“Fate favors the bold,” as you say!
Poets often have a talent for script and commercial writing. Another area poets tend to be good at is cryptography. I guess both of these professions utilize the same neuro-tracks in the mind.
Later I was to read descriptions of the Muse by other poets—namely, Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess. Both his and the other poets he quotes described precisely the lady in the vision I had. So I do believe in the Triple Muse as she is often referred to as something much more than a metaphor.
And thirdly, you, Christina, are my muse in this sensate reality.
Now, having fully answered your many questions here, I think I deserve a warm-up of my coffee, and don’t forget the sugar. I think I earned it.
Yes, you did. We love your sagacious breadth of understanding, and I love you. My pleasure; my privilege.
[Christina pours the coffee and raises her matching mug from across the little round table.]
Here are a few links to some of R. N. Taylor’s words set to music, and when words inspire music, how beautifully they marry!
Here is a link to some of Robert’s poetry as typographical devices.
Robert’s chapbooks can be purchased by contacting us through The Red Salon.