Howling Bill Yarrow, Poet and Gadfly
“in my youth, I was enamored of the moon / - that is to say, lunacy/ I applauded the bizarre in nature/ I appropriated the gratuitous from dreams/ I drank brashness and frenzy from books/ what mad things I did!”, from “A New Kind of Madness” from Blasphemer by Bill Yarrow (2015, LitFest Press)
i. Howling Gadfly
In history, Greek Philosopher Socrates has been spoken of as a gadfly. In his Apology for the life of Socrates, Plato recognized all societies need a “gadfly” to sting the “steed” of government into recognizing its democratic role and obligations (think Trump feels that way about Mueller?). Wikipedia says, “A gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potently upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities. The term is originally associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, in his defense when on trial for his life.”
“I wanted the pain to go away/ so I let them stick me. No luck./ I still feel rotten and now my head/ deliciously empty for decades is/ clogged with thoughts of dying./ Forget it/ I’m doomed, I’m a goner” from “Burying the Hatchet” from “Pointed Sentences” by Bill Yarrow
“I am falling, falling out of my body,/falling like snow into a new volcano.” from “Centuries of Falling” in “Blasphemer” (2015, LitFest Press) by Bill Yarrow
Bill Yarrow is deceptive in his “gadfly-i-ness”; effusive in its presentation. He looks as a bespectacled mild mannered tenured professor, cloaked in tweeds, khakis, a warm smile and an appreciation of all things Shakespeare - I suppose not all that different from a certain dissident philosopher of old. But there are wiles, manic energy in a flurry, behind those metallic rimmed glasses (glasses that ought to be placed in a vial of acid according to one of his poems); also, more than likely, a touch of madness (”howling at the moon” so to speak) that often times spills all over the pages of poetic treatises as “The Vig of Love” or “Blasphemer”, “Pointed Sentences” or his other projects as his album of poetry and jazz poetry “Pointed Music”.
His autobiographical note reads: “I am a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where I have taught since 1993. As the iCampus Faculty Coordinator (2008-14), I worked with faculty on issues related to teaching online and using technology in teaching. I teach the following classes online: Introduction to Shakespeare, Introduction to Film Study, and Creative Writing.”
See- subversive. Words and phrases like, “Professor of English”, “teaching”, and “Introduction to Shakespeare” all give an impression of a mild mannered professor but Bill Yarrow is rude, thunderous, wicked and wild, not quite Led Zeppelin, AC/DC or Metallica but really not all that far from it either. The back of his 2015 book, Blasphemer reads: “What is Blasphemy? Is his book blasphemous? It takes on God, religion, love, death, sex, parents, writers, literature, form, purse and order. Is Bill Yarrow a blasphemer? You decide.”
ii. A Poet’s Poet
“Like all good poets, Bill has internalized the masters and mistresses of poetry so deeply that he is always in dialogue with one poet or another—sometimes Yeats or Elliot, sometimes Dickinson, sometimes (William Carlos) Williams, and so on. But what distinguishes his work—what makes it his alone and not just the a response to his forbears—is the infusion of his wonderfully dark sense of humor.“ Ralph Hamilton, American poet and publisher of Rhino Poetry
Below, ‘Florid Psychosis’ (poem by Bill Yarrow, music by Ray Fahrner) from his album “PointED MUsic", is a moody though lucid rumination of serendipity including the id, dreams, dead relatives and Freud and Prague and Kafka. “PointED MUsic” is no doubt the spell Bill Yarrow cast on himself, a license if you will, to do the work of the irreverent poet that he does.
“What I find most engaging about Yarrow's writing is its sly power to question boundaries: where does absurd humor become tragedy? Phrase by bizarre phrase, Yarrow takes you out of your analytical comfort zone, yet you want it to keep happening. Mount Harmonica? The Bison's Alimony? The mental states these titles conjure can't really exist, but in Yarrow's poetry they're right where you want to be--and it feels like the only game in town.” Dr. Stephen-Paul Martin, author and English Professor at San Diego State University
It seems Bill Yarrow likes to take conventions and upend them... completely... as a matter of modus operandi. “Not Enough Sin to Go Around” ends a musing rap sonnet to a bohemian jazz beat, “When information fails, there is always information theory/ When the future falters, there is always the redacted past.” The video itself, is a moody composition of a driver passing though a rainy though bright night in a nondescript suburbia (I am later told Brooklyn). Is the reader to assume, these are the reasonable thoughts of a middle class purveyor - a doctor, a lawyer or a professor- of American culture? Apparently, they are. That at our best, we are all hypocrites? Yes, there is zero shame to Bill Yarrow’s game.
“Bill Yarrow’s work plays at the border of humor, absurdity, and profundity. In his language, always concise, he strives to present his reader with a clear image or story, though often he does so with non-conventional techniques. His work is engaging and entertaining, and that makes it a joy to come back to over and over.” William Allegrezza, American poet and publisher of Moria Publishing
“My poems routinely pull the rug out from under the reader, move in unexpected directions, create a kind of reading and thinking whiplash.” Bill Yarrow an interview with Derek Alger, Pif Magazine
iii. Of Blaspheme, Pointed Sentences and His Love Vig
Secretly, I believe poet Bill Yarrow may want to see societies of mankind burn.
But he wants to do it in his tweeds and khakis; bespectacled, a wry smile beneath his nose, as a mild mannered professor of Shakespeare - the disguise is part of his perfect subversion, a sublime delivery. He may not be a rock god a la Metallica per se. But, a poetry god? See, the volumes of work within “Blasphemer” - “Jesus, Zombie”, “A New Kind of Madness”, “What the Hell Am I Doing?” or “Purveyors of Leeches” - these are all belligerent challenges, intimate challenges to self, to the status quo and the status quo doesn’t have to be the government per se, status quo can be reality or say the natural laws of physics. See, there is a wink in all of his work, a catch me if you can, if you will. A crass dare, a toe to toe challenge - to religion, Christianity, to democracy, to friends, to parents, to self- to the ideas and all of the constructs of our society’s realities that we take for granted. Bill Yarrow’s vision, intellect and words are a tourniquet twisted tight in a gas filled bottle- a spirit unabashed. The ignition is your imagination. And the combustion is not subtle; it is a flame thrower with a gas manufacturing plant as fuel source. He wants every hypocrisy burned to the ground until all that remains is rubble and ash, bones and text.
But what would stand in stead of these societies we have built? “Blasphemer” is in reverence, playful and artful in its treatment of those conventions of nihilism and anarchy, but “Blasphemer” is also dead serious, not at all like a biblical blaspheme of old. And, I guess, that is where “The Vig of Love” or “Pointed Sentences” comes in.
“Pointed Sentences” (BlazeVox, 2012) is, in many ways, a counter balance to “Blasphemer”, but the darkness conjoins the light here too in manners that reveal rather than conform to norms. That book, a volume of work in and of itself with 114 poems, boasts work as “Bone Density”, “Black Squirrel Poem”, “Startle Reflex”, “Low Dose Yoga”, “Natchez Schrapnel” and “Not That Kind of Pain” is lighter in tone but no less relenting in its search and seizure of marrow yarrow.
“What kind of pain is it? Stabbing?/Shooting? Throbbing? Tell me. Is it/ a radiating pain? Does it burn/ Point/to it. Is it a pain or more of an ache?/ does it feel muscular? Is it constant/ or occasional? How severe is it? Is it/ infrequent or recurring?”- Bill Yarrow from “Not That Kind of Pain” from Pointed Sentences
“Vig of Love” also enjoys cosmic bouts with humor. What is a “vig”? I had to look it up. For starters I could only find a listing in online “urban” dictionaries. The term, used in gambling is short for "vigorish" used in gambling and vigorish is “the percentage deducted from a gambler's winnings by the organizers of a game”. Both “Vig” and “Pointed” demonstrate a poets poet at home within the anthology, mythology, philosophy and history of poetry. Unlike his “The Lice of Christ” (2014, Mad Hat Press) the antecedent to “Blasphemer” - these works are do not take themselves seriously. Filled with wit, humor and a deadly mind, Blasphemer, is Bill’s constitution.
“Whether upending conventional morality, skewering certainties, assuming inflated poses, embracing ambiguity, exposing human (and literary) folly and contradiction, Yarrow is always trying to help his readers shed whatever dulls or skews their perception. I believe it was Bakhtin who said, “Certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only to laughter,” and Yarrow’s poetry is imbued with that knowledge.” Ralph Hamilton, literary aficionado and publisher of Rhino Poetry
Bill Yarrow’s intellectual and spiritual appetites are voracious. And he always is sucking, cursing with elegant language, turning over, spitting and laughing crassly- Yarrow’s marrow. He is unabashed in his consumption of the essence of this lifetime, the digestion and excretion; his total and complete anatomical spiritual processing. And that is how this poet sets the world on fire: focusing the prime life of a ripened beating heart through the ink in his pen, into your mind, up-ending convention.
To be clear, Bill Yarrow is a poet’s poet; so, his influence upon the normative of the form and function of poetic arts is effusive. There is an abundance of skill; a scarcity of tolerance for the little hypocrisies that guide societal functioning day to day. There is the embrace and violent push; darkness and it’s inverse functionality of light; love, respect and contempt. There are the faithful coterie of poets absolutely devoted to Bill’s command of syntax, meter, absurd conflict and normative resolutions; his thematic conflation of every day happenings and their revelations. There are the whispers of a poet and a mad man howling at the moon; an unrelenting gadfly, beautifully strange, survived from modernity who will set the cool moon on fire. You see, In the complete darkness, cold and eerie, all will be revealed. Nothing is safe, although it is all revered and revealed, demolished and restructured... in some manner of being.
Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at the online journal Blue Fifth Review, is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and five chapbooks, most recently We All Saw It Coming. His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals both national and international and he has been nominated eight times for a Pushcart Prize. Against Prompts, his fourth full-length volume, is forthcoming from Lit Fest Press in 2018.