January 2023: Robert Bly’s “The Teapot” & The Gaslight Anthem’s “Handwritten”

This month I want to discuss a poem that found its way to me via Twitter: “The Teapot” by Robert Bly. It’s from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey: Poems (2011) which I haven’t read, but definitely plan to. I’m more familiar with Bly’s early work, especially his first two books: Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962) and The Light Around the Body (1967), which won the National Book Award. One of the reasons I chose to discuss “The Teapot” is because it reminds me of the work Bly did in his first two books: short, deep-image poems that stay with the reader. That’s what I like so much about Robert Bly’s poems; they stay in my mind long after I’ve read them. I especially love the shorter poems and I feel that was his big strength as a poet; he had the ability to say a lot using only a few words. This poem is especially short—four lines—and here it is in its entirety:

That morning I heard water being poured into a teapot.
The sound was an ordinary, daily, cluffy sound.
But all at once, I knew you loved me.
An unheard-of thing, love audible in water falling.

This poem, like many of Bly’s poems, feels like it was written in a journal, like a sudden realization achieved through the act of living an ordinary life. That’s the other thing that I admire about Robert Bly’s poems: they are always written from the perspective of a masculine speaker living a regular life. His poems aren’t grandiose in any sense of the word, but they aren’t humble, either. They capture significant moments using interesting language that still feels very plainspoken.

In this poem, the speaker is merely listening to the sound of water being poured into a teapot and coming to the realization that the person filling the teapot (quite possibly his wife or a female partner) has love for him. No words are actually spoken about it; the speaker refers to this moment in past tense. I also think the poem does an excellent job tracking intimacy between a man and a woman in ways that are very grounded and basic. By the sound of the water pouring alone, he is able to discern an immense truth: she loves me. Language-wise, the poem seeks to mirror the life the speaker inhabits, which is average, but a little quirky. The word “cluffy” does a lot of work in this poem to help describe the sound of water specifically being poured into a teapot, but it also shows the speaker’s unique vocabulary. However, I think the line that does the most work in the poem is the last line: “An unheard-of thing, love audible in water falling.” This is because it sums up exactly what I’ve already described: a specific sound as a metaphor for love. But it is the love that is shared between two adults in a way that is wholly unique to them. This is how the speaker understands love, through his partner’s daily actions, like filling a teapot with water.

What I admire so much about Bly’s work is his positioning, and I think this is precisely what makes him such an important American poet. He wrote from daily life, and he did it during a time when poetry was very formalistic. And yet, this poem, put out in a collection that came out in 2011, still feels rare to me in poetry. Obviously, I can’t say for sure when exactly Bly wrote the poem, but the work itself is still incredibly important because it is concerned with the personal, which also makes it a political poem in a certain sense. Bly is very good at turning away from highly-charged poetic narratives that ignore the basic human experience. It is a conscious choice not to write poetic poems. His work is grounded in the ordinary, which is what makes it stand out to me as exceptional poetry. “The Teapot” is a perfect example of Bly’s sensibility as a poet. It’s more than voice and language; it’s his perspective, which allows him to write nuanced poems about detecting love from the sound of water being poured into a teapot. A poet has to be incredibly present in each moment to be able to write a poem as profound as this one; and the fact that the speaker is utterly present in the poem makes him profound as well, but not pretentious. He is observant and so attuned to his partner that he is able to experience love through such a simple gesture: water being poured into a teapot. I believe this wholeheartedly as a poet: it’s incredibly easy to pour content into an established poetic form, but more challenging (and more satisfying) to write poetry that reflects actual lived experience outside of an established poetic form. This is what Robert Bly did, and this is why I have so much respect for him and his work.

The song I want to discuss this month is The Gaslight Anthem’s “Handwritten,” which is from the group’s fourth album Handwritten (2012). I first encountered them in 2007; I saw them open up for Against Me! with my ex-husband and we bought their first album Sink or Swim (2007). The Gaslight Anthem is probably one of the most underrated rock bands to have come out in the last fifteen years and it’s because they are a rock band with punk sensibilities. I absolutely believe that if The Gaslight Anthem had come out in the early-eighties they would’ve been incredibly famous. The group has that The Clash-meets-Tom-Petty vibe about them that make them really unique in the rock genre. And like those bands, The Gaslight Anthem is very lyrical. The principal songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, Brian Fallon, is the lifeblood of the band, and he writes songs that have a counterculture sensibility about them. The ’59 Sound (2008), American Slang (2010), and Handwritten (2012) are definitive rock albums and contribute much to the rock genre in terms of repurposing and refreshing vintage and classic rock sounds while also fusing the music with punk elements.

“Handwritten” is both energetic and emotional in terms of its musical and aesthetic qualities. The song consists of two verses, a chorus, a bridge, and an outro. The song begins at a high energy level as Fallon sings “Whoa” in repetition. Here is the first verse:

Pull it out, turn it up, what’s your favorite song?
That’s mine, I’ve been crying to it since I was young
I know there’s someone out there feeling just like I feel
I know they’re waiting up, I know they’re waiting to heal
And I’ve been holding my breath, are you holding your breath?
For too many years to count, too many years to count

During this verse, there is a lot to take in vocally, musically, and lyrically. Vocally, Fallon is an excellent singer; he inhabits a very down-to-earth vibe with a little bit of grit thrown in; but his singing style mostly feels very personal and intimate, as if he is singing to someone special, or possibly a small group of likeminded friends. This is where the punk sensibilities show the most, in how he addresses the listener: his voice, although powerful, has a small club tone to it. Musically, the melodies are quite emotional, but during the verses, a rhythmic groove takes over, which is what helps gives the song its energy. Lyrically, the lyricist is establishing a connection with the person he’s addressing as either a love interest or a friend, maybe both. The first two lines establish a connection: “Pull it out, turn it up, what’s your favorite song? / That’s mine, I’ve been crying to it since I was young.” The last two lines suggest something deeper than a friendship: “And I’ve been holding my breath, are you holding your breath? / For too many years to count, too many years to count.” The song then goes right into the chorus:

And we waited for sirens that never come
And we only write by the moon, every word handwritten
And to ease the loss of youth and how many years I’ve missed you
Pages plead forgiveness, every word handwritten

Again, this is where the song takes a punk twist. “We waited for sirens that never come,” “we only write by the moon,” “every word handwritten,” “to ease the loss of youth” all feel like they are written in the realm of the underground. The word “we” is also important here because it establishes a collective experience of likeminded individuals who don’t live according to mainstream societal rules. However, there’s a sense of romance and loss with “how many years I’ve missed you” and “Pages plead forgiveness” so that when “every word handwritten” is repeated, it suggests that the lyricist is trying to write his way back to love.

The “Whoa” repetition returns and the second verse is sung:

Let it out, let me in, take a hold of my hand
There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same
And did you want to drive without a word in-between
I can understand you need a minute to breathe
And to sew up the seams after all this defeat
And all this defeat

The rhythmic groove is employed again during the verse, but the lyrics become more intimate in nature. “There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same” is interesting because “cut up the same” has a dual meaning: compatibility but also shared wounds from living a similar kind of lifestyle. “And did you want to drive without a word in-between” is also intimate because it suggests that the lyricist knows the person he’s addressing well enough to understand exactly what they need to relax: to just drive. The last three lines also reflect the intimate nature of the connection in terms of how the speaker knows how this person—who now feels like the beloved—needs to be handled: with patience and space—because they’ve had it rough and they didn’t come out on top.

After the repeated chorus, the music fades away to a light melody that is also hummed and the lyricist sings the bridge:

Here in the dark, I cherish the moonlight
I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night
And it travels from heart to limb to pen

This is where, for me, the heart of the song lies, in this musically quiet, lyrical moment, where the song opens up through pure lyrical expression. “I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night / And it travels from heart to limb to pen” are romantic and emotional, but not heartbroken. Although it feels like the lyricist is trying to reclaim love, he is optimistic about it because he knows his beloved is wounded and he knows exactly what to say. This is where the song takes on depth and intensity through lyrical intimacy. The song builds back up as the chorus is repeated only to level out as the outro is sung. The line “every word handwritten” is repeated as the lyricist sings “And with this pen, I thee wed / from my heart to your distress.” He sings these two lines three times with strength and tenderness and for me, it’s another highlight of the song, the fact that the lyricist’s emotional expression is connected to the act of writing, but also, the fact that he is not just writing for himself, but for his beloved, who he seeks to reconnect with and heal.

What Robert Bly and The Gaslight Anthem share is the intimate voice positioned from the ordinary and the underground. I think it’s interesting to think about how much the poet and the rock band’s perspectives connect: Bly was interested in poetry rooted in a basic lifestyle; The Gaslight Anthem writes lyrics that speak to an aspect of the punk subculture lifestyle that is more simplistic, but not without risk. In both cases, I think the poet and the group are speaking to individuals who want to live regular lives that make sense to them, that aren’t influenced by mainstream culture. I think they also write from that nuanced place with a special understanding of how invisible those lives are. They are hidden from society because they reflect a more down-to-earth nature. It isn’t necessarily humble or passive; it’s almost what I would describe as common-sense anarchism—the desire to live out a regular life without interferences from societal oppression. Because those larger societal narratives are stripped away, a more earthly humanity is revealed through “The Teapot” and “Handwritten.” One describes the intimate connection between two adults in the form of love as a sound; the other describes a lyricist who seeks to reclaim love from a beloved who has suffered tremendously—through the act of writing. There is no higher message other than the desire to express the personal. This is what I think Bly and The Gaslight Anthem have the most in common: the need to be human and personal in a world that expects fame and success and wealth. For those who are interested in creating from a more stripped-down positioning, Robert Bly is a great poet to look at and The Gaslight Anthem is a great band to listen to. They each stand out in their respective genres as lyrical visionaries who operate from the personal rather than from the accepted formalistic/mainstream standards.

January 2, 2023