By Heart

Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard

  • Author(s): Brady, Philip
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2008-11-01
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $29.95 | Buy Now

With a perfect balance of playfulness, humor, and apology, Philip Brady calls himself a bard. But he explains that, before the title became shrouded in mystery, bards were simply teachers, unknown and poor, who gave literal voice to poems through recitations. Woven throughout these twenty essays is Brady’s resistance to the academic expectations and settings of poetic instruction, enabling him to elicit the most authentic and surprising responses from a range of voices. He is motivated by the possibility of poetry expressed in the grittiest of places and takes readers from the rust belts of Ohio, to the far-flung pubs of Ireland, to Zairian classrooms with few books and fidgety lightbulbs.  Most of all, he believes that, while bad poetry is a fact of life, good poetry should be studied and learned by heart.

Brady doesn’t resort to dissecting poems here, though poems-his own and those of many of his masters, from Yeats to Tu Fu-do appear. Instead, the poetic language of his observations seems to fulfill a greater purpose: “Voiced, the poem is transfigured from a printed glyph to sensory language: ephemeral, but with a tensile strength derived from the collective memory that births it. Critics may feel differently, but what matters to a poem is not how many times it is reprinted, but how deeply it penetrates the heart.”

These essays are meditations grounded in the author’s life as a poet, teacher, publisher, musician, traveler, and organizer. In one, readers encounter non-traditional students who attend class after work and whose lives are already shaped by burden. Brady recognizes the tension between reading poetry as an academic exercise and reading it for its power to endow all people with a broader sense of the self that is informed by both the dead and the living. He celebrates the challenges that his students bring to the classroom by forging headlong into discussions that other instructors would cringe at-as when a student declares that he doesn’t like reading old poetry but instead likes greeting-card poems. Brady masterfully turns this potentially deflating moment into one that is both validating and deeply inspiring-for student and reader.