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Taliesin the Poet

Geoff Herbach April 25th, 2023
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Taliesin

Taliesin is Welsh for Shining Brow and how easy to understand why Frank Lloyd Wright named his gorgeous, experimental, unwieldy residence above the Wisconsin River, Taliesin. His Welsh ancestral roots, of course. The building’s location crowning a hill, certainly. The fact that it is perched like an eye above “The Valley of the God-Almighty Joneses” – his mother’s family land. The shining windows that hover above in the night sky… 

But there are other Taliesins that connect me to this place: Taliesin the historical Welsh poet of the 6th Century.  And, perhaps even more so, Taliesin of The Hanes Taliesin, a heroic, magical, fictional poet associated with King Arthur legends who makes prophesies about the destiny of humanity. Both these Taliesins are here on the property, too.

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Broadacre City. Photo by Skot Weidemann. Courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Before a recent overnight trip to discuss books and writing with a small group of 8th graders from my hometown, Platteville, Wisconsin, the last time I’d visited Taliesin was as a graduate student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin. While the soon-to-be professional planners with whom I visited admired Wright, they had some significant bones to pick with his vision for the future. My classmates believed his ideas were at least partially to blame for suburban sprawl, for car-dominated American landscapes. True, his idea for Broadacre City, a new kind of American community he imagined, would have had the unintended consequence of extending pavement for polluting cars across broad stretches of the natural landscape. This is development scaled for machines, not human beings, I heard again and again, in reference to Broadacre.

But I didn’t get that. I wasn’t a city kid. I was – and am – of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. What I saw in the design for Broadacre City was a pocket of space, like the small valleys of Southwestern Wisconsin, for every family to become fully human, to garden and cook, to make music and art, to run free, to find quiet and meditation away from the constant negotiation of others that urban life, for better or worse, requires. I was quietly moved.

 

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Hillside Drafting Studio

During the visit, I saw this sort of human-scaled insistence manifest in every room, filled with soft, indirect light, musical instruments, grand desks and gathering tables. In every built outdoor space, shaped by rough limestone – the material of the area’s outcroppings, and beautiful statuary. Across the valley, where farmlands undulated, connecting residences to the out  buildings, to the school with its drafting desks and performance space. 

This place whispered truth to me. What I studied at the university was important. Great societies require regulatory regimes that move information, goods, and services equitably, efficiently, sustainably… But what of the search for beauty, the care for the spirit, the wish for integration with a higher power? What about poetry?

 

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Geoff Herbach at Taliesin

That visit, now twenty-five years past, was something of a watershed. While I completed my Masters program, it wasn’t long before I was in another, this time a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. I am oriented to the personal, to the search for meaning. Since then, I’ve pursued fiction writing and performance and have – perhaps getting closest to the Taliesin idea – turned the lion’s share of my attention to teaching aspiring writers. This particular work has become increasingly important to me during the tumult of the last several years. 

It was with the backdrop of pandemic and polarization that I made the recent visit to Taliesin. People are understandably fascinated by the history of scandal that is attached to the property. The personal tragedies both visited upon Wright and caused by him are part of this place’s story, but they aren’t remotely what I take. Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, built a life at Taliesin that supported relentless pursuit of beauty, artistic experimentation, talent development, and transcendence. Taliesin exists to shape a whole human being, to make a person capable of the labor required to survive and, also, the labor required to evolve, to become. This Taliesin offers a framework for living an authentic, meaningful, human-scaled life. It reminds me that we aren’t just what we are, but also what we will be, if we dream eternity, stretch for it. Given the difficult times, the extension of this framework to new audiences feels so important.

 

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Platteville Students on a Recent Trip to Taliesin

In the next few months, I’ll have the opportunity to teach both kids and adults at Taliesin. What an incredible honor. Taliesin isn’t a museum. Did you know? It continues to be an idea in process, a place of the spirit, a place to create and transcend. 

And, oh, do I look forward to channeling Wright, channeling Taliesin the Poet, and to working with writers inspired by the Shining Brow, here in the Driftless, my home.