Robert Bly, one of the most important and influential poets in America today, will present his spirited words Monday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Butler University"s Atherton Union Reilly Room.
Bly, a longtime friend of Indianapolis poet and Butler professor Fran Quinn, has made several appearances in the school"s Visiting Writers Series. This time, students came forward with a petition pleading for Quinn to bring Bly back. "In a week they had 281 signatures," Quinn said. "People want to see him because he treats the audience intelligently. He assumes that there are thinkers out there and that they"re into it." "Sometimes I get wonderful ideas by being unable to read my own handwriting," says Robert Bly, who will present his work on Monday at Butler University.
Reciting his poems and the beloved words of others with his own musical accompaniment, Bly"s readings are not your usual literary yawns. Known in the 1990s for his involvement with the men"s movement that peaked with the best-seller Iron John, Bly, 76, has written, translated and edited dozens of books, magazines and anthologies. Some of his best work so far has come late in his career. Morning Poems (1997) and The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), a book of poems written in an ancient Islamic ghazal form, are both exceptional. His anti-war book The Light Around the Body won the National Book Award in 1968. He continues to speak out against the potential war in Iraq, most notably in a poem published in the New Republic and reprinted on this page. He"ll likely share this new work at the reading. Bly made his philosophy quite clear in a recent interview that otherwise focused on poetry: "George Bush is trying to ruin us by making us an empire people," he said, talking by phone from his home in Minneapolis, Minn. NUVO: What do you think of the Midwest as a place for poetry? Some people seem to think one needs to go somewhere else to become a writer. Bly: It isn"t that you need to go somewhere else to learn how to write or to find what to write about. It"s the question of what we have inherited in our immediate literary descent. I stayed in Minnesota. But I learned a lot about writing about fields from the Spanish poets. And now there are poets learning to write about the events in Minnesota from the Islamic poets. It"s not a matter of where you live. It"s how wide your reading is. NUVO: Has technology helped make the world smaller and made translating easier for you? Do computers make much difference for you as a poet today? Bly: I don"t think the technology and computers are adding anything to that. It enables you to find material a little more quickly. But I don"t know any poet who writes on the computer. Sometimes I get wonderful ideas by being unable to read my own handwriting. Technology makes things too clear. Our emotions are extremely confused. And there are huge gaps of ignorance and greediness in everything. All poetry is a kind of commentary on the mess. And the computer is too neat. Most technology is too neat. NUVO: When you do readings like the one you"ll be doing in Indianapolis, do you enjoy the performance aspect of poetry or that public connection? Bly: I don"t call it a performance. It"s a matter of finishing the poem by giving it to other human beings. And one tries to do that by publishing, which is helpful. But, in order to decipher language [as a reader], the rational part of the brain has to take it over. And then, if you"re lucky, it communicates it to your emotions. But that"s a very awkward way of doing it. Poetry, through the ancient times, was always given directly from the mouth to the heart of the person listening. The poetry reading is not a performance. It"s returning to the origin of poetry, which the voice of the poet - man or woman - speaks without the intrusion of the written language. NUVO: Do you find poetry readings very well-received in America today? Bly: In the European-American world, we are the leaders of this kind of poetry reading. Recently, we had the Dodge Poetry Festival in western New Jersey. There were 20 poets there and 20,000 people came to that. They drove all night from Oklahoma and places like this. It"s astounding. It was a three-day thing with nothing but poetry. If they did that in France, they"d have 115 people, period. In England you would have 20 people and 42 critics who would attack it. There are a lot of bad things about the United States and our cultural habits, which are getting worse. But the willingness of normal human beings to be moved by listening to poets, that"s amazing. NUVO: For some people their writing changes drastically through their careers. Yours, when collected together from decade to decade, fits pretty seamlessly. Can you explain that? Bly: From the Chinese poets, from whom I learned to do the first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, one immediately notices a distinction between vertical poetry on one hand and horizontal on the other. Now, horizontal poetry is the type in which a poet describes everything he has done today. And maybe everything his mother did and his father did and so on. It"s sort of like driving around town. It"s interesting in its own way. But literature has usually been connected with the vertical. Like somebody like Dostoyevsky who goes straight up to God and then down to the demons. So this tradition is also powerful in Buddhism, in Daoism, it"s true in St. John of the Cross, and especially in Muslim poetry. It"s very vertical. So therefore I hitched onto that a little bit in studying the old Chinese poets in Silence in the Snowy Fields. So my attempt has simply been to write a kind of vertical poetry with different subject matters and different views of the world and my own life. NUVO: What"s your typical workday like as a poet? Bly: I get up and try to write a poem before I do anything else in the morning. So I just got up at 6 or so and I have three hours in bed working on some new poems. Once I finish that, my day is really over. Then it"s time to cook a little bit. And then, if I have any time left over in the afternoon, I"ll get to work on some project. I"m working on a book of selected translations. And then I need to put together a collection of literary essays and I promised someone a collection of interviews. So that"s the sort of thing that happens. NUVO: Is writing these morning poems - an idea you adopted from your friend William Stafford - something you"d recommend to other writers? Bly: I like tremendously the whole idea that Stafford brought out that when you sit down to write a poem, you don"t decide what you"re going to talk about. That"s not your job. So, what he would do was lie down on his sofa at 5 o"clock in the morning and see what occurred to him. It could be the steps of a jogger going past the window. It could be a dream pressing in from the night before. Or it could be what his wife or one of his children said the day before. So he considers that the end of a string. Then the job of writing poetry is to follow that string, to see where it wants to go. It"s only your mind that knows where that thing came from or where it"s going to. So he said the most important thing is when you"re writing, put down whatever comes. And don"t allow your standards to come in and say, "Oh, that doesn"t make any sense, how did an alligator get in this line." He said, "Lower your standards." That was great. And then he said, "If you continue to follow this thread, it will lead you to the center of the universe." Amazing. Astounding. [Stafford] uses [William] Blake"s line: "I give you the end of a golden string / only wind it into a ball / it will lead you in at heaven"s gate / built into Jerusalem"s wall." And I said, "Whoa, Bill, you get to Jerusalem every day?" He said, "Oh no, the suburbs are good enough for me." That"s great. You talk about vertical poetry: Just to get to the suburbs would be great.
Call and Answer Tell me why it is we don"t lift our voices these days And cry over what is happening. Have you noticed The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? I say to myself: "Go on, cry. What"s the sense Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out! See who will answer! This is Call and Answer!" We will have to call especially loud to reach Our angels, who are hard of hearing; they are hiding In the jugs of silence filled during our wars. Have we agreed to so many wars that we can"t Escape from silence? If we don"t lift our voices, we allow Others (who are ourselves) to rob the house. How come we"ve listened to the great criers - Neruda, Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass - and now We"re silent as sparrows in the little bushes? Some masters say our life lasts only seven days. Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come. -Robert Bly