Robert Bly in Eugene II
Bill Long 10/26/06
Righteous Truth/Family and Religion
War and reflection on war has occupied a good deal of Bly's mental space ever since he formed American Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966. So he brought us to the heart of his thought on war with two other poems. One, on Crazy Horse and the Corporations, talked about the "two invasions" of America. First it was the White Europeans who invaded the Indians and then it was the corporations that invaded the Europeans. Both of the invaders suck life out of those who were there. And, if we follow Bly's image a bit further, we might also say that both of those invaded had no immunity against the invader's dark side. The White invader brought bodily diseases; the corporate invader brings diseases of the spirit, and neither the Natives nor the contemporary Americans have the strength to fight them off. So we wither.
One indication that we wither is our inability to speak with moral clarity and passion about things around us. Bly was one of the first poets who spoke openly against the Iraq War. In August 2002 he penned Call and Answer (published in My Sentence was 1,000 Years of Joy (2005), 27). Only a few lines are necessary to quote to catch the spirit of the poem:
"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?
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."
And so Bly takes it as his duty to be a crier because maybe we are already at Thursday night, or even beyond, and the witness of his words may help to bring us back from our precipice of foolishness. One other line, summarizing his approach to President George Bush in his 2nd term, is "So much we care for has been carried off." It is almost as if he is reminisicing on Is. 46 where the beasts of burden carry off the idols of Babylon.
Family and Religion
When I lived in KS, people were fond of telling me that I lived in the land of "family values." I was told, in fact, that everyone througout the nation admired Kansans because of their religious and patriotic values, even though I noted that fewer and fewer of my fellow Americans were moving to KS. In any case, Bly speaks with an insight about religion and family that is absent in most modern poetry. When he said, in a poem, that "my mother feared three things: tuberculosis, death, and my father," I knew I was in the mind of a man who cared deeply about and honored family.
And then he told a story about Bill Stafford (as he called him) which I hadn't heard. Oh, first, he told the one that many poets tell and that is no secret--that Stafford's advice to poets who couldn't seem to put pen to paper was simply, "Lower your standards." I have worked on this advice for years, and it is the most liberating advice for a person who would like to learn to write. But here is the other story. Stafford had the custom of writing one poem a day. This explains how he published more than 45 books of poetry while beginning to write poetry only at middle age. Every morning Stafford would rise, sit on the couch and compose a poem from 6:00 - 7:00 a.m. Then, he would eat breakfast, get ready for his work and go to it. But his young daughter, because she loved her dad, wanted to get up and spend time with him in the morning. She began to get up at 6:00 a.m. just to be able to be with him. So, here is what Stafford did. He decided to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write his poem, so that he could have an unobstructed hour to spend with his daughter each day. When Bly told this story, he face broke out in a huge smile and he said, "What a Mensch!" If one had any doubt up to this point that Bly's personal radar is defined by his place in family, those doubts had to have been dispelled.
And then he told sobering poems about family. Death, he read/said, is "like camping trips with kids. You pack up the kids but, no matter how you do it, you always leave something behind."
So much more there was to strike the fancy of any person. He recited many poems to the dulcimer, and we saw afresh how important not only the words are to Bly, but how words are refracted through rhythm. Then, he told us about the ghazal form, with its 36 syllables, with every three-line stanza ending with the same word. He spoke not only of the ghazal but his love of Muslim poetry, his experience translating from the Spanish, the Norwegian. He read us poems about groundwater in KS that longs for the ocean and the longing for existence that each of us has when our realities seem so defined by non-existence. He talked of Taoists who fished all day with straight hooks and then closed with his recent poem "Stealing Sugar from the Castle." The theme of this last poem is the effulgence of joy which bursts out all around us. Being included with others is a joy but, like a bird, we also fly out of a hall, and "Being shut out of the warm hall is also a joy." I will close with two stanzas.
"I am a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot. but I love
To read about those who caught one glimpse
Of the Face, and died twenty years later in joy."
A glimpse that lasts a lifetime. We can imagine it. And then,
"You're a thief! the judge said, 'Let's see
Your hands!' I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy."
I could imagine that a "sentence" of many evenings with Robert Bly could work out to a lifetime of joy.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long