I see from Facebook that the literary giant Robert Bly has passed away. This blog post is longer than usual because it consists of an essay from my book, Poetry, Politics and Passion about my relationship with Bly. It’s the best way I can think of to memorialize him.
“You both have the same hairstyle.” This was my daughter Rachel’s comment when I showed her the photograph of Robert Bly and me in the July 2005 issue of the KRCB Radio program guide. True. Parted on the same side and about the same length, my curly blonde hair and his white wavy locks swept out from each of our faces in almost the same “do.” The picture was taken on the deck of Falkirk House in San Rafael where Marin Poetry Center members were hosting a reception before Bly’s reading at Book Passage.
Arrangements had been made with his agent to interview the renowned poet for KRCB’s literary hour, “Word by Word.” I had been a volunteer at the public radio station almost two years, producing more than 20 shows. I’d conducted phone interviews with such luminaries as Nikki Giovanni, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, and Robert Hass, as well as several local authors. But this was my first in-person field recording opportunity, and a chance to see someone who was more than a celebrity I had brushed up against. Bly had been a correspondent, a literary friend and an anti-war ally. I was jazzed.
I first encountered him in 1969 when, as one of several prominent poets on a nationwide tour to raise money for Vietnam War resistance, he came to read at the Milwaukee 14 benefit. Bly had recently won the National Book Award for The Light Around the Body and donated his prize money to the Peace Movement. When I first heard him read, he was 46 years old. He had been publishing poems in translation in his magazine The Fifties, and then The Sixties, making Americans aware of the likes of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Georg Trakl. From his farmhouse in rural Minnesota, Bly was to go on editing and publishing The Seventies as well as numerous books of his own poems, essays and translations.
In 1975, around the time my growth into feminism led me to Goddess spirituality and study of the divine feminine, Bly founded the Annual Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father. It seemed to me then that Bly was helping the cause of women’s liberation by teaching men how to be authentic. In 1978, he visited Milwaukee again, and, because we had been exchanging letters, the poet invited me to play my doumbek (belly dance drum) with the gang of musicians who accompanied his reading at Century Hall. Ten years after I first saw him, he was still wearing the same performance attire: a cream-colored wool serape with a bold, black border design that made him look like a stately, wild-haired Norse God who had landed in Mexico and taken up residence there.
During the height of Bly’s work in the mytho-poetic men’s movement (his international bestseller Iron John was published in 1990), we lost touch. I admired one of Bly’s other popular books, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart—an anthology of poems edited from his men’s movement work. And yet, I wondered if he had gone over the line into heterosexism. I remember writing to him with excitement that I had fallen in love with a woman, and being offended by his return letter that said my action had put me “on the endless grind of the karmic wheel.” It was an anxious and righteous time of my life, so I may have taken offense where none was meant. But I stopped writing to him, and he stopped writing to me. His growing mainstream accolades put him in a higher category of fame than most poets ever achieve—to the point that even stand-up comedians referenced “Robert Bly and the drum beating men’s gatherings in the woods where everyone shouts ‘ho!’ and hugs each other.”
Still, I treasured our brief common history in working for peace through poetry. When Bly came to Berkeley in 1998 for a screening of the film RUMI: Poet of the Heart, I made sure I was in the audience. Spotting him in an aisle seat before the performance, I knelt beside him to say hello. When I reminded him of our first encounter 30 years before, his face lit in recognition. He surprised me by asking about colleagues from those Milwaukee days by name. “It’s such a delight to see you again,” he said. “I’m glad you’re still writing.” We talked a while longer before he was called to the stage. Shortly afterward, I sent him a copy of my 1996 poetry chapbook. He wrote back promptly:
I’ve enjoyed Heart of the Peony very much. The poems don’t dance around at the edge of town, they head straight for the center. . .and I loved including a recipe for clam spaghetti in a book of poems! I’m going to use it this week. Love, Robert.
In 1999, when I asked permission to quote his one-sentence review of my poetry, he replied in the affirmative, and assured me that “the clam spaghetti was great.”
Our correspondence resumed in the form of exchanging publications—I sent him my 2002 spoken word/music CD, Make Love Not War, and he sent me autographed copies of his small hardcover books as they came out. His inscriptions were personal, intimate. He wrote quoting my own words back: “Thanks for your good poems! I like ‘the black cherries…with gratitude to have blood…’” Another inscription encouraged me: “It’s alright if we keep making the same mistakes/ It’s alright if we grow our wings on the way down.”
On that Sunday in May 2005, Bly exhibited the same warmth he had shown at all our previous meetings. Then 78 years old, he was on tour promoting two books: The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations of Poems from Europe, Asia and the Americas, and a collection of his own: My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy. When he arrived at the Falkirk House reception, he walked straight over to where I was enjoying a glass of wine at a table by myself and sat down. As other guests began to press closer for their turn to chat with the poet, I quickly got down to the business of confirming a time for our radio interview. And, I asked someone to snap a picture of us together.
When the Poetry Center entourage arrived at Book Passage, Bly excused himself to “take a little nap” in a back office of the bookstore. He asked me to wake him up a half hour before he was scheduled to read. I tried to browse the shelves, but ended up checking and re-checking my mini-disc recorder, my batteries, my list of questions for 30 long minutes before I knocked.
“Yes, OK…” answered a dry, tired voice. I opened the door to find the septuagenarian rousing himself from the carpeted floor. His face was flushed and he seemed weary. He cleared his throat and situated himself in the leather desk chair as I attached the microphone to his shirt. I wondered then about the success of both our conversation and the two-hour reading to follow.
JO: You use a line from Rilke’s poem for the title of your book of selected translations. Do you want to say anything about why?
RB: He’s urging poets to do daring things. (Bly reads)
Just as the winged energy of delight
carried you over many chasms early on,
now raise the daringly imagined arch
holding up the astounding bridges.
Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing
living through and defeat of danger;
miracles become miracles in the clear
achievement that is earned.
Here he’s saying as a poet gets older you just can’t bubble forth your happy little tunes, you have to go to two different sides of the river and build a bridge between. Then he says—you want to write a poem in such a way that at the very last line the reader feels some kind of a miracle.
JO: I’d like you to read your poem “Call and Answer” that has been widely anthologized lately, although it was written in 2002, even before George W. Bush ordered the attack on Iraq in March 2003.
RB: I used the ghazal form, keeping each stanza to roughly 36 syllables…
JO: Why did you choose this Islamic form? Were you trying to bridge the so-called “clash of civilizations”?
RB: In a way. We’re involved in humiliating the Muslims and I’m involved in praising them. . . .
I was very upset by the fact that no one was writing poems against the Iraq war buildup, and I’m still upset. You know in the Vietnam War days they were coming out of our ears. Everyone was writing poems against the war.
JO: Do you think it’s too soon in the war, that’s why there isn’t much writing about it?
RB: In the sixties, the newspapers were not so panty-waisty. People wrote wild things and the papers printed them right away—think about Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers. The capitalists are trying to control everything and keep everything down. When I asked someone yesterday, “Why do you think there isn’t more against Bush?” he said, “I think it’s fear.” We are being coddled by so many happy television programs, we don’t realize that we are living in a desperate situation.
When our conversation concluded, Bly requested time alone to prepare. I left him and donned my headphones to verify the quality of my digital recording. There it was—his Midwest inflection, the sometimes growl-like voicing of his recitations, the reactive sounds he made to my comments and questions. Satisfied with what I heard, I felt my muscles relax. I joined the standing-room-only crowd in the south wing of the bookstore to wait for the poet’s entrance.
Bly had roused himself from his brief rest to give me a charming and informative interview but when he stepped up to the podium in front of 150 listening fans, his energy redoubled. The ageless bard read his own poems and his translations with verve. The highlight of the evening was the moment he read again his “Call and Answer.” When he finished reciting the poem, he pulled his battered suitcase up on stage, unlocked it, and threw out a few items of clothing before uncovering a stack of books.
“I’m giving these away free,” he said, as he took out perhaps fifty copies of The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War. It was a 2004 imprint of Ally Press in St. Paul. “I don’t want to carry them back to Minnesota, so be sure to take one.” I loved his generosity—giving away books in a bookstore! I took home my copy of the slim volume, as did a lucky third of the listeners.
Over the years, I’ve been drawn to Robert Bly, as others are drawn, because he is a bright light, as a writer and as a person of conscience. There is much to admire in all the phases he has gone through as a poet who managed to survive outside of academia and benefit from the freedom it provided. He developed a world-wide reputation as a writer/publisher/teacher/translator and has continued to bring the heart and culture of non-western civilizations, as well as the beauty of music, into every reading he does. I am inspired by this. I am nurtured by my personal encounters over time with him, and by those letters on 5 x 8 personalized stationery—return address Minneapolis—signed Love, Robert or Fondly, Robert, in rickety, almost indecipherable, hand.
On May 20, 2011, Bly appeared again in Berkeley at a KPFA Radio/Poetry Flash benefit titled, “Talking into the Ear of a Donkey.” At the age of 85, the poet reads sitting down, yet he maintains his charismatic presence. He chuckles and growls, repeats lines to make sure we understand, surrounds himself with musicians playing tabla and oud whom he directs with his eyes and a wave of his hand.
Bly was not costumed in a wide, red tie under a woven vest of brilliant colors as the event publicity photo showed, but in a casual, gray sport coat over a blue dress shirt with open collar. One of his legs trembled, and he read a poem twice, not immediately for emphasis but because he had forgotten he included it earlier in the program. He seemed to wonder why its funny lines fell flat. I was moved by this one awkward moment in which the famous performance poet seemed like an ordinary white-haired grandfather. Still, the audience remained attentive and delighted. Bly’s hold on the life force, or the life force’s hold on him, is undeniable. He continues to exhibit courage, grace and earthy good humor that belie his years.
“It’s alright if we write the same poem over and over,” he says. It’s OK if we grow wings even as we are falling.