Poet Robert Bly looks forward and back in new collection

Robert Bly
Minnesota Poet Laureate Robert Bly is a National Book Award for Poetry winner, and has written more than 40 books of poetry and prose during the decades of his writing career.
Photo by Ann Arbor, courtesy WW Norton

Minnesota poet Robert Bly has enjoyed a successful, but contentious, career. A winner of the National Book Award for poetry, he's internationally known for his English translations of major poets from around the world.

He's also infamous to some for his 1990 book "Iron John," which became the basis for a men's movement of sorts.

Now 84, Bly has just published a new collection called "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey." It's filled with humor, memories, and grief.

Sitting in the living room of his Minneapolis home on a recent summer day, Bly reads a poem from his new book.


STARTING A POEM

You are alone. Then there's a knock
On the door. It's a word. You
Bring it in. Things go
OK for a while. But this word

Has relatives. Soon
They turn up. None of them work.
They sleep on the floor, and they steal
Your tennis shoes.

You started it; you weren't
Content to leave things alone.
Now the den is a mess, and the
Remote is gone.

That's what being married
Is like. You never receive your
Wife only, but the
Madness of her family.

Now see what's happened?
Where is your car? You won't
Be able to find
The keys for a week.


Bly smiles broadly.

"That's kind of cute," he says to himself. When asked where the poem came from, he answers without looking up.

"I haven't any idea," he replies. "I haven't any idea where this came from. I look at it with amazement myself."

With more than 40 books of poetry and prose to his name already, perhaps that isn't surprising. After decades of writing, Robert Bly still describes it as an adventure.

Young Bly
Poet Robert Bly was born in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota. He served in the Navy, then attended St. Olaf College for one year before transferring to Harvard University. There he studied alongside Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, George Plimpton and others.
Image courtesy Robert Bly papers at the University of Minnesota

"A poem is always like going downhill in a sled," he says. "And you just hope that it'll gain some speed and that you won't crash at the end, and that you'll say, 'Oh wow! That's amazing!'"

But it's never a sure thing. Bly discards a lot of what he writes.

"Either I am lying about myself, or lying about someone else," he says. "Or simply my imagination fails and it's stupid. So there's a lot of throwing out that happens when you are doing a book of poems."

"Talking into the Ear of a Donkey" is filled with images from the modern world, as well as the ancient, the sacred and the profane. In one, the Super Bowl rubs shoulders with Longinus, the Roman soldier said to have speared Christ on the cross.

A reader will find a strong undercurrent of longing and grief in some of the new works. In others, those emotions break the surface -- as in this poem.


KEEPING OUR SMALL BOAT AFLOAT

So many blessings have been given to us
During the first distribution of light, that we are
Admired in a thousand galaxies for our grief.

Don't expect us to appreciate creation or to
Avoid mistakes. Each of us is a latecomer
To the earth, picking up wood for the fire.

Every night another beam of light slips out
From the oyster's closed eye. So don't give up hope
that the door of mercy may still be open.

Seth and Shem, tell me, are you still grieving
Over the spark of light that descended with no
Defender near into the Egypt of Mary's womb?

It's hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.

Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm.


Bly pauses and looks up.

"That's what it feels like when you get to be my age," he says. "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat when so many have gone down in the storm."

Robert Bly has a reputation for fierceness at times, often railing against what he saw was wrong with the world. His book "Iron John" urged men to be more self aware and assert the positives of manhood. It attracted international attention, and a huge backlash.

"Well, that's interesting. I don't remember all that exactly, but I do remember people wanting to kill me," says Bly. "But that's not unusual."

Bly adds he is glad he raised the subject. Now his ferocity seems to be turned inwards. Robert Bly has never spared himself from introspection and rigorous self-criticism, and this appears in the new poems.

Iron John
Robert Bly's book "Iron John" became an international bestseller. Bly's work creating a men's movement in the 1980s and '90s made him famous with a crowd he would have never reached through his poetry.
Submitted photo

"It's hard to go through life without realizing how many of your old friends are gone, and how many disasters have taken place. So it's hard to live without a little bit of grief. Probably grief for your own idiocy would probably be part of that."

"Talking into the Ear of a Donkey" is far from glum, though. It's filled with poems that are refreshing, energizing, and even laugh-out-loud funny.

"Metaphor is the great fuel of poetry, and most poets are quite lucky if they get off one in a poem if any, these days," says poet Jim Lenfesty. "Robert gets off one a line!"

Lenfesty, a former editorial writer for the Star Tribune, writes and teaches poetry. He organized a conference last year which was the basis for a new book from the University of Minnesota Press, called "Robert Bly in This World."

Lenfesty says real poetic geniuses are rare. He points to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the 19th century, and Ezra Pound and TS Eliot in the early part of the 20th century.

"I firmly believe Robert Bly was the great genius of our last half of the 20th century," Lenfesty says. "He can do things nobody else can do."

Lenfesty talks about Bly's championing of the ghazal, an ancient Persian form of poetry which Bly has made his own, and his invention of the Romage, a style of poem which depends more on sound than on meter and rhyme.

"It's really sort of an exercise in a dance of short vowels," Lenfesty said. "And they do dance. They just dance right along."

Lenfesty also notes that Bly translated 28 poets into English from 10 different languages. That in itself, he says, is an incredible contribution to modern American poetry.

Bly has another friend and fan in Garrison Keillor, the host of the public radio program "A Prairie Home Companion." Keillor describes Bly as a mystical lyrical poet.

"He has written some of his best poems past the age of 70, and 75 and 80," Keillor said recently. "He has been a daring and productive writer in his old age, and to me this is brave and elegant and just completely admirable."

Back in his Minneapolis living room, Robert Bly launches into another poem from the new collection.

THE HAWK IN HIS NEST

It's all right if this suffering goes on for years.
It's all right if the hawk never finds his own nest.
It's all right if we never receive the love we want.

It's all right if we listen to the sitar for hours.
It doesn't matter how softly the musician plays.
Sooner or later the melody will say it all.

It doesn't matter if we regret our crimes or not.
The mice will carry all our defeats into Asia,
And the Tuva throat-singers will tell the whole story.

It's all right if we can't remain cheerful all day.
The task we have accepted is to go down
To renew our friendship with the ruined things.

It's all right if people think we are idiots.
It's all right if we lie face down on the earth.
It's all right if we open the coffin and climb in.

It's not our fault that things have gone wrong.
Let's agree it was Saturn and the other old men
Who have arranged these series of defeats for us.


Robert Bly still writes almost every day. He's also working on a book of his selected poems. His wife Ruth acts as a sounding board for him.

"I'll tell you a little secret though," Ruth Bly says. "I've never seen him working on poems when he wasn't smiling at what he was doing. It looks so good to him, I think. Even the old ones, he smiles when he is looking at them."

Bly nods in agreement and quietly says, "They are my children."

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