Last Thoughts on Robert Bly

The poet and writer Robert Bly was unavoidable here in Minnesota, and to some degree that may be true elsewhere. Today would be the day this week I would have to record something new, but I’m going to write this instead on the week of his death.

I moved to Minnesota from New York in the mid-1970s, and Robert Bly was unavoidable even then, at least within poetry circles. Minnesota is used to single degrees, and it soon became clear to me that one didn’t need to reach a balmy high of 6 degrees of separation to connect a lot of the poets here to Bly.

Now as a younger man I was a big again’er, and so I was often moved to do by what I was in opposition to. Bly was this too, and he retained this spirit well into his middle age. I recall the first time I saw him read and then speak on more general cultural topics at a writers event. The reading was intriguing. I recall he spoke his poems in a Yeatsian* sing-song chant and I believe he may have strummed a mountain dulcimer haphazardly while intoning his poems. That sort of thing is not universally attractive, then or now, but I admired the attempt. The poetry held my attention while not bowling me over. I’m not entirely sure (memories of other Bly readings blur into my memory of my first) but he may have spent time in his reading speaking about the matters the following poem would be a distillation of. In effect a Bly reading sometimes seemed to be roughly in haibun form, prose talk containing associations and context, to be followed by a shorter lyric poem. In the mid-20th century this reading style was an again’er move, for the predominate public literary reading was flatter, trusting the words alone, or the persistence of memory from studying them on the page before or after, to bring forth the impact. The Beat poetry** with jazz thing still existed then, but this wasn’t quite that, and the Beats were still assayed plausibly as a faded popularizing fad with inferior poetry by many. Over the years my fondness/acceptance of Bly’s reading style continued, though I never wanted to sound like Bly reading.

Part of what might seem too much at a Bly reading, perhaps part of why he chose to explain the human connections not always overt in the poetry which followed, was that he really seemed to want us to treasure the words. That could seem vain or self-important — but of course he, or any of us poets, are only borrowing the words.

The video looks like it may be Bly reading around the same time I first heard him.

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Later in the event series where I had heard him read, I heard him talk about culture. I recall the core of his talk that day was about how young people (he may have been restricting his subject to young men, even though this was years before Iron John)  had this narcissistic irresponsibility and lack of order. He called those suffering from this syndrome “Boy Gods” and he said these two words so close together that I wondered if this was a new word I hadn’t heard before: “buoygaadz.” Anyway, I wasn’t having this. Yes, nearly all writers, and more nearly all poets, have a sliver of un-endorsed self-regard for their thoughts and work.*** And we don’t generally know what to do with what skills we have, but at a young age drawing on our own lives isn’t just narcissistic, it’s also largely what we have any grasp on so far in our short years.

So, my again’er back was up. Maybe it wasn’t me he was talking about? Didn’t occur to me. I’d been working full time since I was 20 first in nursing homes taking care of folks Bly’s parents’ age, then in urban Emergency Rooms where people had no where else or no choice but to come. I didn’t need some writer with writing prizes giving me tough love, it was my day job to provide some pretty tough love to some needy people.

That’s often what happens when two again’ers meet. How much did I misunderstand? How much was Bly wrong? As an old man I’m not sure. That again’er part of me still arises, even in old age; but now I’m prone to doubt that there’s one way and one understanding — which was always part of my being against stuff that claims there was. Similarly, I was never attracted to Bly’s denomination of a men’s movement, though some others who seem a decent sort of person in my estimate were. I have no understanding of that part of Bly’s lifework, and so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re looking for. Also missing in my accounting today will be that there was, even more so in the older Bly, a sense of general good humor about our less than murderous follies.

Skip forward some decades and into a new century. Partly from examining closely the early Modernists (who wrote differently than most Modernism that followed) and partly from a renewed interest in how the classical Chinese poets expressed poetry, my poetry became more like Bly’s without any direct intent on my part to write like him (remember, my first impressions of Bly’s poetry were: nice enough, but not impressive or something I needed to copy.) If you’ve listened to some of the hundreds of examples of various performance styles I’ve used here combining poetry and music, I don’t think you’ll find me sounding much like Bly reading — but he is one of several whose courage in trying different ways to make verse work aloud inspired me.

And then, as readers here will know, I started to do more translations. I did this to expand what I presented here, and also because I think it’s a great way to get inside other ways poetry can express itself for my own writerly benefit. In the course of doing that, I would run across works that Bly had translated. My first thoughts? “He put stuff in there that wasn’t in the poem. And he makes them all sound like Bly poems.” Well, there’s my again’er again! I told myself that I want to honor the poet I’m translating — and sure, I can’t move the exact word-music over, but it should remain their poem, not mine. Oh, I still think I’m trying to do that, but I’m failing into doing what I see in Bly’s translations more and more. I’m not sure how I’ll eventually feel about this failure on my part. I’ll say only this (in example) if you think you’re reading Rumi by reading Bly, you’re not. You’re looking over the shoulder or between the ears of Robert Bly reading Rumi. That may be a fine location, just don’t hang the wrong sign on it. Ah, but as with the poetry we write, we’re only borrowing the words.

Have I been too dismissive or hard on the man who has just died, and who earned his honors and esteem and perhaps deserved even more? And who am I to cast this as if Bly and I are peers in any estimation! I worry that I might give some readers those impressions, but no, my intent is to say this in gratitude to Bly; and then to say this to you: if you, even partially, progress by opposition know that opposition may be like a pair of powerful magnets with poles repelling — they may snap around in your intending hands, together.

For an audio piece today, here’s an autumn poem by Rilke that Bly and I both translated. Here is a link to a page with Rilke’s own German beside Bly’s English version, and here’s mine.

Since this version from 2019, I’ve changed the 8th line to a less awkward one: “If you don’t have a house, you won’t build one now.”

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You can hear me perform my translation combined with my own music either with the following player gadget (where shown) or with this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I didn’t know back then, but William Butler Yeats had designs to do just such a thing early in the 20th century, perhaps more pitched than what Bly did, but by Yeats own instruction also not “art song” with elaborate melodic singing.

**While in New York I’d heard Ginsberg sing poetry; and though his pitch sense had issues, he was singing in full voice. Though I left New York before the hip-hop explosion, Gil Scott-Heron was a thing, and again, the cool, sly Beat infused (in both senses of the word) Scott-Heron thing wasn’t what Bly was doing. Bly then was always slowing the flow down, sometimes elongating the words almost like a stage hypnotist.  The Last Poets sounded more like drill sergeant chants compared to Bly. Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” had moments of that slow, hypno-suggestion groove, but it also had rhythmic variety. Later Bly chopped with a raised hand while reading, chopping also the words off at their feet with more variety in tempo.

***Often fighting with a stubborn bit of self-destruction or outright self-hate. Many artists think they know what they’re doing maybe 51% of the time, and then “I don’t have any idea about how to do it” fills the remainder 49%. The former pride lets us work, maybe even impress the results on others, the later portion calls us self-deluded. Some self-medicate trying to dampen down one portion or the other, but the drugs, drink, etc are not accurate enough.

2 thoughts on “Last Thoughts on Robert Bly

  1. I don’t read German, but I like your translation. And I appreciate that this is not en encomium! I find your comments measured and on the generous side—although I’ve reread his Vietnam era poetry and liked it.

    Like

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