Robert Bly in Eugene
Bill Long 10/26/06
A Man for This Season
I didn't really appreciate the full scope of Robert Bly's artistic genius until I talked briefly to him after his riveting poetry reading at the Shedd Institute in Eugene, OR on Tuesday, Oct. 17. As we pleasantly chatted about William Stafford, Oregon's former poet laureate, a friend and mentor of Bly, and a man who had been born in a town where I once lived (Hutchinson, KS), Bly took my copy of his book Iron John, opened it to the title page and signed it. But Bly didn't just sign it. He penned a sketch of his visage, with his unmistakable shock of white hair, angular jaw, searching eye and friendly face and then, in the middle of it all, wrote "To Bill: Robert Bly." It was a wonderful coda to a brilliant symphonic production of words--a production which not only took us on a journey of poems past and present, but of poetry written in the difficult ghazal form and poetry recited to the hauntingly beautiful plucks of the dulcimer. If you just listened to his poetry, you would have little sense that Bly was the author of the best-seller and formative work on the modern men's movement Iron John (1990); if you read his book Iron John you are little aware of his multi-lingual poetic gift. When you put both of these together, however, and give heed to the content of what Bly is saying, you see him as a most American of poets, but one whose passionate words, arresting phrases and universal themes also make him one of America's premier gifts to the world.
An Evening with Robert Bly
About 500 of us, mostly aging hippies and other children of the 1960s and 1970s, clad in Oregon plaids, boots and jeans gathered in this quondam church in the center of Eugene. The Baptists had built the place on fervent piety and conservative conduct; now the space is used for concerts, lectures and readings by those who probably never would have darkened the Baptists' door. But perhaps it was something of the Baptists' fervor and commitment that bathed the place in congeniality that night, for from the opening words of introduction the place was, as it were, transformed into a temple of words, a place where heart and head connected, resulting in a sort of secular communion of the saints.
We knew we were in for a wonderful night when he was introduced with the following line: "As Robert Bly has taught us, 'It is a great calamity for a human being not to have obsessions." Then we were given a man who told us that he had loved every part of his life and was, at age 79, still loving it. He beamed with ruddy health and took his position with a manly carriage and bearing that seemed to belie his fourscore years. And then, he read...and read...and read.
Though I have not yet ordered a copy of the DVD of that night, I was able to isolate a few themes of his work that came through to me during the evening. First is what I would call his practical wit. Then, there is his righteous and insightful gravity. Finally, there is his comfort with family and religious themes that seems to elude many poets of 2006. Let me illustrate each ever so briefly.
1. Robert Bly loves to smile, and he never smiles so much as when he uses a line that makes us smile. One such line was as follows, when speaking about his father: "one life, one woman. That was God's rule, and he didn't like it much." Bly repeated the poem containing this line, and read this line yet again. It captures the midwest acceptance of duty (Bly was born to Norwegian stock in MN in 1926) as well as a sort of wry independence from that duty. Another example of practical wit/wits was his observation that you "know a lot about your life if you figure out what your favorite story is." For him it was Hansel & Gretel. He gently poked and caressed the multi-layered myth with what the listener might imagine was like the insistent poking of the witch's finger at Hansel to see if he was "fattening up." It was the layering of myth that formed the basis of Iron John; his insistence on the power of the myth encourages me to (re)discover my own stories.
2. I was wonderfully entranced by his righteous and insightful gravity. I don't use the word "righteous" as if Bly thought he was more moral or just or even more "visionary" than others. He did have the knack, however, of pointing out troubling truths with frightening clarity and succinctness. For example, in one poem, talking about war in general, he wrote/spoke:
"Every war is your childhood coming closer
Something happens to me, and I can't tell anyone
So it will happen to you."
These words were, to me, among the most chillingly true words of the evening. He explained: 'We have learned in the past few decades how a person's childhood fears and experiences are acted out when s/he becomes an adult. Painful experiences not dealt with in youth come back to haunt us later in life. Thus, when a person leads others into war, it is usually the spirit of his childhood, a childhood that has not been adequately "dealt with," that speaks in the present. Up until the last few decades, we couldn't speak of this childhood. The battlefield, then, is the killing fields of our youth, our youth coming back to life, our "childhood coming closer." When we can't speak of our past, we re-enact it, and so what happens to me becomes the thing that I bring to and against you.' How utterly terrifying is that? And, all in three lines.
I thought that I could "get through" Bly in one essay. How naive is that?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long