Robert Bly
(born Dec. 23, 1926)

Robert Bly

Stanford Poetry Workshop 9
Margaret Jacks Hall, Room 334
Wed., May 28, 2008, 3:15-6:00 pm

Readings from The Thousands:
Poems by Tomas Tranströmer,
Robert Creeley & Robert Bly Essay:
"Six Disciplines That Intensify Poetry"

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

The Thousands
(Number One, Fall 2001)

Preface: Robert Bly tells the class that this is his last class to our surprise. We thought June 4 was our last class. Bly says Eavan Boland will be covering in his place next Wednesday. Bly will be flying to Maine the next day for "The Great Mother and New Father Conference". He tells us how much he enjoyed working with us this semester. Bly tells us "I've a gift for you all" and like Santa Claus reaches in his tote bag and tosses to each of us a copy of The Thousands (Number One, Fall 2001). This is Robert Bly's legendary literary journal, successively called The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies, now updated into the 21st century. This issue begins with Robert Bly's major literary essay, "Six Disciplines That Intensify Poetry". There are poems by Louis Jenkins, Li-Young Lee, Jay Leeming, Thomas R. Smith, Louis Simpson, Myra Shapiro, Sharon Olds and Russell Edson. Foreign poets include Bhartrihari, Tomas Tranströmer, and Hafez. There is also a previously unpublished poem by James Wright. I tell Bly about Professor Paul Losensky of Indiana University and his lecture "To Revere, Revise, and Renew: Sa'eb of Tabriz Reads the Ghazals of Rumi" (May 22, 2008) and give him the 12-pages handout of their poems and translations. I tell Bly "Losensky's aunt lived in Bear Creek, Minnesota near where you lived. He heard through her all about your divorce from your first wife Carol. Before he told me any more gossip, I showed him your Rembrandt Notebook which you lend me to copy the Basho and Issa haikus from your first class. I told him how magnanimous you were in that gesture." When I give Bly his Rembrandt Notebook back, he says "Ah, there it is. I've been looking all over for it this week. I forgot that I'd given it to you." Now I ask Bly to lend me his Hafez book to copy down the poem "What Do We Really Need?", the only poem missing from his Colloquium. Bly not only gives me this poem but his whole book as a generous gift— he's truly an angel! (see Afterword in Bly's Stanford Colloquium) (Peter Y. Chou, May 28, 2008)

(1) Tomas Tranströmer
     "April and Silence"
(p. 68)

Spring lies abandoned
A ditch the color of dark violet
moves alongside me
giving no images back.

The only thing that shines
are some yellow flowers.

I am carried inside
my own shadow like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
hovers just out of reach
like the family silver
at the pawnbroker's.

Cited on the Web

Bly's Commentary:

Tranströmer wrote this poem just before his stroke. Since then, he couldn't talk for 15 years. His mind is still alert. He communicates with his wife by writing. Could you sense the power of those last lines of his poem?— "hovers just out of reach / like the family silver / at the pawnbroker's." That's some image few American writers could invoke that Tranströmer does all the time.

(2) Tomas Tranströmer
     "Romanesque Arches"
(p. 69)

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark
    of the enormous Romanesque church
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel whose face I couldn't see embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
"Don't be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You'll never be complete, and that's as it should be."
Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sun-lit piazza,
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka
    and Signora Sabatini;
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.


(3) Tomas Tranströmer
     "Fire Script"
(p. 70)

During the heavy months my life caught fire only when
    I made love with you.
The firefly too lights up and goes out, lights up and goes out
    —by quick glimpses we follow its route
among the olive trees in the darkness of nght.

During the heavy months the soul sat
    indolent and crushed,
but the body took the nearest way to you.
    The night heavens gave off moos.
We stole milk from the cosmos and survived.

Cited on the Web


After reading the three Tranströmer poems, Bly asks the class whether they've read any of his poems. I raise my hand saying that after his reading of Tranströmer's "The Scattered Congregation" at his Colloquium (May 20), it inspired me to write "What Is The Address?" the next day. I used his last stanza about Nicodemus the sleepwalker as the epigraph of my poem. Bly asks me to read my poem and says my stanza "Ask Melencolia for / her compass to / square the circle" is too intellectual (mind weight) and suggests "Ask Melencolia to weep!" Bly doesn't care for "The Red Fountain at / Stanford Green Library / knows the secret". I tell him the Red Fountain portrays the symbol of π— It resembles the Torii gates in Japan to a Shrine. The Library is a sacred shrine and the architect who designed this fountain knows the secret." Some students got excited when I mentioned this. Later I tell Bly that my Notes to this poem will explain my intentions more clearly.


(4) Robert Creeley
     "Love Comes Quietly"
(pp. 10-11)

Love comes quietly,
finally, drops
around me, on me
in the old ways.

What did I know,
thinking myself
able to go
alone all the way.

from For Love: Poems 1950-1960
Charles Scribner & Son's, NY, 1962
(Cited on the Web, Google Online Books)

Bly's Commentary on Creeley's Poem & Friendship Between Sounds:

Creeley is excellent in chiming with sounds. Notice in the second stanza—
three "o"s (know, go, alone) and two "a"s (able, away). [In addition to these
remarks in class, Bly's essay "Six Disciplines That Intensify Poetry" has more
to say in his second section "The Ancient Friendship between Sounds"]:
    When we sit down to write, we often imagine that thoughts are coming, or feelings are arriving. But actually what are arriving are syllables, each a marriage or affair of vowel and consonant. As we write along at our desk, we watch sometimes with amazement these little sound units or particular love affairs coming along in their variety. They keep coming along, no matter what we do.
    But it is another thing to take part in their arriving— to put out a call for sound friendships, to decide to encourage certain ones. Then we are awake by one more degree. To be awake as a writer is to take part in sound friendships and welcome them.
    Let's take a small poem and look at it, keeping the repeating sounds in mind. This is a poem by Robert Creeley [cited above]. The word "quietly" introduces the ai sound, and adds to it with "finally". "Quietly" also introduces an ee sound, which reappears twice as "me". But we also notice a few affairs that vowels have with n— "finally", "around", "on". With the word "old", somethhing begins to shift, and the vowel oh begins to push its way in, dancing a bit with the earlier ai sound.
                What did I know,
                thinking myself
                able to go
                alone all the way.

"Thinking" and "alone" honor the consonant n; and halfway through the stanza ay begins to enjoy itself. Nature loves repetition, and we could say that the little poem of Robert Creeley has become an imperishable object of nature while pretending to be only art.

Robert Bly on Soul Weight in Poetry:

The universities teach mind weight to students and not soul weight. If you write only happy poems, then it's called light verse because there's insufficient sadness in them. Need soul weight in your poems, then people don't know whether it's happy or sad. In Kafka tale about a son disliked by his father, he turned one day into a beetle. That single sentence has huge soul weight. When the father found his son in beetle form climbing up the wall, he threw an apple at him, which lodged in the son's back. This apple seems to be from the Garden of Eden story. When a detail drawn from mythology is woven into art, we feel some psychic weight.
    Antonio Machado [1875-1939] was a Spanish poet who had a lot of soul weight in his poems. He married at 34 to the daughter of the boarding house where he was staying in Soria. They went to Paris and lived poorly. She caught tuberculosis and died [at age 18]. Machado was devastated and wrote this poem:

              The wind one brilliant day, called
              to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

              "In return for the odor of my jasmine,
              I'd like all the odor of your roses."

              "I have no roses; I have no flowers.
              All the flowers in my garden are dead."

              "Then I'll take the waters of the fountains,
              and the yellow leaves and the dried-up petals."

              The wind left... I wept. I said to my soul,
              "What have you done with the garden entrusted to you ?"

If you have soul in your poems, readers will forgive you. If you find someone who laughs all the time, he's probably soul-less. Poetry prizes are usually given to poets with lots of friends, not to poets with soul. You probably will gain soul weight when you're 35 years of age. [Interesting that Bly pinpoints this turning point as it is half the lifespan alloted to humans in the Bible: Psalms 90:10"The days of our years are threescore years and ten". It was at 35 years of age that Dante (1265-1321) embarked on his soul journey in 1300, opening his Inferno with the words "Midway in the journey of our life, I found myself in the dark woods, for the straight path was lost."]

Poetry Workshop Session:

Bly asks each of us to read our poems, critiquing them for "soul weight". Often he'll say there's too much "mind weight" in certain lines. Carla Baku, who has returned to college after raising four sons, has just received the Stanford Poetry Prize for undergraduates. Bly asks her to read her prize-winning poem to us "Living By Our Lights— 1966". Bly says "You could feel soul weight there about other people's suffering."
    One student's poem: "I punctured the punctuation. / I searched for my mind and lost it. / My nightmares became daymares / and even the horses laugh at me." Bly likes his images saying "Poetry is bringing your soul out and looking at it."
    One student reads his long poem with Hindu gods & goddesses— Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, Parvati, romping around. Bly tells him that he was stuck in his intellect. Get rid of the Hindu mythology and substitute the deities with animals instead. Carla comments "There's lots of anger underneath this poem that he's burying with the mythological gods." [Later, while consulting my Dante Concordance on "soul", I learned that "soul" in Italian is "anima". So Bly's suggestion on "animals" is literally adding more "soul weight" to the student's poem.]
    When Erin reads her poem with the lines "On the dance floor he hands me / a box with a painted bird", Bly says "Stay with this image!" Her next lines were "Can love exist without expectation. / Every moment is a gift. / Can you look forward to / something that never happens." Bly says "The box was leading to your soul and the mind took over! Your following lines are just abstractions. Nothing you could paint or see."
    Austen's poem: "A man seeking enlightenment / visits a guru and asks / "How to get this duck out of the bottle?" / Guru says "Not my duck. Not my problem" / ... When I open my closet / My shoes are so tiny. / My clothes so dumb. / I pull just one thread / and they all become undone." Bly says "Get rid of the last stanza!" One student says "Your first stanza is great! Last one should be too!"
    I read my poem "The Aha Moment" which was written for Bly's ramage poem homework assignment (May 6, 2008) that I didn't get a chance to read until now (see Notes). Bly says "This is the best one you've written!" He asks me to explain the details of "dangled out his eyeballs with muscles and all". I tell the class that this was a true incident from Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret India (1934). Brunton paid a rupee when the fakir dislodged his eyeball from his socket and put it back again. The sage who taught the secret of breathing the "Ah" inbreath and keeping the "Ha" outbreath came from the Himalayas to Boston to teach this secret. Before coming to Boston, the Himalayan sage taught his breathing technique to Melvin Calvin of Berkeley. As a chemist, I knew that Calvin had won the 1961 Nobel Prize for his research on the chemistry of photosynthesis. So I felt safe in learning this strange way of breathing which I abandoned after a month. Bly tells the class "Peter has met many strange fellows" then smiles at me "I'll miss you."

Q & A Session:

Bly: Since this is my last class, I'm open for any questions from you folks.

Q: In your younger days, did you consult with anyone after writing your poems?

Bly: Yes. I would send my poems to James Wright [1927-1980] for feedback. You need to choose someone who's not vicious. Also not someone to please you. Not necessary to write in a group, but not always alone. It's hard to find people to critique your poems. Lots of fun to have your poems talked about. How hard is it to write about your parents.

Q: One student quotes Flannery O'Connor [1925-1964]: "If you survive childhood, you have lots to write about." She says "Family material is a good source for my writing."

PYC: I tell Bly that his reading of "My Father at Eighty-Five" at San Jose State University in 1988 impressed me even more than his guitar playing and reciting Rumi quatrains. Suddenly I began reciting Bly's poem: "My father's big ears / hear everything. / He complains that / I do not bring him / the jokes the nurses do. / He is a small bird / waiting to be fed / more beak than eagle. / My arm on the bedrail / All I know of the Troubadours / I bring to this bed. / He can shame me no longer. / The general of shame / has dismissed him and / left him in this small / provincial Egyptian town. / If I do not wish / to shame him then / why not love him." Bly was impressed that I was reciting his poem from memory. I only recalled less than half of the poem and was somewhat nervous that I even forgot the crucial last line "And I am his son." (Poem #6 in Bly Anthology)

Bly: I had a brother who was my father's ally. My father was an alcoholic. My mother was my ally. During World War II, I was involved in radar development in the Navy with Eisy Eisenstein. He was the first person I'd known who wrote poetry. He later taught at the University of Pennsylvania [?]. Then some thirty years later, someone connected me up with Eisy. I phoned him and agreed to meet him in a hotel in New York City. I was so eager to see him. But he never showed up. [Bly sighed as if to say "That's one disappointment."] I've been very lucky in my life. My wife Ruth loves poetry. You need to have a friend to show your poems to. My life has been a blessing. Someone once said at a party "I hate Robert Bly" and I wasn't even there. I have a daughter Mary Bly who's a professor of Shakespeare and English literature at Fordham University. She's also a Romance novel writer with a pseudonym Eloisa James which she didn't reveal until recently. When people asked her how did she manage to have two careers, she said "When I was ten, I loved reading Romance novels. My Dad said it was trash, and that I should read real literature. But he made a deal with me. For every Romance novel you read, you have to read a classic book as well. And I held up to that promise." [NY Times OP-ED] I had forgotten about that deal, but she reminded me. Well, that's my daughter, we'll see her in Elba [Napoleon's former hangout] for vacation this summer.

Q: Most poets hold another job teaching. How did you support yourself having never taught in an university?

Bly: I did lots of translations. They paid by the page translated. I've translated 15 books. Then I made my living giving poetry readings. I used to do readings two weeks straight, sometimes 14 nights in different cities in my younger days. I enjoyed it. I'm an extrovert. I didn't want to be tied down at an university. Some dryness comes in when you get involved in departmental politics. So I loved my freedom in what I'm doing.

Bly then read two ghazals from his My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy:


I have spent my whole life doing what I love.
Let's honor the quail who searches so hard for food.
Here I am, playing flute in a cistern like Joseph.

My genius amounts to persistence in following
Elephants through the wind. Sometimes the long vowels
Go on ahead and show us where the road is.

Thand God for Jaufre Rudel who taught even
The Vikings the road of love. We are incompetent, hopeless
Lovers, but we do play the shawm in the wind.

It was only when I was out in the fields, hiding
From the winds, that I understood that what fell
To pieces last night could be whole this morning.

I don't know if you've heard the buff-chested grouse
When he drums on an old log. He is like Hafez
Repeating something he has heard from his teacher.

Robert, I hope you're not bragging in this poem.
Don't drag out the comparison to Joseph.
We're just talking here of feathers blown in the wind.

My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy
     HarperCollins, New York, 2005, p. 95 (Web)



The bridegroom wanted to reach the Norwegian Church.
But the roads were made impassable by huge snows.
We are each the bridegroom longing for existence.

Marriage brings the moth close to the candle flame.
With their frail wings, men and women
Are constantly flying into the fire of existence.

Some say that each drop of ground water in Kansas
Knows about the ocean. How can this be?
Every drop of water longs like us for existence.

Abu Said fasted in the desert for twenty years.
Later when he came back, his dragon friend
Wept. "Your suffering gave me a hint of existence."

When the pianist's fingers strike all the notes
In the Tenth Prelude, it's clear Bach's soul has been
Leaping about like a hare in the field of existence.

Robert, you're close to joy but not quite there.
You are a hunchback standing in an Italian
Square, looking in at the festival of existence.

My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy
     HarperCollins, New York, 2005, p. 87 (Web)


Bly concludes the class blowing a farewell kiss to us all, saying "I'll miss you loonies." Many students go up to him for autographs of his The Thousands magazine which he gave us as parting gifts. The men in the class give Bly hugs thanking him for his guidance in their poetry and their lives. Many ask for his email address and snail mail address to keep in touch. Two Stanford Stegner Fellows [Michael McGriff & Alexandra Teague] arrive to give Bly a ride home. I walk with them to the Stanford Oval where they parked their car. Bly tells us "Stanford is such a beautiful campus. I stayed at Professor Stephen Orgel's house as he's on sabbatical this quarter. He's got all the Shakespeare books plus a lovely huge back yard." I ask Bly about his Sufi teacher in London which he mentioned during his Colloquium. Bly says "His name is Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh" spelling his name letter by letter for me. "He's 81, same as my age," Bly tells me, "but I'm just a mosquito compared to him." Bly continues "When the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah (1979), he wanted Nurbakhsh to stay in Iran. But after their meeting, Nurbakhsh flew to Paris and then London. He needed freedom." Michael's car has arrived. Bly and I have a big hug, saying good-bye. I thank him for his generous gifts and a wonderful semester of poetry.


Web Links to Tomas Tranströmer

Wikipedia: Tomas Tranströmer
    (Short Bio, Collected Poems, References to Web Links) Tomas Tranströmer
    Bio, Poems, Prose, External Links)
Offical Webpage: Tomas Tranströmer
    (Bio, Music & Readings, Interviews, Essay & Reviews, Books)
Too Much of the Air: Tomas Tranströmer
    (Essay by Tom Sleigh from Interview with a Ghost, Graywolf Press, 2006)
Books & Writers: Tomas Tranströmer
    (Biography, Selected Works, Further Reading)
Griffin Poetry Prize
    (Lifetime Recognition Award for Tomas Tranströmer)

Web Links to Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley: Symposium on his Poetry
    (Notes from November 5, 2005, Stanford University & Web Links)
Wikipedia: Robert Creeley
    (Life, Work, Bibliography, Film Appearances, Notes, Web Links)

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P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (6-1-2008)