Robert Bly

Robert Bly

Poetry Colloquium
Mohr Visiting Poet Series

Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460
Terrace Room (4th floor), Stanford University

Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 11 am-12:06 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Woke up this morning at 9 am to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro music on KDFC 102.1 FM. Had a cup of coffee and caught the 10 am Bus #22 on El Camino Real near Ortega Ave. Got off at Galvez Street for Stanford Shuttle B-Line to Serra Street. Arrived at Terrace Room at Margaret Jacks Hall at 10:38 am. One woman was already seated reading her book. I put my backpack near the post in the second row as the first row seats were reserved for the English Department faculty. I went for a walk across the campus to Pigott Hall to see if there are any free copies of the New York Times, since my favorite Science Section is published on Tuesday. They were all gone, so I picked up the Stanford Daily instead. As I walked past Memorial Church Quad, a magpie flew overhead and landed on a lofty pine tree. When I got back to the Terrace Room, half of the seats were occupied. I noticed Joel Katz, a poet from Waverley Writers, sitting out on the patio. Joel was a former classmate from Dick Maxwell Foothill College Poetry Workshops back in the mid-1990s. We chatted awhile before Bly's arrival with Eavan Boland. Eavan told the audience that Bly has decided to talk about translation in this Colloquium. It was instructive and illuminating when Bly went through the translation process— working from a rough draft of the poem's literal meaning as it gets polished so the poem becomes alive. Here are my 14 pages of notes as Bly read and commented on his translations of Tomas Tranströmer, Mirabai, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, and Hafez. At 11:45 am, Bly spent the final 15 minutes for a spirited Q&A session.

Robert Bly: I just came back from Sweden and Norway. The U.S. government awarded my application to study the Norwegian Constitution. They knew that wasn't the real reason for going to Norway, but awarded my grant anyway. I got to see the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer who is about 60 now [actually he's 77 years old, born April 15, 1931. Bly didn't tell the audience why he went to Sweden. In Eavan Boland's introduction to Bly's Poetry Reading (May 7), she told the audience that Bly was just awarded the 2008 Tranströmer Prize for poetry, being the first American to do so.] Here's a poem "The Scattered Congregation" of Tomas Tranströmer and my process in translating it.

       by Tomas Tranströmer (b. 1931)

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith.

Inside the church there's a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.

But the church bells have gone underground.
They're hanging in the sewage pipes.
Whenever we take a step, they ring.

Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way
to the Address. Who's got the Address?
Don't know. But that's where we are going?

Pathways (1973),
     Also: The Half-Finished Heaven
     The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer
     Chosen and Translated by Robert Bly
     Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, MN, 2001, p. 54
     (Quoted; Web)
Bly's Comments:

Tranströmer doesn't say Christianity is in decline—
"broken arms of faith", "church bells underground"
and "sewage pipes" are images conveying this.

There is a little envy in the line
"The visitor thought: you live well."
But the word "slum" in the next line
blows the whole house down!

Do you feel the power of the word "slum"?
Can you feel his swiftness?
It's a wicked line after the praise.
You have to translate great poets
to experience these leaping delights.

When you figure out what the lines mean,
then you play around with the sounds
to get the right tones in the poem.

"Whenever we take a step" sounds better
than "Whenever we take a walk" because
of the "e" sounds in "sewage pipes"

Also the choice of the word "home"
in the first line is obvious as it
harmonizes with the "o" sounds
in "got", "showed", and "our".

Bly asked the audience: "Who's Nicodemus?"
Eavan Boland said "Some rabbi in the Bible"
but offered no details. I almost burst out
"I know the Address!" but kept silent.
(See my 1990 poem on Nicodemus
and latest poem "What Is the Address?")

       by Mirabai (1498-1550)

Don't go, don't go. I touch your soles.
    I'm sold to you.
No one knows where to find the bhakti path,
    show me where to go.
I would like my own body to turn into a heap of
    incense and sandalwood and you set a torch to it.
When I've fallen down to gray ashes, smear me on
    your shoulders and chest.
Mira says: You who lift the mountains, I have some
    light, I want to mingle it with yours.

Mirabai Versions by Robert Bly
     Red Ozier Press, New York, 1984, p. 8
     Also: Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems
     Versions by Robert Bly & Jane Hirshfield
     Beacon Press, Boston, 2004, p. 20
     (Quoted; Web)
Bly's Comments:

You have to translate great poets.
In this volume [The Winged Energy
of Delight
], there are 19 poets that
I've translated over 120 years [laughter].

Mirabai was an ecstatic woman poet
from 15th century India. She's from royalty,
and her parents want her to marry a rich man.
But Mirabai was in love with an old man
from the untouchable caste. She washed
his feet and drank the water from it.

When her parents found out what kind
of daughter they had, they locked her up
in a tower. But at night, Mirabai tied her
saris as a rope and escaped to see the old man.

[Note: One who lifts the mountains is Krishna.]

       by Mirabai (1498-1550)

My friend, he looked, and our eyes met;
    an arrow came in.
My chest opened; What could it do?
   His image moved inside.
I have been standing all morning in the door
    of my house, looking down the road.
The one I love is dark: He is an herb growing in
    secret places, an herb that heals wounds.
Mira says: The town thinks I am loose,
    but I am faithfull to the Dark one.

Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems
     Versions by Robert Bly & Jane Hirshfield
     Beacon Press, Boston, 2004, p. 62
     (Quoted; Web)
Bly's Comments:

The Dark One is Krishna.
That's their Hindu culture.
We've got television
to occupy and distract us.

Once you get the meaning of the poem,
you realize that the language we use
is not good enough for a poem.

We need elegance to move fast.

       by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
when you surrender, you stretch out like the world.
My body, savage and peasant, undermines you
and makes a son leap in the bottom of the earth.

I was lonely as a tunnel. Birds flew from me.
And night invaded me with her powerful army.
To survive I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow for my bow, or a stone for my sling.

But now the hour of revenge falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk!
And the cups of your breasts! And your eyes
    full of absence!
And the roses of your mound! And your voice
    slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will live on through
    your marvelousness.
My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road!
Dark river beds down which the eternal thirst
    is flowing,
and the fatigue is flowing, and the grief without shore.

Twenty Poems of Love and
     One Ode of Despair
     Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems
     Edited by Robert Bly
     Trans. Robert Bly, John Knoepfle, James Wright
     Beacon Press, Boston, 1971, pp. 18-19
     (Quoted; Web) Merwin & Edward Hirsch Essay
Bly's Comments:

Pablo Neruda is a master many times over.
He's a Chilean communist, so the U.S. government wouldn't let him in this country.

Neruda was the best-selling poet in America after Whitman. Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish appealed on Neruda's behalf. Archibald MacLeish had some connection in Washington [MacLeish won the Pulitzer Prize three times (1933, 1953, 1959). President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him the Librarian of Congress (1939-1944). Later, this position was changed to Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.] So finally the government allowed Neruda into this country in 1966.

Over 1000 people attended Neruda's reading in New York City. He told the gathering "I went down the Fourth Avenue bookstores in Manhattan. Even though I have lots of Whitman's books, I bought another one today. So I'll start by reading you a Whitman poem." His reading brought down the house.

Neruda wrote incredible Odes. His images had a lot of surrealistic power. Here's one I translated from his Twenty Poems of Love and One Ode of Despair— "Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs". He added grief to Whitman's celebratory exuberance. Whitman would never say "grief without shore" as Neruda did in his last line.

       by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.

Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.

I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don't want so much misery.
I don't want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

That's why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulpher-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through the office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.

Twenty Poems of Love and
     One Ode of Despair
     Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems
     Edited by Robert Bly
     Trans. Robert Bly, John Knoepfle, James Wright
     Beacon Press, Boston, 1971, pp. 28-31
     (Quoted; Web)
Bly's Comments:

Perhaps Neruda was not fair
to law clerks, but to terrify
them "with a cut lily" is a
fresh image. Same could be
said about "kill a nun with
a blow in the ear" though a
bit violent. Neruda's last line
"towels and shirts from which
slow dirty tears are falling"

is quite striking. Whitman
would never say this. It is
nourishing to read about grief.
And Neruda does it well.

       by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet
into them
as though into
with threads of
and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish made
of wool,
two long sharks
sea-blue, shot
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this way
They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

I resisted
the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere
as schoolboys
as learned men
sacred texts,
I resisted
the mad impulse
to put them
into a golden
and each day give them
and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers
in the jungle who hand
over the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
the magnificent
and then my shoes.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter.

Odas Elementales (1954-1957)
     Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems
     Edited by Robert Bly
     Trans. Robert Bly, John Knoepfle, James Wright
     Beacon Press, Boston, 1971, pp. 140-145
     (Quoted; Web)
Bly's Comments:

Neruda used short lines
when writing his Odes.

[Of the 87 lines in his
"Ode to My Socks"—
24 lines had just one word,
27 lines had just two words.

Bly followed this
in his

So that's Neruda's Ode
to his handsome
heavenly socks.

Don't you think he's sweet?
Clap a little bit.
[Audience laughter & applause]

When you're doing translation,
get someone who knows the language.
Waste his afternoon helping you.
He gets nothing [laughter].

       by Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)

Ecstatic love is an ocean. And the Milky Way
    is a flake of foam floating on that ocean.
The stars wheel around the North Pole, and ecstatic love,
    running in a wheel, turns the stars.
If there were no ecstatic love, the whole world would stop.
Do you think that a piece of flint would change into
    a plant otherwise?
Grass agrees to die so that it can rise up and receive
    a little of the animal's enthusiasm.
And the animal soul, in turn, sacrifices itself. For what?
To help that wind, through one light waft
Of which Mary became with child. Without that wind,
All creatures on Earth would be stiff as a glacier,
Instead of being as they are,
Locustlike, searching night and day for green things, flying.
Every bit of dust climbs toward the Secret One like a sapling.
It climbs and says nothing; and that silence is a wild praise
    of the Secret One.

The Winged Energy of Delight
     Selected Translations by Robert Bly
     HarperCollins, New York, 2004, p. 340
Bly's Comments:

If you translate "sea"
instead of "ocean" in
this poem, you lose
the "o" sound in
the second line
"of foam floating
on that ocean."

It's like playing the clarinet.
In music we have to
repeat the sound.
Call up your friends
for suggestions.
"Give me some words
with more "o"s.

Each line of Rumi
deals with ecstasy.
Don't be spoofed
by religious ideas.
All languages use
the spiritual.

(8) WHAT DO WE REALLY NEED? (Ghazal #34)
       by Hafez (1315-1389)

If a soul has already chosen solitude, why should it need
Travel? We know the street where the Friend
Lives. So why do we need the countryside?

My dear soul, by virtue of the fact that you
Have a desperate need for God, take
A moment and ask what it is we really need.

Oh, Lord of Divine Loveliness, we have been
Burned to a crisp. Come now, ask of us
What is it a destitute and beggarly person needs?

We are the lords of owning nothing. But we have
No tongue to use for requests. Is there a need
For appeal when we're already with the generous?

There is no need to go over this again. Since your thing
Precisely is spilling our blood, everything in the house
Already belongs to you. Do you need to take more?

Solomon's cup, in which all the world could be seen,
Is the bright soul of the Friend. When the Friend is with us,
What need do we have to reel off our list of demands?

The time is past that I would make myself
Indebted to a sailor; when we have found the pearl,
Do we need to keep going to the sea?

Oh, destitute lover, since the quickening kiss of the Friend
Has been granted to you in perpetuity, what need
Is there really to go on asking for good things?

Go away, you false face, I want nothing
To do with you. Lovers with true hearts
Are with us. Why should we need people like you?

Hafez, bring this to an end now. We all know
How clear your poems are. So we don't need
To quarrel with those who can't grasp poetry.

The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door:
     Thirty Poems of Hafez

     Translated by Robert Bly & Leonard Lewisohn
     HarperCollins, New York, 2008, pp. 37-38
Bly's Comments:

Hafez is the greatest poet of Iran
along with Rumi. Whenever their
daughters gets married in Iran,
they consult Hafez.

Iran is one of the most civilized
country in the world, and Bush
wants to bomb it. I like to say
controversial things like
Pablo Neruda.

I've been working on these Hafez
translations for 14 years
with Leonard Lewisohn.
He'd fly in to Minneapolis
from London for three weeks
each year and we'd work on
these translations together
since he knows Farsi well.
Look at this cover
[Religious Dance of Initiation
painting] HarperCollins did
a good job. Don't you think so?

The word "need" ends each stanza
in the original Farsi, but not
in our English translation.

Hafez mentions his name in
the last stanza of the ghazal.

There was no printing press
during his time. It was a
memorized culture and a poem
could be recited in Persia
as well as Cairo. According
to tradition, a poet's
name would be inserted
in the last stanza as
evidence of authorship.

Q & A Session

Q: (John Felstiner) What are you seeing now in Iraq?
      There's more assassination and new intensity there.

Bly: There's a lot of suffering now. Pain of losing
        all those people. What's your grief?

Q: (John Felstiner) I'm concerned that so many
      Iraqi scholars are getting killed. It's like the Russian Gulag.
      [Eavan Boland tells Bly: "This is John Felstiner from our
      English Department. He translated Pablo Neruda and Paul Celan]

Bly: Oh yes! I've read your work.
        I'm glad you're here.

Q: You translated Rilke and Trakl. What about
      the German poets Gottfried Benn [1886-1956]
      and Michael Hofmann [born 1957]. Their poems have
      been translated. How do you select poets to translate?

Bly: When I was disgusted with other people's translations,
        I did my own. I like Benn a lot. He's extremely intelligent.

Q: I was looking at the Anna Akhmatova translations.
      They did away with her form. So the translations seemed dry.
      Her original style in Russian were more gutsy.

Bly: If I can rhyme the original, I'll try it.
        Jane Kenyon did translations of Akhmatova [1985].
        Her husband Donald Hall helped her, saying "Bring the heart out."

Q: How do you know a poem is good or bad?

Bly: I go to the original after reading the English version.

Q: To what extent has translation helped in writing in your own language?

Bly: I'm trying to translate myself. We know little about sound.
        We're an elementary culture. So you learn much
        from the great poets of older and deeper cultures.

Q: In the Tranströmer poem you read, did you translate
      to take a walk or to take a step? It wasn't clear to me.

Bly: "But the church bells have gone underground.
        They're hanging in the sewage pipes.
        Whenever we take a step, they ring."

        I used "step" instead of "walk".
        I asked Tranströmer whether he meant
        sewage pipe or drainage pipe. He said "sewage".
        That's the advantage when you have access
        to the poet who's still alive to get it right.

Q: (Joel Katz) What makes something difficult for you to translate?

Bly: Raucous type poets who's too wild. I'm more gentle.
        Why don't you name some poets?

Q: (Joel Katz) Whitman and Yehuda Amichai [1924-2000]

Bly: Yours is a good question. It took me a long time
        to translate Juan Ramón Jiménez. I'm not good
        in translating the surrealist poets.

Q: You're a Sufi. There are seven different levels of enlightenment.
      Are you teaching them in your poetry? [Sufi Poetry]

Bly: I'm not a real Sufi. I'm an educated Norwegian.
        There is a Sufi Coffee House in town on El Camino.
        My teacher is in London, the same as the one running
        the coffee house. The master advised him to rent the place
        and serve coffee while imparting spiritual Sufi wisdom.
        (I didn't catch the name of his London Sufi master, and
        asked Bly again on May 28 after his class while we're at
        Stanford's Oval. Bly said "He's Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, same
        as my age, 81. But I'm just a mosquito compared to him.")

Q: You deal with the ecstatic in your poems a lot.

Bly: That's why I love the Sufi. Sufis weep a lot.
        They carry a whole tradition of mystics
        like Rumi and Hafez. But I'm not a Sufi.

Q: I read your "The Dead Seal", a prose poem written 25 years ago
      Do you return to a poem 30 years later?

Bly: You get forgetful, but smarter in old age.
        When I wrote "The Dead Seal", I thought the seal
        was dead, but it didn't die until sometimes later.

Q: Your ending of that seal poem seemed like a prayer.
      I didn't understand what you were saying.

Bly: I read "The Dead Seal" at Brooklyn College once.
        One woman was crying through my reading.
        She told me that she was from Guatemala.

Q: Will you read us one more Hafez poem?

Bly: All right. [Bly chose Hafez's Ghazal #77,
        the last poem in his The Winged Energy of Delight.


The garden is breathing out the air of Paradise today;
I sense this friend of heavenly
Nature, and myself, and the genius of the wine.

It's all right if the beggar claims to be a King
Today. His tent is a shadow thrown by a cloud;
The sown field is his room for receiving guests.

The meadow is composing a story of a spring day
In May; the person who knows lets the future
And its profits go and accepts the cash now.

Please don't imagine that your enemy will
Be faithful to you. The candle that stays lit
In the hermit's hut flickers out in the worldly church.

Make your soul strong then by letting it drink
The secret wine. You know that once we're dead,
This rotten world will press our dust into bricks.

My life is a black book. But don't rebuke
Me too much. No one can ever read
The words written on his own forehead.

When Hafez's coffin comes by, it'll be all right
To follow behind. Although he is
A captive of sin, he is on his way to the Garden.

The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door
     translated by Robert Bly & Leonard Lewisohn
     HarperCollins, New York, 2008, pp. 31-32
     Also: The Winged Energy of Delight, p. 397

Bly's Colloquium ended at 12:06 pm.

Post Colloquium Notes: Lunch was served out on the patio— four bowls of salad, bread rolls, cookies, soft drinks and bottled water. Stanford Bookstore had a corner table with Bly's books and many bought them for Bly's signing. My friend Jack is here, and we sat inside as the patio tables were all occupied. Bly went out to the patio and sat with some of the faculty members. When Bly came inside after his lunch, I told him about Eavan Boland's reading assignment last Wednesday (May 14) when she covered his class while he was away in Sweden. I was surprised reading his Paris Review interview (Spring 2000) that he was inspired by Balzac's Louis Lambert. That book inspired me too when I discovered it in the Cornell stacks. Richard Bucke included Balzac in his book Cosmic Consciousness (1901), as one of the authors like Blake and Whitman who has experienced enlightenment. It propelled me on the spiritual quest. Bly was not familiar with how Whitman met Bucke, so I told him the story. Jack took a photo with my camera of Bly and me engaged in this conversation. It came out well— a nice momento of the wonderful Poetry Workshop where I learned so much with Robert Bly this Spring Semester.

Afterword: From my notes of Bly's Colloquium, I traced all the poems he read from his books in the Stanford Stacks at Green Library and his The Winged Energy of Delight at the Los Altos Library. The only poem missing was Hafez Ghazal #34: "What Do We Really Need?" from his latest book The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door published in April 2008. Stanford Bookstore had a copy but it was gone when I went there Sunday, May 25. A friend called several local bookstores and told me Borders Bookstore in Sunnyvale had a copy and reserved it for me. When Bly came to class Wednesday May 28, he told the students that this was his last class to our surprise. We thought June 4 was our last class, which Bly told us Eavan Boland will be covering in his place. Bly was flying to Maine the next day for "The Great Mother and New Father Conference". He told us how much he enjoyed working with us this semester. I asked him whether I can borrow his Hafez book to copy down the poem "What Do We Really Need?" Bly reached into his bag and said "I'll give you the book." When I asked how will I return it to him as he's leaving tomorrow." He said "I'm giving this book to you for keeps. It's my gift to you." I was surprised at his magnanimous gesture again. Last week, I asked to borrow his Blyth book Genius of Haiku to copy the Basho and Issa haikus read in his first class. Bly didn't have that book with him, and gave me instead his Notebook with the haikus in it, saying "Return the Notebook to me next week." It allowed me to complete the "Bly Haikus" this week. Now Bly signs the Hafez book "For Peter— With thanks for his many gifts and gestures and joyful thoughts— Robert Bly, May 28, 2008". I was in Seventh Heaven! It's interesting that Hafez's ghazal is titled "What Do We Really Need?"— the last poem I really needed to complete this Bly's Colloquium web page. Bly not only gives me this poem but his whole book as a generous gift as well— he's truly an angel!

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (5-28-2008)