Robert Bly

Robert Bly

Poetry Reading
Mohr Visiting Poet Series

Campbell Recital Hall,
Braun Music Center, Stanford University

Wednesday, May 7, 2008, 8:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: I got to the Campbell Recital Hall around 7:30 pm and two dozen people were there already. I brought Bly's Poetry Reading flyer to Waverley Writers last Friday, and noticed some of the poets there have come including my friend Terry Adams. The first two rows of the center aisle were reserved, so I sat on the second row of the left aisle. Soon Campbell Recital Hall was packed to capacity and some sat on the floor. Eavan Boland, Director of the Creative Writing Program, introduced Robert Bly. Here's what she said roughly from my notes— "It is through the generosity of Nancy and Larry Mohr to bring Robert Bly to Stanford this semester as the Mohr Poet. I can't mention all that Robert Bly has achieved. At every turn, he refused to separate the citizen and the public. Through all the decades, he has kept an openness of language and craft. He is distinguished in translating the poems of Gunnar Ekelof, Georg Trakl, and Tomas Tranströmer. Bly is the first American to receive Swedish Tomas Tranströmer award for poetry [2008]. He has shown consistency in his approach to belief in values. Poetry can't never be decorative. It can't be divorced from ethos. He is a unique and beloved poet with his Minnesota background and his Harvard education. His classmates at Iowa Writers Workshop were W.D. Snodgrass and Donald Justice. In 1952 he received a Fulbright Grant to travel to Norway and translated Norwegian poetry into English. He is a poet with boundless energy. His some 30 books include Silence in the Snowy Fields [1962], The Light Around the Body [1967], which won the National Book Award. More recent works include Snowbanks North of the House [1999], The Night Abraham Called to the Stars [2001], and My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy [2005]. His Iron John: A Book About Men [1990] was on the New York Times Best-sellers list, and set off a somewhat controversial Men's Movement [laughter]. Robert Bly's poetry is one of vitality. It is with great pleasure that we welcome him to read to us at Stanford."
    Bly had many well-wishers after his reading including students requesting signing of his books. I told him how much I enjoyed his reading, and asked if any of the poems he read were from his unpublished works. Bly told me that all the poems he read tonight are from his published books. Here are my eight pages of notes of Robert Bly's poetry reading which ended at 9:05 pm. I went back to Green Library to type up the poems of Bly's reading from his books in the Stanford stacks. Some of Bly's books were checked out, but I was lucky to find Bly's Eating the Honey of Words and My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy in the Los Altos Library on Sunday (May 11). I checked these two books out and typed six of the poems from them below. I also found Bly & Lewisohn's The Angel Knocking on the Tavern Door at the Stanford Bookstore. In the ten minutes before the store's closing, I managed to copy the Hafez lines missing from my notes "One Rose Is Enough". Now here is the complete Bly's Stanford Poetry Reading for those who love poetry.

Robert Bly: Thank you Eavan for the lovely introduction. I'm glad to be here at Stanford.


Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet
    from the house...
Thoughts that go so far.
The boy gets out of high school and reads no more books;
    the son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her rolling pin
    and makes no more bread.
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party,
    and loves him no more.
The energy leaves the wine, and the minister falls
    leaving the church.
It will not come closer—
the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing,
    and are safe.

And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave
    the room where the coffin stands;
he turns away from his wife, and she sleeps alone.

And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on
    through the unattached heavens alone.
And the toe of the shoe pivots
    in the dust...
The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down
    the hill.
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away,
and did not climb the hill.

The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981),
     Also: Selected Poems (1986), p. 148 (Web)


Why do I suddenly feel free of panic?
Here a summer afternoon, wind-
Blown lake, a cabin of strong logs.

I can live and die with no more
Fame; I'd like ground to walk on,
A few books, occasionally a storm.

I know stories I can tell, and I may
Or may not. There is more
To learn: the wind and the screendoor.

The granary of images, the Norwegian
Lore, the power of Schmad Razum,
Good or evil, success or failure.

Expect something else from me—
Less— and don't rule out
Misdirection, silence, misinformation.

Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (1997), p. 22
     Quoted in Review of Eating the Honey of Words

Bly: I like to work with Marion Woodman. We often do workshops together. Once up in Canada somewhere, we went to a party and heard a Russian man telling a story that sounded like poetry. Not often do you find a poem in a party.


“The Russians had few doctors on the front line.
My father's job was this: after the battle
Was over, he'd walk among the men hit,
Sit down and ask: 'Would you like to die on your
Own in a few hours, or should I finish it?'
Most said, 'Don't leave me.' The two would have
A cigarette. He'd take out his small notebook—
We had no dogtags, you know— and write the man's
Name down, his wife's, his children, his address, and what
He wanted to say. When the the cigarette was done,
The soldier would turn his head to the side. My father
Finished off four hundred men that way during the war.
He never went crazy. They were his people.

He came to Toronto. My father in the summers
Would stand on the lawn with a hose, watering
The grass that way. It took a long time. He'd talk
To the moon, to the wind. 'I can hear you growing'—
He'd say to the grass. 'We come and go.
We're no different from each other. We are all
Part of something. We have a home.' When I was thirteen,
I said, 'Dad, do you know they've invented sprinklers
Now?' He went on watering the grass.
'This is my life. Just shut up if you don't understand it.'”

Morning Poems
     HarperCollins, New York (1997), pp. 15-16 (Web)


I've been talking into the ear of a donkey.
I have so much to say, and the donkey can't wait
To feel my breath stirring the immense oats
Of his ears. "What has happened to the spring,"
I say, "and our legs that were so joyful
In the bobblings of April? I do feel teenier
As if some taut giant, once at the center
Of things, had moved to Sweden. Am I an ant
Struggling to lift a dark barn
Off its base? Am I changing my road
So that I can play with the old moonlight
Once more, and be what I once was, a lover
Whispering, struggling to catch fur in my hands
So I can lift my lips closer to the donkey's ear?

Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems
     HarperCollins, New York (1999), p. 270 (Quoted)

Bly: The next four poems are from Turkish Pears In August, written in a form called ramage. This brief poem of eight lines is a reverberation of sounds, like two-thirds of a sonnet. [The word ramage occasionally appears as the name of a movement during some French compositions for flute; it is related to the French noun for "branch." We can hear the root of that in "ramify."]


How lovely it is to write all these vowels:
Body, Thomas, the codfish's psalm. The gaiety
Of form comes from the labor of its playfulness.
We are drunkards who never take a drop.
We all become ditch-diggers like Brahms.
No, no, we are like that astronomer
Who watches the great sober star return
Each night to its old place in the night sky.

Turkish Pears In August
     Twenty-Four Ramages By Robert Bly
     Easten Washington University Press, Spokane, WA (2007)

(6) HEARD WHISPERS [Ramage #21]

The spider sways in October winds; she hears the whisk
Of the bat's foot as it leaves the branch, the groan
The bear makes far out on the Labrador ice,
The cry of the wren as the hurricane takes
The house, the cones falling, the sigh of the nun
As she dies, the whisper Jesus makes to
The woman drawing water, the nearly silent weeping
Of bones eager to be laid away in the grave.

Turkish Pears In August (2007)

(7) THE SLIM FIR-SEEDS [Ramage #23]

The nimble oven bird, the dignity of pears,
The simplicity of oars, the imperishable
Engines inside slim fir-seeds, all of these
Hint how much we long for the impermanent
To be permanent. We want the hermit wren
To keep her eggs even during the storm;
We want eternal oceans. But we are perishable;
Friends, we are salty, impermanent kingdoms.

Turkish Pears In August (2007)


No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his rum all day, and is content.

Turkish Pears In August (2007)

Bly: Now I'm going to read from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. These poems are in the ghazal form popular in Islamic poetry. Each poem has 36 syllables of 6 stanzas. This would have helped Milton and Pope [audience laughter]. You have to change the subject matter after each stanza. Every stanza ends with the same word. So you have to choose your word carefully. There are no rhymes in the poem.


There are people who don't want Kierkegaard to be
A humpback, and they're looking for a wife for Cézanne.
It's hard for them to say, "So be it. Amen."

When a dead dog turned up on the road, the disciples
Held their noses. Jesus walked over and said:
"What beautiful teeth!" It's a way to say "Amen."

If a young boy leaps over seven hurdles in a row,
And an instant later is an old man reaching for his cane,
To the swiftness of it all we have to say "Amen."

We always want to intervene when we hear
That the badger is marrying the wrong person,
But the best thing to say at a wedding is "Amen."

The grapes of our ruin were planted centuries
Before Caedmon ever praised the Milky Way.
"Praise God," "Damn God" are all synonyms for "Amen."

Women in Crete loved the young men, but when
"The Son of the Deep Waters" dies in the bath,
And they show the rose-colored water, Mary says "Amen."

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), p. 93
     Quoted in Writer's Almanac, December 23, 2002


The goose cries, and there is no way to save her.
So many cheeps come from the nest by the river.
If God doesn't listen, why are we listening?

Very deep water covers most of the globe.
Whenever I see it, I think of St. John.
There is no remedy for deep water but listening.

The King and Queen already know about love;
They search for each other through the whole deck.
While we play our hands, they are listening.

The day we die, we'll each be like the fish
Abruptly jerked out of the water.
For him, it is the end of all listening.

Like thousands of others, I'm eating beet soup
In some Russian inn. People write letters
To me from heaven, but I'm not listening.

The hermit said: "Because the world is mad,
The only way through the world is to learn
The arts and double the madness. Are you listening?"

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), p. 91
     Quoted in Voice of America, November 7, 2006


Let's tell the other story about Pitzeem and his horse.
When the One He Loved moved to the mountains,
He bought a mare and a saddle and started out.

He rode all day with fire coming out of his ears,
And all night. When the reins fell, the mare knew it right
Away. She turned and headed straight for the barn.

No one had told Pitzeem, but his horse had left
A new foal back in the stable. She thought of nothing
All day but his sweet face with its long nose.

Pitzeem! Pitzeem! How much time you've lost!
He put the mountain between the mare's ears again.
He slapped his own face; he was a good lover.

And every night he fell asleep once more. Friends,
Our desire to reach our true wife is great,
But the mare's love for her child is also great. Please

Understand this. The journey was a three-day trip,
But it took Pitzeem thirty years. You and I have been
Riding for years, but we're still only a day from home.

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), p. 43

Bly: The last few poems I'll read are from a book of 48 ghazals,
My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy. Each stanza of this
poem ends with the word "existence". The following poem has
"nonexistence" as the last word in each stanza.


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)


When I hear that we all belong to nonexistence,
I drop my eyes, but then I raise them out
Of love for the little creatures of nonexistence.

Some say that perch became like each other
To keep the shark from zeroing in. But staying alive
Doesn't mean they are free from nonexistence.

The cries of the infant barn-swallows rising from
The mud-nests fastened ingeniously to the rafters
Taught me to love the skinny birds of nonexistence.

Taoists with their thin beards fishing all day
With a straight hook tell us they have learned
Not to expect a whole lot from nonexistence.

Blackberries have so many faces that their jam
Is a kind of thickening of nothing; each of us
Loves to eat the thick syrup of nonexistence.

When each stanza closes with the same word,
I am glad. A friend says, "If you're proud of that,
You must be one of the secretaries of nonexistence!"

My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy (2005), p. 93


Adam agreed the ocean would be the home of salt.
We all understood our souls would hang by a thread.
God agreed the pearl would be out of our hands.

What did the Prodigal Son find inside his room?
His boots and sword, a tiny monkey chained
To an iron ball, a bed, and forgetfulness.

I have written poems lying in so many small beds.
Sometimes a cross hangs on the inside of the door.
Mostly the dark of early dawn is in the room.

Some say farmers have taken on themselves the crime
Of saving and sowing wheat; and bakers have taken
On themselves the crime of baking the bread!

This is what I say, "I want what's owed to me."
A voice says, "We have our inheritance."
Whose voice is that? Is that my old teacher?

Oh what a glory it is that the winter snow
Should be so deep, that we know so little,
And the future should be out of our hands!

My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy (2005), p. 91


Don't you see them? They are coming to blind Samson!
But some of us don't want the day to end!
If Samson goes blind, what will happen to the sea?

Isn't it bad enough that the sun goes down
Each night, while children throw shoes at the moon?
I remember my mother's grief at sunset.

Now I remember my father. I remember
Every father when he is wrestling with his son.
Oh Lord of the Four Quarters— he is destined to lose!

You gypsy singers, make some raw cries!
Call in the crows to fly over the plowed fields.
I want the beating palms to cry out for Samson.

I want rough voices and shouting women
To cry out against the blinding of Samson.
I will always cry— take away those knives!

Isn't it enough that the Evening Star sets every night
And lovemaking ends at dawn? Please, God, help
The human beings, for men are coming to blind Samson.

My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy (2005), p. 31 (Quoted)

Bly: This poem is from my latest book
The Angel Knocking on the Tavern Door
Thirty Poems of Hafez which Lewis Lewisohn
helped in translating them from the Farsi.


One rosy face from the world's garden for us is enough,
And the shade of that one cypress in the field
Strolling along gracefully for us is enought.

I want to be far away from people whose words
And deeds don't match. Among the morose and heavy-
Heared, a heavy glass of wine for us is enough.

Some people say that good deeds will earn them
A gated house in heaven. Being rakes and natural beggars
A room in the tavern for us is enough.

Sit down beside the stream sometimes and watch
Life flow past. That brief hint of this world
That passes by so swiftly for us is enough.

Look at the flow of money and the suffering
Of the world. If this glimpse of profit and loss
Is not enough for you, for us it is enough.

The dearest companion of all is here. What
Else is there to look for? The delight of a few words
With the soul friend for us is enough.

Don't send me away from your door, oh, God,
Even to Paradise. Your alleyway, compared
To all space and time, for us is enough.

It's inappropriate, Hafez, for you to complain
Of your gifts from Fate. Your nature is like water,
Your beautiful flowing poems for us are enough.

The Angel Knocking on the Tavern Door (2008)
     translated by Robert Bly & Leonard Lewisohn
     HarperCollins, New York, 2008, pp. 31-32

Bly: So that's my last poem for tonight. It's enough.

After a rousing ovation from the packed audience. Bly sat down in his front row seat next to Eavan Boland. Then he got up and thanked the crowd, saying "I've been requested to read one more poem." Bly went back to the podium and read this last poem.


We are poor students who stay after school to study joy.
We are like those birds in the India mountains.
I am a widow whose child is her only joy.

The only thing I hold in my ant-like head
Is the builder's plan of the castle of sugar.
Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy!

Like a bird, we fly out of darkness into the hall,
Which is lit with singing, then fly out again.
Being shut out of the warm hall is also a joy.

I am a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot. But I love
To read about those who caught one glimpse
Of the Face, and died twenty years later in joy.

I don't mind your saying I will die soon.
Even in the sound of the word soon, I hear
The word you which begins every sentence of joy.

"You're a thief!" the judge said. "Let's see
Your hands!" I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy.

My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy
     HarperCollins, New York, 2005, p. 97
     Cited in Great Mother & New Father Conference
     Quoted in Robert Bly in Eugene II

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