Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland
Director of Creative Writing
English Department, Stanford University

Bly's Poetry Workshop #10

Margaret Jacks Hall, Room 334
Building 460, Stanford University

Wednesday, June 4, 2008, 3:15-5:45 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Robert Bly

Preface: Eavan Boland ran Robert Bly's 10th and Last Poetry Workshop today since Bly left Stanford after his May 28th class for "The Great Mother Conference" in Maine. Only seven students showed up instead of 17 since the others are probably busy finishing their term papers and preparing for final exams this week. I did not take notes as usual when Bly reads from his favorite poets and tosses out advice gems to us to write better poetry. However, I realized that Eavan Boland discussed many important topics in class today, so I'm reconstructing below from memory what she told us.

Eavan Boland: The Creative Writing Department is having a party later tonight. Toby [Tobias Wolff] has arranged everyone to bring a short story to read like Hemingway's "Six Words". It could be boring but we're going to have lots of fun.

Q: What are the six words?

Eavan: Hemingway's six words fiction story: "For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn."
[Wired magazine (Issue 14.11, November 2006) mentions that Hemingway considered
it as his best work.] If any of you want to come and try your hand, you're welcome.
[It didn't occur to me how poignant Hemingway's very short story was until hours later. I thought a mother bought lots of new shoes for her baby who has outgrown them. So she's having a garage sale of the never worn baby shoes. A woman friend told me "It's a great story. The baby was stillborn. The expectant mother is now selling her shoes. How sad!" It hit me like a ton of brick. Hurray for Hemingway— he nailed the short story succintly in six words! Then I recalled Eavan Boland's 13th Annual Jonathan King Lecture "The Science of Curing & The Art of Healing: A Poet's Experience" (Feb. 11, 2004) that I attended. Eavan spoke about the healing process of parents who had lost a baby that was stillborn in an Irish hospital. She wrote a poem "Tree of Life" for the National Maternity Hospital remembrance service in November 1994. I was so touched by Eavan's poem that right after her lecture, I went to Green Library and found the poem in her book The Lost Land (1998), and composed a web page of Eavan's talk typing this poem and her Q&A session.]

Q: Have you been influenced by Bly's poetry?

Eavan: No! I'm from Ireland. I admire what Bly has accomplished. Bly's Poetry Reading left me breathless as many others in the audience. Bly's Colloquium was also illuminating on the process of translation. However I don't buy into his importing of Sufi and Zen into the mainstream of American poetry. We have a tradition here of Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop. He was much too harsh on them in his polemic essay "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry" (1963). He's correct on some points but wrong on the total picture. Bly favors the unconscious in poetry and feels that the Spanish and Latin American poets tap into that source more than American poets who are too intellectual. Bly is from the philosophical school of poetry with Sufi and Zen influence. I'm from the Line-Editing school emphasizing on craft and revision of one's manuscript. When I see a mistake in a poem, it's like a scorpion has invaded the text, and everything is ruined!

Student: Bly read to the class a lot of Mirabai and the Sufi poets. I regard them as gurus for their spiritual wisdom. But their poems are not a play with language which I like in poetry.

Eavan: What is a guru?

Student: A kind of spiritual mentor. [I kept silent and should have spoken up. The Sanskrit word for guru may be separated into gu (darkness) and ru (light). So a guru is someone who leads us from darkness to light or from ignorance to knowledge. A guru guides the student to enlightenment.]

Eavan: The English Department invited Bly for dinner with the Stegner Fellows and the Jones Lecturers. Bly talked about T.S. Eliot in a very affectionate way. He and Donald Hall both read Eliot avidly when they were at Harvard [1948-1950]. When Bly asked the Stegner Fellows about their readings of Eliot, few of them did so. I would say Eliot's chief failure was not recognizing the form in poetry. We usually assign a Stegner Fellow to cater to the Mohr Visiting Poet. Sometimes it could be quite intimidating for young poets at the beginning of their career to be with an accomplished senior poet. We assigned Michael McGriff to Bly this semester. Mike has recently translated Tomas Tranströmer's The Sorrow Gondola and showed them to Bly who is a good friend of Tranströmer and his most ardent translator. Mike told me about his experience saying "Bly would look at my work and say 'You did better than me on that one. But I did better in this one than you!' We had such a good time together!"

Eavan: I went with Bly to Marin one Sunday [May 18, 2008, San Rafael] for a Poetry Reading [Jane Hirshfield was the third reader]. Bly wanted local Iranian musicians in Marin to play native instruments during our poetry reading. I was not interested in having music playing while reading my poems. Bly insisted on inviting Iranian musicians on stage. When we got there, it was total chaos. Some musicians came up to me and said "Are you the organizer? The mike is not working. You got to fix it!" I told him that I'm one of the poets doing the reading, not the technician to fix the mike." I saw the disaster unfolding right before me. But somehow Bly got everything in order. When he read the Hafez poems from his latest book, the Iranian musicians played along during his reading. Then they chanted the Hafez verses in Farsi and got the whole audience caught up with the fervor of music, poetry, and singing. It was an incredible and inspiring evening. The whole event was awesome and a total success. Only Bly could have pulled it off!

Eavan: Bly loves to do poetry readings. He makes a living doing it. Then we have poets who don't like to be on stage and in the spotlight. We're going to have Brigit Pegeen Kelly coming to read at Stanford in the Lane Lecture Series. She's compulsively shy. At the Breadloaf Conference, she read two of her poems and then Wallace Stevens poems. I told her "If I wish to hear poems by Wallace Stevens, I could read his books. I want to hear your poems." She's a product-based poet. Bly is process-based. Brigitte won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition [1986] with To the Place of Trumpets. She followed that with Song [1995] and The Orchard [2004]. Terrific pieces of work. The Jones Lecturers here at Stanford have curtailed process poetry in favor of product poetry as they need to get their works published in their allotted time here.

Eavan: What is the distance in writing poetry and being a poet?
If someone tells me "I am a poet." I 'll believe them. I don't have to see their poems. Be the thing rather than write the thing. Bly is the thing. One needs to be persuasive in his belief. Not necessary to convert everyone to spirituality. I ran a community poetry workshop once. The writers mixed up similes with metaphors. One woman from Ireland wrote in her poem "limping spires" and I objected strongly to her words, saying "spires in a church are straight, they just don't limp. Get rid of that image." Another writer in the group defended her image: "I'm from her town. I know the church she's talking about— one spire is shorter than the other and is limping!"

Eavan: Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill" [Analysis] breaks every rule in the book about poetry. [PYC: Curiosly, my freshman English teacher Kenneth Koch at Columbia Engineering made the class memorize this poem in 1959. It was the hardest assignment that semester, more so than any chemistry or physics problem set. Koch never told the class that he's a poet, and we were so lucky in having him teach us.] When I see an advance student poet make a mistake in their writing, it breaks my heart. Usually, it's a reflexive mistake. I'm ruthless and correct them on the spot. They should not be making those kind of errors at their stage of writing. Bly would say that the problem is not "limping spires" but that people are not imagining well enough in their poems. I don't buy Bly's idea of writing from the unconscious and letting dream images in without revision. You need craft— and the only way to improve is to write the poem over and over again!

Eavan: Robert Lowell's poem "The Drinker" ends with images of parking meter violations which conjures up man-made time juxtaposed with seasonal time.
["Is he killing time? Out on the street,
Two cops on horseback clop through the April rain
To check the parking meter violations
Their oilskins yellow as forsythia."
[Lowell sent his poem to Elizabeth Bishop (1960)
which inspired her to write "The Prodigal".]

Eavan: Robert Hass told me that when he went to a Robert Bly reading for the first time, Bly read for four hours. He just loves doing it! Bly and Gary Snyder went to Texas for a poetry reading. He tried to invite Gary to his "Great Mother" Conference, but Snyder wouldn't go. I wouldn't go either! You know at the Conference they wake up the attendees in the middle of the night so they could share their dreams. Certainly I could do without that! I think Bly's wife Ruth goes around to wake other people up. They're such a sweet couple. Bly gave me this pendant before he left and I'm wearing this necklace now, nice thoughtful gift from him. [I didn't tell Eavan that she's wearing an amulet, one probably blessed by some Native American shaman or a Sufi master friend of Bly.]

Q: What would you advise us as poets?

Eavan: Read different poets. Elizabeth Bishop has a bright tone and a dark voice. Her poem "In the Waiting Room" is dark in tone. She's using vernacular to push her dark agenda. It's a radical poem. You must listen with an open mind to the left and right of the poetic spectrum.

Eavan: Judith Wright [1915-2000] was an Australian poet, who became an environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights. Her political poems were weaker than her earlier work. In her poem "Australian 1970" she made a crucial mistake in the third stanza. The words "suicide stain" was a blemish on her whole poem.

[PYC: I was curious about the fatal flaw in Wright's poem that after class I did a Google Search ("Judith Wright +"Australian 1970"). The only hit was her obituary in the Guardian (June 29, 2000) that cited a stanza from this poem. Stanford Library does not have a copy of her book Shadow (1970) where this poem first appeared. I did locate a copy of Judith Wright's Collected Poems: 1942-1970 (PR6045.R44A6.1971) and found the poem on page 292 which I've typed below:


Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
dangerous till the last breath's gone,
clawing and striking. Die
cursing your captor through a raging eye.

Die like the tigersnake
that hisses such pure hatred from its pain
as fills the killer's dreams
with fear like suicide's invading stain.

Suffer, wild country, like the ironwood
that gaps the dozer-blade.
I see your living soil ebb with the tree
to naked poverty.

Die like the soldier-ant
mindless and faithful to your million years.
Though we corrupt you with our torturing mind,
stay obstinate; stay blind.

For we are conquerors and self-poisoners
more than scorpion or snake
and dying of the venoms that we make
even while you die of us.

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

— Judith Wright

After typing this poem from Wright's book, I realized that the words "suicide's invading stain" occurs in the second stanza and the title of the poem is "Australia 1970" instead of "Australian 1970". Eavan Boland honors this poem of Judith Wright by including it in the book she edited with Mark Strand, The Making of A Poem (A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms) (2000). It is in the section on "The Ode" along with such classics as Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", and Keats' "To Autumn". Reading Wright's poem, one feels her strong voice of concern of man's insensitivity to wildlife. However, I agree with Eavan that the words "suicide's invading stain" sounds a bit jarring in an otherwise strong poem of protest on our neglect of ecology.]

Eavan Boland asked the students why did they enroll in Bly's class, what did they learn from him, and had us read our poems written this semester.

Students told Eavan that Bly would spend the first hour reading poems to us from poets he translated (Kabir, Mirabai, Hafez) as well as his own. Then he would give us a 15-20 minutes writing exercise based on the form he read to us. We did exercises on prose poems (writing about an object), ramage (8-lines verse focusing on a vowel or consonant), ghazal (6 stanzas of 36 syllables with different themes in each stanza; ending each stanza with the same word if we could do it). Sometimes Bly would give us the first line from a poem from Kabir and Mirabai, and we would take off from there in the class exercise. One student said Bly called us "Loonies, I'll miss you" in the last class, "But he said it in such an affectionate way. He really cared for us all." Another said "During the break in our first class, Bly told us to go outdoors and write some haikus like Basho and Issa. We were looking out to the Quad's Oval, then we noticed Bly was out there too. He had his head white hair and all staring into the grass. We thought he looked like an ostrich! It was such a privilege to have such a famous poet with us this semester." One girl mentioned that she doesn't usually read spiritual poetry so it was great that Bly shared with the class some of the mystical poets like Kabir and Mirabai. Another student said he enrolled in the class because he enjoyed Bly's translations of poets like Rilke, Hauge, and Machado in The Winged Energy of Delight (2004).

PYC: I never wrote a prose poem before so it was a challenge to focus on an object in writing "Deodar Cedar Rosebud". After Bly's Colloquium, I told him about reading his Paris Review 2000 Interview, and being surprised that he was inspired by Balzac's Louis Lambert. It was this book that propelled me on the enlightenment quest. In particular I liked Bly's image of transformation from horizontal to vertical time. Bly's reading of Tranströmer's "The Scattered Congregation" (May 20) inspired me to write "What Is The Address?" the next day (May 21). When I found the story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John 3.14, I was amazed that the words "lifted up" (transcendence) occurs at 3.14— symbol of π. It inspired my poem "What Nicodemus Came to Learn By Night" (1990). [These were the three poems I shared with the class when Eavan invited us to have a read-around of our poems.]

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