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Rhyme & Sense

Robert Bly

     ... poet and teacher. Among America's foremost poets, Robert Bly has been writing poetry for 50 years. Between "Silence in the Snowy Fields" and the ghazals collected in My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy are numerous books of poetry. The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War continues his lifetime commitment to political activism. His other books include Iron John, The Sibling Society, influential translations and anthologies. Mr. Bly's many honors include the National Book Award and two Guggenheim Awards. He lives in Minneapolis, MN, where he continues to write.


Nature and culture are equally worthy subjects of poems, says Robert Bly, among America's preeminent poets. He became known 50 years ago for his snowy fields and is now celebrating European culture in his growing collection of poems writing in the ancient Islamic ghazal ("GUZ-el") form. Also widely respected as a translator, Mr. Bly says one of the things he loves about the Islamic world is the amount of praise that is in it.

But praise, like Mr. Bly's understanding of humanity, comes with its "shadow" side. Those who are unable to grieve cannot praise, he says. One thing reading and great art do is to help us grieve without getting caught in the sorrow, he insists. If we are able to feel the depth of the sorrows of our ancestors, even those of our parents, he says, our children appreciate it. In fact, he believes, if you grieve your parents enough, then you're able to praise them, instead of holding on to miserable little angers you had against them.

Mr. Bly casts a troubled eye on the current American culture, where he sees immense losses. He attributes many of those losses to television and to parents' failure to put reading front and center. Children sitting there in front of television sets, absorbing what they see, he says, is a form of murder, what he insists is a murder of the human psyche. "You don't read, you don't eat" summarizes his passion for turning off the tube and turning the kids on to reading.

Yet in spite of a steady stream of criticism -- from understanding George W. Bush as the dark son of a dark father to berating the insanity of empire and imperialism -- Robert Bly refuses to be grim. In fact, he believes that one problem with philosophers is that they don't laugh enough. Mr. Bly has found, to his own considerable surprise, that as his poems pick up more and more of the past of human beings and culture, including ancient culture, more and more of the grief and suffering of human beings, the poems are becoming funnier! He doesn't understand it, he says, but he loves it!

So whether it in ghazals like "My sentence was a thousand years of joy" and "Shabistari and The Secret Garden" or what Mr. Bly calls the central poem for our time -- Juan Ramon's "I am not I" -- Robert Bly finds in stories grounded in timeless metaphors the solace and joy necessary to balance life's sorrows.

"Iron John" is one such story, both for Mr. Bly and for the millions he led to it. The young boy's experience when his hair fell into the pond and turned to gold describes the way he felt the first time a poem of his was published, Robert Bly remembers. Now, 50 years later, he feels that somehow, as the mind gets more mature, in the midst of a lot of grief, there is laughter. And the mind is able to dance a little.


[This Program was recorded April 8, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Good poetry is a form of health, Robert Bly assures Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. The part of the human being that exists below the surface of social things is what he loves, Mr. Bly says, recalling early influences, experiences and poems.


Conversation 2

Comparing generations of poets and honoring great Spanish poets, Mr. Bly declares Juan Ramon's "I am not I" the central poem for our time. The subject of translations is explored. Mr. Bly compares the satisfaction of putting poetry into form to love-making as he describes his fascination with the ghazal form. He traces the form's history, originating in the singing world of 10th century Arabs, then reads “Stealing Sugar From the Castle” from his collection of ghazals, My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy.


Conversation 3

Evaluating a possible metaphor for understanding ghazals, Mr. Bly recalls his experience writing free verse, then expands on his experience with the ghazal form. His original work was with nature, but these recent ghazals are about culture, Mr. Bly says. He insists one is as great as the other, embracing the richness both of European and Muslim cultures, then reads his poem beginning, "Imagination is the door to the raven's house, so we are already blessed!" He more and more loves the old Gnostic speculations about Archons, Mr. Bly says, and uses his poem, "Call and Answer, August, 2002," to explain.


Conversation 4

Television is dumping junk into the minds of our young and it's a form of murder of the human psyche, Mr. Bly believes. He wonders what it will be like to live in a country where no one reads, expressing dismay at parents failing to transmit the vital importance of reading to their children. He summaries ways today's adults have betrayed the children, allowing them to watch TV when instead the rule should be, "If you don't read, you don't eat." He moves on to consider the price people with great poet gifts must pay, citing Wallace Stevens as a failure by this criterion. The insanity of empire is explored.


 Conversation 5

George W. Bush is the dark son of a dark father, Mr. Bly says, and explains what he means. He revisits the Iron John story and phenomenon. What we are witnessing in the current era is a series of losses. Mr. Bly believes. Poetry is not the answer to our problems, he says, but it does insist on the important things in life, he says, quoting a Rilke poem and relating the poem's theme to cultural losses which we need to grieve.


Conversation 6

After the grieving come praising, he says, convinced that those who are unable to grieve cannot praise. He gives examples, then reads "Shabistari and The Secret Garden." Philosophers don't laugh enough, he concludes, surprised by what he has found as his mind gets more mature.



Thomas Lux, founder and director of the "Poetry@Tech" program at the Georgia Institute of Technology is an extraordinary poet and friend. Our continuing appreciation to him for bringing us back to poetry and for bringing poetry to us.

Ginger Murchison, Thomas Lux's "Poetry@Tech" colleague, in our experience deserves all the credit that Mr. Lux never fails to give her. We also extend our appreciation to her for the boundless enthusiasm and commitment she expresses daily, making poetry ever more widely available for us all.

Publicists at a number of HarperCollins' imprints made sure that we could read broadly and deeply from Mr. Bly's work and, as always, we thank these vital players in the literary game.

Additional Links:

My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy and The Night Abraham Called to the Stars are both collections of Mr. Bly’s ghazals, published by HarperCollinsPublishers, as is A Little Book on the Human Shadow.

At Robert Bly's website, you can find information about a wide variety of aspects of Mr. Bly's literary career, from bibliographs, reviews and interviews to new essays, poems and translations. His The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War is also available there.

See also the Ally Press Center “"a mail order company that specializes in mythopoetic writers and materials. The Center maintains a backlist of nearly everything by and about Robert Bly, many titles by Michael Meade, James Hillman, Robert Moore, items of interest to the men's movement, and notable new works of literature. In addition, the Ally Press Center maintains an inventory of used and reduced price books in the areas of Jungian psychology, poetry, mythology, spirtuality, and literature."

James Hillman's work in Jungian psychology ofter parallels that of Robert Bly.

Like Robert Bly, Cornel West, Haynes Johnson and Kevin Phillips have negative views of American imperial aspirations.

Curtis White argues that we need to use our imaginations and NOT blindly consume what the media offer. Linda Bloodworth Thomason makes a similar plea and, like Robert Bly, finds deep value in real communities.

And, poetry comes in many forms, e.g: Thomas Lux, Billy Collins and Kurt Brown.

Howard Mansfield also looks for our axis mundi in unexpected places.

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