Guild Hall at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis was packed to the rafters on Monday night with poets and poetry lovers who turned out to see poet Robert Bly. Many of them had turned out on Saturday, too, when Bly was being honored at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, and now here they were again, waiting to hear him read from his "new/old collection" of poetry, "Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life."
The book is a collection of Bly's Chinese-infuenced poems; the collection, edited by White Pine Press publisher Dennis Maloney, was culled mainly from out-of-print books, uncollected poems, and chapbooks spanning 50 years.
The evening was emceed by Bly's old friend, poet James Lenfestey, who had lined up 24 poets to read. It sounded daunting, at first, like it might go on all night, but Lenfestey was efficient, arranging the poets in alphabetical order (from Thorsten Bacon to Timothy Young) and tasking each with reading just one of Bly's poems.
The poets chose well.
Jim Heynen read a prose poem called "A Moth With Black Eyes." ("You have done a lot with and for the prose poem," he said to Bly, "and I wanted to make sure that the prose poem was represented tonight.")
Louis Jenkins read the title poem. It's easy, he said; it's right on the back of the book.
Connie Wanek's choice was perhaps the most poignant; she read "Picking Mushrooms in Late Summer in the Western Half of the Island of Runmaro with Tomas Transtromer," a poem not much longer than its title. Transtromer, the Swedish Nobel Laureate, was a dear friend of Bly's who died quite recently.
Some gave brief introductions, looking right at Bly while they spoke. Some emulated Bly's famous habit of reading a poem twice, or re-reading a line or two. But mostly they were efficient, standing up, heading to the podium, reading Bly's words, thanking him, and then making way for the next poet.
Down the row they went, Tom Hennen, Tony Hoagland, Ed Bok Lee, Freya Manfred, Jim Moore, Joyce Sutphen...
And then it was Bly's turn. Lenfestey had arranged for a comfortable-looking red couch in the front of the room for Bly to sit on, but Bly said he would stand. He walked slowly, with dignity, leaning on his cane, to the podium. He read "Moon Behind a Cottonwood Tree." He read, "Arriving in the North Woods," even though someone had already read it that evening, because Lenfestey asked him to. ("Just because it's your favorite I have to read it twice?" Bly joked.)
And he finished the evening with the same poem he had read on Saturday at AWP, the poem that has of late become his anthem: "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," his poem about death, survival and grace; his poem about growing old.
And as he reached the last lines, he thumped his cane on the floor.
"Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many (Thump! went the cane)
have gone down (thump! again)
in the storm." (one last, resounding thump)
And the room erupted in applause and a standing ovation.
Here is Bly reading at AWP on Saturday: