He was in good form Tuesday night, our Mr. Bly, Minnesota's most famous poet--funny and crotchety, coming alive, as he always has, for poetry. Though he is 87 now and growing frail, he declined the comfortable easy chair that had been set at the front of the room for him, and he declined the help of his old friend and fellow poet, Thomas R. Smith, who was willing to hold the microphone for him, and instead stood strong and firm at the lectern and read and occasionally recited, and made jokes (sometimes the same joke) and offered the occasional poignant aside.
Bly was at the University Club on Summit Avenue in St. Paul as part of the monthly Carol Connolly Reading Series. April is poetry month, and Connolly had packed this month's bill with nothing but fine poets. Louis Jenkins ("Nice Fish") was a crowd pleaser with his humorous prose poems; Freya Manfred, tall and strong, read her earthy poems of nature and family; and Smith opened the evening with a powerful poem of spring, which he read with vigor. "It's amazing how doing a good loud poem clears away nervousness," he said.
Each poet paid a little homage to Bly, the star of the evening. "We're all borrowing so much from Robert that in the next life we're all going to have to do his dishes and take out his garbage," Smith said, before reading a final poem that he acknowledged was inspired by Bly.
Jenkins' prose poems kept the crowd laughing--poems about regret and basements and forgetfulness and the nostalgia of red cars and blond girlfriends and the burden of too much zucchini. He, too, acknowledged a debt to Bly (who was laughing in the front row at some of Jenkins' poems), saying, "We steal from him all the time."
Manfred read a poem about the eye of a loon, telling the audience that Bly had influenced her last line, suggesting she remove one word, "dreadful." She shook her head, in amazement at herself for writing it that way in the first place, perhaps, or in amazement at Bly for the catch. "He was right about that last line," she said.
The audience was studded with poets--Charles Baxter and Joyce Sutphen, Ethna McKiernan and Su Smallen, Tim Nolan and Danny Klecko, James Lenfestey and Patricia Kirkpatrick. It was poets listening to poets on a mild spring evening during Poetry Month. But the star of the night was Bly.
He read some of the poems that he read last autumn at the launch of his latest collection, "Stealing Sugar from the Castle"--some of the old farm poems ("for a while we had goats. They were like turkeys, only more reckless"), "My Father at 86," "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," and several poems from "The Man in the Black Coat Turns," including "Snowbanks North of the House."
"That's the first poem I ever wrote that had some of my darkness in it," he said.
As always, as in the past, Bly's comedic timing was sharp, he repeated stanzas and last lines, he dipped his hand to the rhythm of the words. He was enigmatic, and the audience, while drinking in his every aside, wanted more.
At the end of "Snowbanks North of the House," Bly recited the final stanza twice:
And 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.
"Maybe there's somebody like that in each of us," he said. "If I had known what that poem meant, I wouldn't have had to write it." And the poets and the fans and the readers in the audience sat forward on their chairs, listening, as outside the big windows of the University Club the light drained from the sky and the night grew dark.