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.
He is not angry anymore, no longer a rabble-rouser. There was no sitar accompaniment, no drums, no rubber masks, no embroidered vest. Robert Bly is old now, and a wee bit forgetful, but he still knows how to put on a show, and he still comes deeply alive for poetry. On Wednesday evening, he launched his latest book, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," at the University of Minnesota in front of about 250 people.
After a tender and lengthy introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping to jumpstart Bly's blue P lymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned-with-faint-praise a poem written by one of Browne's students, saying it was as exciting as the phrase "I almost went to Hawaii once"), Bly and his friend and fellow poet Thomas R. Smith took the stage.
With Smith holding the microphone and occasionally offering a gentle prompt, Bly read. Twenty-five poems, some of the lines and stanzas read more than once, in the way that Bly does, for emphasis. He was playful and sly, joking after a couple of poems that he had no idea what they meant. He beat out a rhythm with his hand, he sometimes lapsed into funny voices, taking on characters. ("One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / 'How do you sleep? I love curliness,' " and giving the mouse a squeaky voice.)
He turned serious with "When My Dead Father Called," and then deliberately broke the mood afterward by saying, "Did I really write this? My memory's so bad every time I read one of my own poems I think I've never read that before."
But he had of course proved that wrong just a few minutes before, reciting--not reading--"Poem in Three Parts," looking out at the crowd with those blue blue eyes of his, never glancing down at the page.
While it might be early poems such as that one that are imbedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting. In "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," he says: "It's hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief." And then he stopped, and looked up. "I didn't always believe that," he said; he used to believe we were valued for happiness and fun. And then he read the stanza again.
The poem ends, "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm."
"When you get to be my age, you notice that," he said. "How many have gone down in the storm."
Such a poignant evening, watching this 86-year-old white-haired man read from fifty years' of poems, watching him grow animated at the sound of his own remarkable words. In the end, of course, thunderous applause, and an uncharacteristic modesty. "It's good of you to clap," he said. "It makes an old Norwegian happy."
Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection, "The Light Around the Body." His latest book contains new and selected poems spanning 50 years and includes selections from his 2011 collection, "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey."
Earlier this year, Bly received the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Frost Medal.
The Oct. 16 event begins at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall and is sponsored by the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, which holds Bly's papers. The event is free but reservations are requested. (Follow this link.)
A reception will follow the reading, and books will be available for sale.
And why not look forward to fall, when this summer is refusing to make an appearance? Let's skip it, then, and head right for the fall books. There's lots to look forward to, locally, with Garrison Keillor and Kevin Fenton and Kate DiCamillo and Kevin Kling and Robert Bly and ....
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are some of the books by Minnesota writers we're looking forward to. Starting with .... poetry!
"Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," by Robert Bly (W.W. Norton, September). A new book by Minnesota's most venerable poet is always an event.
"O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound," by Garrison Keillor. (Grove Press, October) Named, I think for this poem about, well, about taking, a, well, how can I say this, about, um, going to the .... um.... bleeding the .... um.... let's just say this particular poem is more vulgar than profound.
"Dance," by Lightsey Darst (Coffee House Press, September). Darst, currently writer-in-residence at the Walker Art Center (you can follow her blog here), won a Minnesota Book Award for her first collection, "Find the Girl."
"Leaving Rollingstone," by Kevin Fenton. (Minnesota Historical Society Press/Borealis Books, September). Fenton won the AWP award for the novel for his first book, "Merit Badges."
"Ready for Air," by Kate Hopper (University of Minnesota Press, October). A longtime writer and writing teacher, primarily about motherhood, Hopper here writes about premature motherhood.
"Prairie Sky," by W. Scott Olsen (University of Missouri Press, September). Olsen teaches at Concordia College and is the author of several books. This collection of essays is about viewing the world from the altitude of a pilot.
Mentioned before, but worth mentioning again...
"Big Little Mother," by Chris Monroe and Kevin Kling. The sequel, of sorts, to "Big Little Brother."
"The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses," by Kate DiCamillo. A blend of novel and graphic novel, it's the story of a little girl, a magic squirrel, and a broken marriage.
We'll get to fiction in another blog post..... For now, remember: Rainy weather is good reading weather.
It was only at the very end of the evening, when Robert Bly read a poem by his longtime friend Tomas Tranströmer, that he grew animated, his voice dipping and swaying, gaining in power. He crisply enunciated the words, added that famous little Bly twist, and looked straight out at the crowd.
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