THE POET COMES HOME

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 30, 2009 - 7:31 AM

Reckless youth. War protester. Translator. Men's-movement guru. Through it all, Robert Bly's enduring passion has been for his poetry.

Outside the bus, bare fields. A barn, a silo. A cloudy sky, the early-morning sun trying to push through.

Inside the bus, poets. They take turns at the microphone, standing up and facing the other passengers, reciting poems, telling stories, passing out snacks. When the bus rounds a curve, they lurch and grab a seatback for balance, and laugh. They have come from all over the country to take this trip to the western Minnesota farm town of Madison.

The reason is Robert Bly. There he is, in the front of the bus, staring out the windshield at the flat land and farms of his childhood, one arm draped around the shoulders of his sweet-faced wife, Ruth.

The journey on this Sunday in April is the culmination of a four-day symposium on Bly's life and work, hosted by the University of Minnesota. The night before, Bly and Georgia poet Coleman Barks gave a reading in Willey Hall, Bly in a blue shirt and colorful vest, accompanied by drum and sitar.

Now, Barks takes the microphone as the bus crosses the Minnesota River and white pelicans fly up, startled. Bly stares straight ahead as the poets rumble west.

Robert Bly, Minnesota's poet laureate, is wealthy and world-famous, unusual things for an American poet to be. Some know him for his poetry, or his translations of poetry, or his work against the Vietnam War, or the audacious literary magazine he and schoolteacher Bill Duffy started in the late 1950s. He won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection of poetry, "The Light Around the Body," and donated the prize money to the antiwar movement.

But most people, it would be safe to say, know him for "Iron John," the book that catapulted him to mainstream fame. Published in 1990, it was an international bestseller, captivating thousands of men, drawing them to conferences to talk about their fathers and their emotions. It also launched a thousand jokes about men drumming and weeping in the forest. ("Ah, I don't care," Bly says, shrugging.) This month marked the 25th men's conference in Sturgeon Lake, Minn., and Bly was there, leaning on a cane (he broke his hip this summer), retelling the legend of Iron John. He is proud of that work -- and proud of the Great Mother-New Father Conference on goddesses and mythology, which, at 35, is even older.

But it is poetry that has his heart.

He has published more than 20 collections of his own poetry, and more than a dozen collections of poetry in translation. When he talks about other things, it is with great politeness, but with distance. There are long silences. Could he be bored? Sooner or later (and it's usually sooner), the conversation clicks around to poetry, and his rich, slightly nasal voice warms and his sentences sharpen and he talks with enthusiasm, he talks without stopping. Thoughts about his own poetry merge with thoughts about translating other people's work and then double back; it's all connected, in Bly's lively mind.

He has been translating poetry since the 1950s, when he was in Norway on a Fulbright scholarship. Encountering a world of unknown foreign poets was eye-opening, with their wild imagery and freewheeling style that ignored the staid rules of meter and structure that governed traditional English and American poetry.

"There wasn't much translation being done at the time I started," Bly says. "And so I was able to do some new versions of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo and all of these unbelievable people from the Spanish language, though I did some in German with Rilke, as well.

"When you do translation, it changes your mind, and you can see how a person from another culture would respond with ideas and references and images which you would probably never learn in your own culture.

"So that was wonderful, and I saw that it had a good effect on my own poems, especially the use of images as a form of discourse. Instead of saying, 'I went to school, and I did this, and so on,' with the use of images, all other things can come in. I met a kangaroo and he told me his name and I asked if he had any children, and I married one. You know. You can say all kinds of things with images that are partially true.

"But everything else we say is partially true, too. They may as well be partially true in a kind of flamboyant way."

Bly likes wild. He has never been terribly interested in stodgy, or obedient, or tame. "Our major literary influence is England. And they are not very famous for being wild, you know," he says. "So one or two metaphors in a poem would be enough, whereas in South America, 16 metaphors in one line is a good idea. And so you sort of have to be careful you don't get run over by a South American poet when he comes toward you. But I love that kind of wildness there."

Wildness in a poem, he says, doesn't interfere with meaning. Quite the contrary. "In England, most of the meaning is killed by everybody being too tame." He chuckles. "That's not true of all the English poets, but in general, I think wildness is a positive characteristic, and it allows you to say things about life that would not ordinarily come in. And, of course, I think of some parts of T.S. Eliot's as being wild, too. 'I've been born, and once is enough. You don't remember, but I remember. Once is enough.'

"I love that."

Bly and Duffy were pretty wild themselves, back when they started their magazine in Duffy's farmhouse in the autumn of 1957. They were in their 30s then, Bly tall, dark-haired, with dark-rimmed glasses, Duffy short and talky, with a mustache. Neither can say precisely when the idea came to put out a magazine of poetry written "in the new way," but Bly had written letters about it when he was still in Norway.

The plan was to publish a magazine of Scandinavian, European and South American poets in translation, and of certain American poets. They had a particular aversion to university poets, whom they saw as safe and stodgy and protected by the institutions.

The arrival of the first issue of The Fifties in the summer of 1958 -- small in size, a print run of only 1,000, published in the middle of nowhere by a couple of nobodies -- was electrifying. The first issue stated firmly, "The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned."

People paid attention right away. "When I read Robert Bly's magazine, I wrote him a letter," James Wright told the Paris Review in a 1975 interview. Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and died in 1980, was teaching at the University of Minnesota at the time, and though he had received the Yale Younger Poets Award, he had grown uncomfortable following in the traditional footsteps of earlier American poets.

His letter to Bly "was 16 pages long and single-spaced, and all he said in reply was 'Come out to the farm,'" Wright said.

Two of Wright's poems appeared in the second issue of The Fifties. The back of the magazine carried this note: "James Wright decided this spring to abandon what he calls 'nineteenth century poetry,' and the poems printed here are the first he has written in the new manner."

All kinds of people wanted to be published in The Fifties (later named The Sixties, and then The Seventies), but few were accepted. Established poets, tenured professors, the dreaded "poets with three names," whom Bly and Duffy mocked mercilessly: All were rejected. Bly and Duffy have a million stories about the two audacious young men who deliberately, sometimes cruelly, rejected the work of some of the most famous literary lions in the country. And it is true that they rejected many great poets -- James Dickey, Denise Levertov, Ted Kooser. But it's also true that those poets were young then, not yet well known.

Duffy was living in Pine Island, down by Rochester, at the time, and Bly would drive over from western Minnesota, where he lived with his first wife, Carol Bly, and they'd stay up all night going through submissions. "We'd get drunk and sit up and send them all back in one night," Bly says. "Bill was a genius in writing rejection slips. 'Dear Mr. Johnson, These poems remind me of old socks, Yours sincerely, William Duffy.'

"And then they'd write us insulting letters and we'd print the letters instead of the poems. We were not responsible. We were simply reckless."

Those flippant rejections were reserved for poets the magazine had no interest in. Talented poets were handled more respectfully. "If there ever was any glimmer of promise, the rejection note would become more detailed," says Mark Gustafson, a Twin Cities scholar who is writing a book about the magazine. "Robert would say, 'I liked this line, I liked that line; please try us again.'"

Duffy, who now lives in White Bear Lake, seems a bit galled by their cockiness of 50 years ago. "Who would have thought that two farm boys who cultivated corn and milked cows would become part of something so great?"

As the Bly Express (as the bus has been nicknamed) rumbles up the road, Bly narrates his life, and heads swivel. "I was born up in that little house," he says, as they pass a small house with peeling white paint set back in the trees. Swivel.

"This is not the way it used to look," he says a few minutes later. "It looks like South Dakota now." Swivel. This landscape is in Bly's bones, in his poetry, steeped, especially, in his early work, "Silence in the Snowy Fields," published in 1962.

Madison is 150 miles west of the Twin Cities. It is not just where Bly grew up, it is also where he settled down with Carol after the Navy, after Harvard, after a couple of years in New York, after Norway. By then, Bly's father, Jacob, had sold the family farm and had bought three smaller farms. "One he kept for himself, one he gave to my brother, Jim, because he knew he was going to be a farmer, and one he gave to me because he knew I wasn't going to be," Bly says.

He points out his old farm, with its red farmhouse, and the spot where his writing studio once stood in a grove of trees. The studio was hauled over to the Lac qui Parle County Museum 10 years ago, with Bly's books and furniture intact. It is where Bly wrote "Silence in the Snowy Fields," and where his four children played on the wooden floor, separated from their father by a curtain so that Bly could think. The studio served as a guest house, too, and Wright and his wife, Anne, spent their honeymoon there. Anne later recalled how Robert invited them on a walk: "'Come on, Annie and Jim, we're going to lie down in the grass and listen to the animals.' Robert said we might hear mice or rabbits. But we never heard anything but the wind."

Four deer run straight up the road in the midmorning sun. "Jim Wright and I were standing by a corncrib over there" -- Bly points, heads swivel -- "Jim opened the door and a squirrel jumped out with one leap. And Jim put that into an amazing poem. Wherever you are, you try to make a heaven of it."

As the bus pulls up to the museum, the writing studio comes into view, a sweet clapboard building painted blue. It now bears a giant photograph of Bly's face and the words "Robert Bly Studio" in serious black and white. Bly looks at it and then speaks lightly, ironically. "And there's the log cabin in which he was born."

As a boy, during planting season, Bly and his older brother, Jim, helped plow the fields, sometimes staying out on the tractor until long after dark. When they stumbled into the house at 10 or 11 p.m., exhausted and dirty, their father was waiting -- maybe he'd just come in from planting, too -- and he'd fix them something to eat. An act of kindness for the tired boys, as their mother slept peacefully in the other room.

And some mornings, when Robert was struggling to crawl out of bed and head back out, his father would say, "No, no, you need to read a little bit. You stay in bed this morning and read."

That's how Bly tells it, anyway. These days, his stories about his father are steeped in benevolence. That memory of his father fixing a late-night meal for Bob and Jim, "that was a kind of male hospitality," Bly says, "and that's one of the reasons I've done the men's work, because you're invited into a place where men are not competitive, but hospitable."

There was a time, 20 or 30 years ago, when his stories about his father weren't so benign -- there was anger and the memory of alcoholism and pain. But Bly is 82 now, and he has done a lot, and written a lot, and thought a lot and, yes, worked through a lot. The man who wrote "Iron John" now talks about his father in a much less complicated way. He talks about his father with love.

Inside the museum, chairs are packed tightly in rows. Half the town has turned out to see the man whom many still call Bobby. The air is fragrant with coffee, and sunlight streams through old lace curtains. There are too many people, and there's a delay while someone drags in more chairs. Everyone is squished together, but it's a pleasant squished-togetherness. Everyone wants to pay homage to Bobby Bly.

Bly listens while poets -- Jim Lenfestey, Patricia Kirkpatrick, Anne Wright -- take turns at the microphone, telling stories. Bill Duffy talks about how James Wright lounged in a hammock one afternoon while Bly repaired Duffy's basement door. Wright didn't help, but by the end of the day, he had produced a magnificent poem: "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."

"I never thought that I would be associated with something so phenomenal," Duffy says.

And then it is the townspeople's turn. Wilt Gustafson, who once swapped 15 bales of hay for a subscription to The Fifties, presents Bly with a bouquet of flowers. They hug, and Bly says, "You know we've made a little progress when men are presenting flowers to one another."

Bly's niece, Julie Ludvigson, recalls seeing Bly on the farm back in the day, steering the tractor with one hand, holding an open book in the other. "And then when he'd get over the hill, sometimes it'd be a long time before he'd come back."

Finally, Bly himself gets up and reads Wright's hammock poem, his right hand beating out the rhythm like a symphony conductor, and then another Wright poem ("Unbelievable. How can he do this? It all makes sense. How does he get there?"), and he thanks the town for turning out. "I'm so happy to be in the room with some of my relatives. Most of them thought I'd never amount to much."

It is ghazals that have captivated Bly in recent years -- a Mideastern form of poetry that allows 36 syllables to make a point, and then the writer must move on to the next point. "In Iranian, in Farsi, they do that in two lines of 18 syllables each," he says. "So we tried that, but you cannot extend an American line beyond 12 or 13 syllables or the line begins to fall apart. So we did three 12-syllable lines. And the next stanza needs to be about something else. Well, then you've got six or seven stanzas. This requires a lot of athletic ability."

He plans to include ghazals in his next book, "Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey," which he has been working on for several years and which, he says, is almost done. It will be his 23rd collection of poetry. He has also written nine books of nonfiction, edited seven anthologies and published many chapbooks and more than a dozen books in translation. His poem "Courting Forgetfulness" was published last summer in the New Yorker; "I Have Daughters and I Have Sons" will appear there later this year. He has published steadily throughout his life. One critic said in the New York Times, "I know of no contemporary poet ... who is so unafraid to write about joy."

At 82, he does not admit to worrying about his legacy ("Ah, I don't care," he says again) or about getting old ("Did I say I was old?"). These are not things he is interested in talking about. He wants to talk about the poems, and he lets the poems say what he will not. He picks up "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat" and reads it aloud. His warm, sweet voice grows stronger as he reads. His right hand dips and sways.

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.

He sets it aside, picks up another poem, this one unfinished. "Robert, stop complaining. You've already been luckier than you deserve. ... " His voice trails off as he studies the words.

"Even though our lives are more and more scruffy, the angels are still sending messages to Joseph. Maybe I ought to mention which angels, I don't know. ...

"There's no telling how many hours are left to us. Well, I think it's a poem about getting older, you know." He says this as though this is a surprising discovery, although it is his own poem.

"It's all right if we are scruffy and badly dressed. There's no telling how many hours are left to us. ... Hmmm. That's probably the main thought. We're all growing more old and goofy each day."

He looks up. "It's nice to be able to write a line like that. It's saved by the word 'goofy.'"

Bly picks up the first poem and reads it again. Jim Wright has gone down in the storm. Carol Bly has gone down in the storm. Rilke and Neruda and Vallejo have all gone down in the storm. But Bly's small boat still rides proudly across the swells.

Look to his poetry. That's where his answers lie. But -- why? Why poetry? Why not prose? The question stops him, but only for a moment.

"What's the point in dancing? Why not just walk around?"

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor. She is at 612-673-7302.

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