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 a chilly recent 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 introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping jump-start Bly’s blue Plymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned with faint praise a student’s poem, 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 that 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 and sometimes lapsed into funny voices. (“One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / ‘How do you sleep? I love curliness,’ ” he read, 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 embedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting. In “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat,” he read: “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 50 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.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks