Monday, May 23, 2005

Bly Reading

At Robert Bly’s reading last Sunday, he read his own poems from My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy and translations from The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations.

When I listen to Bly, it’s hard not to think of him as a “performance poet.” He frequently interrupts himself to comment on his own poems. Bly probably would not appreciate being compared to Eliot, but his comments almost become part of his poems, like Eliot’s footnotes to The Waste Land. Bly’s image of a hunchback in an Italian piazza is more interesting when he tells you it’s not some “archetypal hunchback” but the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. When Bly refers to Kierkegaard’s concept of ressentiment, it’s interesting when he explains the concept. I can fantasize a transcription of Bly’s reading that would incorporate his commentary into the poems and create whole new poems—almost postmodern!

It’s also hard not to think of shadows when you think of Bly. For better and worse, he has spent his life trying to bring more darkness into American poetry. The reasons it’s for worse are obvious: we’ve all read too many poems about dark cornfields, dark factories, and the dark pot roasts of Minneapolis.

But the reasons it’s for better are important. I still find Bly’s best poems original and arresting: “God crouches at night over a single pistachio.” Although he’s been writing poems for fifty years, it may be too early to judge his work. James Hillman talked about shadows in his book Inter Views:

I am trying to say that your shadow is your virtue, and that is what love is mostly about. And that’s what remains—if anything has to remain—after a person’s dead. His faults, his unbearable qualities, or hers, become clarified, and you remember them as virtues. They stand out sharp and clear, like essences. It’s amazing how the very thing you couldn’t bear in your mother or father, in your wife or husband—they die, and then the rubies show right in the shadow.”

Isn’t this true of poets too? Whitman’s poems are full of flaws. Do we wish he had gone to a workshop and turned his “barbaric yawp” into a polished gem? His weaknesses are inseparable from his strengths. Williams went too far in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Plath went too far in “Daddy,” and Shakespeare went too far in Hamlet. (Do we really need all that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stuff? It’s four hours long, for God’s sake!) Do we really wish an editor had whipped these poets into shape? If you edit out of your poems all the elements that are vulnerable to parody, you’ll take the life out of them.

OK, I can see I’ve gone off topic and gone into rant mode. Whatever you think of Bly, I think he’s encouraged poets to embrace the weirdest aspects of their eccentric visions (as Blake did), rather than cutting their poems to fit any fashion, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.


Emily Lloyd said...

Thanks for this, Robert. Bly definitely still comes up with stuff I love from time to time--that pistachio fits the bill. And this: "we’ve all read too many poems about dark cornfields, dark factories, and the dark pot roasts of Minneapolis" is classic, classic.

Robert said...

Emily, I have to admit I'm a bit biased. I was debating whether I'd go to Bly's reading, and then a couple days before the reading, totally out of the blue I got this very sweet letter from him saying how much he liked my book and had had it by his bedside for a couple years. I mean he doesn't know me from Adam and had absolutely no reason to send me this letter except to be nice. So yeah, I definitely went to his reading!