Sunday, March 02, 2008

Robert Bly: Journey to a Vision of Love

Poetry has many enticements for those susceptible to its charms. Among them, it offers intelligent ordering of the world, the music of language, which, given music's connection to emotion, provides an architecture of feeling, and image.

Image. .. Perhaps it's the most intriguing of poetry's powers, since it uses a sense other than the one it wakens, the sounds and linear graphemes of language, to wake the mind's eye into vision. Whether the image is apparently simple (William Carlos William's "a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water," on which so much depends) or complex ("an interior sea lighted by turning eagles," a figure by French poet Yves Bonnefoy, translated by Galway Kinnell, that Robert Bly loves), the image has a unique power, one that displaces us from the quotidian present of our reading.

Throughout his long career, Robert Bly, poet/author/translator and leader of the Mythopoetic Men's Movement, has had a unique mastery of image. In the mid-1950s, when he was coming into his own as a poet (he was born in 1926), he abandoned the conventions of American academic poetry and found new models for his writing. He found them first in the great early twentieth-century Spanish poets Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. He translated all of them, and brought the energy of their work into his own.

The images in his work, in particular, glowed like huge bonfires in the dark fields of American verse. By the time he published Silence in the Snowy Fields, his first major collection, in 1962, his work had already begun to provide his contemporaries with new ways to make their poems catch fire. Here's a short poem from that book, named by its first line, "Taking the Hands":
Taking the hands of someone you love,
You see they are delicate cages ...

Tiny birds are singing

In the secluded prairies

And in the deep valleys of the hand.
It's a poem whose image still surprises, and which at the same time articulates a very different sense of relationship than we'd expect to find in a poem from that era. The genders of the speaker and the loved one are not specified or implicit; "someone you love" may be male or female, as might the speaker. There's a tenderness, a sense of caring, embedded in the adjectives "delicate", "tiny", "secluded", "deep", and "secluded" also speaks of a recognition of the individuality of the other; whatever the relationship, it doesn't seem hierarchical, predatory, or even erotic, just deeply human.

By the time of his second book, Light Around the Body, in 1967, Bly was deeply engaged in articulating a vision of the world that rejected the conservative social and political paradigms of the era (imperialist foreign policies, male-dominated social and political structures built on the suppression of the feminine) and honored very different powers. The book contains some of the most enduring of the many poems that had their occasion in opposition to the Vietnam War, then still consuming millions of men, women, and children in Southeast Asia - and thousands and thousands of spirits, too, here in North America. Like the first book, it also contains poems that point toward a new tenderness, a sensitivity in relationship that certainly would have seemed alien to those running that war. Here's "Looking into a Face":
Conversation brings us so close!

The surfs of the body,

Bringing fish up near the sun,

And stiffening the backbones of the sea!

I have wandered in a face, for hours,

Passing through dark fires.

I have risen to a body

Not yet born,

Existing like a light around the body,

Through which the body moves like a sliding moon.
In the decades since those volumes, Bly has continued as a master of image to extend the emotional reach of his own work, and to translate poets from other traditions whom he believes articulate the deepest voices of the human soul, including Rumi, Kabir, Mirabai, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, and Ranier Maria Rilke. And his insight into love has deepened to include the divine love of the great mystics and ecstatics.

When he appears at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville on Friday, March 28 for a one-night only performance, Bly will be providing a new perspective on his spiritual journey, one that's the culmination of his own visionary quest. The poems of love he'll read and perform with the extraordinary local world-fusion musicians of Free Planet Radio (Chris Rosser, Eliot Wadopian, and River Guerguerian) will speak not just of the personal loves which it's been the joy of poets to sing for thousands of years, but also the ecstatic love which, for poets of vision, stands at the center of the human undertaking.

I wouldn't miss it.

The next day, he'll lead a writer's workshop from 10 AM - 4 PM at the Unitarian Church, One Edwin Place, in Asheville.

Both events have been organized by the Prama Institute, a non-profit conference and retreat center located in two, large geodesic domes on 120 acres of forested hilltops and grasslands in the Appalachian mountains near Marshall in Madison County.

The Reading:
What: Robert Bly and Free Planet Radio

Where: Diana Wortham Theatre at Pack Place.

When: Friday, March 28, 2008, 7:30pm

Tickets: $35 and $30 (students and seniors)

Tickets/Info: (828) 257-4530 or
online at

The Workshop:

What: Writer's Workshop with Robert Bly

Where: Unitarian Church, One Edwin Place, in Asheville.

When: Saturday, March 29, 2008, 10:00 am - 4:00 pm

Tickets: $95 and $85 (students and seniors) if pre-registered by March 10.
Thereafter: $125 and $100 (students and seniors) Luncheon included. To register, please call: 828-649-9408


Update, 6 March, 2008: minor word changes, corrections of typos.

This post appeared in somewhat different form in the Rapid River for March, 2008.

Photo by Gus Brunsman, via Blue Flower Arts.

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