An Evening with Robert Bly
Unity Temple in Oak Park
October 22, 2005
Report by C. J. Laity
Photos by Sandra Wilcoxon
Okay, so Robert Bly isn't exactly a "Chicago poet," but he came to the Chicago area on Saturday, October 22, to do a reading for the Unity Temple at 875 Lake St. in Oak Park. It was a very generous evening of poetry, discussion and even free books, and Bly showed a lot of spirit and heart. He's also known for doing a workshop with Debbie Pintonelli, one of the original founders of this strange gossipy internet rag we know and love called the Letter eX. So by the power invested in me by the great Chicago Poetry Scene I hereby knight Mr. Bly an honorary Chicago poet.
Bly loomed, a large personality, on the elevated podium in his purple vest with his puffy tie and his long, white locks, like something straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, in front of a huge crowd at this temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There were so many people in attendance, the show had to be moved from the next door coffeehouse venue, where a reading normally takes place on the third Saturday of every month, into the temple itself. The people sat in the pews, packing both the first and second levels, and there were even some people crowded in the third floor balcony. In the lobby, Women and Children First bookstore sold books written by Bly, and Bly spent some time there giving autographs. I think this reading showed that despite the struggle, poetry is not dead in America.
It was a two-part evening. Bly read for well over an hour, then there was an intermission, and then there was a question and answer period that lasted another hour. Bly started out by reading a translation of Neruda (Bly knew Neruda personally), a piece about being "sick of being a human being." He also read a translation of the 15th century Indian poet Kabir, work written over 500 years ago that still is able to touch life today. The thought of things always failing because "you are going into the darkness alone" seemed especially relevant to the current situation in the world. "Your whole life is like some drunkard's dream," Bly recited.
As Bly continued on without pause, he wandered through the books that he brought along, selecting poems to share. Sometimes he slurred his words into each other, especially the couple of words at the end of his train of thought, which made it a little difficult to understand. But this was compensated by the fact that just about everything he read, he read twice. "Should I do it again?" he would ask after reading a poem, and then before getting a response he would proceed to repeat the same poem over again. He also often stopped between lines of poetry to give commentary, humorous anecdotes, or explanations. He read a poem about his father's "big ears" over and over, until we understood the depth of every line, until each and every word took on meaning for us. The magic of his words was contained in the wisdom of single lines here and there, such as the line "each drop of brown water in Kansas knows about the ocean."
Many of the poems he read at the temple were in the Arabic ghazel form, a non-rhyming form in which each stanza has exactly 36 syllables and ends with the same word (the end words Bly used include "existence," "non-existence," "late," and "joy"). Also, in the ghazel form, the author's name ("Robert" in this case) is usually contained somewhere in the last stanza. Even though this form of poetry is traditionally meant to include suffering and culture, Bly had a good time hamming it up, especially with a poem that was inspired by Iranian music, in which every stanza ended with the phrase "it's already too late." Though he had fun with his ghazels, they were not meant to be "funny"; in fact, he pointed out clearly that a "funny ghazel" is a contradiction of terms.
The evening turned political as Robert Bly, who was a spokesperson against the Vietnam war, criticized the Republican Party power structure, accusing the Republicans of "having much but still wanting more." He read a poem that he wrote in August of 2002 called "Call and Answer". This poem is included in his book The Insanity of Empire, which is a book of "poems against the Iraq war" that Bly gave out free at the end of the night to everyone in the room (unfortunately a few there got greedy and took two copies so that there weren't enough to go around). "Call and Answer" is similar to Carlos Cortez's poem "Where are the Voices," and it asks some important questions, such as:
How come we've listened to the great criers – Neruda,
Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass – and now
We're silent as sparrows in the little bushes?
"We're in a country filled with idiots. This country is going down the tubes. Boom," he said. "Don't expect the next president to be any better than this one."
Bly blamed a lot of the darkness on television. He said that watching television is like robbing your own house, and suggested that if you are going to let your children watch three hours of television a day, you might as well give them a gun and get it over with. Instead of watching televsion, Bly advised that we all have some art to help keep the soul alive. "The great tragedy in America is that younger men have no older men to love them," he said.
During the question and answer period Bly spoke in length about mythology and also about the Jungian bag that we all carry on our backs. He also spoke about his philosophy of writing. "Good poetry is like ripping your skin off," he said. "Memory and imagination create a thread leading to the center of the universe."
I had a really good time listening to this legendary American poet read and speak. For more on Robert Bly, check out the October 2005 issue of Conscious Choice, for an in-depth interview with the author.
Robert Bly at Unity Temple
Photos by Sandra Wilcoxon
The entire Robert Bly reading is now available in a free audio archive from PoetryPoetry.com: Click Here to listen to it.
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Note: Here is a review of Robert Bly at Unity Temple in Oak Park.