Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf, and who they are as a writer. Today Margaret Stawowy reads “Women and Men,” “Stealing Sugar from the Castle” and “Call and Answer” by poet Robert Bly.
Thank you for joining us, Margaret. You sent in a handful of Bly’s poems which I take to be a sign that he’s too good to pick just one. I’m hoping it also means you can illuminate Bly’s career and accomplishments for us. Who is Robert Bly and what can you tell us about his overall impact on poetry?
Margaret: Robert Bly is a poet, translator, anti-war activist and leader of a men’s movement. He has been writing poetry for more than half a century and has lived through a long historical timeline, political and literary. Because of his translations, many European and Eastern poets, who were relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, now have a new audience. This would include not only wonderful European poets like Transtromer, Hauge, Martinson, and Vallejo, but also Eastern poets like Issa, Mirabai and Hafez. Bly wanted to step away from the cerebral (some would say academic) Modernists and delve into the metaphysical poetic sensibilities of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Bly is also the author of Iron John, a book that inspired men to examine their masculine nature and to overcome a contemporary situation in which men have no rights of passage, resulting in difficulties to meaningfully take their place in the world. Finally he is a prolific poet with 25 books of poetry.
And, yes, he is such a wonderful poet that I had a great deal of difficulty choosing which of his poems to include for this blog post.
Sundress: Are these three poems, “Women and Men,” “Stealing Sugar from the Castle” and “Call and Answer,” from the same collection, or do they represent different periods of Bly’s career?
Margaret: These are more current poems. “Women and Men” is from Turkish Pears in August, a series of twenty-four short poems that he calls ramages, referring to passages of French flute music. I heard him introduce these at a reading, and he mentioned how he strove to create sounds in stanzas, and that in each of these poems, he is repeating sounds that call out to each other. You can also hear glorious sound repetitions and echoes in “Stealing Sugar From the Castle.” This poem and “Call and Answer” are from his book My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. Bly loves music and whenever possible, he incorporates live music in his readings. Many of his poems also refer to music. At a reading, he once said that music is a direct link to the soul. I wholeheartedly agree.
May I also say, I am awed by the works of mature poets such as Jack Gilbert, Steve Kowit, Wislawa Szymborska, Marvin Bell and many others. They have extensive life experience and years of writing to draw upon. What I particularly like about Bly’s writing is that he manages to delve into the spiritual and psychological in such an invigorating manner, devoid of pomp and sanctimony. Check out his ghazal “Stealing Sugar from the Castle.” How many poets can get away with putting the word ‘joy’ in a poem, not once but multiple times! That takes a master.
Sundress: I do love the sounds he uses in “Women and Men,” although Bly seems to be in complete control of the piece—not at all wild or untamed as the word ‘ramages’ implies, but melodic and tender. Perhaps we should link to an appropriate musical accompaniment. To me, this poem sounds like the flute in this duo:
Sundress: “Women and Men” must also be an example of this “men’s movement” you mentioned. What is this “men’s movement” about?
Margaret: What I love about Bly’s book, Iron John, is that it was written by a poet who is influenced by Jungian psychology. Think about that. Poets and their poetry fail to elicit any meaningful reaction in the wider population, but this book took off. Bly hit upon an issue of pain and confusion that men in contemporary culture face. Many boys grow up without male role models in the house, either because fathers are physically or emotionally absent. In other words boys grown up without male guidance, and often turn to pop culture to fill the void. How can men honor the male aspect without becoming dominating patriarchs, or at the other end of the spectrum, eternal adolescents, or both. In Iron John, there is an emphasis on the archetypes found in old tales and on rites of passage that respect the essence of the wild and untamed aspects of men. Mythological realities help men understand where they came from and who they are in ways that pop culture, and even science cannot address. “Women and Men” is not really about the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, as some refer to it, but it is written with the elegance and insight that come from his centered masculinity.
Sundress: On first listen, I did not immediately recognize that “Stealing Sugar from the Castle” is a ghazal, a form which is often glaringly obvious to me since it does have such a particular repetitive pattern. In my opinion, the ghazal is a form that is easy to follow, much like a haiku, but hard to master. I must agree—it is rather impressive that Bly got away with so much ‘joy’.
There is so much to pull out of this poem. What strikes me most is this bit:
I don’t mind your saying I will die soon.
Even in the sound of the word soon, I hear
The word you which begins every sentence of joy.
Which reminds me of the love poems of Rumi. You mentioned he was a translator. Did he by chance translate any Middle Eastern poets?
Margaret: Bly is also known for his translations of Hafez, who lived in 14th Century Persia, now Iran. Hafez wrote ecstatic metaphysical poetry that combined sacredness with sensual abandon in the ghazal form. Ghazals are written in couplets and contain a thematic word in the second line that repeats in the following couplets, such as the word “joy” in “Stealing Sugar from the Castle.” Each couplet should have a feeling of autonomy, as if the poet went and changed the subject, all the while maintaining a unity throughout. In the last stanza, the poet often addresses himself by name, or references other poets or friends, as Bly sometimes does in his ghazals. Although I haven’t written ghazals, I have written poems in couplets where each stanza refers to the previous stanza using a thematic word that changes from stanza to stanza throughout the poem. As with haiku, contemporary ghazals need not strictly adhere to the traditional form. The delight of the ghazal is found in the unexpected twists and turns as the reader moves from beginning to end. The masters, as usual, make it look so simple.
Sundress: “Call and Answer” takes a complete different turn—veers left, politically, and straight-forward in its delivery—and doesn’t seem to leave any wiggle room for interpretation. Reading it now, it brings back a lot of memories. In 2002, 9/11 was still a shock, but this poem is speaking about much more. Am I right to assume this was a reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much as a reaction to the United State’s War on Terrorism? Do you remember where you were when you first read this and what you thought as a poet being called to arms, so to speak?
Margaret: I can’t speak to whether Bly was addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but certainly the war in Iraq, the War on Terrorism, and climate change. Like many others, I marched in protest against the Iraqi invasion, just as I had many years earlier against the Vietnam War. I wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of these protests, but I felt that I would not/could not be silent. My son and nephew were both approaching their 18th years, when they would be required to register for the draft. As Bly said, “What’s the sense of being an adult and having no voice.” I greatly admire how Bly can write an anti-war poem that beseeches the reader to speak up in such emotionally sonorous manner. (I tried very hard to interpret this quality in my verbal rendering of the poem without going over the top). I am particularly moved by the “angels hiding in jugs of silence,” by calling forth Neruda, Akhmatova, Thoreau and Frederick Douglass. What a range! I read this poem for the first time, perhaps in 2006, when my daughter, mother and I went to Paris. I remember sitting in the hotel at night reading poems from this book to them, including “Call and Answer.” The power of his words was deeply moving to us. I felt compelled to apologize to other Europeans over the French Fries/Freedom Fries jingoism that arose in the U.S. in response to the French opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
As for poets being called to arms, I was once in a workshop with Ilya Kaminsky, and he commented that Americans don’t write many political poems, whereas, Europeans do it all the time. Perhaps this is because we Americans didn’t have to live in a war-torn country in our lifetimes. I find it very challenging to write a political poem without it devolving into a polemic. Writing a successful anti-war poem is just about as hard as writing a successful love poem. I am still working on both of these challenges.
Sundress: Bly does bring a wonderful range of poets to the table, an impressive feat to stand on the shoulders of such great literary stock without being polemic. Other than his obvious mastery of several forms and topics, how else has Bly had an impact on your writing?
Margaret: Actually, I was at a lecture/workshop that Bly presented at a school of psychology that is now Meridian University. He was encouraging us to use unexpected, brilliant language and images to basically express the inexpressible. Of course, we were all floating on his inspiring lecture and poetic artistry. After five to seven minutes of writing time, he said, “Okay, let’s hear what you’ve got.” So we all went around and read our efforts. Mind you, these were mostly psychology students, with a few poets mixed in, including me. After a while, he turned to Jay Leeming, a protégé, and said something like, “Maybe this is too hard for them.” Resounding silence filled the space as we were all brought down to earth with the realization, once again, that writing poetry is hard. Very hard. You might think I would have been disappointed, but it was one of those moments when I could step outside of myself to view the situation, and actually, it was hilarious. Here we were, trying to be oh-so-metaphysical and failing oh-so-miserably. But the take-home lesson on that day and thereafter was this: figure out how to express the inexpressible. I aim to create elegant, startling and transcendent poems, and though I am never certain I will succeed, I am nonetheless willing to take that chance.
Sundress: Thank you so much for sharing some of your essential Bly with us. Do you have any recommendations of further Bly reading (or listening) for us? Additional poems, one of his live music and poetry fusions, an interview, and/or perhaps a contemporary or two of Bly’s for comparison?
Margaret: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate. Of course, you’ll want to start with the Robert Bly website: robertbly.com.
The following video has cameo appearances by Edward Hirsch, James Ragan, Gary Snyder, and others, not to mention a young Robert Bly.
Not surprisingly, this Norwegian from Minnesota was on Prairie Home Companion.
He was also interviewed by Bill Moyers
And on PBS, he was interviewed about the men’s movement.
There are also a series of lectures by Bly on various topics from Hafez and Rumi, to the men’s movement to folklore, and much more. These are voice recordings with still shots, not really videos, but there is quite a range of topics on Youtube to investigate. And some of these lectures/readings include music.
Michael Meade, a storyteller and leader in the men’s movement is a contemporary of Bly’s. Along with James Hillman and Bly, they edited Rag and Boneshop of the Heart, an anthology concentrating on the rites of manhood. See Meade’s website at mosaicvoices.org.
You may want to view the work of Jay Leeming, a fine poet who was also inspired by Bly. (He was the protégé at the workshop.) He and wife Adriana along with their daughter spend summers in Yosemite working as park rangers and facilitating at the Tuolumne Meadows Poetry Festival. See his work at jaylemming.com.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Margaret Stawowy‘s poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Atlanta Review, Ecotone Blog, Cricket, West Marin Review, Barnwood Poetry Journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Ginosko Literary Journal. She has won awards for her work from both Atlanta Review and Beyond Baroque. Originally from Chicago, she lived in Japan for eight years before relocating to Northern California where she works as a librarian. Margaret is a book reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly.
Born in 1926, Robert Bly is an American poet, translator, storyteller, editor, and father of the “expressive men’s movement.” Published extensively, his most recent collections are Like the New Moon I Will Live My Life (White Pine Press Distinguished Poets Series, 2015) and Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013 (W. W. Norton, 2013).