Robert Bly's path has taken him from poetry to politics--and back again.
Thursday, February 1, 2001
"I don''t think the Republican victory really meant very much," he said then, "because people aren''t thinking. It''s like a drunk veering wildly from one side to another. Once Newt is in a position of being the older brother, the same people will attack him."
In retrospect, Bly seems prescient. Although Clinton managed to weather one storm after another, his reputation was shattered. Gingrich, not being made of such tough political mettle as the then-president, later was ripped apart and blown out of Washington.
But Bly isn''t as interested in politics these days and dismisses last November''s election. "It says one thing very clearly," he says. "The Americans who are a little ashamed of themselves for watching television and wrestling are really angry at everyone who is intelligent. We don''t want intelligent, well-read persons anymore, we want people who get arrested for drunkenness and who have never been to Europe."
These days Robert Bly the social philosopher and father of the men''s movement is taking a backseat to Robert Bly the poet.
As leader of the drum-thumping, soul-and-chest-baring men''s movement in the early- through mid-''90s, Bly became a controversial celebrity hated by hardcore feminists, pooh-poohed by macho poseurs, and lampooned by social satirists of all stripes. By the middle of the decade, Bly had developed such a celebrity reputation that his role as a poet was nearly eclipsed.
Now, Bly says he''s ready to get back to his roots. "In a way, I think we''ve learned as much as we can from social psychology," he says. "I don''t really give talks anymore--I have to let people figure out those things by themselves. All I''m doing is giving poetry readings. I''m ready to have a life in poetry. You don''t have as many readers, but the gifts that one gets back are much richer."
Bly seems almost relieved when the topic shifts from politics to poetics, his mood stirring from restrained to effusive when talking about his newest project, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, a book of poetry based on ghazals (roughly pronounced "guzzles"), an ancient Persian form of poetry.
"The title remembers an incident in the far past that was preserved in the Koran, but was lost in the Old Testament. It was the moment when human beings finally realized the stars are not God. That must have been an enormous shock," he chuckles.
More than the content of the old poetry, Bly is interested in the form itself, which originated in 10th-century Persia and migrated to India by the middle of the 13th century.
"The beautiful thing about that form is that each stanza, of about 36 syllables, stands on its own," says Bly. "It doesn''t follow one thought throughout the whole poem, which is how we do it in the West." He points to Robert Frost''s poem, "Mending Wall," as an example of typical Western poetry. "We stay on the subject and, by the end, we know everything we need to know about a wall."
By way of contrast, a ghazal doesn''t keep such a linear narrative--it can jump around from thought to thought, image to image, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps that tie everything together.
"I suppose one of the ideas is that you can say everything that needs to be said in about 36 syllables. And then shut up about it," he adds.
Bly gives the following example of a stanza from a ghazal in his upcoming book.
Men and women spend only a minute in paradise
The two lovers watch Charlie Chaplin eat his shoe
And a moment later find themselves barefoot in the grave.
The stanza may be a fitting metaphor for Robert Bly''s state of mind. If it''s true that we only have a minute in paradise, watching meaningless tomfoolery before we find ourselves shoeless in the cemetery, Bly seems to have made a choice about how he wants to spend the next few seconds. It''s a decision that takes him back to a place where poetry takes precedence over politics.
Robert Bly reads from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars on Saturday at 8pm in Monterey Peninsula College''s Lecture Forum 103, as part of the Tor House''s Reading Series. Sliding scale admission costs between $7-10. For more info, call 624-1813 or 624-5725.