Bill Moyers talks with Poet Robert Bly
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. The combined age of the two people you're about to meet is 172 years. They have lived full and original lives. And they're still going trong. The iconoclast H.L. Mencken once said, "I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs." He had nothing on Grace Lee Boggs and Robert Bly.
I first met Robert Bly back in 1979. He was reading from his poetry at Cooper Union here in New York:
ROBERT BLY: POET AT LARGE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BLY: "How amazed I am after working hard in the afternoon that when I sit down at the table with my elbows touching the elbows of my children. So much love flows out and around in circles.
BILL MOYERS: It wasn't hard to figure out why Bly was exerting such influence on aspiring American poets. He already enjoyed a large following — appealing to poetry lovers with powerful images of intimate subjects:
POET AT LARGE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BLY: More of the fathers are dying each day. It's time for the sons and the daughters. Bits of darkness are gathering around them. And the bits of darkness appear as flakes of light.
BILL MOYERS: Bly was daring in word and example, he was also controversial. In 1966 he had co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and when he won The National Book Award two years later for The Light Around The Body, he contributed the prize money to the resistance.
Over the years Robert Bly has ranged far and wide in his poems, with thirty or more books touching on spiritual insights and deep and dark truths about American culture. His Iron John became an international best seller, and brought untold numbers of men to poetry:
A GATHERING OF MEN: It is a massive masculine shadow, 50 males sitting together in halls or crowded room lifting something indistinct up into the resonating night.
BILL MOYERS: I've encountered Robert Bly again and again at poetry festivals and interviewed him about the passions of his life — including his work as an eminent translator of the Islamic poets Rumi and Hafez.
LANGUAGE OF LIFE: LOVES CONFUSING JOY: ROBERT BLY PERFORMING AND READING HAFEZ AT THE PAUL WINTER CONSORT: My ego is stubborn often drunk, impolite, my loving finely sensitive, impatient, confused. Please take messages from one to the other.
BILL MOYERS: He was in town recently and I invited him over to the studio. He came, bearing as always, a satchel of books and eager to talk, as always, about poets and poetry.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
ROBERT BLY: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: I love what the English professor said about you last year. He said, "Robert Bly is an important guy. He's important." He said, "Robert Bly is an important guy. He's so famous, I'm sometimes surprised to find he's still alive."
ROBERT BLY: I am surprised, too.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever wake up surprised that you are still here?
ROBERT BLY: Yes, I do. Very much.
BILL MOYERS: Present company excepted, who do you thinks been the greatest American poet up to now?
ROBERT BLY: Well, Walt Whitman? You have to bring him in immediately.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ROBERT BLY: He does everything. And whenever you have a person in another culture like India who is trying to make us understand what religious life is like in India, they quote they quote Whitman.
When he begins calling out his beautiful list of people that he loves and things that he loves, the divine always comes into it in some way. So you just feel he is pretending to write about human beings. Maybe he's some sort of messenger from god.
BILL MOYERS: You know, when I first met you, you were just barely 50. And you read this little poem. You remember this one?
ROBERT BLY: "I lived my life enjoying orbits. Which move out over the things of the world. I have wandered into space for hours, passing through dark fires. And I have gone to the deserts of the hottest places, to the landscape of zeroes. And I can't tell if this joy is from the body or the soul or a third place."
Well, that's very good you find that because when you say, "What is the divine," it's much simpler to say there is the body, then there's the soul and then there's a third place.
BILL MOYERS: Have you figured out what that third place is 30 years later?
ROBERT BLY: It's a place where all of the geniuses and lovely people and the brilliant women in the-- they all go there. And they watch over us a little bit. Once in awhile, they'll say, "Drop that line. It's no good."
Sometimes when you do poetry, especially if you do translate people like Hafez and Rumi, you go almost immediately to this third world. But we don't go there very often.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ROBERT BLY: Well I suppose it's because we think too much about our houses and our places. Maybe I should read a Kabir poem here.
BILL MOYERS: And Kabir?
ROBERT BLY: Kabir is a poet from India. Fourteenth century.
"Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you're alive. Think... and think... while you're alive.
What you call salvation, belongs to the time before death.
If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
you think that
ghosts will do it after? The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body's rotten--
that's all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
And if you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death."
I was going through Chicago one time with a young poet and we were rewriting this. And he said, "If you find nothing now, you will seemly end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death." That's very interesting to see how that thing really comes alive when you bring in terms of your own country. You'll end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.
So plunge into the truth, find out who the teacher is, believe in the great sound. Kabir says this, when the guest is being searched for - see they don't use the word "God". Capital G, "Guest". When the Guest is being searched for, it's the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work. Then he says, "Look at me and you'll see a slave of that intensity." So he's the first one that I ever went into who wrote true religious ones.
BILL MOYERS: You've been working a lot lately in Islamic-- poems of Islam, right?
ROBERT BLY: The Muslims have a great literature and fantastic poets. Rumi and Hafez have been the guiding light, Rumi especially, of American poetry for the last five or ten years. But also it seems to me that if we're doing so much attack upon the Muslim world, criticizing the Muslim world so much, we should be able to give thanks for the genius that is there.
ROBERT BLY: So, this is Persian poetry-14th century.
"The foods turned out by the factors of time and space are not all that great. Bring some wine because good things of this world are not all that great."
"The true kingdom comes to you without any breaking of bones. If that weren't so, achieving the garden through your own neighbors wouldn't be all that great. In the five days remaining to you in this rest stop before you to go to the grave, take it easy, give yourself time, because time is not all that great."
"You Puritans on the stone floor, you are not safe from the tricks of God's zeal. The distance between the cloister and the tavern we love is not all that great."
And the last stanza is "The name of Hafez has been well inscribed in the books, but in our clan of disreputables, the difference between profit and loss is not all that great."
You see how he is withdrawing all our obsessions? I've gotta get this done. I don't have much time left. So, he's a tremendous spiritual poet.
BILL MOYERS: Help me understand the popularity of Rumi. The 13th century mystical poet?
ROBERT BLY: Yes--
ROBERT BLY: I like geniuses. And--
BILL MOYERS: Rumi was a genius?
ROBERT BLY: Yeah, he was. I'm gonna give you one that I did.
BILL MOYERS: Translated?
ROBERT BLY: "I don't like it here. I want to go back. According to the old knowers, if you're absent from the one you love even for one second, that ruins the whole thing. There must be someone, just to find one sign of the other world in this town would be helpful." I feel that in Minneapolis.
"Just to find one sign of the other world in this town would be helpful. You know the great Chinese Saimer bird got caught in this net. What can I do? I'm only a wren. My desire-body, don't come strolling over this way. Sit where you are. It's a good place."
"When you want dessert, you choose something rich. When you choose wine, you look for what's clear and firm. What is the rest?" Talking about-- "What is the rest?" The rest is television. "What is the rest? The rest is mirages and blurry pictures and milk mixed with water. The rest is self-hatred and mocking other people and bombing. So, just be quiet and sit down. The reason is you're drunk. And this is the edge of the roof."
It's a good poem, even for the United States right now.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ROBERT BLY: Um, look for what's clear and firm. "What is the rest? The rest is mirages and blurry pictures and milk mixed with water." That is the way to cheat in the old days. "The rest is self-hatred and mocking other people and bombing. So, just be quiet and sit down." That'd be a good thing to say to Bush. "Just be quiet and sit down. The reason is you're drunk. And this is the edge of the roof."
BILL MOYERS: Your mature life has been bracketed by two wars, two long wars: Vietnam and Iraq. And you wrote poems against Iraq, and you wrote poems against Vietnam. And both of them went on.
ROBERT BLY: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Poetry didn't stop the war.
ROBERT BLY: No, it's never been able to do anything of that sort. It merely speaks to the soul, so the soul can remember -- so it's quite proper to have all the poems against the war. And it's proper not to be disappointed if nothing changes. Would you like me to read the poem I have against — this is probably the first poem written against the Iraq War in August of 2002.
BILL MOYERS: This was before the invasion.
ROBERT BLY: Yeah. "Tell me why we don't lift our voices these days and cry over what is happening. Have you noticed the plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? I say to myself, 'Go on, cry. What's the sense of being an adult and having no voice. Cry out. See who will answer. This is call and answer.' We will have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars." I was thinking of Grenada. Remember we invaded Grenada? Why did we do that?
"We'll have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars. Have we agreed to so many wars that we can't escape from silence. If we don't lift our voices, we allow others who are ourselves to rob the house."
"How come we listen to the great criers? Neruda, Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas. And now we're silent as sparrows in the little bushes." It's a very bad pun, but I left it in. "We are silent as sparrows in the little bushes. Some masters say our life only lasts seven days. Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry. Cry now. Soon Sunday night will come." And Sunday night came when we bombed Baghdad. "Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry, cry now. Soon Sunday night will come."
BILL MOYERS: Why isn't there more outcry?
ROBERT BLY: Well, If there were a draft, the outcry would be just as great as it was in the Vietnam War. Many of the people getting killed are the sons of people in Northern Minnesota or somewhere who don't have any access to protest. But it was a disastrous choice like most of the other decisions he made.
BILL MOYERS: I go back to that acceptance speech you made in 1969 when you accepted the National Book Award, but you gave your $1000 prize to the resistance against Vietnam. You said (quote) "As Americans we have all..." Remember this is 1969. "As Americans we have always wanted the life of feeling without the life of suffering. We long for pure life, constant victory. We've always wanted to avoid suffering, and therefore, we are unable to live in the present." Do you think that's still true today?
ROBERT BLY: Yes. Isn't that amazing that it's happening again that the people in Washington are not suffering at all, but the ones who are suffering are those young men who had a bad education and needed to escape somehow from the tramp of American life, and so they go there and get their legs and arms blown off?
BILL MOYERS: You went to Iran a few months ago. Tell me about that.
ROBERT BLY: Yes, they flew us to Shiraz where Hafez's grave is. So, we got up in the morning, and we went to the grave. And about 8:00 in the morning, you know, children started to come. Maybe third grade children. And they stood around the little tomb and sang a poem of Hafez's. Really charming. And then they went away, and now some fifth graders came. And they stood around the tomb and sang a poem of Hafez.
And, of course, every poem of Hafez is connected with a tune, so you teach the children the tune, and then they have the poem. So I said to myself, "Isn't that unbelievable? And why don't we do that? Why don't we go to the grave of Walt Whitman and have children come there?" Do you understand what it is--
BILL MOYERS: I do. I don't have an answer. Why don't we?
ROBERT BLY: Because we don't love-- we don't bring Walt Whitman and love him in the way that the Iranians bring in their poets and love them. So, that'd be great if children could go to Walt Whitman's grave and recite little poems.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think it would mean if we went to the graves of our poets?
ROBERT BLY: You'd bring the poets into the heart, instead of having them in your head in graduate school. And that's what you do with children. You bring children in, and they get associated with the heart when they're very small, and then they can feel it all through their lives.
BILL MOYERS: You've been talking and writing a lot lately about the greedy soul.
ROBERT BLY: I'm glad you caught that. Read this.
ROBERT BLY: "More and more I've learned to respect the power of the phrase, the greedy soul. We all understand what is hinted after that phrase. It's the purpose of the United Nations is to check the greedy soul in nations. It's the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship, in intuition, coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul, what the Muslims call the "nafs," also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The "nafs" is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants and is willing to destroy to anyone who receives more good things than itself. In the writer, it wants praise."
I wrote these three lines. "I love very close to my greedy soul. When I see a book published 2000 years ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned." This is really true. I've really done that. Yes, I've said that. So, in writers, the "nafs" often enter in the issue of how much-- do people love me? How much people are reading my books? Do people write about me? Do you understand that? It probably affects you too in that way.
BILL MOYERS: Us journalists? Never.
ROBERT BLY: Never. Okay. "If the covetous soul feels that its national sphere of influence is being threatened by another country, it will kill recklessly and brutally, impoverish millions, order thousands of young men in its own country to be killed only to find out 30 years later that the whole thing was a mistake. In politics the fog of war could be called the fog of the greedy soul."
ROBERT BLY: You know, the reason that one says things like the greedy soul psychologically there's no point in this war at all. It's not achieving thing, never would achieve anything. Only something as mad as the greedy soul could want it to begin and continue.
BILL MOYERS: It doesn't make any sense. As you say, the insanity of empire. You know, Robert, you told me once when we-- you told me once many years ago that you tried to write a poem everyday. You still do that?
ROBERT BLY: Yes. It's a joyful thing. Especially when I'm doing the ghazels, because then I can do a poem and I get a few stanzas done everyday anyway.
BILL MOYERS: Here are a couple of yours that I like. Read both of those.
ROBERT BLY: Yup. "Think in ways you've never thought before. If a phone rings, think of it as carrying a message that's larger than anything you've ever heard, vaster than 100 lines of Yeats. Think that someone may bring a bear to your door. May be wounded or deranged. And think that a moose has risen out of the lake and he is carrying on his antlers a child of your own whom you've never seen. When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about to give you something large, tell you you're forgiven, or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that it's been decided that if you lie down, no one will die."
And that's for you too, isn't it? "When someone knocks at the door, think that he's about to give you something large." Tell Bill Moyers that you've "been forgiven, that it's not necessary for you to work all the time or that it's been decided that if you lie down, then no one will die." So- well, that's a beautiful quality in you, the feeling that you that it isn't right for you to lie down, and I'm glad you're still working all the time.
BILL MOYERS: What about this one. This is one of your earliest that you read to me many years ago. And I wonder if it still resonates with you.
ROBERT BLY: "For My Son, Noah, Ten Years Old."
Night and day arrive and day after day goes by,
and what is old remains old and what is young
remains young and grows old
The lumber pile does not grow younger,
nor the two-by-four's lose their darkness,
but the old tree goes on, the barn stands without help
so many years;
the advocate of darkness and night is not lost.
The horse steps up, swings on one leg, turns its body,
the chicken flapping claws onto the roof, its wings
whelping and walloping,
but what is primitive is not to be shot out into the
night in the dark.
And slowly the kind man comes closer, loses his rage,
sits down at table.
That's the second stanza. And the end of it, I can feel that when I was about 35 or 40 or so on, and I had children, I realized that what is primitive in me is not to be shot out all the time into the dark. "Slowly the kind man comes closer, loses his rage." Someone that sits down at table.
"So, I am proud only of those days that pass in
undivided tenderness. When you said drawing or making books, stapled
with messages to the world or coloring a man with fire coming out of his hair," (this is for my son, Noah,)
"or we sit at a table with small tea carefully poured.
So we pass our time together calm and collected."
BILL MOYERS: Where do you reconcile that in the end?
ROBERT BLY: Well, what I've learned from the Muslims about the "nafs" helps me to understand that if I am demanding or hopelessly aggressive with my children whenever, that isn't me. It's the "nafs."
BILL MOYERS: The greedy soul.
ROBERT BLY: And that greedy soul is very powerful and doesn't want to be looked at. And my hope is that the greedy soul will hear my words and understand that-- it isn't necessary-- I'm 80 years old. How much more do I need or have to obey the greedy soul? Isn't this enough? Aren't I famous enough? Haven't I published enough books?
BILL MOYERS: I remember the first time I came to see back in the late 70s. You were living in Moose Lake--
ROBERT BLY: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Minnesota.
ROBERT BLY: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: You still there?
ROBERT BLY: I still am. We have a house in Minneapolis, but I
sometimes go back up to Moose Lake when I want to be by myself.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have a favorite from up there?
ROBERT BLY: My favorite from Moose Lake?
BILL MOYERS: How about "After Drinking All Night With A Friend?"
ROBERT BLY: Oh, that's good.
BILL MOYERS: That sounds like Moose Lake.
ROBERT BLY: Yes. This is a poem from the '60s really. A friend and I
went up to a lake up north and-- "After drinking all night with a friend, we go out in the boat at dawn to see who can write the best poem." This is Bill Duffy.
These pines, these fall oaks, these rocks,
This water, dark and touched by wind —
I am like you, you dark boat,
Drifting over waters fed by cool springs.
Beneath the water since I was a boy,
I have dreamt of strange and dark treasures,
Not of gold or strange stones, but the true
Gift beneath the pale lakes of Minnesota.
This morning also drifting in the dawn wind,
I sense my hands and my shoes and this ink —
Drifting as all of the body drifts above the clouds of the flesh and the stone.
A few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,
A few oars wedded by the snow and the heat,
So we drift towards shore over cold water,
No longer caring if we drift or go straight.
So, the last line is pretty good, 'cause it's got you see something of the hope that my "nafs" will get smaller. I didn't even know the word at that time. But, "so we drift towards shore over cold water, no longer caring if we drift or go straight."
BILL MOYERS: I like these three lines from the poem in your book, My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. You say, "Robert, those high spirits don't prove you are a close friend of truth, but you have learned to drive your buggy over the prairies of human sorrow."
ROBERT BLY: Oh good, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: You like that one?
ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I do.
BILL MOYERS: So what now for you?
ROBERT BLY: Well, I'm gonna read something else here. I want to read this one poem before we quit.
ROBERT BLY: I want to do one more for you.
ROBERT BLY: I'll do one more here. Stealing sugar from the castle, this
has the word joy. We are poor students who stay after school to study joy. We are like those birds in the Indian mountains. I'm a widow whose child is her only joy. The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan on the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy.
Translating great poetry, you know, is a way of stealing sugar. "The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan on the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy." This is from Beowulf. "Like a bird we fly out of darkness into the halls which are lit with singing then fly out again. Being shot out of the warm hall is also a joy. I'm a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot." One of my boys said to me, "Dad, you're not a loafer."
"I'm a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot. But I love to read about those who caught one glimpse of the face and died 20 years later in joy. I don't mind you saying I will die soon, even in the sound of the word soon I hear the word you. Which begins every sentence of joy. You're a thief, the judge said. Let's see your hands.
I showed my calloused hands in court. My sentence was a thousand years of joy."
ROBERT BLY: Are you happy at 80?
ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I'm happy. I'm happy at 80. And-- I can't stand so much happiness as I used to.
BILL MOYERS: You're Lutheran.
ROBERT BLY: And sometimes maybe one day out of the week I'll become depressed. But the rest of the time, especially if I'm writing poetry, I'm never depressed.
BILL MOYERS: What depresses you?
ROBERT BLY: Who knows? Depression comes up from underneath. And it just grabs you. It's an entity on its own. We are built for depression in a way. Because the nafs is so strong in us it doesn't want us to be happy and give away things. It wants us to pull back inside and say, "My mother wasn't good enough to me. My father wasn't good enough to me." You know they-- oh, that whole thing.
BILL MOYERS: Let's bring the circle around. Because when I first met you 30 years ago you told me this was a poem that had marked you. Remember it?
ROBERT BLY: Yeah.
"I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things in the world perhaps I will never achieve the last. But that'll be my attempt." Well, that's a very-- a '60s, isn't it? "I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last. But that'll be my attempt."
This is Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German. "I am circling around God." From the word made him nervous. So he said, "Around the ancient tower." And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am a falcon or a storm or a great song." Genius poem, isn't it? Genius.
BILL MOYERS: Rilke.
ROBERT BLY: Rilke. I am circling around God-- around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. There's a part of you that has been circling for a thousand years.
BILL MOYERS: And you.
ROBERT BLY: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And all of us.
ROBERT BLY: Yeah, yeah. And then--
BILL MOYERS: Those echoes we don't know the source of.
ROBERT BLY: That's right. And that wonderful energy that you can see in
a human face even when walking down the street. In New York you see this incredible energy that's inside there and is being blocked all the time by family and business and all of that. But it's still there--circling around God, around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am a falcon, which means someone who goes in and grabs things and steals them, or a storm. Storms circle too. Or a great song. Well, we both hope that we're great songs.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I'm glad I've heard some.
ROBERT BLY: Thank you. And it was so wonderful to be with you.
BILL MOYERS: Same here, same here.