Bly to read in Spirit Lake event Thursday

Robert Bly, arguably Minnesota's best-known and most influential poet, still -- in the sixth decade of his poetry career -- challenges the status quo. His latest work, which he'll share at a Spirit Lake Poetry Series reading Thursday, Nov. 7, spe...

Robert Bly, arguably Minnesota's best-known and most influential poet, still -- in the sixth decade of his poetry career -- challenges the status quo. His latest work, which he'll share at a Spirit Lake Poetry Series reading Thursday, Nov. 7, specifically challenges notions about the role of form.

These new poems, in an old Islamic form called the ghazal (pronounced GUZZLE), form an interesting experiment. Ghazal is "the major form in the Islamic world for poetry," he said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

The form originated in 10th century love poems but came to be dominant in the Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and Arabic languages spoken throughout the Arab world. Some of its requirements are different than traditional English forms.

Like a sonnet, the ghazal has a set length to contain a complete thought. But it's 36-syllable stanza is much shorter than a sonnet.

"In that way, it's sort of better than the sonnet," Bly said, "because the sonnet has 14 lines, which is 168 syllables. And so that's really too long, and people have to pad a lot to get a sonnet out."


Ironically, this also opens up the form. Typically a ghazal poem will have multiple stanzas, each containing a complete thought, and the relationship between the stanzas usually isn't spelled out -- imagine a string of related haikus or sonnets. This makes the poems challenging and forces people to listen to them carefully.

"That's the most amazing characteristic," Bly said, who is also renown as a translator.

A traditional ghazal poem is written in two lines of 18 syllables, but since that's awkward in English, he has modified it into three lines of 12 syllables each.

"I wanted to see if I had learned enough in 55 years of writing poetry that I could do something in English that would have the flavor of the ghazal form," he said.

The interest in form versus free verse spans Bly's entire career, and like his generation of poets -- which includes luminaries like Robert Creely and James Wright -- he started on the other side of it. Walt Whitman had shattered the notion that American poetry must be written in comfortable, habitual iambic -- a rhythmic "foot" comprised of two syllables, an unstressed one followed by a stressed one, which is common in English writing and which Bly describes as "kind of a trance; it's very beautiful." By the time Bly entered the poetry world, it had become dominant once again.

But it didn't fit his generation returning from World War II. The most important things that had happened -- such as Louis Simpson losing nearly all his comrades at the Battle of the Bulge -- were not finding their way into poetry.

"Somehow, he couldn't put that into iambic," he said. "So therefore we all moved. ... Everbody moved over to free verse."

That served well for a time. "A lot got said at the time of the Vietnam War," Bly points out.


But it changed.

In the 1981 book "Of Solitude and Silence," comprised of writings by and about Bly, his essay "Form that is Neither In nor Out" describes a desire for a return to form, but a more natural kind of form, rather than a mechanical "second-rate iambic."

In a Paris Review interview with Francis Quinn, Bly, when asked about the reappearance of form in his book "Morning Poems," said, "One of our jobs these days, anyway, is to escape from free verse."

"There's some extreme beauty that comes out of real form," he said during the interview Wednesday. "... I think all of us began to long a little more for beauty and a little less for freedom and wildness."

He notes openly that free verse is dominant -- in the 1999 edition of the anthology "The Best American Poetry," which he guest edited, there was very little form.

But he says a parallel exists for the current generation of poets. His generation had to abandon iambic.

"You could say maybe what they should abandon is free verse," he said.

Bly said his work with the Islamic form -- his new book is titled "The Night Abraham Called to the Stars" -- was not intended to be as timely as it has become in post-9/11 America, but he seems comfortable with the transition. The poet who raised eyebrows writing starkly political poems against the Vietnam War is also against the one planned against Iraq.


Noting that a world in which Christians, Jews and Muslims live together peacefully is still the model, he said, "Bush is out of his skull." He lauded the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's vote against the war resolution in Congress and said his only political poem written in the ghazal form (reprinted on page B1 with permission) relates to the war.

During Vietnam, Bly raised eyebrows by donating his check for winning a National Book Award to the Vietnam War resistance movement. He cofounded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and heavily influenced that corner of resistance to the war.

Bly also persists in another controversial opinion -- his longstanding discomfort with university writing programs. Paralleling his early magazines, which published insults to those in the poetry world he found deserving, he recently awarded the 256 university writing programs in the United States with a "domestic globalization award" for upholding the principles of globalization -- which he defines as providing ready-made articles that destroy native culture.

He cited two successful northern Minnesota poets -- Louis Jenkins and Connie Wanek -- as notable examples of success independent of the university setting.

Bly continues to provide high-energy performances at his readings, mixing in storytelling and music, and he says he is paying ever more attention to the musical aspects of poetry.

"I put at least as much attention on the sound of every given stanza in a ghazal as I do (on) the meaning," he said. "The meaning hits the brain, and the sound hits the heart."

Noting that ghazal poems are usually sung, not spoken, he added, "I'd say we're just beginners in this field of learning how to unite poetry and music or poetry and singing."

Jim Perlman, who founded Duluth's Holy Cow! Press and works with the Spirit Lake organization, said Bly's readings are always exciting. "They're often unpredictable, always lively, always personable, and I think I value them as much for Bly's ideas about all things poetry and cultural as (for) the sheer content of his own poems and his great translations from other cultures and other times."


Perlman noted the Spirit Lake event will also highlight Jenkins' 60th birthday.

Thursday's reading will contain works from Bly's entire career, from his early poems about the Minnesota countryside (published in "Silence and the Snowy Field") to the love poems from the middle of his career and finally to his recent ghazal poems.

Bly, who is also author of two nonfiction books, "Iron John" and "The Sibling Society," which provoked national debates, will read at 7:30 p.m. in Somers Lounge at St. Scholastica. Admission is free, and refreshments will be served. A book signing will follow the reading.

Call and Answer

Tell me why it is 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.

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've listened to the great criers -- Neruda

Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas -- and now

We're silent as sparrows in the little bushes?

Some masters say our life lasts only seven days.

Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet?

Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come.

-- Robert Bly

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