Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday Muse: Minnesota's Poet Laureate

. . . I think the United States is a perfect country for a poet. . . .
~ Robert Bly, 2008 Interview at Today's Zalman

Minnesota's current Poet Laureate is Robert Bly, who began his term at the close of February 2008.

Bly is the first poet officially to occupy the honorary position in Minnesota. Two unofficial predecessors were Laurene Tibbetts-Larson (1974 - 1999) and Margaret Ball Dickson (1934 - 1963).

The history of the position in Minnesota is somewhat unusual. Dickson was named by the Poet Laureate League of Washington, D.C., and subsequently acknowledged as Poet Laureate in a congratulatory letter from the governor at the time. Tibbetts-Larson claimed the position via a Minneapolis Star reader election resulting in "appointment" by newspaper columnist Abe Altrowitz; the story is that she was then designated "Minnesota Commissioner of Poetry" by the governor. It was not until 1974 that legislation was introduced to make the position official; however, that effort and another in 2004 were unsuccessful. A third bill, in 2005, finally reached the governor but was vetoed. Ultimately, in 2007, the same governor, Tim Pawlenty, relented, acceding to the legislature's expressed desire for a state poet, and signed legislation into state law (Minnesota Session Laws, Chapter 148, Article 2, Section 4).

Under the law, the Minnesota Humanities Commission has the responsibility to solicit nominations for the position and make recommendations to the governor, who then makes the appointment and "conduct[s] appropriate ceremonies to honor" the choice. The appointee serves until the governor appoints someone else. The law's only other provision is to encourage state agencies to use the Poet Laureate's services "for appropriate ceremonies and celebrations." The nonprofit Minnesota Humanities Center helps the Poet Laureate to promote awareness and enjoyment of poetry, which may include presiding over poetry contests or writing poems for important state occasions. Now in his eighties, Bly keeps a fairly active schedule, participating in visiting poet series and giving poetry readings, lectures, and workshops in Minnesota and elsewhere.

* * * * *
I think that all poetry, except for children's poetry
and political poetry, aims toward the world of the soul.
So the best poetry is always religious. . . .
~ Robert Bly, 2008 Interview at Today's Zalman

A native of Minnesota, Robert Bly is a poet, editor, translator, essayist, and story-teller, the designated "father" of the "expressive men's movement", and a social and political activist (with David Ray, he co-founded in 1966 American Writers Against the Vietnam War). 

Reknowned as the author of the enormously successful Iron John: A Book About Men (Da Capo Press, 2004), Bly has published more than 30 poetry collections alone, including, most recently, Reaching Out to the World: New & Selected Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2009); My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy (HarperCollins, 2005; Harper Perennial, 2006) and The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (HarperCollins, 2001; Harper Perennial, 2002), both books of ghazals (love poems); and The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War (Ally Press, 2004), which includes a famous poem "Call and Answer", published in The Nation in 2002 (see video below). A new collection, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, will be published in May by W.W. Norton; it will include poems ghazels as well as poems in free verse.

Among Bly's earlier volumes of poetry are Morning Poems (HarperCollins, 1997; Harper Perennial, 1998), Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems (Harper Flamingo, 1999; Harper Perennial, 2000), What Have I Ever Lost by Dying? Collected Prose Poems (HarperCollins, 1993), Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (HarperCollins), Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (Perennial/Harper, 1985; 1991), and The Light Around the Body (Harper, 1967), which includes poems about the Vietnam War. Bly's first published collection was Silence in the Snowy Fields (Wesleyan University Press, 1962). Poetry anthologies Bly has edited include The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1992), The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy (Ecco Press, 1995), and Best American Poetry 1999 (Scribners). He also is the author of The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford (Harper/Perennial, 1993);  Stafford was a mentor. 

Bly has translated the work of numerous Eastern, European, and South American poets, including Hafez, Kabir, MirabaiRainer Maria Rilke, Francis Ponge, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Jiminez, Antonio Machado, Norwegians Olav Hauge and Rolf Jacobsen, and Swedes Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekeloef, and Tomas Transtromer. His recent translations include Kabir: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2007), The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib (Ecco Press), written with so-in-law Sunil Dutta, and Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door (HarperCollins), a selection of Hafez poems. A more complete list of Bly's poetry collections, translations, essays, and anthologies and edited books is found here.

. . . one's task is not only to snap the picture,
but to develop it in a dark room. . . .
~ Robert Bly in Interview with Peter Johnson

In a space so constrained as this, one cannot begin to survey Bly's extraordinary output of poetry, his mastery of the ghazal form and the prose poem, his use of what has been called the "deep image", the sense of unstudied sonority about which so many reviewers comment, his ability to write in more than one distinct voice, the interior but also public/political-social landscapes he mines, the directness of his voice that at the same time can be intimate, even spiritual, in his "object" poems, the depth of his learning and knowledge, how he employs such themes as nature, grief, culture, politics. A first reading of his work often is insufficient to gather a full understanding of his similes, metaphors, allusions, and meanings, or even to appreciate his elegant style. Consequently, the brief excerpts I offer below are simply a few lines that speak to me.

Inside the veins there are navies setting forth
Tiny explosions at the water lines
And seagulls weaving in the wind of the salty blood.
~From "Waking from Sleep"

In the month of May when all leaves open,
I see when I walk how well all things
lean on each other, how the bees work,
the fish make their living the first day.
Monarchs fly high; then I understand
I love you with what in me is unfinished.
~ From "In the Month of May"

There is so much sweetness in children's voices,
And so much discontent at the end of day,
And so much satisfaction when a train goes by.

[. . . ]
A handsome child is a gift from God,
And a friend is a vein in the back of the hand,
And a wound is an inheritance from the wind. [. . .]
~ From "Living at the End of Time"

No teak, nor piracies of marble
Can match this pain,
Not diamonds nor thyme
Nor smoke of hyacinth
No emeralds reach this pain,
Which is gorgeous
Oh Abraham! More than choirs
Of teak or the owls of Spain.
"Living in the Fire" in Eating the Honey of Words

Asked by interviewer Paul Gordon* whether poetry can "save us from the error of our ways", Bly replied, "No. Poetry is a reminder. It's a small thing. But it insists on the important things in life. . . ."

The prolific Bly has published poems in a long list of literary periodicals, including Antioch Review, Chicago Review, Hudson Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ohio ReviewNew Republic, Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The Nation, Prairie Schooner, Texas Quarterly, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His honors include a 1968 National Book Award (for The Light Around the Body, 1967), the McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Award, Fulbright, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; and the 2008 Tomas Transtromer award for poetry.


All Poetry Excerpts © Robert Bly

Francis Quinn, Interview with Robert Bly at The Paris Review, No. 79 (This interview resulted from three days of talk with the poet. In it, Bly speaks about his earliest connections to poetry, his early poems, his work as an editor, the state of poetry in the late 1950s, the element of sound in his poetry, his translations, other poets, his work with men, and more.)

* Paula Gordon, Interview with Robert Bly, "Rhyme & Sense", Paula Gordon Show (An excerpt from this interview also can be found at The Cortland Review.)

Peter Johnson, Interview with Robert Bly, Poetry Daily (Bly here talks at some length about prose poems for which, he says, "no one has set up the standards yet"; his themes, his use of similes and metaphors, the Language movement, sound in his poetry, and more.)

Robert Bly Interview, "Robert Bly: The Best Poetry Is Always Religious", Today's Zaman, August 5, 2008

Robert Bly Books at HarperCollins Publishers Page

Robert Bly Poems Online (Scores of sites carry Bly's poems; I've listed just a few of them.): "Call and Answer", "The Night Abraham Called to the Stars", "Dawn", All on Bly's Website; "Two ramages for old masters" [also known as "Silent in the Moonlight"], "Advice from the Geese", "Poem for Andrew Marvell", and "The Greek Ships", All Audio-only at; "The Cat in the Kitchen", "Snowbanks North of the House", and "The Buried Train", All at Modern American Poetry; "Listening" and "Dawn" at Blue Flower Arts; "A Dream of Suffocation", "The Indigo Bunting", "In Danger from the Outer World", "Moving Inward at Last", and "It's Hard for Some Men to Finish Sentences", All at Fat Poetry Book; 14 Poems at Wisdom Portal (Also see Bly Poetry Reading and  Poetry Colloquium on same site.); 17 Poems at World Poetry Database; "Waking From Sleep", "Prayer for My Father", and "Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River", All at Poetry Out Loud; "People Like Us" at The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor; 4 Poems at Basho's Road; "Stealing Sugar from the Castle" at Great Mother and New Father Conference; "Poem in Three Parts" at Planet of the Blind; "People Like Us" at For the Earth Blog; "The Water Tank" at Grey Sparrow; "Wanting Sumptuous Heavens" at Poem of the Day; "The Parents Poem" at The Paris Review; "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last"; "The Cat in the Kitchen (for Donald Hall)" at Famous Poets and Poems; "In the Month of May" at Reckonings; "There Are So Many Platos" (excerpt) at Oxford Journals Literary Imagination; "Loon's Cry" (video) at OpenVault; "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter" at Poetry180; "Nirmala's Music" at The American Poetry Review; "Warning to the Reader" at The Prose Poem: An International Journal.

Robert Bly Profile on Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, August 31, 2007 (This site includes video and a transcript.)

Robert Bly Profile at Blue Flower Arts

Robert Bly Profile at Modern American Poetry

Robert Bly Profile at

Robert Bly Profile at Poetry Foundation (At least 20 of Bly's poems, in addition to a number of his translated poems, are published here.)

Robert Bly Profile at PoetryPoetry (This site includes audio recordings of Bly reading his poetry.)

Excerpt, Poems of Rumi by Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, at Better Listen!

Robert Bly's Eating the Honey of Words at GoogleBooks

Robert Bly's Lorca and Jimenea: Selected Poems at GoogleBooks

Robert Bly's Morning Poems at GoogleBooks (HarperCollins also has a browse feature for this book.)

Robert Bly's Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems at GoogleBooks

Robert Bly's The Night Abraham Called to the Stars at GoogleBooks

Robert Bly's Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke at GoogleBooks

Robert Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields on GoogleBooks

Robert Bly Annual Conference on the Great Mother and New Father

Laurie Hertzel, "The Poet Comes Home", Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 30, 2009

Article Compilation on Robert Bly at The New York Times

Joyce S. Brown, Review of Robert Bly's The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, Smartish Place

Kevin Bushell, "Leaping Into the Unknown: The Poetics of Robert Bly's Deep Image" at Modern American Poetry

Steve Karnowski, "Robert Bly Is Named Minnesota's First Poet Laureate", MPR News, February 27, 2008

Thomas Larson, Review of Robert Bly's American Poetry: Wildness & Domesticity (First Published in Poetry Flash, No. 214, January 1991)

James P. Lenfestey, "Robert Bly, William Duffy, James Wright and The Fifties", Poetry Daily (First Published in Great River Review, Spring/Summer 2010)

Richard Terrill, Review of Robert Bly's The Insanity of Empire

Minnesota Historical Society Author Biographies Project 

Minnesota Humanities Center Poet Laureate Page

Below is Bly's "Wanting Sumptuous Heavens" on MotionPoems. It is read by Bly. The animation is by Angella Kassube and the music by Tom Lieberman.

In the video below, Bly reads his famous "Call and Answer" (Robert Bly on YouTube):


Anonymous said...

Wonderful incursion into Bly's Norwegian wood. Bly was one of the poets I first read voraciously when the cicada of poetry re-emerged in my life. He also led me to Rilke, though I've since found much abler translators. I had my drum-banging Iron John period; also attended a conference on William Blake led by Bly, and had the delight of some long conversations with him. In a letter he once told me, "faithfulness to the wound is a road" and I've found that to be true. He's one of those rare poets whose entire life builds from the word. Thanks for this magnificent survey.

Louise Gallagher said...

This is magnificent Maureen -- and what a gift this morning to read Bly and listen to his voice and poetry.

Thanks my friend!

S. Etole said...

Such rich treasure here in my own state. Looking forward to checking out many of these links.

hedgewitch said...

Well presented and researched, and I'm very glad to have read it. Your series on the poets laureate is always interesting, frequently inspiring, and I always leave with more than I brought. This look at Bly is particularly rich for me.

signed...bkm said...

What a wonderful write on Bly...Minnesota is my home state so when I saw you post it - it was a must read....I loved the piece In the Month of is when the lilac comes to bloom in Minnesota and the smell is heavenly...and unforgettable....bkm

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

Maureen-- I had not seen your post on Robert. You did a beautiful job.



Lyle Daggett said...

Found this post through a link in your more recent post on Bly, in which you quoted from his most recent book Talking into the Ear of a Donkey.

I heard Robert Bly read this past May here in Minneapolis -- he read from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, and some of the translation and "versions" he's done of Kabir, Hafex, Rilke, and he also read a couple of poems by Yeats. He read accompanied by a man playing sitar or some similar instrument and a man playing hand drums, the sort of thing Bly has done in many readings over the years. It was in the main room of a Congregational church, and maybe a couple of hundred people attended -- the church has an ongoing program of poetry readings and lectures that generally draw large audiences. I enjoyed the reading.

One additional resource on Bly that I didn't spot listed here is a video, A Man Writes to a Part of Himself, made some years back, which is available through the Center for International Education (CIE) in St. Paul. (The above link is to the CIE webpage for the video. The main page of the CIE is here.) The CIE is the same place that produced the video of poet Roy McBride within the past year or two.

Thanks also for the corrections in your recent blogpost about Roy McBride.