Listen: Robert Bly Q and A (Kerr)-0582

MPR’s Euan Kerr sits down with poet Robert Bly, who discusses his book of ghazals called "My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy," as well as his varied and colorful career.

Minnesota poet Robert Bly has dedicated himself to exploring a poetic style developed in the Muslim world. The ghazal is like the Japanese poetry form, haiku, in that it has a few simple rules about length and form. And like the haiku, it can deliver powerful ideas about the world around us.

Bly is probably best known as the father of what he has called "the expressive men's movement," which he espoused in his 1990 bestseller, "Iron John: A Book About Men." He also published works in opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Bly discussed his new book, as well as his varied and colorful career.


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ROBERT BLY: Basically, you're given 36 syllables to say what you have to say on any given subject. And then the next stanza, you have to talk about something else. There are several other qualities to it. After you do your 36 syllables and change the emotional subject matter or the political subject matter, then in the completed ghazal, they do not rhyme, but every stanza ends with the same word.

So in this particular one called "My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy," the word joy ends each stanza. Well, it's very interesting because it's more attractive in a way than rhyme. Instead of waiting for a sound to appear, you wait for the strange word to appear, and then you know that the writer is going to have to do a little gymnastics in order to end the line with that.

So those are the two characteristics. I love both those two. And then it's sometimes also the habit is for the poet to refer to himself or herself in the last stanza. And I enjoyed that too. You say wild things for five or six stanzas and then the last stanza you have to take responsibility for it.


SPEAKER: Well, could you give us an example here and read a poem from the collection.

ROBERT BLY: "Stealing Sugar from the Castle." 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.

So by repeating joy twice in the first stanza, that's named. The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan of the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy.

And here's a stanza from "Beowulf." "Like a bird, we fly out of darkness into the hall, which is lit with singing and then fly out again. Being shut out of the warm hall is also a joy." That's such a wonderful image from Beowulf that human life is like coming in out of the snowy dark and coming into a hall singing and laughing and go out the other end. And human life is only an inch or two long.

"Like a bird, we fly out of darkness into the hall, which is lit with singing and then fly out again. Being shut out of the warm hall is also a joy. 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."

So the word "face" is capitalized. [? I'm thinking of ?] the troubadours and so on. "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."

Last stanza. "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."

SPEAKER: You draw on imagery from so many different sources from, as you mentioned, "Beowulf," but the Greek classics and very modern things too. And I've had the advantage here of hearing you read this poem, but how would you suggest a reader picking up this book approach this work?

ROBERT BLY: Well, it was interesting to me when I did this book, as well as the earlier one, which was called The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. There was 48 ghazals there, and this is 48 more. But my first work really was about nature, Silence in the Snowy Fields. It's about nature in Western Minnesota.

And then I noticed that these poems are no longer about nature, they're about culture. So the greatness of our own culture, the immense variety and beauty of Swift, and Hawthorne, and Plato and all of those characters, I love that kind of richness. And so I put everything in here. And if you don't recognize it, you're going to have to look them up.

SPEAKER: Well, I was struck last night that a determined person could probably blast their way through this book in an hour maybe. But really, this is a book that could take you years, decades to read.

ROBERT BLY: I'm glad to hear you say that because it took me a long time to write it, about 50 years in a way.

SPEAKER: How easily do these poems come to you?

ROBERT BLY: With many of the poems here, I wrote them listening to music. I'd be indoors, put on some music from Iran or something of the-- something from Spain, and then let the mind do what it wants to do. So about the 48 poems here, it took me 48 months, which is about one poem a month. At the same time, all that time I would get two or three stanzas of one poem and I couldn't continue anymore.

What am I going to have for the fourth stanza? I don't understand this whole thing. What is happening?

So as I say, it isn't like writing a poem through all the way. You stop, and you go back and you find out things. I'll read you one, shall I? The "Pistachio Nut?"


ROBERT BLY: God crouches at night over a single pistachio. That's outrageous. The vastness of the Wind River Range in Wyoming has no more grandeur than the waist of a child.

Haydn tells us that we've inherited a mansion on one of the Georgia Sea Islands. Obviously, I'm listening to Haydn. Haydn tells us that we've inherited a mansion on one of the Georgia Sea Islands. Then the last note burns down the courthouse and all the records.

There's that feeling at the end of a symphony. It's all gone. And this next stanza is really a tribute to David Whetstone, who plays the sitar. And I've seen the deep marks in his fingers from pressing down those strings.

Everyone who presses down the strings with his own fingers is on the way to heaven. The pain in the fingertips goes toward healing the crimes the hands have done. Let's give up the notion that great music is a way of praising human beings.

It's good to agree that one drop of ocean water holds all of Kierkegaard's prayers. Well, I got Kierkegaard in there. It's pretty hard to get him in the poem, really.


But the more you listen to really great music, you understand that pop music is a way of praising human beings. But genuine music is a way of praising something else. When I hear the sitar give out the story of its life, I know it is telling me how to behave while kissing the dear ones feet to weep over my wasted life.

Last stanza. Robert, This poem will soon be over. And you are like a twig trembling on the lip of the falls. Like a note of music, you are about to become nothing.


Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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