Excerpts granted copyright privilege by Robert Bly and White Pine Press.
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Legendary Poet Robert Bly:
The Chinese Connection
Like The New Moon, I Will Live My Life
Robert Bly’s 23rd poetry collection Like The New Moon, I Will Live My Life was published on March 24, 2015 by White Pine Press.
Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life is 218 pages of 171 poems divided into fifteen sections from Bly’s fifteen out-of-print books, chapbooks, and uncollected work spanning 53 years:
A Private Fall 1995
Angels of Pompeii (with Stephen Brigidi) 1991
Gratitude to Old Teachers 1993
Holes the Crickets Have Eaten in Blankets 1997
In The Month of May 1984
Jumping Out Of Bed 1973
Old Man Rubbing His Eyes 1975
Out of the Rolling Ocean 1984
The Apple Found in the Plowing 1989
The Lion’s Tail and Eyes: Poems Written Out of Laziness and Silence 1962
The Loon 1977
The Moon on a Fencepost 1988
The Urge to Travel Long Distances 2005
This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years 1979
Turkish Pears in August and other Ramages 2007
Robert Bly has sixteen additional poetry collections not included in Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life:
Silence in the Snowy Fields
The Light Around The Body
Sleepers Joining Hands
This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopher Wood
The Man in the Black Coat Turns
Loving a Woman in Two Worlds
Selected Poems 1986
What Have I Ever Lost by Dying?: Collected Prose Poems
Meditations on the Insatiable Soul
Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems
The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War.
The Night Abraham Called To The Stars
My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy
Talking into the Ear of a Donkey
Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013.
Robert Bly first came on the poetry scene in 1956 when he won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to travel to Norway to translate Norwegian poetry.
Robert Bly at Harvard in 1951
Robert Bly at Harvard in 1951
While there in Norway, he discovered Pablo Neruda, and was influenced by Neruda’s protean poetry.
Pablo Neruda in 1963.
The protean poetry’s definition is a mixture of scientific and poetic meanings – it is usually an ameba (an eukaryotic organism) having the ability to change in shape, form, or characters. An example of an eukaryotic organism is the mushroom, which is the focus of Bly’s below poem:
Mushroom Painting by Jan Voerman Jr Russula in 1952
Picking Mushrooms in Late Summer in the Western
Half of the Island of Runmaro with Tomas Transtromer
The mushrooms loom in the grass like extremely stupid
They are skies from which parachutes never fall.
From us, too, sometimes a poem falls, sometimes not.
Delighted to be together, we are out in the summer woods,
Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer
“Picking Mushrooms” meets the criteria of a protean poem in many ways: mushrooms change personalities – first it is an individual’s stupid faults, then it is the skies that prevent the parachutes (in the form of poems) to fall, only to change back to the literal mushroom – where two poets pick mushrooms not only to eat, but a symbolic act of their friendship.
Tomas Transtromer and Robert Bly
The poem exemplifies the elements of protean poetry by combining the humor and the serious without diminishing the quality of the other. The humor is that even though these two poets have stupid thoughts in the form of skies that prevents poetry from being birthed, they are still able to write poetry, allowing the poetry to fall like seed in the woods, where the seeds represent their friendship, which is expressed by the intimate act of picking mushrooms in the summer woods.
Bly’s most dominant influences as a poet are the Chinese poets that he encountered in the 1960s: through the translations of Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Payne’s anthology on Chinese poets.
Pierre Stephen Robert Payne
This discovery was so prevalent in Robert Bly’s life that he stated in a 1968 interview: “The ancient Chinese poetry still seems to me the greatest poetry ever written.”
Robert Bly and his two daughters Bridget and Mary in the 1960s.
Thomas Smith wrote the introduction to Like The New Moon, I Will Live My Life.
In the introduction, “Robert Bly’s Less-Traveled Road”, Smith describes two-thirds of the 171 poems as having the same elements as the great Chinese poets that Bly so aptly admires and adheres to: freedom in spaciousness, space around the words, space making it possible for the reader to read the poem and inhabit that space, phenomena being observed both outside and inside the poet, and the informality and spontaneity of the Chinese-influenced style.
"Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaczong.
Part of the John B Elliot Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
given to the Museum as a bequest of John M. Crawford Jr in 1988
“In Bly’s Chinese-style poems, an essentially meditative consciousness affirms the importance of work, solitude, and acceptance of grief and suffering to spiritual well being. These poems collectively suggest a practice for maintaining spiritual wholes in physically dismembering times when wide-spread “death-mother” energy claims many victims.”
Ancient Chinese poets express their emotions by fusing their feelings into external objects, which could be described as imagery, but not image. Image refers to concrete physical objects where as imagery refers to the fusion of the poets’ subjective feelings with objective scenes. In ancient Chinese poetry, a poem is usually composed of several imageries, which the poet uses to arouse emotional associations and, at the same time, to enrich their poetic context.
15th Century Painting inspired by Daoism "Poetry On a Mountaintop"
In most of Robert Bly’s poems there is the imagery of birds, water, trees, snow, bones, and rocks. It is through these imageries that Bly is able to encounter isolation, solitude, the acceptance of grief and suffering while at the same time experience some form of spiritual well-being even if it is in the simple recognition of sorrow and unwanted change.
An example of this sorrow and unwanted change while at the same time appreciation for humanity is Bly’s “Poem for James Wright” dedicated to James Wright, a fellow poet who was also influenced by the Chinese poets.
Poem for James Wright
When I read your lines
I sometimes see, like
Hair on the back of hands,
Grown out from between words.
In Guam. The surviving
Brothers drift on rafts
Scattered on the ocean,
Like the ocean-
People, going with the currents,
By one or two palm leaves
Shaped like ears.
You put your elegant
Language skiff into the brine,
As if to say, The octopus
Living in the grenade shell
Is still beautiful.
James Wright and Robert Bly
Moon and insects are perhaps the most popular symbolisms used in Chinese poetry and Bly uses them expertly in “Night Farmyard” where horses and chickens and perhaps humanity are symbolized by the bark of a cottonwood tree on a journey that ends at the moon.
Painting "Moonlight Sonata" by R.A. Blakelock in 1892
The horse lay on his knees sleeping,
A rat hopped across the scattered hay
And disappeared under the henhouse.
There the chickens sat in a stiff darkness.
Asleep they are like the bark fallen from an old cottonwood.
Yet we know their soul is gone, risen
Far into the upper air above the moon.
Bly continues the connection between death and the moon and newness in “For My Brother, a Year After His Death.”
"Two Men Contemplating The Moon" by Caspar David Friedrich
For My Brother, a Year After His Death
Last night, full moon, I walked the roads
where we played-
Walking between the plowed fields, silent and alone.
I thought of you, seeing black earth
Show clear above the new fallen snow.
Like riverbanks, above water, or the chest of
In “Insect Heads” insects experience death but their final destination is not the moon but another life through reincarnation.
Adult female Iris Oratoria performs a fluffing threat display, rearing
back with the forelegs or wings spread and mouth opened
These insects, golden
And Arabic, sailing in the husks of galleons,
Their octagonal heads also
Hold sand paintings of the next life.
In “Silence” the insect this time a bug takes on the same quest as humans – that of the continuous search.
Adult Box Elder Bug. Attributed to Bruce Martin CCASA 2.5 Generic
Something homeless is looking on the long roads-
A dog lost since midnight, a small duck
Among the odorous reeds,
Or a tiny box-elder bug searching for the windowpane.
Excerpt, Page 27
In “Wind” the grasshopper takes on the persona of an individual that either commits suicide or takes a big risk in life in order to live to the fullest, depending on the reader’s interpretation.
The grasshopper on the cliff
Recklessly, two hundred feet above the water!
Insects take on the form of life in “Women We Never See Again.”
Moths hatched in winter disappear behind books.
Excerpt, Page 85
In “Walking Where the Plows Have Been Turning” crickets exemplify being at peace, something us humans have been trying to do since the beginning of time.
There is a hum-ming in my body, it is jealous of no one. The cricket lays its wings one over the other, a faint whispery sound rises up to its head . . . which it hears . . . and disregards . . . listening for the next sound. . .
Excerpt, Page 93
In “Gnats”, the insect gnat takes on a ghost like identity constantly in the state of change.
This cloud of gnats resembles
Shape, lifts or sinks.
They are too excited –
They can’t be feeding.
So few days to live
And they spend it this way!
Bly, in his poem “A Moth with Black Eyes”, depicts the moth as having the capability of incest, which can be jarring for the reader, until the reader learns about the Navajo legend, a departure from the Chinese connection, that helps explain the poem’s meaning.
The Navajo legend tells the story of the male butterfly god Begochidi, who leads the butterfly people and has sexual relations with both the males and females. Soon Begochidi leaves the country and the butterfly people decide to commit incest instead of have sex with outsiders to produce. This causes the butterfly people to go insane, which explains, why moths have the tendencies to rush into flames.
“A Moth with Black Eyes” could also refer to the Chinese folklore of moths – that the moth or butterfly is actually the souls of loved ones who have died coming to visit those that still live. The soul of the individual who has died is not ready to move onto the next world, which explains their restlessness and why the moth flies in a hesitant manner, particularly in fire.
It is the speaker of the poem, a writer, telling of his experience of the moth climbing up his left arm, left hand, thumb, and finally his chest. The moth becomes a great many of things: a messenger for the other world, a human in disguise, simply an insect communicating with another species. However one interprets this poem, one thing cannot be denied: the sense of humanness in everything.
A Moth with Black Eyes
A moth climbs down the sleeve of my sweater onto my left hand, as I write with the other. He waits there, among all the lamplit hairs. Then his antennae begin to move, as if a band were starting down the street, and he moves swiftly up my thumb – reaching the end, he turns around and goes back, and up the chest of my brown sweater.
Lamplight falls on his compressed, intense body, so self-contained, free of the longing for incest. How far he is out on the plain! His head is a haystack of brown fur, a hatrack with two mad gleaming eyes in front, and witchlike wands going out to either side, to poke into the other world, and see what the eyes cannot see.
And my big moving chest, what is it! I scratch the side of my nose, and a shadow falls across the chest. Outside the night goes on, on all sides into November, children are sitting near each other, on sofas, waiting for supper . . .
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Robert Bly at a book singing for LTNM,IWLML on April 15, 2015
This is lovely, thank you for sharing these thoughts and pictures. Robert Bly has been my favorite poet since I read his first three books in the 60's and 70's. I danced with him once, in awe, at Centrum. I saw him read in Missoula at a time of his full power and energy, with his masks, in full voice. All that stays with me. The moon on the fencepost to me signifies the essence of him. I think that Teeth Mother Naked at Last is a poem of such power and passion and truth and sheer poetic mastery and skill that it ranks with the very best poems of the last 2 centuries, yet so few people know it. But those who do, cherish poems like this, and him. --Leslie McClintockReplyDelete