Robert Bly in Conversation

Here are some passages that resonated with me from the book Talking All Morning with Robert Bly, in the series Poets on Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press. Although Bly keeps referring to ‘he’ and ‘him’ when he talks about poets (typical of the late 1960s perhaps), I do agree to a large extent with his breakdown of poetic talent or craft.  

Let’s imagine the poem to be some kind of knife. The poet uses the poem to cut through the dead tissues in himself, and through certain filaments or sinews that are holding him to past patterns… But the poem can also be a two-edged knife, with two sharp edges. The whole thing moves like a pendulum and when the knife swings back, it swings away from the private and cuts into something public.

In Anglo-Saxon literary life we’ve always had the knife sharp only on one edge, with the other edge deliberately blunted, so that when it swung back into public life, it did not cut… It’s perfectly clear that Pasternak, by contrast, uses a two-edged knife…

Basho said, ‘To express the flavor of the inner mind, you must agonize during many days.’ That is a wonderful sentence! The purpose of it all is not to write long, endless poems, but to express the flavor of the inner mind… Two hours of solitude seem about right for every line of poetry.

The Japanese say the haiku is a poem in which there’s a tiny explosion inside – and if that’s not there, I don’t care how many syllables it has, then it’s not a haiku. And that little tiny explosion brings the life to this creature.


I dislike the word ‘craft’ when it comes to poetry. Craft suggest an inanimate object, as when we say a carpenter crafts a chest of drawers… Making the poem from the beginning involves three different areas of experience. The first … is interior… When the poet touches something for the first time, something far inside of him. It’s connected with what the ancients called The Mysteries… If any person comes near that experience he or she will never forget it the rest of his life. If he writes poetry it will come from that.

The second necessary stage… I would call something like cunning. And cunning involves the person’s rearranging his life in such a way that he can feel the first experience again. This is worldly and involves common sense… For Rilke… cunning meant finding long periods of solitude.

The third stage could be called ‘letting the animal live’… psychic energy. Living energy is more growing the tree than shaping it. In the US the emphasis on craft and technique comes too early, before the wood has been grown.

Taking care of animals is the best preparation for writing poems. When you write poems, you feed poems language. Instead of craft, I talk about ‘letting the creature live.

Advertisements

Layers in Poetry

She sits in laundry like a queen,

opinion keen on every scene.

Trois petits mois – allez hop, cancer de sein!

The jolt of the lymph node.

Drama teen of bilious skein

unraveled, stitch of strawberry roan

as playful as her foal still unweaned,

eyes aquiver, tears unshed,

jinks unsatiated.

 

Oh, dearie, don’t let the critter

fill you with jitter, nor meander

down the dreary pits.

She knelt down and sewed

a star of hope.

 

Claudia is asking us about multi-layered poetry over at dVerse Poets Pub. How do we build up the colour, texture, meaning of a poem? Poetry is all about allowing multiple truths, multiple meanings to coexist, to shimmer in uncertainty and marvel, but how do we craft that?

baumkuchen 1
German Baumkuchen, the original multilayered poem…

 

Here’s how I set about it in the example above. I started off with a simple word cloud prompt. I borrowed the first line from a previous poem of mine and formed sound associations for the main wordsor syllables in that line ‘sits’, ‘laun-dry’, ‘queen’. I came up with ‘seeds/fits/situation/jinks/snitch/pit/lit/critter’ and ‘dreary/meander/moan/roan/foal’ and ‘ream/seen/beam/skein/weaning/scene’. I picked the words that most appealed to me and continued to build on them with more conceptual associations this time, but I still had no idea what my ‘poem’ would be about. If there even was a poem lurking somewhere in all this.

A few hours later, I was waiting to board my flight at the airport and I heard three ladies behind me talking about a friend of theirs who had recently died of cancer. That planted the real seed of the poem in my mind and I played around with the words that would fit in with that idea. The first draft was quickly written, but it lacked that conversational tone that had sparked my inspiration. So from sound to content to tone, I hope that finally the poem is a little closer to the confusion, uncertainty, wish for hope that is always present around the C word.

It will need a few more iterations and layers before it’s halfway finished, though…