An Alphabet of Poets – B is for Bly

To celebrate National Poetry Month I am featuring a new poet for each day of April. I will be at my abecedarian best and go through the alphabet from a to z, followed by 4 random choices!


The Roof Nail

A hundred boats are still looking for shore.
There is more in my hopes than I imagined.
The tiny roof nail lies on the ground, aching for the roof.
Some little bone in our foot is longing for heaven.

Robert Bly from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, Norton, 2011


Too outspoken to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s what a friend said to me a few months ago about Robert Bly.  True, perhaps. And what my friend said about Bly and the Nobel Prize could equally apply to Bly as a potential candidate for the appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate.  But his outspoken, iconoclastic nature is no reason to ignore this extraordinary American poet, writer of socio-psychological best sellers including Iron John and The Sibling Society, social and anti-war activist, public intellectual, translator and leader of the so-called expressive men’s movement. 

Bly’s influence on poetry in the English-speaking world during the last half of the 20th C  has been unparalleled. Not only did he shake up the US poetry scene with his magazines, The Fifties, The Sixties and The Seventies but he has been a leader in translating some of the world’s great international poets (including Rilke, Neruda, Rumi, Hafez, Machado, Lorca) into English, a number of whom have gone on to win the Nobel prize, including, most recently, Tomas Transtromer. And Rumi, the great 13th Century Sufi poet, and now one of the best-selling poets in North America owes much of his popularity to Bly who encouraged Rumi’s most prolific translator, Coleman Barks, to take on that task back in 1976.

Whatever you call Bly, a cultural Jeremiah, a rogue shaman, a querulous ecstatic or a combative public intellectual  his poems and writings always are a poke in the eye of power and spiritual complacency.  Bly’s poems defy easy definitions but even at their simplest they have a mysterious, surreal quality soaked in a spiritual sensitivity as illustrated in his recent poem The Roof Nail. which also illustrates his use of the so-called “deep image”.

In a essay in the American Poetry Review (APR) last year just before Bly’s 85th birthday, Tony Hoagland quotes Bly: “When a poet creates a true image he is gaining knowledge; he is bringing into consciousness a connection that has been forgotten, perhaps for centuries.
Bly has been deeply influenced by other poetic traditions ((Spanish, Sufi, Persian, Arabian and Indian) which freely use ecstatic, imagistic leaps. In particular Bly has specialized an Americanized version of the Persian ghazal form. Here are two wonderful examples from his latest book published last year, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey:

Longing For The Acrobat

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

I don’t know why the rooster keeps on crying,
Nor why the elephant lifts his knobby trunk,
Nor why Hawthorne kept hearing trains at night.

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.

Some say we are living at the end of time,
But I believe a thousand pagan ministers
Will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.

There’s nothing we need to do about Saint John.
Whenever he laid his hands on earth
The well water was sweet for a hundred miles.

Everywhere people are longing for a deeper life.
Let’s hope some acrobat will come by
And give us a hint how to get into heaven.


Nirmala’s Music

The music that Nirmala is playing today goes
By two names: The One who Finds Lost Things,
And the One Through Whom Everything is Lost.

Tigers go on eating people in the Forest
Of Existence. The God’s agree to this. Saints
Admire whiskers that have been dipped in blood.


Women with their newly washed hair, the souls
Born again and again into sleek, fresh bodies,
Boards leaning against a barn…what doe sit all mean?

Men think ahead, and are mainly providential.
They laid our Egypt. But I like women so much.
They say: “Let the lambs come and be killed.”

And women suffer the most. Between every child born,
So many rugs are woven and taken apart. The water
Of a hundred bowls is poured out on the ground.

The hungry tigers follow the disappearing dogs
Into the woods of life. Women understand this,
For this is a world in which everything is lost.

These late poems characterize so well what Hoagland states: Bly’s own late work still insists upon the actuality of the transcendental and the central importance of what Keats called soul-making.”

Last words to Hoagland who says this in his conclusion to his APR essay:
In his lifetime Robert Bly has introduced more energy, ideas, and technique into American poetry than can be measured. In a different America, or in an era in which politics, art and spirituality were not segregated, Bly would have been a natural pick for poet laureate…”



  1. Posted May 10, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Greetings, I have been working on a film on Bly for three years. Pls take a look at our trailer and campaign to finish the film. Pls consider a donation and spreading the word about the film. Films on poetry are rare and we’re trying to make something very special. Many thanks, Haydn Reiss

  2. Richard
    Posted May 10, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Dear Hayden: Braco. Long overdue. Thank you. Please email me. Thanks, Richard

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