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Walt Whitman told us that to have great poetry it is necessary to have great audiences. Successors have tried in various ways to teach Americans to become a greater audience during a century in which the poetry audience generally diminished.
Accordingly, poetry diversified (or as some would have it, fragmented). It simplified (or became flabby). It became more learned (or obscure). It became politically doctrinaire (or personally overwrought). Some poets stuck resolutely to a single path. Others went through successive phases of exploration (or even obsession) with various subjects, intentions, techniques or social movements.
Robert Bly, some would say, has done it all. But that’s only half the story. For more than 50 years, he has led readers first through poems directly generating deep feelings from deep images, then into prophetic examinations of the course of the nation, followed by complicated efforts to synthesize myth, psychology, neuroscience, religion, art and morality, then back into straightforward examination of human relationships. He also has immersed himself and his readers in the literatures of ancient and contemporary cultures. Besides translating, he repeatedly has demonstrated how the forms and aesthetics of other literatures can enrich American poetry.
In My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy, he brings it all togetherintegrating erudition, moral concern, introspection and passion.
Like Bly’s earlier The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, this book is a collection of ghazals. Ghazals originated in medieval Persia and have attained popularity throughout the Islamic world. They are most often brief meditations on love or mysticism. Readers of Rumi and Hafiz will recognize their broader range of subjects, and their aphoristic slant.
Ghazals are composed of individual couplets, usually with long lines (some commentators specify 18 syllables). Each couplet is separate from the others, both in form and meaning; connections between them are purely associative (though in a form called the nazm, direct connections can appear). The most prominent prosodic constraints are that couplets should end with identical words, and that the final couplet should include a self-identification by the poet (e.g., "Rumi says . . .").
Purists will object that Bly’s adaptations of the form are not ghazals at all. Feeling that longer lines lose rhythmic power in English, he has chosen to maintain the overall length of each stanza by using three shorter lines rather than two long ones. That works, as each stanza usually divides into two thoughts:
I’ve heard that the mourning dove never says
What she means. Those of us who make up poems
Have agreed not to say what the pain is.
Sometimes stanzas do not divide so neatly, but traditional ghazals frequently have more than two ideas to a couplet, too. The ghazal form seems natural for the kind of associative "leaping poetry" and epigrammatic tendency for which Bly has always been noted.
Only a few of his poems obey the end-word requirementa relief, since the device usually feels stilted in English ghazals. One of the great pleasures of reading Bly is the play of his language, in both its complexity and its simplicity. One poem’s refrain, "existence," transmutes a few pages later into "nonexistence." Sometimes there is no explicit refrain, but end-words link semantically, as in "A Poem for Andrew Marvell" where they all refer to finality.
As for the rule of self-identification, instead of proclaiming or asserting himself as spokesman, Bly addresses himself, sometimes chiding: "Robert, you’re close to joy but not quite there."
My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy is the work of " a farm boy / Who follows tracks that lead away from the tractor" through earthy images of animals, places, and music, history and literature, to pointed aphorisms and instructions: "Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days, / And cry over what is happening."
Grief, love, and joy are Bly’s main themes. His detractors sometimes deride his insistent attention to grief, and complain about his attacks on social cheerfulness. His expressions of joy have perhaps related less to experience than to mystical ecstasy. But his argument with our culture is now revealed as an argument with himself: "Robert, you’ve always been too cheerful; you too / Will not be forgiven if you refuse to study." He seems to have arrived at a rapprochement between true joy and essential grief.
The final poem says, "I don’t mind your saying I will die soon. / Even in the sound of the word soon, I hear / The word you which begins every sentence of joy."
Some readers are put off by Bly’s allusions to ancient and esoteric traditions. His poems seem ideally suited to reading with the book in one hand and the Internet by your side. (What’s the Baal Shem?) What an unlikely pairing, Bly and Google! Perhaps technology is ironically just what we need to enable that democratic audience Whitman hoped for. Bly’s passion for cultural syncretism expands our consciousness and incites our feelings toward broader learning, an expanded aesthetic, and greater responsibility. Where he goes, we can go.
John Calvin Rezmerski
reprinted from Minneapolis StarTribune