An Interview with Robert Bly

Part 10. New Poems

Interviewer: For at least three years you have been composing poems in a form related to the Islamic ghazal. I think this issue of the Paris Review includes two of these poems, and there are others recently in the New Republic and Poetry and Atlantic Monthly. Would you talk about those poems?

Robert Bly: A son-in-law of ours, Sunil Dutta, who was born in Jaipur, asked me to help him a few years ago to translate some poems of the Indian poet Ghalib, who lived in the 19th century and wrote in Urdu, which is a mixture of Persian and Hindi. I resisted doing more translations, but finally we got to work and finished thirty of his ghazals. Ghalib is wicked. He says:

Their funeral date is already decided,
But still people complain they can't sleep.

The ghazal form, which usually contains from three to fifteen stanzas, has two remarkable characteristics. The poet can change the landscape in each stanza. One sher or stanza can be a love poem, the next can be wisdom literature, the third a complaint about the poet's private life.

A second characteristic is that the poet never states the subject of the poem. In our tradition the poet may start, "Come live with me and be my love," and he or she will stay with that argument. A poem may begin: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Frost will add anecdotes, arguments, images until the subject is fulfilled.

Interviewer: But Frost brings many moods into a single poem?

Robert Bly: He does, yes. We know that Frost believes there's some force in the universe that wants walls to come down. That conviction is deeply inside Frost. But also deeply inside Frost is a sense that we are somehow abandoned and left to live in a really lonely, dangerous universe. Also inside Frost is the recognition that a feeling of connection between two people may be so strong that when they walk up a mountain, the buck that looks at them will feel it. Those perceptions are spoken out in three separate poems in Frost; but in the ghazal tradition, all three of those would go inside the same poem.

Interviewer: So I gather the reader has more to do. When the theme of the poem is not stated, that leaves more work for the listener. Probably it encourages him or her to listen a little more carefully than we might when the poem is recited.

Robert Bly: Yes, that's true. The language of the ghazal is deliberately complicated as well. In general, the ghazal belongs to a cultured poetry with many references to other poems and poets. Each image is an exaggeration, one might say, which suggests the opposite. So the ghazal stanza provides a kind of chamber in which opposite things can be said.

Interviewer: Did the ghazal poem come out of an aristocratic world?

Robert Bly: The word "ghazal" means love poem, and it seems to have started as a love poem in Arabic. The form was elaborated by the Persians. The ghazal was developed still farther in the twelfth century in Persia and in India. But the form is still used all over the Islamic world. Some of this poetry comes from Sufis who don't own anything. Sanai says, "If you can't go without food for five days, stop bragging about being a Sufi." So that's not aristocratic. It's not common, either. What are you asking about this poem?

Interviewer: Well, I think the ghazals you've mentioned assume a lot of learning.

Robert Bly: That's true, they do. We need more poems like that. What's the use of having a rich literary and cultural past, and then ignoring it?

Interviewer: So the ghazal is not free verse.

Robert Bly: Not at all! I've mentioned that the ghazal often makes a leap to a new subject matter with each new stanza; that is itself a form of wildness. The ghazal has massive forms of discipline, however, as if to balance that wildness. For example, there is the radif element. The first two lines announce a radif word such as "night" or a word meaning "enough for us." Every couplet in the poem will end with that same word. The interesting thing is that whenever "night" arrives, it is as if a whole world comes with that word. In this way, it's a little different than rhyme. Hafez has a poem in which the repeating Persian word can be translated as "enough for us." "The shadow of a tall cypress in a meadow is enough for us." And then he goes on and says things like, "You have seen the cash flow and the world's suffering. / If that profit and loss is not enough for you, for us it's enough." And by "us" he's referring to a whole community, so that in a way, the community appears each time the line ends: "for us it's enough." The reader knows that a word is going to be repeated, and is delighted to see that it's slightly different in each of the couplets. There is some rhyming too, and of course meter as well, but the radif is the most unusual element to us.

Interviewer: I've know that you've memorized most of your poems. Would you recite a new one?

Robert Bly:

Some love to watch the sea bushes appearing at dawn,

To see night fall from the goose's wings, and to hear
The conversations the night sea has with the dawn.

If we can't find Heaven, there are always bluejays.
Now you know why I spent my twenties crying.
Cries are required from those who wake disturbed at dawn.

Adam was called in to name the Red-Winged
Blackbirds, the Diamond Rattlers, and the Ring-Tailed
Raccoons washing God in the streams at dawn.

Centuries later, the Mesopotamian gods,
All curls and ears, showed up; behind them the Generals
With their blue-coated sons who will die at dawn.

Those grasshopper-eating hermits were so good
To stay all day in the cave; but it is also sweet
To see the fenceposts gradually appear at dawn.

People in love with the setting stars are right
To adore the baby who smells of the stable, but we know
That even the setting stars will disappear at dawn.

The writer jumps on a new horse with each stanza, one could say. But then the rider gets off the horse at the end of every stanza and takes the reader's hand. It makes for a wildness that still has care for the reader, almost courtesy.

Interviewer: You decided to change the usual two-line Persian stanza to a three-line stanza. Why did you do that?

Robert Bly: The line that poets use most often in both Persian and Arabic tends to be sixteen or eighteen syllables. So if you have two eighteen-syllable lines, you really have thirty-six syllables. By contrast, the typical line in English, in the sonnets, for example, is ten syllables. A line in English becomes unwieldy if it's extended into eighteen syllables. If one adopts three eleven- or twelve-syllable lines, you end up with about thirty-six syllables. I think the Islamic writers felt that thirty-six syllables is a useful and completed unit of expressiveness. That's why I went to three lines.

Interviewer: I think the new poem is terrifically interesting. The poem also suggests some way that wildness can stay with us as we get older. Perhaps the ghazal's particular merging of wildness and form is more appropriate to a 70-year-old than to a 20-year-old.

Robert Bly: It's good of you to say that.