Robert Bly Collected Poems

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Beasts Made Sophisticated by Their Simplicity

I’ve been poking around Robert Bly’s bodaciously-big, newly-released Collected Poems, and enjoying his versatility. For instance, poems from his 1975 collection Morning Glory are descriptive gems that would have served as comfort food to Henry David Thoreau out in his cabin by the lake.

Of course, in our politically-fraught times, nature poems like these are frowned upon as self-indulgent (an irony I’d go on about if it weren’t another post entirely), so it’s a treat to find and savor them secretly. Examples:


The Porcupine in the Wind
for Galway Kinnell
by Robert Bly

In half-light, I make out a shape near a tree trunk—a half-grown porcupine! He hurries clumsily—like a steam shovel—up the tree. Six feet up, he decides he has gone far enough and he waits, occasionally looking at me over a half-turned shoulder. Stepping up, I look into his eye, which is black, with little spontaneity, above an expressionless nose. He knows little about climbing, and his claws keep slipping on the gray poplar bark. His body apparently feels no excitement anyway to be climbing higher, toward the immaterial sky: he can’t remember any stories he’s heard.

Sun already down. The white needle-fur stands out, something pre-Roman, next to the elegant bark. As I listen I become aware of a third thing, still older. It is the wind through miles of leafless forest.

Nota Bene: The sweetness in this piece kicks in when we hit the last line of the first paragraph: “he can’t remember any stories he’s heard.” A rather perfect way to depict an animal that has paused mid-climb, no? Then the second paragraph! That entry of a third, unexpected party “still older… the wind through miles of leafless forest.” I hope ole Galway enjoyed that something “still older” as much as I do. The wind. If you really listen to it, I mean.


A Caterpillar
by Robert Bly

Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four sponge-like pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around in the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily—or perhaps summer’s insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

Nota Bene: The simile takes me right out of the gate: “The head is black as a Chinese box.” Man, when a poem draws a parallel you’d never dream of, one that’s just right, you stand and applaud!


Opening the Door of a Barn I Thought Was Empty on New Year’s Eve
by Robert Bly

I walk over the fields made white with new snow and then open the double-barn doors: Sounds of breathing! Thirty steers are wandering about, the old barn partitions gone. Creatures heavy, shaggy, slowly moving in the dying light. Bodies with no St. Teresa look straight at me. The floor is cheerful with clean straw. Snow gleams in the feeding lot outside. The bony legs of the steers look frail in the pale light from the snow like uncles visiting from the city.

Dust and cobwebs thicken the windowpanes. The dog who came with me stands up on his hind legs to look over the wooden gate. Large shoulders watch him, and he suddenly puts his legs down, frightened. After a while, he puts them up again. A steer’s head swings to look at the dog; it stares for three or four minutes unable to get a clear picture from the instinct reservoir—then bolts.

But the steers’ enemies are asleep; the whole barn is asleep. The steers do not demand eternal life; they ask only to eat the crushed corn and the hay tasty with dust, and sometimes to feel an affection run down along the heavy nerves. Each steer has a lamp lit inside fluttering on a windy night.

Nota Bene: There’s something to that last paragraph, to the simplicity of the steer, as if they know something we don’t. They do not “demand eternal life” and find happiness in “crushed corn and the hay tasty with dust.” What’s more, they sometimes “feel an affection run down along the heavy nerves” as if such feelings are a gift to all animals, not just humans. But for my money, it’s the last line that resonates: the fact that each steer “has a lamp lit insider fluttering on a windy night.” Buddhist steer, anyone? And a life lesson in a beast made sophisticated by its simplicity?

Yes. I’ll have some of what Bly’s having.

Ditching Social Networks for Answering Poems

wang wei

By now it’s no news that social networks online are not only bad for you but bad for us (or should I say, “U.S.”?). If your new year’s resolution is to ditch the people who make you and your personal information their product (read: Facebook, Twitter, et al.), you might consider a more ancient form of social networking: the answering poem.

What, you ask, is an answering poem? Think of the telephone. You call a friend. He or she answers. Only it takes a bit of time, because your “call” takes the form of a poem, and your friend’s response takes the form of a responding poem.

Put them together and what have you got? Something the Earl of Sandwich, in a mood more reflective than mayonnaise, might like.

Answering poems are on my mind because I’ve been poking around in the new release, Robert Bly: Collected Poems, wherein we get some best hits from Bly’s various and (answering) sundry books. In his 1973 collection, Jumping Out of Bed, we find answering poems between Wang Wei and P’ei Ti, translated by Bly.

Let’s make like a party line and listen in:


“The Walnut Tree Orchards”

WANG WEI:  In the old days the serious man was not an “important
He thought making decisions was too complicated for
He took whatever small job came along.
Essentially he did nothing, like these walnut trees.

P’EI TI:  I soon found doing nothing was a great joy to me.
Look, you see, here I am! Keeping my ancient promise.
Let’s spend today just strolling around these walnut trees.
The two of us will nourish the ecstasies Chuang Tzu loved.


“The Hill of Hua-Tzu”

WANG WEI:  The birds fly away into the air that never ends;
the magnificence of fall comes back to the mountain.
Whenever I walk up or down Hua-Tzu hill,
my whole body feels confusion and inner suffering.

P’EI TI:  The sun goes down; there is wind sound in the pines.
Walking home I notice dew on the grass.
The white clouds look up at me from the tracks of my
The blue from the mountain touches my clothes.


“The Creek by the Luan House”

WANG WEI:  Autumn rain and sudden winds.
The water plunges, bouncing off the rocks.
Waves leap aimlessly over each other.
The white heron is alarmed and lands.

P’EI TI:  A man could hear the water-sound far off.
I walk down looking for the ford.
Ducks and egrets swim away, and then
veer back, longing to be near people.


“The Magnolia Grove”

WANG WEI:  The mountain receives the last sunshine of fall.
Flocks fly off following the first that leaves.
Occasionally something emerald flashes in the trees.
The evening dark has nowhere to settle down.

P’EI TI:  Settling down at dusk from the dome of light
bird voices get mingled with the river sounds.
The path beside the river winds off into the distance.
Joy of solitude, will you ever come to an end?


Of course, in 8th-century China, nature is front page news every day, as are the charms of doing nothing (known, philosophically, as “wu wei,” or “non-action”). This couldn’t be farther from where we are today, in the Realm of Instant Gratification, where we are conditioned to constantly check cellphones (read: “binkies”) for messages and “likes.”

Lord, what would Wang Wei and P’ei Ti make of what we’ve become? Nothing human, I’m guessing. Something that has evolved far away from what they knew in their day.

That said, if you want to try an answering poem with a fellow poet, it doesn’t have to be about nature. No. Subject matter is your call. And the response is your answering call.

And, here’s the pay-off: in doing so, neither of you are burning time on social networks or your addicting binkie—all good, as they say on the Hill of Hua-Tzu.