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Robert Bly: Shaping American Literature

Feb 8, 2017

Poet Robert Bly visited Antioch College in 1968, the same year he won the National Book Award for a collection called The Light Around the Body.

At Antioch, Bly read poems that were critical of the conflict in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson, and America’s consumer culture. That was standard subject matter for many poets in the late 60s. What made Bly’s reading unique were his translations of fifteenth and sixteenth century Japanese poets. He also shared traditional poems from Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These poems were very short—most of them haikus or haiku length.

The first of these translations was by the Japanese poet Issa, who found a cricket in his bed one evening:

Cricket, be careful!
I’m rolling over!

“That’s a whole poem,” Bly told the audience. “Don’t wait for anymore. That’s all.”

The audience seemed confused at first, but they soon caught on to the precise language and sense of humor. One translation was about two watermelons that the poet Issa had cooling outside in a tub. He worried that someone might steal them while he was away:

Now listen, you watermelons—
if any thieves come—
turn into frogs!

This is not to say that all the small poems were humorous. Bly’s translation of a piece by the Japanese poet Basho was more philosophical:  

How marvelous the man is
who when he sees a lightening flash
doesn’t think, “life is fleeting!’”
 

Robert Bly at Antioch College in 1968
Credit The Record courtesy of Antiochiana / Antioch College

And the traditional poems from Pashtun tribes used bawdy comedy and dark humor to convey their points.  “One of them goes like this,” Bly said.

Call it romance, call it love.
You did it. Now pull up the blankets,
I want to go to sleep

Bly followed that poem with this one:

I met the devil on a white horse.
“Where are you going?” I said.
‘To ruin your town!” he said.

Bly used a similar style in his own work—exact language, reverence for nature, and an understanding of the world around him—but instead of 15th century Japan or Pakistan, he often wrote about Midwestern America in the middle of the 20th century, like in the poem “When we are in love.”

When we are in love, we love the grass
and the barns and the light poles
and the small main streets abandoned all night.

Bly also read one of his more standard length and more popular poems—a piece about Ohio that feels as relevant today as it did 50 years ago and as timeless as Basho or Issa or Pashtun Tribes.  

Driving through Ohio

We slept that night in Delaware, Ohio:
A magnificent and sleepy country,
Oak country, sheep country, sod country.
We slept in a huge white tourist home
With National Geographics on the Table

North of Columbus there is a sort of torpid joy,
The slow and muddy river,
The white barns learning into the ground,
And houses with small observatories on top,
As if Ohio were the widows coast, looking over
the dangerous Atlantic.

Now we drive North past the white cemeteries
So rich in the morning air!
All morning I have felt a sense of death!
I am full of love, and love this torpid land.
Someday I will go back and inhabit again,
the sleepy ground where Harding was born.

Robert Bly lives in Minnesota. He turned 90 in December.

Rediscovered Radio is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.