The purple waistcoat, straining more than a little toward the bottom buttons, was fashioned of fine gleaming silk. The red cravat hung loosely down from his neck. The hat, a beaver skin without the tail, from Minnesota he told me, the city he called home, perched on a flock of white curls that fell loosely around his ears. A persistent London drizzle made most passers-by hunch their shoulders and tug at their lapels. Robert Bly stood his full six feet, his ample chest challenging the weather to cow him.
He had, after all, recently become the best-selling author of Iron John, the book that did much to launch the men's movement when it was published in 1990. He had been a cult phenomenon for years in the States, where he had already moved through several lives, notably that of the anti-Vietnam war figure, the unruly and brilliant poet, ever the rebel and iconoclast, always too wild to take the usual poet's career route of a safe seat in some university.
But we were in London now, where I had invited him to come and recite his poetry in those gruff and rumbling tones that originated somewhere below his belly. That, he said, would be on the third reading of a poem, when I mentioned my appreciation of that trademark gravelly deliverance. The first, more cerebral reading would usually come from somewhere behind the eyes; the second, he would say, from the heart. But the third reading, down there in the depths, or so he liked to think, incorporated all three, and would issue from his bear-like body like a decipherable yet distant thunder.
Relatively few people had known of him in London before the publication of Iron John. That was the book that moved him from a cult figure to a cultural phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic, and gave his poetry and translations the room and the air they needed to be fully appreciated for what they are -- great songs of the soul in all its colors -- despair, longing, love, melancholy, ecstasy, silence -- spiritual sustenance in a secular age.
That's what I wanted him to share with the English public, unfamiliar as it was not only with his poetry but with purple waistcoats and what I sometimes thought of as gruff and guttural throat-singing. But the English always love a character, as they call someone with more than the usual dose of eccentricity. Bly is not only a character, he is a character with brilliant and penetrating intellect, and that combination is a sure thing in England.
They took to him in droves; took to his informal recitals, complete with ukulele and three repetitions of the same poem, as a long overdue contrast to those readings where someone stood before an audience and bored them to tears for an hour. When you went to hear Bly, you went to an electric performance, not a reading. I brought him back every year for several years, and grew to love him, despite his frequent scowl, his occasionally diminishing and irritated responses to participants in the men's groups I also organized for him there; despite his sudden changes of mind and mood, his deep inscrutability.
I came to see the complexity, the tenderness, the fragility even, of a character who could often strike people as formidable or daunting. Once he took me to the home of a Persian Sufi Sheikh somewhere in London -- after all, Bly is the translator not only of the great Spanish poets, Machado, Lorca, Jimenez, but also of the Sufi mystics, Hafez, Rumi, Kabir -- and there we both were, in that room full of Persians, sitting with glass cups of tea before us, chanting the zikr, the names of God, the tears rolling down Bly's face as he swayed from side to side. No wonder so much of his work, both his own and his translations, is fuelled by a deep longing that no words can adequately convey.
It was Bly who first brought me to those great Sufi poets; Bly the inspiration for my reciting them publicly. Ultimately it was Bly's inspiration that, when I had moved to the States, led me to write about them and also contemporary voices like Mary Oliver, in Ten Poems to Change Your Life, the first of several books I came to write on poetry.
On the one hand, his own poems convey a poignant honesty and humor -- the poem Wanting More Applause at a Conference begins with these two lines:
It's something about envy. I won't say I'm envious,
But I did have certain moods when I was two.
And on the other, they carry a deep tenderness, an abiding awareness of our brief span here on earth; a rich spiritual sensibility that can appreciate and feel the touch of spirit on the body. I have loved his poem The Third Body since I first heard him recite it that first year he came to London. Like the touch of ice, it gives off an unusual heat, for all its apparent quiet and coolness. Nothing happens between the couple in the poem; and yet, in the silence between them, everything happens:
A man and a woman sit near each other;
As they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
Someone we know of, whom we have never seen.
And now he is 86, frail, rarely seen in public, the bluster and bravado gone, the spirit as present as ever. And this week Robert Bly, a comet through the sky of American poetry, was finally was awarded America's greatest honor in poetry, The Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Foundation of America. A film, News of the Universe, is being made about his life. Thank you Robert, for your life, your work, your words, your purple waistcoat, your irrepressible spirit.