Movies Robert BlyPoetry in film, now there’s a small sub-genre of the movie world. Hayden Reiss‘s long labor of love, Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy, sets a great example for others to follow. A well chosen collage of archival footage of Bly, talking and reciting to audiences small and large, interviews with fellow poets and family members, and lovely shots of snow, water, leaves, fields as we hear poems being read makes a very good introduction to the man, and the importance he had to American poetry from the 1950s to this day.

The film starts with a fine jolt.  This is a movie about a poet, right?  He was awarded the National Book Award in 1968 for his poems, Light Around the Body.  He stands to speak at the ceremony.  What does he talk about? Poetry? Yes, but little.  This is how he begins:

“I am uneasy at a ceremony emphasizing our current high state of culture. Cultural events, traditionally, put writers to sleep, and even the public. But we don’t want to be asleep any more. Something has happened to me lately. Every time I have glanced at a bookcase in the last few weeks, the books on killing of the Indians leap out into my hand. Reading a speech of Andrew Jackson’s on the Indian question the other day — his Second Annual Message — I realized he was the Westmoreland of 1830. His speech was like an Administration speech today. It was another speech recommending murder of a race as a prudent policy, requiring stamina. Perhaps this coincidence should not have surprised me, but id did. It turns out we can put down a revolution as well as the Russians in Budapest, we can destroy a town as well as the Germans at Lidice, all with our famous unconcern.”  Read all 

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I first became aware of Bly as a translator, later as a poet. His small western Minnesota poetry periodical The Fifties preceded and then joined the many self and sweat published magazines, broadsides and tracts, political and poetical of the growing counter culture.  Sassy and irreverent towards academic poetry of the time, Bly and fellow editor Bill Duffy, searched for, found and translated poets far away from the dominant language and culture of the English speaking world.  He introduced many readers to Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Thomas Transtromer as well as fresh American voices like Gary Snyder, James Wright and David Ignatow. The Fifties became The Sixties and later The Seventies. It was always exciting to see a new cover in the bookstores. [Contents and reprints available, here.]

As the American war in Vietnam, and protests against it, heated up, his great late-60s work, The Teeth Mother Naked at Last was always in my jacket pocket.  I would take it out at the least invitation and read passages aloud, one of which proved the tipping point for a young man considering draft resistance.  I read the poem at his trial, to twelve jurors honest and true.  He was acquitted.

Bly himself was jailed at least once.  A snip of him in prison orange is included in Reiss’s film, likely for a civil disobedience action against the large Minnesota defense corporation Honeywell.

It was for his poetry though that he became well known, or perhaps more, for his readings of poetry.  Breaking through the stylistics of meaningful, mournful, static readings, Bly waved his arms, stopped and re-read lines he liked, lifted his voice and let it sing.  As he encountered the mystics of Persia and India,  Hafez and Rumi, Kabir and Ghalib he began to add Indian and Middle-Eastern musical instruments to his readings.  Not since Dylan Thomas’s fabled tours of American ladies’ clubs in the early 1950s had any poet had such an effect on his readers — and always of joy, ebullience.  Even when reading terrible lines like these he does not harrangue. His voice lifts, carries, invites listening.

Blood leaps on the vegetable walls.  
Yes, I know, blood leaps on the walls—
Don’t cry at that—
Do you cry at the wind pouring out of Canada?
Do you cry at the reeds shaken at the edge of 
	the sloughs?
The Marine battalion enters.
This happens when the seasons change,
This happens when the leaves begin to drop from the 
	trees too early 
"Kill them: I don’t want to see anything moving."
This happens when the ice begins to show its teeth in 
	the ponds   [Teeth Mother Naked at Last]

Reiss’ A Thousand Years of Joy — the title is an elision of the title of a 2005 collection of Bly’s poems, and the last line of the last poem: “My sentence was a thousand years of joy” –has done a very good job introducing Bly to a new public, and reminding old fans of his importance.  Short interviews with friends like poets Phillip Levine, James Wright, Jane Hirshfield and even the actor Martin Sheen speak of the deep affection people have for him, and the multiple, overlapping interests of his life.

Not only did he translate and write poetry.  As the women’s movement grew, and triggered by a painful divorce from his wife Carol,  he began to investigate his own, and others’ feelings of manhood.  Through Jungian investigations and his long interest in myths and poetic understandings of experience he formulated ideas about how modern men have been separated from the age-old coming-of-age experiences that shaped earlier men.  He embarked on a series of men’s gatherings to explore ritual and reconnection with the essential self.  Several books came from this, including  Iron John: A Book About Men (1990) and The Sibling Society (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

The movie lets us see some of this, as well as some of the push-back he got from feminists.

The archival material of Bly reading during many moments of his life are a real find.  Some show him in full flavor, hair alight, arms gesturing, facial gestures underlining or countering the words.  Many readings have instrumental accompaniment while still others are his voice only while very nicely curated selections of snow, autumn, leaves and water are shown.  The over all effect is informative, lively and sympathetic.  An introduction, not an analysis and not a critical look; an appreciation, which for those interested will be followed by more reading of the man and his work.

Reiss comes to this film with several others preceding it, in fact leading directly to it.  When he first approached Bly about making a short movie Bly said yes, but only with his friend and fellow poet, William Stafford. The result was the 2009  Every War Has Two Losers, [trailer here] based on Stafford’s book of the same name, writings and interviews about his refusal to fight in WW II.

Reiss had earlier produced another short documentary called Rumi, Poet of the Heart.

Look for Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy at your local theaters, or buy a copy of the DVD and have a screening for friends.  It will be 90 minutes well spent.

More YouTube of Robert Bly.

And Bly’s own site is here.

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