Thursday, December 21, 2006

Celebrating Robert Bly

My sister Jane Ciabattari is a distinguished fiction writer and journalist ( . She is on the National Book Critics Circle's board of directors and blogs for their "Critical Mass" ( With her permission, I am reprinting her blog about Robert Bly's 80th birthday celebration Dec. 18 in NYC. Please visit that site and comment!


"Robert Bly, who attended his first poetry reading in 1953 at the 92nd Street Y,was back at the Y Monday night, on stage this time, for an evening celebrating his eightieth birthday, his poetry, his translations, his friendships, his long marriage, his family, his legions of mentees and supporters. The Y's 'Tribute to Robert Bly,' was coproduced by Alison Granucci and Blue Flower Arts.

"Gioia Timpanelli, writer and a founder of the worldwide revival of storytelling, spoke of her 30-year friendship with Bly and kicked off the evening with renditions of two of his favorite stories. Not surprisingly, they were magical and mysterious tales featuring creatures with trickster talents.

"Donald Hall read Where We Must Look for Help, from Bly's 1962 first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, ('the crow, the crow, the spider-colored crow, the crow shall find new mud to walk upon.') and reminisced about their undergraduate days at Harvard: 'I first met Robert in 1948. He was Bob Bly then. He was tall and skinny and red-headed, wearing a three-piece suit with a string tie. He never smiled. I was terrified of him....I found out within the year he was terrified of me, too.' The two have been writing letters back and forth for nearly 60 years, Hall estimates some 20,000 letters between them (now, there is a book project...).

"Galway Kinnell spoke of Bly's serene composure and his love of children--in particular Kinnell's two year old daughter, who offered Bly a flower when he came to visit. 'He plucked the petals off and ate the whole thing. She was completely enchanted. She pulled out another flower.I think he ate three flowers.' He read from 'The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,' which he introduced as 'a poem I regard as the greatest war or anti-war poem written in the twentieth century.'

"Coleman Barks described a recent trip to Iran, where he was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Teheran for his translations of Rumi and Hafez. He insisted that Bly, his mentor, who had introduced him to Rumi's work, be honored, as well. So the Iranians gave Bly a plaque and the two shared the stage. (Bly had to return his ceremonial blue robe; Barks got to keep his black robe with 'Captain America'wings.) Li-Young Lee, honored Bly's dense style: 'The paradigm is DNA, more and more information in each line.'

"Judith Davidson Moyers noted how she and Bill Moyers found in Bly the perfect catalyst for a public television series about poetry, and called Bly 'something of a shapeshifter' as she introduced the evening's second act: Bly interviewed by Bill Moyers. The opening question: 'What do you get up for in the morning?' Bly's answer: 'I still have the habit of writing poetry. I have poems from 1952 I haven't finished yet.' The two, relaxed, kicked the conversational ball back and forth, alluding to their long marriage (Moyers, 52 years; Bly, 51), their early awareness of each other in the 1960s (Moyers, in the LBJ White House when Bly was leading protests against the Vietnam War, said, 'I remember reading your FBI reports'), Bly's activism against the war in Iraq, the joy of 'kindred spirits.'

"The finale: Bly reading, masterfully, then chocolate cake, and poets and writers celebrating."

By Jane Ciabattari

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