Friday, September 18, 2009

The Best Poetry is Always Religious

The best poetry is always religious

Robert Bly is one of the most influential poets of the "lyrical" tendency in contemporary poetry in the world. Apart from his translations of the works of great eastern poets Mevlana Muhammed Jelaluddin Rumi and Hafez into English, Bly is also known for being an activist and dissident.

His anti-war anthology, "A Poetry Reading against the Vietnam War," played a major role in the United States when it was released back in 1967. Bly also compiled another anthology, one of anti-Iraq war poems, after the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bly wrote the poems in his two newest books in the "ghazal" structure and with a tendency to use religious motifs in his works. And now Bly's unforgettable poems in his "The Night Abraham Called to the Stars" (HarperCollins, 2001) are waiting to meet their Turkish readers.

He recently spoke with Today's Zaman about his poems and translations.

You gathered together poems written in opposition to the war in Iraq in an anthology. In this age, what is the role of poetry in terms of pacifism against wars and conflict? What can lyrical poetry suggest in this context?

Poetry is not a very effective way of protesting something like the war in Iraq. Still, it's important to use it. It's important for younger poets to know that older poets are willing to spend some time and put in effort to protest stupid acts of their own government. I think the work we did against the war in Vietnam left a large impact all in all on the American public.

You translated poems of prominent Eastern poets like Rumi and Hafez into English. Your translations served in the promotion of these poems in the US. To when does your interest in Eastern culture and poetry date back?

I began my translation work by translating -- when I was in Norway as a student -- some of the good Norwegian poets. Then I moved over to Swedish and then to German for the translations of (Rainer) Rilke and others. About 30 years ago I think I ran into Rumi and asked Coleman Barks to do a number of translations because I thought his soul fit with Rumi's very well. For the last 14 years Leonard Lewisohn and I have been working on translations of Hafez. They've just come out in a book called "The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door." I think they are the first accurate translations of Hafez into English, and they represent the best that I am able to do in that field.

And how about today's Eastern poetry? Are there any poets or writers that you closely follow in other Eastern literature? For example Adonis, he is still considered close to a Nobel Prize; what do you think of that?

About contemporary poetry, I do admire Adonis and I hope he gets the Nobel Prize soon. I'm also interested in a number of younger poets in Iran, but I haven't published anything of their work yet.

Translations you completed of Western literature, namely from (Federico Garcia) Lorca, (Pablo) Neruda, (Cesar) Vallejo and Rilke, show readers your view of modern poetry. My humble view is that, among these poets, you are much closer to Rilke in terms of the themes in your poetry. Is my assessment correct? Who are the poets in world poetry that inspire you?

I'm glad to hear that you think among the various European poets I've translated that I am closest to Rilke. He has been an enormous influence on my life. Many times I've gone up to a cabin in the north woods and had nothing with me but Rilke. I think he has been the one calling me onward, away from the obsession with this world and into the joy of the spiritual world.

In one of your poems you wrote, "And we were right -- that poetry / Our poetry -- would bless everyone." How can you protect this belief, let's say faith, in the US. As you know, it has been said that the US is not an inspiring country for a poet.

You mustn't confuse the gross stupidity of the United States and its politics and general behavior with the intensely intelligent poetry community that we have hiding in the body of the country. I think the United States is a perfect country for a poet. Walt Whitman is as good as any poet produced in Europe in the 19th century and we take courage from him.

Literary critic Charles Molesworth suggests that the importance of your poetry lies in the fact that you "write religious meditations for a public that is no longer ostensibly religious." In light of this comment, what do you think about the relationship between poetry and religion?

I think that all poetry, except for children's poetry and political poetry, aims toward the world of the soul. So the best poetry is always religious. It's true that the public is no longer "ostensibly religious," but it never has been. These days a number of younger poets have gained more knowledge about the soul from poets we have and read, such as Whitman and Rilke and Vallejo, than they do from churches. That's all right. The churches have a lot to do just keeping themselves upright. We have to do the rest.

You cited in one of your interviews the phrase of Wallace Stevens, "A poem should almost successfully escape the intellect." Considering that your poems have a purified expression, what does "intellect" mean to you? In other words, how is your relation with the "intellect"?

Stevens is a genius, a man with a marvelous intellect. But he knew that poetry was written by his playful side, the one he couldn't make use of in his work as an insurance executive. So poetry always plays with the intellect and gives it little problems to solve while the imagination does the rest. As for my relation to the intellect, I admire it and I owe a lot of money to it, but I wouldn't bring it home to dinner with my family.

Your interest in Islamic culture dates back decades. Poems in your last two books in particular were written in the "ghazal" structure, and these books were published after Sept. 11. Has the approach of your readers and literary critics changed since Sept. 11?

Anyone who has any sense is obviously devoted to the depth of the Islamic culture. Sept. 11 didn't change that at all, as far as I or my friends are concerned. You can always find idiots who will fly an airplane into a tower. That's no reflection on the great Islamic culture.

05 August 2008, Tuesday

Posted over on Today's Zaman

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