Robert Bly is a poet who may be best known for Iron John, his classic nonfiction work about the emotional lives of men. But for the past five decades he's also worn another hat: that of a translator. Bly, who reads from his work at the Burlington Book Festival finale this Sunday, hasn't just tinkered away at the odd foreign poet. He is like a one-man U.N. Since 1960, the 78-year-old poet has shepherded more than two dozen poets into English from languages as diverse as Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese and German.
From these tongues Bly has borrowed some of the world's most ancient poetic forms for his own use. He does this quite successfully in his most recent volume - and second collection of ghazals - My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy.
The ghazal, developed in Persia in the 900s and popularized by centuries of Arabic and Urdu poetry, has been slow to catch on in America. Unlike other imported forms, such as the haiku, which compresses its associative leaps into 17 short syllables, the ghazal won't fit on a coffee mug.
But it does have a long tradition, which is easy to understand when one examines the form more closely. If the haiku is poetry's Texas Hold 'Em, the ghazal is more akin to bridge. It is a form full of rules that test a poet's short-range dexterity - the ability to move within tight spaces. In some traditions, a ghazal is made up of shers, two-line poems that could stand alone - such as Pound's famous "In a Station of the Metro": "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough."
Each sher must conform to a kind of a meter, and there are 19 different options. These strictures lend ghazals an incantatory rhythm that can feel dark or light. Bly has gone first to the lighter side in My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. The celebratory note is struck right away, with the poet pressing blessings into the hands of "lovers," as well as "those who go home through dark autumn nights." It is even "a blessing to hear that we will die," he suggests, adding a bit of self-admonishment: "Robert, you've always been too cheerful," he writes in "Advice from the Geese."
Some readers may find Bly a bit too cheerful, too pantheistic, too mystical. But for others this is exactly what makes him a joy to read, and keep reading. A good poem by Bly leaps from image to image with utter spontaneity, occasionally tossing out something so random, it's clear this man does not live in the "normal" sphere.
In his previous volume of ghazals, Bly coined the following memorable, if silly, images: "Sometimes milk makes us afraid," and "It is because the lovers have been exiled / To the nonexistence of the onion fields / That the pauper wakes up playing the flute of gratitude."
The new volume is similarly loopy, at first. Bly returns to his interests in love and desire, peace and mindfulness, but in language that recalls the rhythms of Arabic - florid and otherworldly. "We are the sparrow that flies through the warrior's / Hall and back out into the falling snow," one line reads. "Blackberries have so many faces that their jam / is a kind of thickening of nothing," informs another.
Many stanzas in the book run to three lines rather than two, such as this one, from "The Old Couple":
After every one of our wars, the newly dead
Hold out a cup to us. What can we do
But testify to a thousand years of darkness?
The image starts out with the possibility of hope, and then swerves into Bly's darker territory - the large maw of a "thousand years of darkness," waiting for us at the end. The verse speaks to both the enormous frailty of human life and its enormous folly.
Some poems in My Sentence refer to the Iraq War, but just as one attempts to apply meaning to them, they flutter off. Again, this is a characteristic of the form. A ghazal is often relatively short, and each stanza operates as its own poem. The intellectual leaps one makes from stanza to stanza create the ghazal's centrifugal force.
It's odd that evening is so speckled with grief.
Birds start singing when the branch reddens,
But we write our poems when the sun goes down.
Bly's metaphors provoke not just mental images but questions. "Speckled with grief" is pretty clear, but what makes the branch red? Is it the sunlight, or the color of its leaves, which would suggest it is fall and not nighttime, yes? And how does one explain that last line? Does the fact that "we" write poems at night suggest poems are about grief? Occasionally this proliferation of questions - rather than answers - can feel a bit coy. A reader is apt to yearn for something more concrete.
To enjoy Bly's volume fully, one must attend to it quietly and sporadically, returning to his poems until meaning suddenly glints outward. A few poems, though, are instantly appealing. "The only thing I hold in my ant-like head / Is the builder's plan of the castle of sugar / just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy!" he writes in the book's final poem, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle." It would be hard to begrudge this thief such happiness in his airy confections.
Poets at the Book Fest
ROBERT BLY Sunday, 6 p.m. Presentation Hall, Lake & College.
ELLEN BRYANT VOIGT Friday, 7:30-8:30 p.m., Presentation Hall, Lake & College.
POJAZZ Friday, 8-11 p.m., Halverson's Upstreet Cafe.
WRITE OUTSIDE: WATERFRONT POETRY JAM Saturday, all day, Plaza, Lake & College, Battery St. entrance.
'SHUT UP AND HAND ME THE MIKE' Saturday, 10-11 a.m., Alumni Auditorium, Champlain College.
JAY PARINI Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Presentation Hall, Lake & College.