Art as Our Priceless Exchange of Gifts
The poet, essayist, translator, and magazine publisher and editor, Robert Bly, died toward the end of last year. I think it’s unfortunate that he became best-known as a father of the “men’s movement,” because in the public’s mind that overshadows his tremendous contributions to American literature. His literary work in all the capacities that I just listed had a tremendous and priceless effect on me and others, opening up the cloistered world of an American poetry controlled excessively by stiff-minded academics to the timeless and global world of a poetry of imagination and spirituality, of what Bly called “news of the universe.”
For instance, Bly was not the first person to translate Pablo Neruda’s poetry into English, but he was the first to make it read and sound like the voice of a living, vibrantly living human being, and his translations opened a floodgate of further translations (some wonderful, some mediocre, some terrible, of course) and publications of Neruda’s work in English, and created a new and far-flung acquaintance and popularity for Neruda’s poetry in the English-speaking world. For many, their relationship with that poetry was a romance.
Here is a wonderful excerpt from Bly’s interview with Neruda for The Paris Review, which has something important to say not only about Neruda, but about Bly, and something critical for all of us artists to absorb, if we can and if we will:
RB: In one of your essays you described something that happened to you as a boy which you thought has had a great influence on your poetry. There was a fence in your backyard. Through a hole in it one day a small hand passed through to you a gift — a toy lamb. And you went into the house and came back and handed through the hole the thing you loved most — a pinecone.
PN: Yes, that boy passed me a lamb, a woolen lamb. It was beautiful.
RB: You said that somehow this helped you to understand that if you give something to humanity you’ll get something back even more beautiful.
PN: Your memory is wonderful, and this is exactly right. This exchange of gifts — mysterious — settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit.
I hope to write more in the future about Bly and his gifts to us, but for now, I’ll give you this short but expansive poem from the Chippewa, which Bly adapted from a scholar’s earlier, unsatisfactory translation of it. This poem has blessed me, as I’m sure that it has many other readers, in dark times:
Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried by great winds across the sky.
Lawrence Russ View All
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .
Thanks my friend for the thoughtful post. I, too, am a big fan of Robert Bly. When he died last November I posted the following.