Robert Bly is one of the most successful poets in America: He earns exactly as much money as he wants each year. And he does it without being on a university faculty, by treating poetry as a performing art. "I hear from a lot of universities that want me to become a poet in residence," says Bly. "My reaction is: Why bother? I'm already in residence in Moose Lake, Minnesota."
Most of the time, anyway. This week, Bly is in residence at the Writers' Center in Glen Echo, where he is giving workshops for poets. He began the week with a poetry reading in the Folger Shakespeare Library's Monday evening series, and Saturday night he will give another one at Glen Echo. It is already sold out.
Bly flew in from California, where he had been doing readings and workshops. Before that, it was Chicago, and next week he will be off again. Most of the year he spends with his family on a farm in Minnesota, but during October, January and April, he flies around giving readings for $1,000 each, plus expenses ($500 if he doesn't have to leave Minnesota; $100 to $150 for high schools). Bly decides how much to work after figuring the annual living expenses for himself, his wife and four children. With a daughter in the freshman class at Harvard, another in her last year of high school and two sons aged 8 and 14, he expects the readings to escalate in the near future.
"I get a couple of thousand dollars a year in royalties," says Bly, 54, who has written, edited or translated more than 20 books of poetry, and is also available on recordings. "But the readings are what I do for a living."
"Quiet," said a sign outside the Folger's Shakespearean playhouse, "Performance in Progress." The sign, which is usually put up for plays or concerts, applies precisely to Bly. Most other poets read their poems; Bly performs his. Lately, he has taken to accompanying some of his poems on a dulcimer -- letting the poem "float on the music like a boat on water." But he still performs some without music, in his older style: the hands swirl about at waist level, creating imaginary whirlpools around him, or they levitate toward heaven, the fingers weaving intricate patterns in the air. Sometimes a poem lures him into a little dance step, which may end with a graceful semi-pirouette on the final line -- a sort of free-form ballet with spoken accompaniment.
His own poems -- from the earliest ("about snow and loneliness," he says) to antiwar poems of the '60s to the later musings on human relations -- draw heavily on natural imagery ("There are eyes in the dry wisps of grass,/and invisible claws in the rooster's eyes"), though they range into other themes: ("Dreams press us on all sides, we stagger/along a wire, our children balance us/on their shoulders, we balance their graves/on ours.")
The performing style emerged early in Bly's platform career, after he began to memorize and perform his poems rather than simple read them out of a book.
"In 1962, when I was 36 years old, I discovered that poeple would pay me $35 to do a reading," he recalls, "and I soon saw that if I read out of a book the reading would be a failure. When I was reading at home, with friends, I wouldn't use the book -- just glance at it once in a while -- and the poems would work . . . So I began to memorize, and found that my body was freed; my hands and body began to move without my planning it."
It paid off. "By the time I had reached 40," says Bly, "I had started to make my living by doing poetry readings. My fee reached $500 when I was 45, and it keeps going up. I raised my fee $150 when my hair turned white."
It's a drastic change from his early years as a poet. "When I started college," he says, "I planned to be a doctor, but as a freshman I fell in love with a woman who wrote poetry, and I started writing poetry to impress her. It didn't work, but I was very surprised when I read the poetry. There was something in it that I hadn't put there. Then I transferred to Harvard, where Archibald MacLeish was one of my teachers, and it began to dawn on me that it was possible to think of poetry as a career."
After Harvard, he spent three years in New York working as a file clerk, going hungry, living in solitude ("I couldn't even show my poems to anyone") and confronting his own failure. He believes that it was a valuable experience and that one of the disadvantages of university appointments and government grants to poets is that they are deprived of the chance to fail.
"They are put into assigned roles," Bly says. "The students take the role of 'young poet,' and they are praised if this week's poem is a little better than last week's, without reference to other standards. The teachers become creative persons by faculty appointment. They haven't really gotten away from mother. When I began, there were perhaps five notable poets in the United States, and they were all wild creatures. Now, we have 500 notable poets and thousands of poetry students -- but where is the poetry? Where is the energy?"
Bly began to attract a large national audience during the mid-'60s when he was giving readings at massive demonstrations against the Vietnam war. His lines are stil powerful today:
"As soon as the president finishes his press conference black wings carry off the words, Bits of flesh still clinging to them."
But he recalls some misgivings from that period: "At one rally, the speaker before me jumped up and shouted, 'Amerika is spelled with a "k,"' and the crowd went wild with applause. I said, ''if this crowd applauds my poems, I will commit suicide,' and I read in such a way that they would not applaud."
Since then, the applause, like the fees, has grown steadily. Bly's poems have changed often in style and content; today, they are generally quieter then they were in the Vietnam years, and recently he has been focusing much of his attention on form. He has invented a new verse form that he calls ramage , an old French term describing the song of birds and occasionally applied to pieces of flute music. "The ramage has 85 syllables in eight lines. I didn't plan it that way, but I wrote a few, and when I counted them up that's the way they were." One of his most recent ramages, he says, is "written in the key of 'ur.'" It has that syllable recurring in a variety of words, at irregular intervals, and the effect, when it is read aloud with a dulcimer, is uncannily musical.