On poems, wild men and new life...

American men aren't supposed to like poetry. We are taught it like math or mechanics most of the time - or worse. But one of the poets who saved my life, Robert Bly, notes:

While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems - drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and to recite. By drawing this sharp contrast with other cultures, we are pointing to a defect in ours. We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation.

Men blame their own lives for a deficiency in the culture. For without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There's lace of vision. The loss in the heart appears as a loss of heart to take up the great cultural challenges that are a part of every man's citizenship. It is in this sense that we have come to think that working in poetry and myth with men is a therapy of the culture at its psychic roots.

Take the way Bly speaks to the absurdity and sin of the war in Iraq in "Call and Answer."

In under two minutes he not only exposes the tragedy but also the long term implications of such narrow naivety and arrogant stupidity. The poet laureate, Billy Collins, says much the same thing in his poem, "Introduction to Poetry."

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Or take the way Bly treats Rumi, the great Sufi love mystic, as he speaks of the danger of settling for the banal...

I believe it was Jung who observed that a man who chooses not to listen to the weeping of his soul by age 50 will grow-up to be either a foolish old codger or an embittered and mean-spirited sot. I've seen both and they are not pretty pictures - and God knows they are miserable to live with!

So today, on the eve of my wedding anniversary, I return thanks to the woman poet who encouraged me back to the poems - and the songs and the dances - in the prayer that I might be more than a cranky old fool. Standing in a book store one cold, rainy night in Cleveland she helped me find a way into something more. That night I read two poems... and everything was different.

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, and sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings
for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.

So... we got married to the wisdom of this crazy ass tune by the wise wild man of the America's...


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