In the Presence of Poets
Last night, I had the opportunity to hear not only poet Robert Bly read his work, but to hear a long list of other poets honor him by reading his work as well. There was a packed room. There was a reporter from the Star Tribune. There were musicians.
And there was unabashed admiration. Delight. Reverence, perhaps.
The event was part of the Literary Witnesses program at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. James Lenfestey, the chair of the program, introduced the evening’s events. His barely-contained happiness at all of it was like watching a tiny kid learn to blow bubbles: he couldn’t stop beaming or offering up another open-palmed gesture toward the audience. As poet after poet got up to read a poem from Bly’s newly published collection of work, Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life, I thought how lucky I am to live in a place where poetry is so valued, where poets who speak their mind are honored. The list of poets honoring Bly included other Minnesota-based writers like Michael Dennis Browne, Louis Jenkins, Patricia Kirkpatrick, Ed Bok Lee, Jim Moore, Joyce Sutphen, Eric Utne, Connie Wanek. There were poets who came from elsewhere around the country, too: Thorsten Bacon, Tony Hoagland, Thomas R. Smith, Myra Shapiro, and others. After these poets all read their favorites and occasionally shared memories of how they knew Robert Bly, two men with guitars showed up. After an Ole and Lena joke (this is Minnesota, after all, and Bly is of Norwegian heritage), they sang a sweet tune that I don’t know and, thus, cannot remember the name of. Then it was time. Robert Bly came to the microphone.
The last time I saw Bly speak was several years ago at Hamline University in St. Paul. He was robust then, flamboyant, engaging. Last night, he was supported by others as he made his way forward. His voice was not as strong, but each of the few poems he read built to a crescendo nonetheless. His humor, self-deprecating and sharp, drew much laughter. He was not up there long and yet it was just long enough. Long enough for all of us who were listening to realize that the 88-year-old activist poet in front of us continues to be a vital voice. He continues to bear witness. He continues to make us think.
And that is what poetry is all about.