Last week the venerable poet Robert Bly was interviewed on Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS. Some highlights from their witty, uplifting conversation are below. I recommend watching the video online rather than simply reading the transcript, as Bly’s joie de vivre is an essential part of the experience.
BILL MOYERS: You know, when I first met you, you were just barely 50. And you read this little poem. You remember this one?
ROBERT BLY: “I lived my life enjoying orbits. Which move out over the things of the world. I have wandered into space for hours, passing through dark fires. And I have gone to the deserts of the hottest places, to the landscape of zeroes. And I can’t tell if this joy is from the body or the soul or a third place.”
Well, that’s very good you find that because when you say, “What is the divine,” it’s much simpler to say there is the body, then there’s the soul and then there’s a third place.
BILL MOYERS: Have you figured out what that third place is 30 years later?
ROBERT BLY: It’s a place where all of the geniuses and lovely people and the brilliant women in the– they all go there. And they watch over us a little bit. Once in awhile, they’ll say, “Drop that line. It’s no good.”
Sometimes when you do poetry, especially if you do translate people like Hafez and Rumi, you go almost immediately to this third world. But we don’t go there very often.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ROBERT BLY: Well I suppose it’s because we think too much about our houses and our places. Maybe I should read a Kabir poem here.
BILL MOYERS: And Kabir?
ROBERT BLY: Kabir is a poet from India. Fourteenth century.
“Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you’re alive. Think… and think… while you’re alive.
What you call salvation, belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
you think that ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body’s rotten–
that’s all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
And if you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.”
I was going through Chicago one time with a young poet and we were rewriting this. And he said, “If you find nothing now, you will seemly end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death.” That’s very interesting to see how that thing really comes alive when you bring in terms of your own country. You’ll end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.
So plunge into the truth, find out who the teacher is, believe in the great sound. Kabir says this, when the guest is being searched for – see they don’t use the word “God”. Capital G, “Guest”. When the Guest is being searched for, it’s the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work. Then he says, “Look at me and you’ll see a slave of that intensity.”
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been talking and writing a lot lately about the greedy soul.
ROBERT BLY: I’m glad you caught that. Read this.
ROBERT BLY: “More and more I’ve learned to respect the power of the phrase, the greedy soul. We all understand what is hinted after that phrase. It’s the purpose of the United Nations is to check the greedy soul in nations. It’s the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship, in intuition, coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul, what the Muslims call the “nafs,” also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The “nafs” is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants and is willing to destroy to anyone who receives more good things than itself. In the writer, it wants praise.”
I wrote these three lines. “I live very close to my greedy soul. When I see a book published 2000 years ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned.” This is really true. I’ve really done that. Yes, I’ve said that. So, in writers, the “nafs” often enter in the issue of how much– do people love me? How much people are reading my books? Do people write about me? Do you understand that? It probably affects you too in that way.
BILL MOYERS: Us journalists? Never.
ROBERT BLY: Never. Okay. “If the covetous soul feels that its national sphere of influence is being threatened by another country, it will kill recklessly and brutally, impoverish millions, order thousands of young men in its own country to be killed only to find out 30 years later that the whole thing was a mistake. In politics the fog of war could be called the fog of the greedy soul.”
BILL MOYERS: Are you happy at 80?
ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I’m happy. I’m happy at 80. And– I can’t stand so much happiness as I used to.
BILL MOYERS: You’re Lutheran.