Spring quarter allowed me the privilege of taking a small poetry workshop with dear Robert Bly, great-hearted, sometimes controversial, always amazing American poet. Once a week, for three hours at a time, I sat with a dozen or so other fortunate Stanford students and absorbed the beauty and intensity and humor of this amazing man, whose passion is abundant, particularly at the age of 81.
I made a special connection with Robert. I'm certain he enjoyed having someone over the age of 50 in his class. When the subject of war came up, when we began to speak of similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, our eyes would meet and we would both become very quiet, two people understanding the terrible similarities and feeling the ugly fact that human beings persist in their follies, their dark follies.
Robert gave me tremendous encouragement. He told me I should be preparing a book of poetry. When I won first place in Stanford's 2008 Urmy-Hardy poetry prize, he came to the reading to hear me read my poem. We talked a lot in class about soul, about having lived through pain, about what these things bring to the work of the poem.
On the last day of class, Robert and I talked before I left. He invited me to write him. He hugged me and told me that he would miss seeing me every week. We embraced and kissed each other on the cheek.
I do miss him. Very much. I am thankful to have made a soul-connection with such a vast heart. Thank you, Robert Bly, my teacher. My friend.
If you would like a taste of what my class was like each week, see for yourself the wisdom of Robert Bly .
The poem that won the prize (first printed in the Northcoast Journal) is here:
LIVING BY OUR LIGHTS—1966
You did what you knew how to do,and when you knew better, you did better. Maya Angelou
Timber was a despot
king when I was buying
penny Tootsie Rolls at Bonomini’s,
a freckled kid with one eye on the
newest Classic Comics. Jean Val Jean
could walk right through that door
and I would die trying to give him
every loaf of Wonder Bread.
Leland worked the mill and made
just enough to raise seven
sons to pull green chain. His one girl
learned to cook and sew and stretch
a dime paper-thin: pinto beans
ladled onto buttered white bread
laid in the scarred bottom
of a melamine bowl.
One night we heard that Timmy P.
was headed for St. Joe’s, three
fingers lost to a crosscut saw. He drove
his primer-gray ’56 Plymouth around
afterward, left arm on the open window,
hand just thumb and pinky and fat
bandages in between.
And he went back
because trees were everywhere, just
like schools of Chinook, and everywhere
names that big trees made
big: Dolbeer, Carson, Vance. The trees
that grew right down
to the edge of the bay
when Humboldt was the name
of a man and not the silver water.
We rode the train to Pacific Lumber,
a third grade field trip. Huge,
loud, hard hats and the useful
tang of redwood everywhere. Behind
a thick glass window, pressure jets of
water stripped long hanks of fibrous bark
off the pink wood, pink like salmon. It was
damn near patriotic.