I came across an interview with Robert Bly by Peter Johnson of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Vol. 7, 1998. I’ve been unable to find the poem in its entirety, so the following may be partial, and imperfectly presented here. My apologies! I wanted to share Bly’s comments and insights about the making of poetry. [Please contact me through the blog if you have the corrected poem!]
The Large Starfish
Now the ecstasy of low tide, kneeling down, alone. In six inches of clear water I notice a purple starfish– with nineteen arms! It is a delicate purple, the color of old carbon paper, or an attic dress… at the webs between the fingers sometimes a more intense sunset red glows through. The fingers are relaxed… some curled up at the tips… with delicate rods… apparently globes… on top of each, as at World’s Fairs, waving about. The starfish slowly moves up the groin of the rock… then back down… many of its arms rolled up now, lazily, like a puppy on its back. One arm is especially active… and curves over its own body as if a dinosaur were looking behind him. I put him back in… he unfolds – I had forgotten how purple he was – and slides down into his rock groin, the snail-like feelers waving as if nothing had happened, and nothing has.
RB: How did you feel about the similes in “The Starfish”?
PJ: It goes back to what you said about metaphor reflecting your internal state. Obviously, there is nothing ominous about your starfish. It possesses a sense of wonder and connectedness.
RB: I noticed that the starfish’s various arms were doing different things: “many of its arms are rolled up now, lazily, like…,” and the moment you say “like…” the whole unknown world enters in, and you don’t know what you’re going to say. At that moment, as Bill Stafford says, you have to give up all plans and all hope for perfection. Be a good host; let whatever comes in come in. One arm is rolled back a little “like a puppy on its back.” I remember writing that and thinking, “Whoa, that’s wonderful.” A scientist will say, “Some of its arms are in a rolled up position.” Period. The eye has done that. But I added “lazily,” and all of a sudden, something comes in from the part of me that likes lazy people, maybe. And then I say “like…” and now one is really in the soup. Writing, one has to be playful enough to say, “I’ll probably make a fool of myself in this image.” Then you can call on the part of yourself that isn’t precise, but has seen hundreds of these events when you were ten or twelve or fifteen. You don’t know from what era or stage or moment of your life the image is going to come. Had I been feeling reptilian, I might have compared the starfish’s curved arm to a snake. In any case, I love that moment when one asks, “Like what?” Then I wrote, “How slowly and evenly it moves.” I’m simply watching the starfish move. But moving like what? I could say it’s moving like a racing car stuck in first, or like a snail. But when I say, “The starfish is a glacier,” then I’m far ahead, and I have time to make a joke, saying it goes “sixty miles a year”; actually most glaciers go only a foot or two. I go on to say that the starfish is “about the size of…” what? A “pail.” Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll put down six nouns at that point: it’s the size of a fist, of a dinner plate that’s been thrown out into the dump, of a hubcap on a Volkswagen, the lid of a can found underneath the water, or the bottom of a pail. “The bottom of a pail” interests me, because all at once we have a pail; moreover, we have the interesting volume at the bottom of a pail, and perhaps some shady light.
PJ: Well, certain images have more resonances than others.
RB: Yes, and the making of them is so much fun.
PJ: Being an editor of a prose poem journal, I read work from many poets who try to imitate the Robert Bly thing-poem, and I’m sure they’re having fun, too, but somehow they just can’t make the leaps you make, whether those leaps come through metaphor or juxtaposition of imagery. I think a certain astonishment is missing in many object poems I receive. For example, I published your poem “An Oyster Shell.” Listen to what happens in the first paragraph:
“The shell is scarred, as if it were a rushing river bottom, scratched by great trees being carried down. Sometimes its whitish calcium has been folded over itself, as when molten rock flows out; so something is still angry.” [Bly laughs.]
So you see what I mean? In your best thing-poems you constantly redirect the reader and reveal strange new associations. I’ve come to see the object poem as being similar to the still life in painting. Every once in a while I come across an astonishing still life, say by the Irish impressionist O’Connor, but, for the most part, many of them leave me empty. Similarly, many of the object poems I receive remind me of a still life without the banana, devoid of any correspondences, any kind of creative, erotic energy.
RB: My leaps have to do with a confidence that psychology gives me that one can see the invisible. If you glance at a human being and you see the layers of calcium on his face, you are looking at some anger underneath that. That’s where the sally in “An Oyster Shell” came from. The fun lies in making unjustified leaps about people and things.
RB: I think a lot about the word “safety.” One reason I couldn’t write as well when I was twenty-five as I can now is that I didn’t feel as safe then. At twenty-five you think you’re going to do the wrong thing, and you probably are. You meet people who belong to the class system and are hierarchical, and this fear cuts down your ability to play. Instead of playing, you’re looking for the right associations, the ones an educated person might have. I don’t want to make a big thing about this, but for me one of the joys in the prose poem is that I don’t feel as much fear there. I’m writing in a new form, so to speak; I’m not claiming that I’m keeping up to great standards. As I’ve said, the most wonderful thing about the prose poem is that no one has set up the standards yet. The ability to make leaps has something to do with how safe you feel, because if you can’t feel safe, then you can’t go back to your childhood.
PJ: Someone once mentioned that, in a sense, Charles Simic’s poetry could be considered “children’s literature.” Dickens, too, and Virginia Woolf and so many writers probe this area. Another curious point is that many poets have told me that they have encouraged students to write prose poems as well as verse poems in poetry workshops, and that the prose poems have been better. One could suggest that this occurs because it’s “easier” to write a prose poem, but those of us who write them know that’s not true. More likely, it goes back to what you just said. Not intimidated by meter or even line breaks, these young poets feel safer; they can focus on the poem without imaginary mothers or fathers, “the tradition,” looking over their shoulders.
RB: Well, let’s go back to that, but in a different way. What is the proper subject for a prose poem? There is no answer for that, so you have to look at your own life. I lived my childhood relaxed and on a farm, so when I’m with a tree, I feel relaxed. But a friend of mine who’s lived in Manhattan his whole life went for a weekend up to Rye and when he came back, he said, “Why don’t those trees ever say anything?” He’d be better off writing a prose poem in the city, because he feels safe there. Once at a prose-poem workshop in the Village, I asked the students to find some object to write about that was not made by human beings. One poet refused and said: “I’m not going to do that. I don’t care beans about pinecones. Instead I’ll find you a city object to write about!” He came back after lunch with a small bottle cap entirely full of that grungy dirt peculiar to vacant lots; three long white hairs rose out of it. I wrote about that for hours. His message was, “Throw away pine cones. Get a bottle cap.”
PJ: It does seem that you are stuck, or blessed, with the geography of your childhood.
RB: All you have to do is relax into that. Do you remember that little poem David Ignatow wrote about the city? He was asking a wall to bless him. It didn’t:
The wall is silent.
I speak for it,
He once dedicated a poem to me, complaining about my constant mentioning of leaves falling: “I wish I understood the beauty / in leaves falling. To whom / are we beautiful / as we go?”
That’s great, great. <>