Two Poets Walked Into A Bar…
There isn't a punchline to follow, but there is a story that may be worth telling.
The two poets—one very famous and one less so—got snookered in that bar (the now defunct Beef & Ale on Main St.), and stumbled back to the apartment I shared with the less famous one. They woke me up, sounding as if they were about to come to blows, arguing over a single word in a poem, one that had something to do with…well, you'll find out.
But I jumped ahead.
I was 19 and attending UB's night school when I took a class from the Lessor Poet (LP) and we connected. When a spare bedroom opened up in his apartment directly across from campus, I couldn't turn it down. I'd left Niagara U after one wasted year there and was back living at home, so I jumped at the chance to get out on my own.
Living with the LP had its ups and downs.
On the upside, he was a warm, gentle soul and a very good poet. He encouraged my writing and we spent a lot of time together. I learned much from him about writing, and how to drink gin straight on the rocks (not sure if that was an up or a down).
On the downside, the LP had some…um…issues, that resulted in his coming home after a night out with his face bloodied, his glasses broken and his wallet missing. Once he was deep in his cups, he had a habit of coming on to the wrong people, who took strong exception to his advances. While he always respected my heterosexuality, and didn't cross any lines, it was painful to see someone I liked and admired continue to make the same mistake over and over again.
Still, we had some interesting times together.
Accompanying him and another UB poet to a reading the LP gave in Fredonia, everything was normal…until it wasn't. The reading went well, and it was the after party that set things in motion. We accepted a toke or two from the obligatory proffered joints, thinking nothing of it. But… whoa! Once back in the car, driving the 60 miles up the NYS Thruway, things took a dark turn, literally.
I was in the passenger seat next to the driver, and for the life of me I don't know how he kept that car on the road. It was clear that someone at that party had spiked our drinks or the joint with a psychedelic substance. I thought that if he was half as stoned as I was, we'd likely die, or worse, get pulled over by State Troopers, who have never been known for their support of the arts. Every curve in the road gave the impression that we were about to drive off a cliff. That short trip (no pun intended) seemed to last forever, and I didn't relax until we arrived home safely.
But back to those Two Poets.
The more famous of the two was a man named Robert Bly.
In a career that began with his first book of poetry in 1962 and went on for the next 50 years, Bly became famous not only for his poetry and prose, but for his political stance against the Viet Nam war, and for his translations of and support for poets from other nations.
He won the 1968 National Book Award for a book of poetry, but his most popular book was a work of prose entitled Iron John: A Book About Men. Published in 1990, it spent 62 weeks on the NY Times Best Seller List and helped popularize a movement intended to help men connect spiritually with their lost masculine identity. The movement included therapeutic workshops and wilderness retreats, often using Native American rituals such as drumming, chanting and sweat lodges (something Fox News' Tucker Carlson would endorse today).
But let's cut to the chase.
In 1968 Bly was in Buffalo for a reading and afterwards he, the LP and I headed to the Beef & Ale, where they stayed long after I'd gone home to bed. Fueled by drink, they returned to our apartment, where the LP read Bly his latest poem.
Apparently Bly, a very large man with a booming voice, had concerns about the poem, and they centered on one word that occurred multiple times. They argued back and forth over this word until Bly summarized his objection in a voice that woke me from a sound sleep.
"Goddam it, (LP)!" he shouted, "There's too much semen in this poem! You've got to clean it up!"
And so it is that my last memory of meeting Robert Bly, who went on to become the poet laureate of his home state of Minnesota, and who died last November at the age of 94, was that thunderous voice complaining about too much sperm in his colleague's poem.
As always, thanks for reading this far.