Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduced by Robert Bly
One need only read and contemplate a small fraction of Robert Bly’s marvelous collection of poems in News of the Universe to realize the tremendous power that great poetry has to help awaken us from our sleep to the mystery and miracle of who and what we really are. Today, in the midst of wars, economic crisis, global terrorism, global warming, and the numerous other problems and challenges that confront us, we may find it difficult to sense and feel the miracle of our existence, of our very being. The poet reminds us, however, to look at our situation from a simultaneously larger and more intimate perspective:
Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.–Ojbiway
Containing 150 poems from many eras, News of the Universe, first published in 1980 and one of my most illuminating companions for more than 25 years, represents what could perhaps be called the poetry of the soul, of real feeling. The anthology brings us new, more honest feeling-perceptions of ourselves and the universe. We commune with some of the world’s great poets, including Pope, Yeats, Frost, Baudelaire, Lawrence, Stevens, Rumi, Kabir, Jeffers, Rexroth, Snyder, and many others.
Each of us will find in this volume poems that can not only help expose the rigid structure of ideas and attitudes about ourselves and the world that shape and even imprison our consciousness of the inner and outer world, a consciousness that is constantly constricted by the needs and demands of our self-image, but can also help open us to new ways of seeing, feeling, and sensing the world as it is.
Are we at all interested in seeing things as they actually are, or must we see everything in relation to our own lives? The poet reminds us:
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.—David Ignatow
Robert Bly, one of the outstanding poets, translators, and storytellers of our time, is the author of many books, including The Light Around the Body, which won the National Book Award. Bly brings his formidable understanding of the relationship of poetry to consciousness to bear not just on his illuminating selection of poems but also in the informative essays he includes in this volume, essays that explore the psychological, social, religious, philosophical, spiritual, and other dimensions of poetry. He explores the evolution of poetry from the 18th century, with its self-preoccupation and alienation from nature, to the poetry of the 19th and 20th century that, seeking the source of consciousness in all things, attempts to heal the rift that emerged with the “I think therefore I am” paradigm of Descartes. What gradually emerges is a sense of the mysterious unity of man and nature, and a new but ancient sense of the body, from which so many of us are alienated, as reflective of the universe itself. The great philosophical dictum “as above, so below,” comes to life in the insights of some of the poets in the volume. About the body, the poet writes:
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains,
and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!
All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars.
The acid that tests gold is there, and the one who judges jewels.
And the music from the strings that no one touches, and the
source of all water.
If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:
Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.–Kabir
We are all “hungry,” says Bly, for consciousness. And so he has given us a gift of poetry that we can return to again and again for new insights into what it means to be a conscious human being, a book that can help us return to the actual feeling and sensation of the “good and beautiful,” which were so important for Socrates and Plato, and for which we are all searching, whether consciously or unconsciously.
One of the many crucial themes one finds in this volume is the realization of our ultimate death and the death of everyone we know, a realization that few of us allow into our awareness in our daily lives, but which can be tasted in moments of meditation, stillness, and silence.
There is a stillness
On the tops of the hills.
In the tree tops
Hardly a breath of air.
The small birds fall silent in the trees.
Simply wait: soon
You too will be silent.–Goethe
Bly writes: “this poem contains an experience many people have had: each time a human being’s desire-energy leaves his body, and goes out into the hills or forest, the desire-energy whispers to the ears as it leaves ‘You know, one day you will die.’ I think both men and women need this whisper; it helps the human to come down, to be on the ground. When that whisper comes, it means that the tree-consciousness, the one in the wooded hill, and the one in man, have spoken to each other. …”
The poet reminds us, however, that to come down to the ground is simultaneously to be lifted upward toward the heavens:
Earth hard to my heels bear me up like a child standing on its mother’s belly. I am a surprised guest to the air.–Ignatow
In being a “surprised guest to the air” we begin to reclaim our humanity, a growing sense of the wonder and mystery of being, and begin to live with a real question: “Who am I?”.
All the poems in this magical volume are enlivened by that fundamental question, but none for me so beautifully as this one:
I live my life in growing orbits,
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I will never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don’t know if I am a falcon,
Or a storm, or a great song.–Rainer Maria Rilke
News of the Universe is a book that I recommend to anyone who wishes not just to think in a new way about the mystery of being but also to sense and feel it directly through beautiful, transformative poetry.
Copyright 2009-15 by Dennis Lewis.
Photo of Robert Bly from Wikipedia: June 2004 at the Great Mother – New Father Conference in Maine. Photo by Fred L Stephens of Oak Ridge, TN