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The International Writers Magazine
: Fighting Words

Politics and Poetry
Eric D. Lehman

Two weeks before the Presidential election, I arrived at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center on a late afternoon, my car sliding on the wet yellow-brown carpets of leaves. I was here for a weekend retreat called "The Joy and Spirit of Language" with the poets Robert Bly and Coleman Barks. As I checked in at the rambling Victorian farmhouse, warm light and friendly greetings told me that I was in a perfect Rivendell, an idyllic setting for the meeting of minds and hearts.

Coleman Barks & Robert Bly

Up the narrow road, past stone walled ruins and barns, I reached the small, brown Newlands Cabin, which had been built on struts over a steep hillside. Inside, the cabin contained ten bunks around the perimeter, as well as a space heater that seemed to be doing the job of the huge Atlantic woodstove. I grumbled at this, preferring to stoke the fire, but conceded to technology and chose a bunk in the back, next to another door, which led into the endless leafy woodlands. A large comfortable chair and several folding chairs gave the otherwise Spartan setting a homelike atmosphere.

Rain drummed on the roof as the second guest arrived. We discussed Robert Bly and I found that he has known the master poet for forty years and even wrote a book on him in the 70s. "He’s a great teacher," he assured me. I vowed to be a sponge, absorbing lifeways and health from this initiator of the Men’s Movement. Leaving my new friend to nap, I explored the campus. A huge fire-ring waited in the center of a glade of venerable trees. I looked forward to sharing a roaring bonfire with many new friends later that weekend.

Two old friends, Ryan and Jenifer, arrived just as dinner began in the roundhouse-style dining hall. They joined my table and everyone introduced each other, eagerly discussing what this retreat could bring. The program was a bit vague and no one knew what was coming. Ryan and Jenifer gushed over the fall colors that burned in the wet woods. After I helped them into Newlands, we proceeded to the conference hall in the Jordan Center, an architecturally mysterious building, seemingly without rhyme or reason. The conference room was full of knick-knacks and comfortable seating. Many people were already there, gathered on the floor around the empty seats at front. Shortly, Robert Bly and Coleman Barks entered, to a solid round of applause.

The masters sat quietly on chairs and told their own stories. Robert had a mop of shocking white hair and the rumpled clothes of an east-coast reporter. Coleman looked more like the university professor that he was. It quickly became clear that the room was full of what could only be described as "fans" of these poets. "Ooohs" and "aahhs" accompanied their readings. Of course, Jenifer was a fan of Barks’ translations of Rumi, and Ryan and I both loved Bly’s Iron John, but this was a little too much hero-worship for our tastes. We were there to learn.

And learn we did. Coleman discoursed on language in precise Tennessee diction. "The word-making part of creating consciousness" was why we were there, why we wrote. And Bly! A Minnesota tone measured and even, from a plane of quiet energy, echoing out of a cave of wisdom. He spoke the lines of poetry carefully, sometimes repeating lines for emphasis. "Am I saying anything to you?" he would ask after a nugget of wisdom. Rain pattered softly on his strong voice. Back at the cabin we rolled into our sleeping bags, satisfied, and awoke the next morning ready for a full day of absorption. That day Bly wore a sweater that seemed like Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat. He hemmed and grunted as Coleman read an old Welsh poem about mountain snow.

And then, the door opened and a crow swooped in. "Can poetry raise awareness?" was asked. And suddenly, a looming election and an increasingly bloody war became the topic of discussion. Bly handed out his newest book, The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War, which ironically needed a Canadian publisher. Everyone immediately began complaining about the media and how we no longer have a free press in America. People were too angry to talk clearly or have a real discussion, but all realized that they had a room full of people who shared their views and politics.

My dream of a peaceful retreat had been invaded, like every other segment of American life, by the war. And although I agreed with nearly every irate statement, I saw my chance to learn slipping away. Perhaps this was as it should be, that people should be reminded and reminded, so that the hard facts of evil stick to them like glue. But no action was taken. In fact, a young hippie girl stood up at one point and shouted this detail to everyone, then stormed out. People began to find minor points to disagree with each other about. Tempers frayed. Ryan and Jenifer fidgeted uncomfortably in their chairs. Coleman Barks sat silently in the front of the hot room. "The pendulum will swing," the positive ones pronounced. "We’re on a trajectory," sighed the negatives. No answers were given, no plans for protest created.

Thankfully, the program Saturday night changed gears; Robert and Coleman read poems, accompanied by flutists and guitarists. At the end, others shared their own poems, surrounded by candles and bells. Clapping and support swelled the room, which had positive energy once again. This was the heart of poetry, the building of connections that could flourish into something more. Transmission of ideas and values through generations of the dead and living was taking place. Ryan and Jenifer sighed with relief and we chatted excitedly about the experience.

Then, Sunday morning, the crows returned. A giant "No Blood For Oil" sign draped over the Victorian farmhouse, preaching only to the choir. People seemed nervous and isolated. I realized that the bonfire had never been lit and that no one had taken the opportunity to gather in the cabin and pow-wow either night. We had one more session with the two famous men, and I prayed that I would have another chance to learn, to bond with the others, to solidify friendships and work together towards something. I was disappointed. The session quickly became another referendum on the Iraq mess and the horror of the Bush Presidency. Later, I heard that several people felt used by Robert Bly to help write his latest essay, "The Emperor Has No Clothes." Others felt empowered and wrote their own treatises.

Later, discussing the retreat, Ryan would quote me a Sting song, "People go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one." Maybe that was the problem. Or maybe I shouldn’t have had so many expectations. Perhaps the poets only gave their students what they thought they wanted, and the few discontents like me were left out. Perhaps we were to blame, that we didn’t care passionately enough about the horrors going on every day in the world. Perhaps we were so greedy for knowledge and wisdom, that when our dreams of productive workshops mentored by experienced writers faded into darkness, we forgot that real life was more important.

Still, when a man in the back began to rant about Ezra Pound’s treatment at the hands of the U.S. government after World War II, I suddenly saw the united liberal front of academics and hippies break apart completely. The deluded fellow even shouted at Bly, shocking the crowd. I walked to another room, where a Canadian woman was already taking refuge from the American debate. A few minutes later, a break was called for and Ryan and Jenifer joined me, distressed. "Let’s go for a walk," I said, "I don’t want to hear any more of this." They agreed. We walked out of the building and into the forest, ascending an old woods road to the saddle of an abandoned mountain pass. Sitting down by a giant boulder, we discussed what was going on below, then stopped, laughing. We talked about our own life work, what we could do and who we could be. Amongst the falling yellow leaves, we renewed the bonds of friendship and love.
And sometimes, when I’m in a particularly hopeful mood, I think that in those bonds lies the true hope of the world.
© Eric Lehman November 16th 2004
elehman at
Processing the Travel Experience
Eric D Lehman on communication skills

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