Essay

All Aboard the Enlightenment Express

Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee share a double bill at a yoga mecca in the Berkshires.

by Daniel Nester

I start to feel a weight of past lives as my Honda Civic clambers up the hill to Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health—a 300-acre, 450-bed holistic health and self-discovery facility that overlooks Lake Mahkeenac in Lenox, Massachusetts.

This western region of the Commonwealth is known as the Berkshires, a hilly heart of New England foliage country. In the post–Civil War Gilded Age, a cross-section of high society, wooed by the Berkshires’ charms, built country homes here. The “cottages” they built were ornate behemoths, the McMansions of their day. But over the past 20 years or so, the Berkshires have become a playground for fancy restaurants and spa culture. Lenox is known as the spa capital of New England. Joggers and bicyclists are everywhere.

Kripalu, too, has past lives. Andrew Carnegie died on this site in 1919 in his summer home, Shadowbrook. The Jesuits then used the mansion as a novitiate, or seminary, from 1922 until it was destroyed by fire in 1956. It was rebuilt the next year, only to close up in 1970. In 1984, the Kripalu folks bought and refurbished it. Besides a scandal in 1994—the yogi who preached celibacy was not so celibate—the Kripalu Center remains a retreat for countless seekers of spiritual renewal, yoga instructor certification, and Eastern-flavored R&R.

Three women in white tunics talk on cell phones as I walk the path from the parking lot. I’m a little spooked by the ladies’ blank stares, their uniform long hair and makeup-lessness. I imagine them climbing the rocky cliff in a reenactment of the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.

Kripalu offers programs on everything from “ecstatic spiritual practice” (“The Sexual Body and the Yoga of Light”) to matters equestrian (“Conscious Riding”). There’s a “Juice Purification Retreat” and a “Golf/Yoga/Massage Motion” workshop, as well as a class on “Finding the Grail: Using the Stories of King Arthur and the Grail Quest and Ceremony to Attune Body, Mind and Heart with Spirit.” It makes sense, then, that poetry might fit in there somewhere. Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee, two acclaimed poets of the subconscious, spiritual, and mystical, fit the bill nicely. This afternoon, they will read as part of Kripalu’s weekend-long program on “Poetry That Is Fond of ‘The Other World.’”

I’m given a blue nametag that says “Poetry Reading” at the front desk. We pass by a gift shop with fancy yoga garb. A large plasma TV—I think it’s the only one in the building—broadcasts a large talking male head. He’s saying that he is “completely aware of what’s happening, completely mindful.” People are watching, checking their email on laptops, drinking chai tea. Shoes line the corridor en route to the reading’s venue, the Sunrise Room. I am handed a pillow for my seat. I see that Bly and Lee are already seated on regular chairs in the center of the semicircled audience, about 150 people.

Gusts of massage oil sneak under my nose as I scout out a place. Some people have wet hair, fresh from after-yoga showers. Many have awesome posture. A man in front of me will maintain his lotus position for the entire hour-and-a-half-long program.

A Kripalu official kicks off the evening. There will be two sets from each writer; one set will be accompanied by sitarist David Whetstone, who sits on the floor, tuning up. Lee, with tortoise-shell glasses and a ponytail, reads first. He waits for Whetstone’s sitar strums to pick up steam, leaning into a gooseneck microphone. His lips remain there for what seems like 10 minutes. You can hear him breathing. I remember that the word “silence” is important to both of these poets (one of Bly’s books is titled Silence in the Snowy Fields; Lee refers to silence on just about every page in upcoming book of interviews from BOA Editions, Breaking the Alabaster Jar).

Lee begins to read, and the room transforms. I forget I’m an outsider inside a yoga compound. Despite the fact that my car broke down on the way here and I have 60 final papers to mark up at home, I think I enter a spiritual realm listening to Lee’s breathy, deep-voiced readings of new work. He reads three longish poems—“Tragedy of Heaven,” “Singing for Fun,” and “Dying Stupid”—that all recall the first time I fell in love with Lee’s mythic, wandering lines when my old teacher, Afaa Michael Weaver, assigned Lee’s second book, 1990’s The City in Which I Love You, in a graduate course. Here’s a passage from one of that collection’s poems, “The Cleaving,” to give you an idea:

The noise the body makes
when the body meets
the soul over the soul's ocean and penumbra
is the old sound of up-and-down, in-and-out,
a lump of muscle chug-chugging blood
into the ear; a lover's
heart-shaped tongue;
flesh rocking flesh until flesh comes;
the butcher working
at his block and blade to marry their shapes
by violence and time;

“I read with my whole body,” Lee told an interviewer in 1996. At Kripalu I am listening with my whole body. “I want to get to a place where my sentences enact brimming,” he said. I am brimming, too, leaning forward on my yoga pillow. If this is the “Other World,” as the Kripalu class description calls it, then take me there. By the time Lee ends his last poem, I notice Bly has turned to look at Lee in profile.

It’s Bly’s turn now. “I don’t know if I have ever done a poetry reading sitting down,” Bly says to laughter. “It feels weird. But I’ll give it a try.”

Bly, complete with vest and ascot and silver hair, reads from his two collections of ghazals, 2001’s The Night Abraham Called to the Stars and last year’s My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. He explains the three rules of the ghazal form: one, each stanza is 36 syllables, “then you have to change the subject”; two, you repeat the same word at the end of each stanza; and three, you must insert your name in the last stanza. (For the record, poetry trainspotters, Bly pronounced the word two different ways: GU-zul and ga-ZAL.)

What I’ve always loved about a Robert Bly reading is that he confronts his audience. I’ve heard him say “I don’t think you were listening” to a crowd of 300 and then read a whole poem again. Tonight is no exception. In a ghazal in which the repeated word is “Amen,” he invites them to say “Amen.” They do. He has them in the palm of his hand. Bly is used to this kind of response, I think. I feel like an outsider at a revival meeting.

By this point in the evening, the Kripalu residents have loosened up. They look at each other and smile knowingly. Many have been here for weeks, months, years. I sense that many people in the crowd—which is mostly white, gray, or graying—are aggressively seeking enlightenment. I don’t know if they are trying to get their time or money’s worth, or they’re just really into it. Either way, this isn’t your average jaded all-poets poetry crowd. They are, in many ways, an ideal demographic for this kind of poetry reading. By the time one older woman with a fannypack and gray curls lays down and blankets herself with serapes in an end-of-yoga-class relaxation pose, I start to feel like an uptight, judgmental hunchback.

Bly reads six ghazals in his first set. Once he gets warmed up, he orates not only between poems, but also between stanzas. “Do you feel that?” he asks more than once, and reads a stanza again. “You have no idea how ugly TV is going to be in 10 years,” he says later on. “That’s why you have to teach kids watercolors, poetry—the crazy stuff.”

For his second set, Li-Young Lee reads another new poem, “The Virtues of the Boring Husband.” “Whenever I talk to my wife,” Lee explains before reading, “she starts to fall asleep.”

When the poem is over, Bly turns to him and says, “Read the poem you have about the train station.”

“I don’t have the whole thing here,” Lee responds.

“Well,” Bly says, “let’s see what you got.”

The poem, “Station,” or at least the part Lee reads, is composed of train announcements that leap from material to spiritual. It’s less subtle than the other poems, its images leap longer distances. As Bly might say; it breathes “dragon smoke.” “You may board at either end of childhood,” it ends. I lose a breath. These yoga people are getting their money’s worth. Someday I’ll see this poem in a book, and think otherwise; but that night I write in my notes: “One of the best poems I’ve heard read aloud, ever.” And it’s not even the whole poem.

Bly’s second set is accompanied by sitar player Whetstone, a fellow Minnesotan and Bly collaborator since 1972. Bly’s timing only gets more Catskill comedian-precise. “I got that line from Cirque du Soleil,” he says after a stanza about trapeze artists. “Cost me 80 bucks.” Ba-dum-bum.

“God crouches at night over a single pistachio,” another poem begins. “I could have ended it right there,” he says, and points his pen at the page. “But I’ve got five stanzas to go.” When he’s finished, Bly asks, “Shall I tell it again?” He means the whole poem. “Yes,” several say back.

“Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry,” Matthew Arnold writes in his 1888 essay “The Study of Poetry.” Wishful thinking, if you ask me. The Kripalu catalog copy for the night’s program puts it another way: “Does Spirit belong in poetry?” I’m here to say yes. I could have gotten freaked out by the ghost of Carnegie, the Jesuits, and the ashram vibe. Instead, I rediscovered my poetry religion at Kripalu and have Bly and Lee to thank for it. Next time, I’ll do my sun salutations beforehand.

Originally Published: May 31, 2006

COMMENTS (10)

On March 19, 2013 at 6:33pm Hague Williams wrote:
I found your description of the Poetry event at Kripalu with Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee quite interesting. I commend you for taking a risk and going to the event knowing that you are not involved in the east coast culture of enlightenment. Wading into a sea of unconscious pretentiousness with well meaning. I have to remember myself when encountering this sub cultures that everyone is on their own path. Passing judgment on these folks somehow doesn’t seem right and I like how you mention that could have been easy for you to fall into that trap but you stayed above the fray. If you have nothing good to say don’t say anything at all. I can really appreciate that even though the surrounding environment was not ideal you persevered and let the poetry take you away. This is the power of poetry. The irony in your story is that poetry transcended that evening while everyone else stayed grounded.

On March 23, 2013 at 9:08pm Teisha Durham wrote:
This article was extremely interesting! Daniel Nester did a fantastic job of describing his visit to the yoga retreat, Kripalu, in Massachusetts. I am not at all familiar with yoga, or any other philosophies of Eastern culture, so I particularly enjoyed reading the details of his experience. By vividly illustrating the history and surroundings of Kripalu, and the participants of the poetry reading, it gave me a sense of actually being there while it was happening. I liked the excerpt from “The Cleaver” by Li-Young Lee – that really caught my attention as well as his description of other poetry read and of the poets’ reading styles. It seems that, in addition to Nester being drawn in, each of these poets engaged the audience and the listeners seemed totally enthralled. I appreciated the fact that Robert Bly explained specific distinctions of ghazal poetry form in detail as this was very helpful.

On April 22, 2013 at 6:34pm Gena Valle wrote:
I thought this article was intriguing and well put together. I've never read an article that was so vague but gave so much detail in the same instance. Daniel Nester wrote this article in a way that a poet would have wrote a poem. In poetry, poems usually are not straight forward and to the point. You have to read between the lines and pick apart the inferred. I felt this article had those same characteristics aforementioned. I thoroughly enjoyed the imagery that Nester gave when describing the grounds and the audience. One of my favorite lines was when Nester was describing the Yoga students and used the line "I imagine them climbing the rocky cliff in a reenactment of the cover of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy". I also liked the fact that Nester knew of the poets and would normally have conformed and let go when Bly and Lee read their poems, but could not get past the fact that he was there by mistake.

On May 5, 2013 at 3:44pm Donald Owens wrote:
What an experience! And thank you for sharing it. It seems as if the outsider found peace, comfort and renewal in a place feeling with outstanding cultural distractions. It is very interesting that you would reference the type of people being there for days, months or years aggressively searching for enlightenment hoping to get their money’s worth, but yet it seems that you have found your form of enlightenment in just the short time of being there. Spirituality is most definitely a present in poetry, it if created by the spirit of the author, it is developed by the spirit of its topics and them consumed and digested by the spirit of its readers and/or listeners. It does not surprise me that you have found your drive again after attending the reading. You were placed in a location of peace and calm and then showered with the passionate fire that initially sparked your goals dreams and desires. Once again great share, it is much appreciated.

On October 31, 2013 at 11:28pm Elizabeth S wrote:
I really like how this article is written! I can really feel a sense of
community with the details provided (and I enjoyed the sense of humor!).
I have never heard of, let alone read any of Bly's or Lee's work, but I
enjoyed the glimpse I was given through this article.
I was actually really surprised at Lee's poem “The Cleaving.” I
personally enjoyed it, but I couldn't imagine listening to it in such a large
group, let alone reading it! I guess that's the “enlightenment” part of the
title. But later on in the article it is mentioned that the majority of the
audience was “mostly white, gray, or graying.” I enjoy hearing that older
generations are open to such topics!

On March 18, 2014 at 9:45pm Vanessa C wrote:
I believe I have felt the way Daniel Nester has before.
Nester repeatedly says he feels like an outsider at the
yoga compound. He's there for the same reason that the
other audience members are, to listen to poetry. I have
felt this way at concerts when I look around and feel
too old or too young. I always remind myself that I am
there to appreciate the same music everyone else is. In
Nester's case, aren't we all seeking enlightenment
whenever we read? Whether we are graying Yoga students
or fresh-faced college students reading for class, we
are all trying to understand the material we read (or
listen to, in this case). It makes us better people to
have new a understanding. However, it looks like Nester
enjoyed this reading more than when he is surrounded by
other poets. This audience may be a little less
judgmental. They may enjoy the ride more. It sounds like
it was a magical night. I would love to listen to Bly
since he engages the audience so much. I have seen
people perform poetry before and body language and
rapport with the audience is very important when you're
trying to get your point across. I personally believe
that religion and philosophy are intertwined with
poetry. They can be one and the same. There is beauty in
both which inspires man. You don't need to do Yoga to
appreciate poetry spiritually.

On March 19, 2014 at 2:29am Nallely Ramirez wrote:
In the essay, All Aboard the Enlightenment Express by Daniel
Nester, he gives a description of the Kripula Center for Yoga and Health
in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Before telling us his
experience about the Kripula Center, he says that it had past lives.
Around 1919, this mansion was used as a seminary. Then after it was
destroyed, it is used as a retreat that it is now a yoga and help center
for spiritual seekers. Daniel had gone to the center to hear a poetry
reading from Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee. I found this very interesting
that a poetry reading was in a yoga and health center, but it made very
good sense. The usual purpose of yoga is to find your relax state of
mind and muscles where you can move your body in flexible positions
that can be complex if you are stiff. I believe the same state of mind has
to be used when writing and reading poetry. When you write poetry you
have to be relaxed in order to know how you want to put your feelings
or thoughts in paper. As a poet you have to be flexible with the
elements of literature that you will use in your poetry. Daniel also
seemed to connect yoga and finding your inner spirit with the way Bly
and Lee read their poems. The audience of the poetry reading where all
sitting on the floor on top of pillows, just as you would sit on mats for a
yoga session. Daniel explained that as soon as Lee began to read his
poem, the whole vibe of the room transformed. He said, “I forget I’m an
outsider inside a yoga compound. Despite the fact that my car broke
down on the way here and I have 60 final papers to mark up at home, I
think I enter a spiritual realm listening to Lee’s breathy, deep-voiced
readings of new work.” Lee new exactly what tone of voice and
smoothness to use in order to get his audience to pay attention to his
voice and forget about their stress that they came in with. When Bly
read, he explained the rules of the ghazal form. This form in literature
meant that each stanza had 36 syllables, change the subject after it,
same repeated word at the end of each stanza, and insert your name in
the last stanza. Over all I felt that Lee resembled the relax state of mind
that you need in yoga and health, while Bly represented the complexity
you need in yoga as well.

On March 19, 2014 at 2:34am Nallely Ramirez wrote:
In the essay, All Aboard the Enlightenment Express by Daniel
Nester, he gives a description of the Kripula Center for Yoga and Health
in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Before telling us his
experience about the Kripula Center, he says that it had past lives.
Around 1919, this mansion was used as a seminary. Then after it was
destroyed, it is used as a retreat that it is now a yoga and help center
for spiritual seekers. Daniel had gone to the center to hear a poetry
reading from Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee. I found this very interesting
that a poetry reading was in a yoga and health center, but it made very
good sense. The usual purpose of yoga is to find your relax state of
mind and muscles where you can move your body in flexible positions
that can be complex if you are stiff. I believe the same state of mind has
to be used when writing and reading poetry. When you write poetry you
have to be relaxed in order to know how you want to put your feelings
or thoughts in paper. As a poet you have to be flexible with the
elements of literature that you will use in your poetry. Daniel also
seemed to connect yoga and finding your inner spirit with the way Bly
and Lee read their poems. The audience of the poetry reading where all
sitting on the floor on top of pillows, just as you would sit on mats for a
yoga session. Daniel explained that as soon as Lee began to read his
poem, the whole vibe of the room transformed. He said, “I forget I’m an
outsider inside a yoga compound. Despite the fact that my car broke
down on the way here and I have 60 final papers to mark up at home, I
think I enter a spiritual realm listening to Lee’s breathy, deep-voiced
readings of new work.” Lee new exactly what tone of voice and
smoothness to use in order to get his audience to pay attention to his
voice and forget about their stress that they came in with. When Bly
read, he explained the rules of the ghazal form. This form in literature
meant that each stanza had 36 syllables, change the subject after it,
same repeated word at the end of each stanza, and insert your name in
the last stanza. Over all I felt that Lee resembled the relax state of mind
that you need in yoga and health, while Bly represented the complexity
you need in yoga as well.

On March 19, 2014 at 11:08pm ray g wrote:
I found this article very interesting. It spoke about the transformative power of poetry. Typically, when thinking of a place that holds many retreats as described (i.e. yoga, golf, juicing cleanse) I wouldn’t think of a poetry reading to fall into the same category. However, the author spoke of how the “room transformed” when Lee began to read. This article shows how poetry is a powerful medium to connect with people emotionally. By having it in a setting where people are sitting on pillows and in an area where yoga is often performed, it compares reading poetry to doing yoga, showing that both are methods to grow emotionally and spiritually. I thought that it was a very interesting article, as I’ve always been interested in yoga and minimalism as a way to be in the moment and appreciate life.

On October 29, 2014 at 8:08pm Mary Lee J. wrote:
I must admit that the title of the article both captured my attention and threw me for a loop so to say. I’m always eager to hear the next person’s views and insights on poetry, no matter what form of poetry it may be. I, however, figured that this would be just another article subliminally trying to force me to join some sort of new religion or throwing conspiracy theories out there into the world. I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that it was not either of those. When the author started to describe the scenery and the history behind the Kripalu Center and its purpose I began to see the picture that the article was meant to paint. The placement of the inserts from each of the poet’s readings into the article was added bonuses to an already awesome article. Bly’s continued verbal outburst, outside of his readings, kept the audience’s attention. They made me smile a little because he wanted to make sure they were paying attention and if he felt they were not he would tell them so and read his poem again. That’s some real attention grabbing for you. I think that Lee’s reading is one that I would have loved to experience as the author did. The soft background music playing and the words flowing as if floating on the notes, yes it would have been an experience indeed. I love that the author went in skeptical and a bit uneasy and left feeling a bit enlightened and more open to the experience and the people there.

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Biography

Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate. He lives in upsate New York and teaches at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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