Robert Bly Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Bly American Literature Analysis

Rejecting the rather bleak view of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which set the tone for a generation of modernists, and further rejecting the obsessive, confessional writing of others in his own generation, Bly has chosen to write poetry that is inclusive, expansive, and, he believes, conducive to psychic healing. His career seems dedicated to offering opposition to the New Critics and their tendency to separate the artist’s life from the art itself. Bly believes that such separation allows the art to be amoral and destructive—choking its ability to speak in the present tense about the great issues that society faces and will continue to face. For him, the modern desire to take an objective stance, to view the world from a comfortable distance, is dangerous. He has argued, therefore, for an approach to experience that has been called subjectivism—that is, an attempt to do away with the barrier between the subject and the object, to merge the two so that people can once again participate in the world in a more responsible and more spiritual way.

In his collection News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness (1980), Bly elucidated his position that one could divide Western literature using the philosopher René Descartes as a marker. Prior to Descartes, according to Bly, Western literature reflected a people whose sensibility was not divided, a people who did not separate themselves from nature or from those elements in their own individual natures that they could not explain rationally, such as intuition, superstition, and spirituality. He cited the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf as an example, showing that when the poet describes the monster Grendel, he does so without having to explain its existence and without doubting that his audience will believe in such a creature; the Beowulf poet had complete “faith in nighttime events.”

This proximity to the darker side of the human psyche, this lack of separation from nature, was destroyed, said Bly, when Descartes declared in 1619, “I think, therefore I am.” After Descartes, Western literature would forever divide the autonomous self from nature. As Bly described it in his preface to News of the Universe:What I’ve called the Old Position puts human reason, and so human beings, in the superior position. . . . Consciousness is human, and involves reason. A serious gap exists between us and the rest of nature. Nature is to be watched, pitied, and taken care of if it behaves. In such language the body is exiled, the soul evaporated, the mind given executive power.

The danger of this philosophical stance in the West is that humans have become alienated from nature, alienated from that part of the psyche which participates in nature at the unconscious level, and alienated from an understanding of spirituality, which Bly maintained was also, for the most part, unconscious. This alienation leads to an amoral position regarding the natural world; people become observers merely, not participants.

Bly saw this tendency in the Western tradition culminating in the philosophy of the New Critics, a group of literary critics who sought to view art as artifact—that is, to view it aesthetically, without considering its historical or cultural context. What mattered to the New Critics was a work’s position in the ongoing dialogue of literary achievement—its place in the established canon—and its allusions to the earlier traditions. Another important consideration for the New Critics was form—the existence of an identifiable, aesthetically satisfying form. Bly believes that New Criticism drew the lifeblood from poetry, causing it to be uninspired, even dead. He opposes the view that one can separate the artist, or the artist’s world, from the art itself: The artist’s overriding goal, after all, is to integrate the two. He objects to what he considers the New Critics’ obsession with form. Bly himself is conscious of form changing form often, after lengthy deliberation and study, but views a concern with form as a natural function of the process of writing, rather than as the imposition of some preselected frame upon which one hangs one’s work to please the makers of canons.

Mostly, however, Bly has objected to the absolutely amoral position of New Criticism when it comes to evaluating literature in its historical context. Bly believes that literature (and literary criticism) has a responsibility to face its political implications, to argue politically charged issues, and ultimately to take a stand on those issues. His propensity to do just that has been perhaps his single greatest achievement for those poets who have come after him; they have almost uniformly confronted political issues, refusing to shy away from the dialogue of the present, and this is true largely because of Bly’s championing of the writer’s political obligations during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Unwilling to take as his literary models the traditional form and language of English literature as it descended to him via the established canon, Bly has chosen to find his models from pre-Cartesian sources, such as fairy tales, Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry, and poetry from other cultures, especially more primitive (that is, non-Western) cultures. What he has searched for in these works has been referred to as the “deep image” archetypal images that speak on a level beyond the cultural, beyond the superficial. Bly’s understanding of the deep image and its significance came from his reading of the philosopher Carl Jung, with his theory of a collective unconscious to which all humans have access via these mythic, archetypal images. Using such images as darkness, water, and death to represent experiences common to everyone, Bly attempts to write poetry that will ultimately heal, on the level of the psyche, Western society’s tendencies toward alienation and destruction that he finds so unnecessary. In his poem “Sleepers Joining Hands,” he writes of the healing power of poetry, using an archetypal image of optical illusion: “For we are like the branch bent in the water . . . / Taken out it is whole it was always whole.”

The Teeth Mother Naked at Last

First published: 1970 (also collected in Sleepers Joining Hands, 1973)

Type of work: Poem

Using surrealistic images of destruction and bits of political speeches, Bly angrily denounces the Vietnam War as a manifestation of the United States’ psychic disintegration.

Published separately in 1970, then later incorporated into Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), The Teeth Mother Naked at Last has been described as one of the best antiwar poems written in the twentieth century. Bly’s strategy in the composition of the poem was to undermine somehow the sterility of the language the United States used—both in its nightly news broadcasts and on its political lecterns—when discussing the Vietnam War and the issues surrounding it. He did this by revealing these familiar phrases and familiar political statements to be false.

After a series of descriptive images from the war in Indochina, descriptions which move from the striking—almost beautiful—to the increasingly bloody and grotesque, Bly tells his reader, “Don’t cry at that.” Would one cry at other natural phenomena, he asks, such as storms from Canada or the changing of the seasons? The language used publicly to discuss the war was similar to the language reserved for inevitable, natural things. Bly forces the reader to admit that fact by exposing the harsher reality of war.

The language Bly uses was drawn from many sources: the phrases of the military (“I don’t want to see anything moving. . . . [T]ake out as many structures as possible”); the standard phrases of columnists and television commentators; and the rhetoric of politicians, especially President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Texas drawl Bly mimics by using hyphens. Then Bly, almost in a rage, warns that all such language conceals the truth. He catalogs those who lie, from the ministers to the reporters to the professors to the president, equating their willingness to lie with a kind of societal death wish. Bly sees in Americans’ capacity to kill, and to kill in such a sterile, casual way, a profound psychic rift, a demonstration of their own spiritual inadequacy.

The myth embodied in the title of the poem is also the myth by which Bly understood that spiritual poverty. The myth of the Great Mother, first discussed at length by Jung, and later by several prominent anthropologists including Claude Levi-Strauss, reveals the Western attempt to disavow the more feminine aspect of the psyche and embrace the masculine, that is, logical, instead.

In an essay titled “I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” which appears as a section of Sleepers Joining Hands—the section immediately after The Teeth Mother Naked at Last—Bly argues that the Great Mother, the embodiment of feminine consciousness in mythology, actually has four manifestations, which he lists as the Good Mother, the Death Mother, the Ecstatic Mother, and the Teeth Mother. He validates these aspects by taking examples from archaeology, mythology, and primitive poetry. The Good Mother is the image of the hearth, the one most familiar to the West; the Death Mother Bly describes as the mother figure responsible for evil and for evil witch and hag images; the Ecstatic Mother Bly equates with the muse of Greek literature, the feminine part of the consciousness that grants creativity; and the Teeth Mother, her opposite, is the aspect that destroys the spirit and forces people into a catatonic state, depriving them of the joy of life.

This aspect of the feminine had perhaps the most importance for Bly, because he saw in her image the spiritual bankruptcy of the American psyche—to him, the war in Vietnam revealed that, as a people, Americans had chosen the Teeth Mother over the Ecstatic Mother; they had chosen to destroy rather than create. Bly’s poem The Teeth Mother Naked at Last is perhaps the most remarkable antiwar poem of the Vietnam War era, precisely because it argues against the war on this most psychological, most fundamental level.

“Sleepers Jining Hands”

First published: 1973 (collected in Sleepers Joining Hands, 1973)

Type of work: Poem

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(The entire section is 4275 words.)