American Poetry

by Robert Bly
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931

It is no coincidence that the greatest literary critics in the tradition of English letters were also first-rate creative writers, if not geniuses, for the experience of creation fosters a thorough understanding of literary art. Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and T. S. Eliot left major and lasting contributions to the national literature of their respective ages. The tradition of writing criticism to elucidate one’s own literary practice, in its fullest sense, dates back to Dryden in the late seventeenth century. The first English poet to produce criticism consistently over a long career, Dryden set the example for subsequent critics to justify their own literary practice and principles. Whenever a poet, novelist, or playwright turns to criticism, he is likely to find the highest literary value in aesthetic qualities that are prominent in his own work, appreciating most that which he believes he does best. Such a writer can be an exemplary critic, on a par with Dryden, only if he possesses a firm grounding in a rich literary tradition and a coherent base in critical theory. Arnold, for example, weighed William Wordsworth and the other Romantics against the classical Greeks and Romans, and Eliot found strong parallels between seventeenth century Metaphysical poetry and modern English verse.

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In American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Robert Bly, a prominent American poet and lecturer, limits his assessment of American poets and poetry to the twentieth century, and his theoretical base is similarly limited. While he mentions Homer and Beowulf (c. 1000), his theoretical groundwork extends only as far back as Freudian psychology. He draws heavily upon such diverse sources as Carl G. Jung’s analytical psychology, Joseph Campbell’s studies of myth, and Paul MacLean’s theories of brain structure—all recently formulated concepts. Thus, his basic assumptions about poetry—its creation and purpose—place it within the domain of psychology.

The book includes essays produced over four decades, most previously published in some form in Bly’s sequentially named literary magazineThe Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies. In the first of three major sections, he develops the thesis that American poetry took a wrong turn with the poets of the generation of 1917—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams—who oriented poetry toward the external world of objective and concrete imagery. This tradition was continued in the poets of the 1930’s and 1940’s who followed, producing what Bly terms metaphysical poetry. Finally, the postwar generation, the poets of 1947—including Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Delmore Schwartz, and their contemporaries—produced a strained poetry that Bly designates as hysterical. In the poetry of all three groups Bly discerns a loss of spirituality.

The book’s second section offers specific criticisms of twelve twentieth century poets whose work Bly either admires or deprecates. In the final section, he attempts to assess the most recent trends in American poetry, following the death of Wallace Stevens. As an epilogue, he includes an interview with Wayne Dodd on poetry work-shops, whose value Bly seriously questions.

“Wildness,” as Bly uses the word throughout the work, applies to both poetic content and poetic form. Applied to content, it means that poetry reveals different levels of consciousness and includes a dimension of the unconscious. Applied to form, it means that poetic meter corresponds to the economy of nature found in living organisms, with no waste of sounds or words. Precisely what this analogy implies to the poet remains unclear, but it presumably rules out rhyme and regular meters in favor of free verse. The appeal to nature, however, places Bly within the tradition of romantic individualism, as does his fascination with tribal customs and primitive societies. These he suggests are capable of moving man closer to the unconscious sources of art. His fascination with nature and the primitive becomes at times excessive. He admires the tribal rituals that introduce young men into adult-hood in primitive societies, without pausing to consider why there are so few young and middle-aged males among the populations of such societies. He points out that among the higher mammals, the young males fight the old for dominance, and he is perplexed that younger poets are not attacking poets of his generation. In many art forms, the process of creativity is promoted through a younger artist studying under a master and then attempting to surpass him; why an attack is either necessary or constructive is unclear. One might assume that the creative process itself sublimates the aggressive sexual drives that other mammals, lacking any art form of their own, cannot channel in any other directions.

Bly’s catalog of poetic dislikes is quite long. In addition to his opposition to objectivist and metaphysical poetry, he dislikes imagist poetry, poetry that follows regular metrics, confessional poetry, beat poetry, and poetry produced by immature writers. True to the romantic individualist within him, he believes that genuine poetry expresses the poet’s soul and that the poet must be something of a revolutionary. He finds the qualities he seeks in poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Antonio Machado because they probe the unconscious, the requisite for spirituality in Bly’s theory of poetry. In numerous quoted selections, one finds passages that suggest metamorphosis or transformation of being because he apparently believes that ideas of this kind are rooted in the unconscious and even suggest a shift from one level of mental awareness to another. Thus, lines from a medieval Arabic poem, which describe a pearl that out of modesty changes into a red jewel, stand as an example of true poetry.

In the essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” Bly further develops his ideas of creativity to suggest that any genuine poetry includes an unconscious element. Dragon smoke symbolizes evidence on what he terms a leaping in the poem from one level of consciousness to another: “That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the latent intelligence and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown and back to the known.” The poet achieves this through following paths of association implying mythic patterns of transformation that are “somehow inherent in the universe.” “Poetry and the Three Brains” applies such comparisons to movements of consciousness among three levels of the brain—reptilian, mammalian, and the neocortex or outer layer. “Great poetry activates energy from the ancient, recent, and new brain structures by using images appropriate to that particular memory system.” Thus he believes that poetry leads to a more wholesome spiritual existence that harmonizes that brain while it encourages the consciousness to operate within man’s neocortex.

Regarding the audience of poetry, it is generally assumed that all art enhances man’s spirit and spirituality, and Bly offers his own version of how this is accomplished. Symbols associated with the unconscious, transmitted to the audience, promote mental integration and the overcoming of collective guilt, which Bly believes Americans possess in ample measure. Poetry thus assumes the function held by religious ritual in past societies. In essence, the purpose of poetry is therapeutic; that is, it aims at promoting psychic well being within the reader. This view is the corollary of the Freudian theory of creativity, which holds that creativity is therapeutic for the artist. Both views are legitimate and defensible, yet as the basis for a poetic, they are too narrowly conceived. Poetry has many legitimate purposes—celebration, enjoyment, humor, satire, expression of emotion, to name a few. Bly’s critical vision is limited to a narrowly conceived form of lyric poetry.

Such a serious and hieratic role for the poet as he assumes should only be undertaken by one who is mature. Bly breaks with romantic tradition to take the position that the best poems are written by poets of long experience. For an explanation, he draws upon Jungian psychology. According to Jung, emotion and intelligence, the two dominant mental qualities, stand as mental polar opposites. In individuals with strong intelligence, emotional reactions are likely to be weak. Flanking these two dominant mental qualities are two less strong ones—intuition and sensory observation. Bly assumes that to achieve greatness, a poet requires time to develop weaker intellectual tendencies.

Like other practicing poets, he believes that the purpose of criticism is not necessarily understanding, but rather improving the literary art of one’s own time. Bly inclines to the view that the critic as teacher must expose flaws and weaknesses by being tough on those whose works he assesses. While he finds some strengths in all the poets he critiques, his comments are sometimes scathing, as in the essays on James Dickey and Robert Lowell. As with his general comments about poetry, what he likes is less clear than what he condemns, in part because his normal technique is to provide liberal quotations of poems and passages that he considers exemplary and let the reader grasp their merit.

Yet Bly is at his best when writing analyses, sometimes more properly labeled appreciations, of his contemporaries. Among the poets he considers are such well-established ones as Denise Levertov, Donald Hall, James Dickey, and Galway Kinnell; others are less well known than they deserve to be—James Wright, John Logan, and Thomas McGrath. Bly clarifies the distinctive qualities of each poet and writes gracefully and ingeniously about them. His own prose amply demonstrates his command of metaphor, the indispensable power of a poet. His essay on James Dickey, written in two parts, demonstrates how his assumptions about the nature and function of poetry result in underrating a major voice in modern poetry.

A just assessment of contemporaries is at all times difficult to achieve. In light of his own assumptions and value judgments, Bly has offered insightful evaluations of modern American poetry. His book is marred by abundant eccentricity and occasional quirkiness. The view that English poetry has declined since Beowulf is even more startling than his idea about the decline of modern American poetry. Throughout the book, the reader encounters sweeping generalizations that stretch credulity:

“If revolutionary thought is put down, revolution in language also dies.” This would have been news indeed to William Shakespeare, who discouraged revolution; to John Milton, who wrote powerfully mythic poetry despite the failure of the revolution he espoused; and to Dryden, who took the lead in putting down revolution. As for Bly’s understanding of history, one can point to the following:

Twentieth-century life (compared, for instance, to eighteenth-century life in Europe) is so intense, so soaked with unconscious or half-conscious substance, so deeply impelled by psychic energies desperately attempting to get loose, that it cannot he understood in an ordinary state of consciousness. The massive failure of middle-aged politicians in all countries testifies to that, as does the spectacular failure of so many educational, artistic, and welfare efforts in recent years.

In terms of human evolution, two hundred years is little time for changes in the unconscious, and Bly appears unaware that during any age, the failures in art, education, and other human endeavors exceed the successes. That is in part why a sound criticism must await the winnowing of time. Meanwhile, Bly’s vision of his own poetic values will serve as a guide to his own poetry, and his appreciations of his contemporaries will make their works more accessible.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, June 15, 1990, p.1951.

Detroit News and Free Press. July 15, 1990, p. Q7.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, June 15, 1990, p.846.

Library Journal. CXV, July, 1990, p.94.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 30, 1990, p.29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, June 29, 1990, p.95.

San Francisco Chronicle. August 19, 1990, p. REV3.

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