The Man in the Black Coat Turns
Since the 1960’s, Robert Bly has been one of America’s more influential poets. As an editor, translator, and poet, he has done much to shape a generation’s expectations of what the poet should be writing about and how the poem should look on the page. Critics have called him America’s most imitated poet, but they have not agreed that his leadership has been positive—too easily imitated, some have said. Since first publishing Silence in the Snowy Fields in 1962, Bly has published ten volumes of poetry, translated and edited many more, and founded a small press and a literary magazine. He was also a founder of “American Writers Against the Vietnam War” and one of its leading spokesmen, giving numerous readings on college campuses across the country. When his highly political The Light Around the Body (1967) received the National Book Award in 1968, Bly donated the prize money to aid young Americans resisting the draft. Prolific, visible, and in tune with a violent period, Robert Bly became something of a hero to the generation of the 1960’s.
In 1971, before the feminist movement had reached national visibility, Bly was advocating the female principle as a viable alternative to male-dominated consciousness. His poetry argued that the feminine consciousness—natural, mythic, creative, and irrational—had once ruled in matriarchies and would rule again. If nothing else, Bly has caught the temper of his times, changing his emphases well before the man of the street. In this sense, he has been prophetic—just what one expects from poets in the Romantic tradition.
Readers of The Man in the Black Coat Turns will be somewhat disappointed if they expect a similar prophetic vision for the 1980’s. Bly is now fifty-seven, and it is hard to be an old romantic. In these poems, one finds him no less mystical, no less romantic, but more and more, one sees him turning back to Wordsworthian “spots of time,” to visionary moments of times past. The political anger that fueled his verse in the 1960’s has largely cooled, and the Great Mother of the 1970’s is in the background. The images he has long employed—dust, dark, death, water, night, animals—remain staples, but their focus is almost entirely personal. Bly is not speaking here for the generation of punk rockers and game freaks; there is nothing in this volume that speaks directly to nuclear disaster, terrorism, or unemployment. These poems are meditative—the poet grown older, setting his house in order. They are death-ridden, but the darkness that awaits the poet is not that of worldwide apocalypse; it is rather his own death.
For those who have followed Bly’s career, the most noticeable change in this volume is his use of recognizable if idiosyncratic metrical structures. It is almost as if he were responding to critics who have claimed that his verse is too easily imitated because it plays by no rules. In “Visiting the Farallones,” he writes, for example:
The wagon behind bouncing,breaking on boulders, backand forth, slowlysmashed to pieces. This crumb-ling darkness is a realitytoo, the featheron the snow, the rooster’shalf-eaten body nearby.
The metrics, effectively uneven, are consistent; the stanza form, while imitating no traditional pattern, seems generated by the subject matter, just as Ralph Waldo Emerson said it should be. Bly does not repeat this particular stanza, but he does carve most of this collection into stanzas controlled by the musical beat. After all these years of consciously avoiding his American heritage, it is as if Bly had only just discovered Ezra Pound’s Imagist manifesto. Sometimes his poetics work quite effectively; sometimes they are a little rough. If this volume...
(The entire section is 1645 words.)