Bly, Robert (Vol. 5)
Bly, Robert 1926–
An American poet, editor, translator, and founder of the Fifties Press (which became the Sixties Press and which is now, of course, the Seventies Press), Bly has been an influential figure in contemporary poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Bly does not write verses, with all that the word implies of a return, a commitment to a constant; he writes lines, with all that the linear implies of a setting out, a movement in search of a form rather than within a form. (pp. 39-40)
[There is, in The Light Around the Body, Bly's second book,] a numbness or torpor, an inertia so new to art, which by its traditional nature is the celebration of energy, of mastery, that Robert Bly himself is not always certain of its accommodation in his utterance; he suffers and thereby celebrates the inertia of a being who would be saved, redeemed, not because he is he, but because he is here, merely present with all the lethargy of a life which contains death—and it is the requisite wonder of Bly's poetry that the physical qualities of his language rehearse and enhance the containment, loyal to their artlessness from the start, unwavering in their oscitance. It is his uncertainty we hear, I think, when he says—as he sourly said in 1960—"our poetry, because of its clinging to things and to the surface of life, has tended to become too barren"…. We must examine what his work betrays but does not parade, what it reveals but does not translate—a sense of the center sufficiently indicated, perhaps, if we say, merely, that all the poems, as we pick them up one after the other, are seen to be marinating: they are all at sea. (pp. 42-3)
We start with the first poems in the first book [Silence in the Snowy Fields], the "eleven poems of solitude," where the Ordeal by Water is of course the Trauma of Birth, and the longing to return to the womb is the longing for an introjected, incarnate ocean. (p. 45)
The triumph of [the] central group in Silence in the Snowy Fields, however, is not one of Bly's countless committals of the body to darkness, depth and inertia, to that "silence on the roads" where "the dark weeds are waiting, as if under water"; it is, rather, a poem of wakefulness, of inspired consciousness, and the only poem in all his oeuvre not to be devised or derived "Driving through Ohio" or "Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield," in that limitless chthonic expanse which so burdens the vertical self; the poem is called, exceptionally, "On the Ferry Across Chesapeake Bay," and because it is the one piece in the canon uttered in the actual presence of the real sea, of course it is that real sea which is put aside ("O deep green sea, it is not for you / this smoking body ploughs toward death"). The waking man, Bly discovers, cannot bring forward the images which will substantiate another reality; he must listen, rather, to Nietzsche's advice: "you must be a chaos, to give birth to a dancing star"…. The closing poems of the book return to the life and to the death-in-life of that Minnesota mariner so amazingly created out of midwestern elements…. Like Prospero, Bly drowns his book with a final image of renunciation: every hope of distinct and certainly of distinguished life is surrendered for the sake of "the true gift, beneath the pale lakes of Minnesota," the treasure beneath the black water…. (pp. 46-7)
Richard Howard, "Robert Bly," in his Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 38-48.
Silence in the Snowy Fields was like a cluster of gnats. No matter what else I did, I couldn't remain neutral about Bly's poems. It will be impossible for me to discuss my change of mind rationally, but I've come to believe that my reservations about Bly were only nigglings, that measuring the accomplishment of his work against petty objections is something like dismissing Moby Dick because Melville loses track of his point of view. Bly is free from the inhibitions of critical dictates many of us have regarded as truths. He manages, in fact, to write poems that are themselves suspensions of the critical faculty. The poems had to become what they are. They are quiet, unassuming. They are uninsistent, unrhetorical; they depend, often, on one another for total effect. They do not lead to the kind of intellectual pleasure (an anti-poetic pleasure) one gets from having traced down all the allusions in "The Waste Land" or from having used the unabridged dictionary to come to terms with "The Comedian as the Letter C"….
Bly's poems do not wear thin. Our inner lives speak in them, speak out from the silence and solitude of the American midwest. And there is a profound correspondence between "the man inside the body" ("Silence") and the oceans of air and water and land through which he moves. A car is a "solitude covered with iron" ("Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River") and so is the man moving inside his struts of flesh and bone. For years I felt that Bly's poetry pointed at a mysterious and dissatisfying nothingness that was a non-subject. But he has one subject that speaks out from the spaces between lines, stanzas, and poems and unites them: The Self….
The journeys in Bly's poems are journeys to the interior, as Theodore Roethke put it. Bly has stopped somewhere and is waiting for us. He can find no spiritual fathers among politicians, or the rich, or the self-satisfied (hence his increasing social criticism). But the poet still has friends, a few people to share the inexplicable inner-life with. When he is with them he writes quiet, almost melancholy lines….
Whatever the word means, in Silence in the Snowy Fields Bly is a Romantic. Yeats was not the last. All of our inner men are. But we think we know only what we think. The truth is that the only knowledge worth our while is our knowledge of what we feel….
What we have in Bly is a personal poetry becoming a poetry of social comment. Since the English Romantics first set pen to paper we have been suspicious of the private vision, explaining away our discomfort by saying, weakly, that we are all brothers and that when one speaks personally, subjectively, he speaks for the race. But my inner man, after wars to end all wars, has been driven deeper inside. Bly's poetry assumes, from the beginning, our hurt, and our disbelief that men can do what they have done and are doing….
In The Light Around the Body (1967), which won the National Book Award, Bly holds up a mirror to his age. Social criticism becomes intense. In poem after poem we are our politicians' pawns, our generals' statistics, our merchants' suckers.
William Heyen, "Inward to the World: The Poetry of Robert Bly," in The Far Point, Fall/Winter, 1969, pp. 42-7.
Bly's political poetry is disorganized, crude in style, with images cranked and shoved together. The untruths are so blatant as to make it impossible to consider them even angry self-deceptions…. The government is charged with cruelty and lies; the method of making the charge is to invent wantonly cruel lies. Hate propaganda is always distasteful to hear or to discuss. Bly's political poetry is shameful even for hate propaganda. I hope that such poetry will continue to decline in America. (p. 402)
Paul Ramsey, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974.
The energy with which the Minnesota poet Robert Bly unreservedly gives himself to his ideas, or in some cases, his prejudices, makes him both one of the most annoying and most exciting poets of his time. Objectivity and judiciousness are not nice words in Bly's vocabulary…. Compared with the intense flex and balance of Denise Levertov, Bly sometimes seems like a frenetic farm-boy shying rocks impulsively at anything that moves; but he can often be stingingly on target, and has probably brought home more game politically than any other poet besides Allen Ginsberg. (p. 113)
Most artists are, of necessity, "outsiders" to the larger society and its values, but Bly has been something of an outsider to his fellow poets as well. He has come by this chiefly for two reasons. The first can be called by different names: integrity, independence, stubbornness, egoism. One suspects that many of the critical remarks offered against Bly by his colleagues during the sixties (his theatricality, carelessness of form, lack of music, dilettantism) are only "acceptable" expressions of "unacceptable" irritations and antagonisms they felt toward him. Bly is "no respecter of persons," and often does not play according to the polite rules, whether the game in question belongs to the establishment or the anti-establishment. He is like the pesky student who keeps asking the professor troublesome questions and will not be intimidated. Such traits alone are sufficient to alienate many, but even beyond this, there is something about Bly in person or print that often makes people uneasy. He is a man with disturbing energy and self-confidence, and an unreserved commitment to the things he does. Earmarks of integrity? or egoism?
Secondly, Bly stands as an "outsider" in that he has been without the support of anything like a Black Mountain, San Francisco, or New York coterie of fellows and followers. (Though a few poets have had affinities with Bly's poetic manner and ideas—Robert Kelly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, Jerome Rothenberg—he stood mostly alone before the Kayak poets began to make themselves heard.) Bly's allegiance has been to poets of other languages and of another imagination—the German poets Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn, the French René Char and Michaux, the Swedish Ekelöf, and especially the Spanish César Vallejo and García Lorca, and the Chilean Pablo Neruda. This inspiration, and the "new imagination" of the poetry that Bly promotes and practices, demands more than casual reading. Bly's poetry is perhaps not so much misread or unread as shallowly read and put easily aside as poetry of the deep or subjective image. It has been an uncrowded and easy category, a convenient pigeonhole for disposing of poetry that challenges poetry-reading habits. Because the form is strange, it can be focused upon for comment and used as an excuse to avoid a difficult and profoundly unsettling content. Bly has been, then, generally regarded as that poet whom one wishes would take more care "with how things go together,"… whom one wishes would put a little more trust in the power of "art," and give less energy to polemics. (pp. 114-15)
Bly's interest has always been with content rather than form, and life rather than "art." (Though these pairs are properly not polarities but are related as ends and means, poets and schools of poetry persist in arranging themselves on one side or another of the dichotomy.) His quarrel with traditional forms and their recent American substitutes is that they cannot carry the content of modern life. That content, he feels, is "the sudden new change in the life of humanity, of which the Nazi Camps, the terror of modern wars, the sanctification of the viciousness of advertising, the turning of everyone into workers, the profundity of associations, is all a part." The "men of 1914" and Eliot in The Waste Land made one large raid into this life, but did not persist or widen their foraging; and, in fact, they finally retreated. Bly's view of the modern world is one, then, that focuses on an ugliness that is wider and deeper than that exposed by The Waste Land, and which in 1958 had "still not been described." That reality, he suspected, could never be described in the restraints or prettinesses of rhyme, the decorous regularity of iambic meter, the four-letter words of Beat-poetry, the vague suggestiveness of the symboliste mode, the impeccable order of poems for Kenyon Review, the narrowness of personal or confessional poetry, or the abstract tendencies of contemporary British poetry. What was needed was something at once more vigorous, more powerfully physical, more capable of reaching down into the darknesses and nightmares of the modern sickness. All these are implied in the metaphors with which he describes Spanish poetry, where he finds a power that "grasps modern life as a lion grabs a dog, and wraps it in heavy countless images, and holds it firm in a terrifically dense texture." American poetry was incapable of this because it had sidestepped and never really gone through the experience of surrealism. (p. 116)
Bly's bias [is] against the conscious mind, against the cerebral and the abstract. A poetry that grows from the intellect is like the plant deprived of its soil: true poetry springs from a deeper self, unknowable by the machinery that sorts and labels the produce at the top of the head and makes rational cases for whatever it wishes. The deep imagination swells up from the edges of hallucination and fantasy to produce Picasso's "Guernica," while the superficial imagination finds satisfaction with the usable representational art of Marines planting the flag on Iwo Jima. The images that Bly calls for are not, then, the pictures of Ezra Pound and the Imagists, "petals on a wet black bough," but the images that writhe in the fogs halfway between deep and inarticulate passions and conscious thought. (p. 117)
Bly chooses the poetry of the subjective image because it can carry the content he wants. But is there, perhaps, a closer relationship between the form and the nature of the content it carries? Does the deep image by its very nature, as revealed in the metaphors with which we describe it, lend itself necessarily to a dark, pessimistic, "anti-" or protest poetry?… In other words, if we draw images and metaphors from an irrational and chaotic field, will the world they attempt to express be found to be more grotesque and horrible than it perhaps really is? (One thing is at least beyond question—the deep image is by its nature not well suited to saccharine, romantic, or patriotic poetry.) The importance of the question is that, ultimately, one wonders whether Bly's form is a result of his vision, or his vision the result of his form; whether he achieves a more powerful protest because his agonies are deeper, or whether they only seem so because expressed in a more profound form. One is at least confident in claiming that the two influences have reinforced and deepened one another, and that content and form join with a potency that justifies Bly's emergence as one of the most important poets of the sixties. (pp. 117-18)
Bly's first book of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, is full of rural quietnesses, farmyards, fields, solitudes, and silences. Peaceful and strangely satisfying, the poems attest to a wholeness in the poet who speaks them. The few troubled poems are easily carried by the calm of the rest. But there are touches of discontent here already, and, though far from the spirit of protest animating later work, they do raise themes that become important in The Light Around the Body. (p. 118)
Unlike Levertov, in whose poetry death becomes alluring only after the war has undercut a previous vitality, Bly seems always to have sung soft songs to death. "Return to Solitude," "Depression," and "Night" are a few of the poems in Snowy Fields where death enters more as friend than intruder. It is as if death were at last the full granting of the solitude and silence that man grabs fleetingly from the night and the fields when he is able momentarily to forget his daylight awareness of man's inhumanities to man. To die is also to be absolved from returning to the agony of moral confrontation and impotence. Death is, moreover, an escape from the self ("My body hung about me like an old grain elevator, / Useless, clogged, full of blackened wheat"…), and from the future….
But … the dominant vision of Silence in the Snowy Fields is convincingly positive. Much more prevalent than shadow is luminescence; much more prominent than negation is affirmation. (p. 119)
In Light Around the Body the specific detail of Snowy Fields becomes the generalized subjective image, the inwardness becomes a window on the world, and the "I" becomes "we" or appears only as a point of vision ("I hear," "I see") or means of introducing the image. The "I" of the private vision and of the self apart from the mass of men becomes the "we" of public vision and of the self as part of the community of mankind…. In Light Around the Body Bly is speaking in the other of his two necessary languages, about the other of his two necessary selves. The private vision of Silence in the Snowy Fields, if persisted in, would have atrophied into a wrinkled Wordsworthian natural mysticism evasive of modern realities; the focus of Light Around the Body, pursued exclusively, threatens to deteriorate into noisy rhetoric. (p. 121)
[There] are convincing signs that Bly at least understands mysticism. That is itself a rare gift. He also seems to have learned, in Eliot's words, "to care and not to care," that difficult passivity that leads to revelation…. That kind of "letting go," generally foreign to rational Western man, is usually learned through pain and defeat. Bly, who nowhere shares with his reader the details of his particular personal suffering, has somehow come to the mystical wisdom of passivity:
There is a joyful night in which we lose
Everything, and drift
Like a radish
Rising and falling, and the ocean
At last throws us into the ocean….
This understanding, necessarily experiential and not the mere acceptance of the idea by the conscious mind, is for Westerners, if not "mystical," at least a great epiphany. (Denise Levertov's denial of the vain will is a parallel illumination. Allen Ginsberg may not yet have learned to float like a radish, and continues to fling himself against the door that, as Levertov has learned, opens outward.) If the reader bothers to become aware of this spiritual depth in Bly, he is less apt to assume he has read Bly when he has read him only superficially.
Bly's great energy has often earned for him the image of reckless dilettante. In the few public poems of Snowy Fields and in nearly all poetry during the war, Bly set for himself the task of jumping up out of the self "like a grasshopper" into the larger soul of the nation to "entangle" in words and bring back some of the strange plants and animals that inhabit it. By seeking to explore the origins and effects of the impulses that make America and Americans physically and psychically what they are, Bly has found himself in the role of "psychologist." Armed necessarily with only a layman's knowledge of Freud and Jung, an imperfect secondhand knowledge of his patient's history, and an inability to hide the simplicity of his thought in arcane official jargon, his analyses have inevitably struck many as foolish and simplistic…. Moreover, in exploring the American psyche Bly sometimes comes to conclusions that, contrary to all accepted rules of poetry, he baldly offers in the poems themselves free of charge. These must be acknowledged as disturbing weaknesses: in Light, "Men like Rusk are not men"…, "We distrust every person on earth with black hair"…, "No one in business can be a Christian"…, and in Teeth-Mother, "The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies, the priests lie"…. Even though perhaps true, these are prose opinions and not poetic insights. Political poetry is always in danger of being taken literally as prose, and the presence of prose passages such as these has helped insure misreadings of Bly's poems. Read as prose, the poems seem more strident and fantastic than they really are. (pp. 122-24)
Like Allen Ginsberg, Bly began his protest against the war long before this country's fighting in Vietnam began. He sensed early that although oppression in all countries was increasingly invisible, it was nevertheless increasingly experienced—"even in America, [oppression] is as common as beauty, for those who have senses which can grasp it." The protest against the war has been for Bly as for Ginsberg (as it was not for a long while for Levertov) part of a larger revolt against the disposition that occasions war and oppresses the human spirit. Bly senses that somewhere hidden in present values and in the American psyche is a dark and terrible cancer, a core of rottenness and disorder…. It is this darkness and disorder that Bly seeks to explore, understand, and expose—toward the end that it may heal.
Does this darkness grow out of the black seeds of a national and international malaise, or is it something so pervasive as to hint of a darkness in human or cosmic nature? Is this darkness and this terror, which eventually drives man to "tear off his own arms and throw them into the air," innate in man and the cosmos or in man's political and social structures? The question of Bly's philosophy of man and nature is not immediately easy to answer. He is neither a Hobbesian who believes that man is, except for law, a wolf to man, nor a Rousseauist who sees man as a noble savage diseased with civilization. Nor can he be easily categorized as a Jeffers or a Conrad or a Hardy—he is neither a skeptic nor a pessimist, but senses a darkness in both man and the cosmos that he does not understand. The third stanza of "Johnson's Cabinet Watched by Ants" gives the reader a feeling that evil may be timeless and very much at home in the universe, that it is an old story, ineluctable, contemporal with the primeval ooze. (p. 125)
Generally, of course, Bly's poetry does not seek to uncover the ultimate nature of the universe, but to find the more immediate sources of darkness in man's present society. Some evil may be inevitable, but the poet of Silence in the Snowy Fields knows also that man is capable of peace, wholeness, and joy, and that most of the darkness and joy-lessness of modern man is unnatural. The American psyche Bly finds especially afflicted. (p. 126)
Despite his own personal energy and strength, Bly is the supreme poet of defeat—defeat expressed in deep images of maniacal fury and total inertia. (p. 127)
[His] images are so right and familiar that we are apt to pay too little attention to their richness. Not only in his choice of image, but in his choice of particular words [in "Come with Me"], Bly exactly captures the loneliness, degradation, defenselessness, disorientation, suffocation, defeat, and isolation of modern man. Moreover, we see in these images that man is impelled headlong by forces he does not understand or control, that instead of being in the driver's seat he is driven by a larger impersonal machine and is a commodity that has no value except that it can be used up. (pp. 127-28)
Though these images are still close to the surface imagination, one can already feel in them an ominous and terrifying note that elsewhere explodes from the deep unconscious with hysterical force:
One leg walks down the road and leaves
The other behind, the eyes part
And fly off in opposite directions….
Wild dogs tear off noses and eyes
And run off with them down the street—
The body tears off its own arms and throws them into the air….
Such images haunt The Light Around the Body and carry a fantastic horror and degradation. The impossible spectacle of the body tearing off its own arms and throwing them into the air (it has all the mind-crushing-paradox qualities of a Zen koan) is the ultimate expression of extreme self-revulsion and longing for mutilation and annihilation.
Because we have been captured by "death," the death-in-life of the outward man cut off from his vital center, Bly believes we long for real death, an annihilation of the alienated self. Undoubtedly influenced by Freud, Bly finds in our hatred and desire to kill others a double proof of our own self-hatred and death wish. According to Freud's theory of projection, we attribute to our enemy the hatred for us that we feel towards ourselves. We thus need to destroy the enemy because we are paranoically sure he is trying to kill us. And by a second law of sublimation and transference, we satisfy our desire for self-destruction by violence against our enemy. (pp. 128-29)
Bly's poems suggest multiple reasons for his and America's obsession with death. Death is variously looked on as the complete solitude and silence, as escape from self and weary realities, as schizophrenic catatonia, as avoidance of the imminent apocalyptic darkness and cataclysm, as annihilation of the alienated outward self, as projected and sublimated self-hatred. Bly further suggests that we desire death as punishment for the guilt of past evils, and as the culmination of our strong anti-life impulses.
We seek death as expiation of the burden of guilt accumulated from the rape of the frontier and the ecology, from Puritanic morality and discipline, from killing Indians, from a history of violence and socioeconomic inequities—Bly's hysterical images of mutilation seem to spiral out of guilt-frenzy. There are anti-life forces at work throughout the modern world, but Bly senses that they have developed most strongly in America because our "progress" has been more rapid. (p. 130)
[Divisions] of the masculine and feminine occur under subtle and sometimes covert forms throughout Bly's protest poetry, and become the most important unifying theme. What for Ginsberg becomes an Apollonian-Dionysiac or order-orgy conflict, becomes for Bly a conflict between masculine and feminine, hard and soft, rigid and flexible, rock and water. The related polarities or subforms are many, and include reason-emotion, active-passive, barren-fertile, cold-warm, angular-curved, stars-moon, frozen-fluid, domination-submission, discipline-love, power-weakness, and light-dark. (p. 136)
Bly's understanding of the history of ideas may not be minutely sophisticated, and his knowledge in many areas may by some criteria be dilettantish. But his pretensions are no greater than those of every other poet: he may venture into fields others avoid, but he makes no claim to professional expertise in any matter except poetry…. Light Around the Body is a book of many perceptions, and the larger unifying patterns are perhaps largely subconscious rather than calculated. But there is everywhere below the immediate surface of these poems a consistency, integrity, and coherence that makes them worthy of the National Book Award. In the award citation the judges, Theodore Weiss, Harvey Shapiro, and Donald Hall, wrote: "If we poets had to choose something that would be for us our Address on the State of the Nation, it would be this book." (p. 152)
Though Bly's poetry [in The Light Around the Body] is essentially wasteland poetry—his purposes are to give that landscape fuller expression—he does offer … an alternative. It seems at first a private and personal alternative, but it is open to every private person and thus ultimately to the society at large. Indeed, the great revolutionaries have understood that changes in individual consciousness are what is needed, and that changes in the outward political structures are otherwise irrelevant. Those structures are merely the body for which our attitudes are the spirit. (p. 153)
There seem to be two ways to promote … reunion [between the outward and the inward person] one is to "give up desire," the formula of all spirituality; and the other is to accept the person as sacred. (pp. 153-54)
Bly's is a strange new poetry, more deeply involved, more superficially raucous and polemical. It will not be readily embraced—the rocks on the shore do not easily submit to the sea. It campaigns for a deeper, more spontaneous life, and follows its own advice in its volatile and "uncivilized" subjective images. And yet in the midst of its energy, it understands a tranquil center, a letting go, so that at last, naked as a radish, "the ocean … throws us into the ocean." The mountain has not yet altered and become the sea, but partly perhaps because of Bly and other poets against the war, some rocks are falling. (pp. 156-57)
James F. Mersmann, "Robert Bly: Watering the Rocks," in his Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War (© copyright 1974 by the University Press of Kansas), University Press of Kansas, 1974, pp. 113-57.
Robert Bly is the most vocal theorist of his generation, and has helped other writers the most, through his magazine The Sixties. But his own poetry—except for the nature poems in Silence in the Snowy Fields, which are technically limpid, and full of a not easily expressible peace—seems too much the result of a design for irrational poetry, too little of genuinely unconscious promptings. In his recent surrealistic political poetry, I feel I hear a deep voice choking on its own anger and going shrill; I sympathize, but cannot compare the results with such miraculously heart-whole poems as Snyder's "For the West" or Merwin's "For Now". (p. 65)
Alan Williamson, "Language against Itself: the Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (copyright © 1974 by Alan Williamson), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 55-67.