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Bly, Robert 1926–

Bly is an American poet, translator, essayist, and editor who through his rebellion against rhetoric and his development of the "deep image" has greatly influenced contemporary poetry. Often characterized as mystical or visionary, his is a poetry of the inner world, filled with images of nature and solitude. Bly was a founder of "American Writers against the Vietnam War." A 1968 recipient of the National Book Award, he donated the prize money to aid young Americans in defying the draft. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Howard Nelson

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[There] was a radical shift between [Robert Bly's] first and second books, Silence in the Snowy Fields and The Light Around the Body. Since then, however, Bly has not put aside one style or mode to take up another, as some other poets have tended to do. Rather, he has taken the discoveries made in the first two books and used them to write different sorts of poems simultaneously, and has mingled the ways of writing explored there in new ways. The result has been a fascinating body of work, a voice as distinctive as any we now have in our poetry. (p. 2)

A quietly revolutionary book, [Silence in the Snowy Fields] has had an important influence in American poetry in the years since [it appeared]. The snow, fields, barns, lakes, and trees, presented so plainly and precisely, yet seeming to resonate, to glow, with some deep, moving mystery; the quiet declaratory tone; the open expressions of pleasure (there must have been a refreshing, freeing feeling then in writing lines like: "There is a privacy I love in this snowy night" and "I love to see old boards lying on the ground in early spring"); the unexpected leaps of metaphor; the silence, the sense of solitude, the poetry "in the blank spaces between the stanzas"; the rich subjectivity of it all;—all went to make a book that was strikingly original, and that tapped resources that had long been turned away from, for the most part, in American poetry: silence, subjectivity, association, the unconscious, a limpid style. Bly was not alone in his interest in this kind of poetry, but Silence in the Snowy Fields was one of the crucial examples of its reemergence. More important, it was and is a beautiful and moving book of poems. I think it still stands as Bly's best single collection. The critic who reviewed it in 1963 and said that the poems were less effective read grouped together was dead wrong; the repetition of images, phrasings, and feelings enriches the book—artful repetition being one of the oldest keys to poetry—and in a way holds it together as if it were a single long poem. As an expression of a deep marriage between the inner and outer worlds in one man's life and place it is in the line of Walden. I imagine that it will stand, in spite and because of its limitations, as a small (i.e., 60 pages) classic in American poetry. (pp. 2-3)

While there is of course some continuity between [this and The Light Around the Body] (most notably interest in what is now well-known as the "deep image"), the change from Silence to The Light was a jarring one. The Light doesn't have the clarity, the purity, of Silence; instead it is woolly with surrealism and wild associative leaps. The remarkable evocations of the motions of the soul in peaceful solitude are replaced—nearly obliterated—by political and social rage and despair: the Vietnam War, "The Great Society," America's "Hatred of Men With Black...

(This entire section contains 2012 words.)

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Hair." It is an angry, uneven, powerful book, and clearly with it Bly made a major contribution to the growth of an American poetry which is truly political and truly poetry.

After The Light, the question was: what sort of poetry would Bly write now? Inward pastorals, or barrages of wild imagery and political passion? As I've said, the answer has been to abandon neither, to open himself to the energies, and risks, of both. So in Bly's most recent book, Sleepers Joining Hands, we find together his most ambitious political poem, "The Teeth-Mother Naked at Last," a surrealistic, wildly associative poem like "Hair," and the quiet, brief, haunting meditations of "Six Winter Privacy Poems."

The single most important word with regard to Sleepers is association; it is the dominant principle throughout the book. Bly has written a good deal about association in his essays; an entire issue of his magazine The Seventies (#1) was devoted to it. While it doesn't detract from the self-sufficiency of the poetry or the value of his stimulating essays, it is obvious that with Bly, as with Poe (and probably every other writer who has written both poetry and critical essays), a knowledge of the criticism is an important aid in getting a fuller understanding of the poetry.

When he speaks of association Bly seems to have three things in mind. First, association is a structural principle…. Second, association has to do with speed, the speed with which a poet is able to move from one image, feeling or idea to another, from "the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known."… Third, association means being able to travel a long way from an initial, literal subject into subjectivity and the unconscious, and still be talking about the original subject…. Taken together, the result of these three ideas—the absence of connectives or "natural" order, rapid leaping, and moving the poem far from the objective world—is poetry which is demanding: the reader must be able to fly along with the poem, without the supports we rely on during most of our waking lives. The effect of this highly associative kind of poetry can be breathtaking … or, if the energy doesn't flow and ignite just right, the poem can be merely busy and muddled. In Sleepers, there are passages near both ends of the spectrum.

The book's major poem, the title piece, is a long dream odyssey in five sections, streaming choruses of fantastic imagery, a Jungian extravaganza; it is, I suppose, about as highly associative as a poem could be. It is a poem of cumulative effect, and that effect is strong. (pp. 3-4)

That "Sleepers" is flawed work is obvious. But we shouldn't allow the weaknesses to blind us to what is interesting and effective in the poem…. Like the book as a whole, "Sleepers" is uneven and given to excess; it is poetry that we respect for its ambitions and excellent moments and emotional drive rather than for any purity or perfection of craft or spirit. The poem shares its major problems with the collection as a whole: the tendency toward bombast and self-righteousness, images which are more bizarre than right, stumbles in the language, associative leaps that are manic rather than exciting. The strengths are the same also: images that do penetrate the psyche, leaps that do connect us with a new intuitive intelligence and release emotion, an imagination which is lavish and swift. (pp. 5-6)

Sleepers is Bly's only full-sized collection since The Light. His best recent work, however, is to be found in slim volumes from small presses and in the little magazines, and has been done primarily in two forms: the very short poem, and the prose poem. (pp. 6-7)

Bly had several very short poems in Silence; the simplicity, the suddenness and surprise of the form, were central to what he was working for there. But those poems, and the book as well, lacked any humor. If Silence created an impression of purity in the reader's mind, that purity was in part the result of an austerity, in tone and in what was and was not allowed to enter the poems. The poems in Silence seem somehow chastened—"artificial"—when compared to [his best recent poems]. The poems in Silence have a sense of ritual about them, while the more recent poems seem more spontaneous. It is probably because of this subtle artificiality in Silence that some critics praise that book, but shy away from the more recent work: the greater feeling of spontaneity in the new poems makes them uneasy—it is too open, too much like notations of the mind in motion, rather than perceptions worked patiently into poems. How the poems were actually composed is irrelevant. The point is that Bly's voice has grown warmer and more varied: more fully and believably—and likably—human. He can still write a brief poem full of a haunting silence, but now he also gives us poems that are impulsive, energetic, with a gaiety reminiscent of Issa. (pp. 9-10)

The same warming and opening of the voice which I've tried to point out in the tiny poems is a central source of strength in Bly's prose poems as well. (p. 10)

Reading Bly's prose poems, Roethke's phrase "a steady storm of correspondences" constantly comes to my mind. Even in small, quiet poems, there is an excited imagination, sensing totally unexpected connections.

All metaphor tacitly acknowledges interconnectedness in the universe, a great web of relationships. For some poets the relationships are primarily interesting for their stylistic uses; for others, like Bly, the ability to see the connections has a deeper importance: it is part of staying spiritually alive, part of one's involvement with the universe.

The imagination we find in these poems has an odd heaviness and substance to it, but with a feeling of lightness at the same time—like a large, solidly built man who is also very nimble. Some of the correspondences which Bly discovers are amazing. One thing that makes them so is a way Bly has of playing with the pathetic fallacy; it is another technique which he has used since Silence, and now uses with marvelous … nerve…. There is an eccentricity [in these poems], but eccentricity is no fault where there is imagination as well. As to the use of the pathetic fallacy, the mingling of the natural world and the world of human emotion can be explained by saying that when Bly writes a line like "the black ducks that fly desolate, forlorn and joyful over the seething swells," he is projecting his own inner world onto the natural world. That's true, but it is also true that Bly, unlike many of us, is not offended by the suggestion that beings other than humans might possess a spiritual life.

It is interesting that so many of the prose poems deal with the seashore…. The sea and the land, the inner world and the outer, the unconscious and the conscious mind—Bly is always concerned with such meeting places. A rich, creative relationship between the inner and outer worlds might, in fact, be called his central theme.

To return to the idea of imaginative leaping, it seems to me that it is in the prose poems that Bly realizes these leaps with most exhilaration and grace. For myself, I find the leaps in them usually more effective than those in the stream-of-consciousness poems in Sleepers because in the prose poems the leaps are made from concrete setting and objects, which tends to put more energy and surprise (and the sheer surprise, the marvelous unpredictability, of the metaphoric insights of these poems is one of the main sources of their vitality) into the flights into the unconscious or through time and space. The imagination here is capable of collapsing millions of years quite casually, and without the strain that sometimes occurs when, say, a mammoth appears out of nowhere in a passage of free association (pp. 11-12)

We also see in the prose poems the kind of integration of the techniques and styles represented by Silence and The Light that I've been referring to. There are the quiet, mundane, concrete situations, the attentive eye, and clarity and simplicity of language that characterize Silence, but also the wildness, the freedom and energy, of sudden surrealistic images and profuse, quick associative shifts that were first fully utilized in The Light. (pp. 12-13)

There is something in Bly's combination of mysticism and intuition and passion and didacticism that is reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence. Or perhaps it is better to say Whitman than Lawrence: Bly's criticism and political poems often have Lawrence's curtness and fervor, but the central enterprise of the poetry is more akin to Whitman, who was essentially concerned with helping (rather than analyzing) the growth—the deepening and unfolding and transcendence—of the self. (p. 14)

Howard Nelson, "Welcoming Shadows: Robert Bly's Recent Poetry," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1975 by Hollins College), April, 1975, pp. 1-15.

Julian Gitzen

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Robert Bly's poetry owes its appeal in part to vivid descriptions of the region around Madison, Minnesota, where he has spent much of his life. The chief concern of his verse, however, is not the objective portrayal of external nature but, rather, the presentation of various states of mind. Natural surroundings assume importance for him either as influences contributing to thoughts or emotions or as media of symbolic expression. Along with James Wright, James Dickey, Robert Kelley and others, Bly has argued for the writing of poetry of increased subjectivity, with emphasis upon the poet's personal vision…. He shares significant ground with the surrealist André Breton, particularly in his fondness for images generated by powerful feelings in the poet's unconscious and designed to appeal to the unconscious of the reader. Although he lacks Breton's Freudian faith in "the omnipotence of the dream," dreams and dream-images do appear in his verse. Similarly, while his art is much more consciously constructed than the automatic writing or "pure psychic automatism" prized by the surrealists, it does contain such notable imagistic departures from objectivity as "moles with golden wings" and Arabic numerals "dressed as bankers and sportsmen," images which are solidly in the surrealist tradition.

In accordance with his attraction to subjectivity, Bly's typical authorial stance is emotional, as reflected in titles like "Three Kinds of Pleasures," "Unrest," "Depression," "Melancholia," and "Written in Dejection near Rome." Despite the predominant gloominess of these titles, the emotion most often expressed in the poems is not sadness but delight. Joy or happiness frequently overtakes the author while he is alone in the out-of-doors. He is both comforted and inspired by solitude, not only because it facilitates the reflective and meditative moments which are vital to his well-being but also because is frees him to develop a mental intensity out of which poetry may issue. Bly refers to the artist's psychic potential as "desire-energy" and explains that during periods of solitude this desire-energy accumulates until it overflows into expression…. (pp. 231-32)

Since Bly's verse depends heavily upon dominant images, it is essential that the most important images be carefully examined. Among his most frequently repeated images is darkness. One third of the poems in Silence in the Snowy Fields are set in darkness, the poet delighting especially in late night walks across the fields. No doubt darkness attracts him partially because it is conducive to solitude. Furthermore, it serves as a convenient emblem of the unconscious, an important realm to this poet who, like the surrealists, wishes "to open new corridors into the psyche by association."… For Bly, as for generations of other poets, darkness also represents death. Such observations as: "the darkness of death," "The farmer looks up at the paling dome reminding him of death," and "We are falling,/ Falling into the open mouths of darkness," combined with the juxtaposition of darkness and death in poems such as "Night" and "Riderless Horses" provide conclusive evidence of Bly's intentions.

Frequently linked with darkness (as in the quotation above from "Return to Solitude") is the image of water, occasionally described by Bly as itself "dark."… Having an easily penetrable surface and variable depth, water is uniquely appropriate as an image attached to the related conditions of sleep and death, both of which Bly associates with a fertile strangeness and inwardness. Somewhat as a sleeper falls away from surface consciousness into the depth of the unconscious, so the newly dead literally descend beneath the earth's surface and figuratively break through the surface of conscious existence and into a mysterious, unfamiliar realm. The imagistic usefulness of water in such contexts is self-evident.

Bly's aspiration to escape the tyranny of rational consciousness, experiencing instead the inward state and its richness, is expressed through a water-image in "After Drinking All Night With a Friend …". The poet acknowledges that his experiences have been essentially conscious, that his have been the same interests which, as he says elsewhere, have caused American poetry to cling at unprofitable length "to the surface of life." Like the boat in which he is seated, he has simply drifted above the depths, but he yearns to go underwater…. (pp. 232-34)

Like darkness and water, snow is a favorite Bly image associated with sleep and death. As with darkness, he is employing a traditional, even archetypal, image because of its proven suggestive power. In his preference for snow he joins a symbolic tradition among whose modern representatives are James Joyce's "The Dead" and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Like Joyce and Frost, Bly prefers to link snow and darkness, thereby intensifying if not actually doubling the evocative powers of the images. (pp. 234-35)

Frequently associated with snow, water, or darkness in Bly's poems is moonlight. To fully understand its place in his imagistic realm, it is first necessary to review his relation to the German mystical theologian Jacob Boehme (1575–1624), whose writings have furnished epigraphs for both Silence in the Snowy Fields and The Light around the Body. The poet's choice of epigraphs, such as, "We are all asleep in the outward man," indicates his approval of Boehme's distinction between materialism (associated with greed and selfishness) and spiritualism (associated with godlike love). Boehme accounts for creation in terms of the gradual emergence from the Divine Will of three contending wills or principles, which he identifies as: light, darkness, and bitterness. These three compete in the shaping of all living matter, including man, and the degree to which one principle dominates a specific act of creation determines the unique form which the living matter will assume. During its formation matter passes through distinctive evolutionary stages. The most important of these is the fourth form, Fire, for any matter which reaches this stage acquires self-consciousness (identified with Fire). Self-consciousness, the feeble light of the outward or external man, consists of greed, wrath, and pride.

Although Fire-man is still dominated by the principle of darkness he has been introduced to the light, and it is within his power to elevate himself to the fifth form, Light, which will manifest to him the inner world of the Divine Will, permitting him to escape the Fire of "self" which consumes and to be guided instead by the Light of Divine love. By emulating the life of Christ, men may reach the fifth form, but only by following Christ in rejecting the world, the flesh, and the devil. True peace and harmony are attained only by those who achieve understanding of the Divine Will…. Bly's matching conception of a sharp division between the selfish materialism of the outward man (whose animalistic greed is imagistically represented by "the hairy tail" that "howls in the dirt") and the humility, charity, and love of the inner man, as well as his persistent longing to escape from the material to the spiritual world are apparent in such poem-titles as "Smothered by the World," "In Danger from the Outer World," and "Moving Inward at Last."

Since Boehme assumed that the male is temperamentally more aggressive and self-serving than the female, he described the fire-source as the masculine element, conceiving of the light-source as feminine. Obviously Bly has adopted these distinctions to the extent that in "A Man Writes to a Part of Himself," he addresses his inner spirit as a forsaken wife "starving, without care." Again in "The Busy Man Speaks," which opposes spiritual activities to material counterparts, spiritual affairs such as love, art, and sorrow are associated with "the mother," while material concerns, characterized by righteous conduct and "the Chase National Bank," are assigned to "the father." (pp. 235-37)

By following Boehme in the association of women with the spirit and with light, Bly is once more adopting a traditional literary device, particularly when he invokes the archetypal feminine image of moonlight. Typifying his use of moonlight imagery is the opening stanza of "Solitude Late at Night in the Woods":

  The body is like a November birch facing the full moon
  And reaching into the cold heavens.
  In these trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves,
  Nothing but bare trunks climbing like fire!

The trees set us an example in stretching their branches toward the light, the source of spiritual illumination. Their exemplary behavior resides not simply in their aspiration to light but in their prior shedding of leaves or "sodden body." (p. 237)

Sleepers Joining Hands … adds an additional dimension to Bly's spiritual quest. While essentially a book of poems, it contains an essay, "I Came Out of the Mother Naked," in which the author argues that prehistoric human societies were matriarchal and that "what we call masculine consciousness is a very recent creation." He identifies the spirit presiding over the lives of primitive men as that of the Great Mother, of whom he distinguishes four types: the Good Mother or procreative force, whose interest is in abundant life; the Death Mother, whose "job is to end everything the Good Mother has brought to birth"; the Ecstatic Mother, who ministers to mental and spiritual development; and the Stone Mother or Teeth Mother, who opposes the Ecstatic Mother, dissolving consciousness, "dismembering … the psyche," as the Death Mother destroys life. While not arguing that Father-consciousness is evil, Bly does associate it with logic, and he senses an increased weariness with reasoning, resulting in an arising interest in the intuitive mode of Mother-consciousness. It appears that the Great Mother (and particularly the Ecstatic Mother) constitutes for Bly the mythical extension of the feminine spirituality which he found in Boehme. For him as for his fellow poet Robert Graves the feminine myth offers a tangible and profound expression of spiritual forces. Not surprisingly, Bly finds two of the Mother's favorite images to be "the night" and "the moon," images which, as we have noted, dominate his verse. His immediate affinities are with the Ecstatic Mother, or Muse, of whom he observes, "When a man or woman is joyful alone, the Ecstatic Mother is there." Given Bly's preference for creative solitude and his poetic emphasis upon solitary joy, it is apparent how fully he has committed himself to the Ecstatic Mother.

Whether or not his own interest in the unconscious led him to this myth, Bly certainly assumes that the path to its rediscovery lies through the unconscious. (p. 238)

The need to rediscover the Great Mother is urgent, for our modern contempt for spirituality has engendered a dangerous imbalance. Poems like "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" indicate Bly's conviction that the destructive Death Mother and Teeth Mother, perhaps aided by overwhelming Father-consciousness, are threatening us. It is vital to restore favor to the Good Mother and the Ecstatic Mother. Although in his essay, Bly claims to be encouraged by finding "in my own poems and in the poems of so many other poets alive now fundamental attempts to right our spiritual balance, by encouraging those parts in us that are linked with music, with solitude, water, and trees, the parts that grow when we are far from the centers of ambition," his recent poetry, nevertheless, is permeated by a tone of frustration and by prophecies of doom, underlining his belief that capitalism and materialism have triumphed at the expense of essential human qualities.

He mourns the disappearance of kindness and sympathy as Americans discover the selfishness and attendant brutality which are their birthright. A terrible disillusionment is evidenced by "the light in children's faces fading at six or seven." Conscience and humane feelings are not easily trampled, however, and, if scorned, may eventually take revenge. Bly is convinced that a large-scale surrender to greed and selfishness has in turn generated a suicidal self-hatred, a guilty yearning for death. Among those most susceptible to self-destruction are the most tender and conscientious, and leading the suicides are "ministers who dive headfirst into the earth." "Hurrying Away from the Earth" portrays various horrible forms of suicide, indicating the dreadful extent to which people are willing to go to escape from a world in which "the poor, and the dazed, and the idiots" are neglected and abused. (pp. 239-40)

Bly's version of the Waste Land is set forth in nightmare-images appropriate to the heightened emotionalism and intensity of his gloomy prophetic tone, images marking a transition to genuine surrealism. "Now the whole nation starts to whirl, / the end of the Republic breaks off" as the godhead of empiricism, "the ghost of Locke," continues to preside "above the railroad tracks." Human servants of the materialistic ethic are "black spiders, / having turned pale and fat." Violent self-destructiveness abounds as "the body tears off its own arms and throws them into the air" and "The sheriff cuts off his black legs / And nails them to a tree." Swallowed by a black selfishness which shuts out the spiritual light, the population is ripe for death, and "The grave moves from its ambush, / Moving over the hills on black feet," while "Some shining thing, inside, that has served us well" strives to escape. Bly's vision is conveyed with an urgency reminiscent of the British poets of the Thirties. As a social critic he invites comparison with Auden, whose moral viewpoint resembles his own. Auden's line, "We must love one another or die," sums up the impulse behind much of Bly's recent poetic effort. (p. 240)

Julian Gitzen, "Floating on Solitude: The Poetry of Robert Bly," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright © 1976, by Jerome Mazzaro), Vol. 7, No. 3, Winter, 1976, pp. 231-40.

Michael Atkinson

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In Sleepers Joining Hands, Robert Bly offers his readers a various weave of the personal and the public, the psychological and the political modes of experience. Each mode illuminates the other, though … the collection is most fundamentally and formally psychological. The layout of the book is pleasantly indirect: two dozen pages of poems, ranging from haiku-like meditation moments to longer poems of protest. Then there is the essay, a short course in the Great Mother, an analysis of the disturbing but finally nourishing configuration of feminine archetypes in the collective unconscious. And finally we have the oneiric title sequence: four poems and a coda, written at different times and published in different places, but here offered as a single structure, a whole.

The poems on either side of the essay seem to point back and forth to each other. And so naturally we ask: what is the relation of the earlier poems to the later sequence? What is the final shape of the book?

The essay points the way. Like most poets who pause to explain themselves, Bly works obliquely. His essay focuses on the work of Bachofen and Neumann; yet the pattern of the book rests firmly on the thought of a successor to the first and the teacher of the second—Carl Jung. The essay coordinates the variety of anima archetypes which inhabit our subconsciousness: the Good Mother who gives us life, the Death Mother who takes it away; the Ecstatic Mother, muse of joy, and the Stone or Teeth Mother who reduces us to the stupor of psychic annihilation. But the title sequence, which is the key to the book's integrity, focuses on two other Jungian dream archetypes—the shadow and the Self.

The symbols of the earlier poems gain resonance in the schematic context of the later sequence: imagist poems move toward plotted action, oracles toward ritual, archetypes toward myth. Here, I would like to present the scheme of the sequence and show its relation to the shorter poems, delineating the system of archetypes that coherently applies throughout the book, linking Biblical allusions to contemporary consciousness and connecting dream images with myth. (pp. 135-36)

In Jung's overall schema, the personality striving for full individuation or integration has four aspects, which are personified in our dreams: (1) the ego (or persona), that person (or role) we consider ourselves to be in normal waking consciousness; (2) the shadow, that figure of the same sex as the ego who embodies negative or positive traits which might have been conscious but which have now been repressed; (3) the anima, the woman within the man, that feminine consciousness with which he has to come to terms—or the animus, the man within the woman, representing the male consciousness with which the woman must reconcile herself; and finally, (4) the Self, that perfect wholeness which the individual can become, when he has reconciled himself with his shadow and anima (or she with her shadow and animus) and become his own potentiality for being.

The first poem of the "Sleepers" sequence hearkens back to the time the ego became split from its shadow by repression, and is appropriately entitled "The Shadow Goes Away." It records the fragmentation of the questor, chronicles his separation from that lost aspect which he must again come to recognize in himself. Until he incorporates his shadow, he is powerless to act effectively. We feel his powerlessness as we gaze with him upon "The woman chained to the shore," Andromeda-like, and hear him express his fear of going into the ocean to fight for her, to liberate her. (In mythic compression, the woman is the ocean—la mer, la mère—the womb from which he must be reborn whole.) He fears the sea. Juxtaposed to his feeling of impotence is its cause: his loss of the shadow.

Often—perhaps most frequently in dream and art—the shadow is a figure that embodies the negative aspects of the personality; the negativity provides the reason they are repressed. Thus we have Jekyll's hidden Hyde, Dimmesdale's Chillingworth, Gatsby's Wolfsheim, and the like. But, as Jung notes, we may just as easily deny parts of ourselves that—grown wiser—we would consider good. Because something about them threatens the fragile, narrowly defined persona or ego, they too may be repressed. But ultimately they must be admitted to our consciousness and assimilated, or the results will be disastrous. Ishmael's savage Queequeg, Willy Lowman's Charley, Macbeth's Banquo: each contains "values that are needed by consciousness, but that exist in a form that makes it difficult to integrate them into one's life."

The protagonist in Bly's poems has a shadow that is protean but consistent. (pp. 136-37)

The questor's shadow—and, the poem suggests, ours—is the natural man, the primitive, at home in the world of nature and the unconscious. The pillagers of the tribal village and the Marines who appear late in the poem are intended to remind us how we have duplicated our oppression of the Indian in the bombing of Vietnam. Equations that seem both familiar and strained in political rhetoric are here given greater coherence and vitality in a psychological connection. In each case we have attempted to destroy (or repress) the people who best exemplified the very qualities we most need to acknowledge and cultivate in ourselves—positive shadows.

"The Shadow Goes Away" gives a larger context for a number of the other poems—poems, already integers themselves, now resonate within the larger pattern. "The Condition of the Working Classes: 1970" is blamed not on those above them, but on those they have trod under—blamed not on the oppression that workers might suffer, but on the repression of their shadows, inwardly and outwardly. (p. 138)

As the repression intensifies, so does the terror of living with it. Denying the shadow drives us into the maw of "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last." Here the horror hits its highest pitch and an unfamiliar list toward stereotype and stridence appears. Maybe it is unavoidable—so many have spoken out against the war for so long that even the most telling analysis has deteriorated into formula and finally come to rest in cliché. Bly's poem cannot shake itself free of stereotypy, even though it has considerable power. The power comes not just from its imagery … but from the analysis of cause and effect that is given in the hard terms of imagery which will not allow the luxuries and niceties of rationalization. These cause-effect concatenations generate both the strengths and weaknesses of the poem. I suspect each reader will find different equations effective. But when they work, they work; when they don't, they grate. (pp. 138-39)

[Bly's Teeth Mother] is naked and terrible. But at least we can see her now, as our forebears perhaps could not. In the terror of Vietnam she has become clear to us, our own creation. As Bly explains in his essay, the Teeth Mother "stands for numbness, paralysis, catatonia, being totally spaced out, the psyche torn to bits, arms and legs thrown all over."… "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" offers a diagram of despair, a brittle anatomy of agony with only a gesture to indicate the possibility of healing, of wholeness.

Here, then, is a picture of the U.S. at our most culturally destructive, annihilating our own shadows—Indians, Blacks, Vietnamese—with whom we must be reunited if we are to have psychic fullness and dimensionality; if we are to be solid enough to cast shadows. Concern for oppression of our shadows pervades the book, essay and poems. But it is neither a continuing accusation nor an extended mea culpa that Bly chants, as "Calling to the Badger" shows. This poem, like all of Bly's work on the shadow, is pervaded by a "sadness that rises from the death of the Indians," and that is a sadness for our own loss….

This backward look over the shadow poems that begin the book can help define the conditions that apply as the title sequence opens. As in most myths (whether the king be impotent, the land waste, or the virgin guarded by a dragon—all of which conditions more or less obtain as we return to the opening of the "Sleepers" sequence) the call to the quest begins with a perception of a lack, an imbalance. Whereas the earlier, shorter poems mainly expressed despair at the loss, "The Shadow Goes Away" proceeds from recognition to restorative action. Our fugitive imaginations are personified in the protagonist who, too, calls to the badger and otter, animals still in touch with the renewing waters of psychic life, the stream that emerges from beneath the ground. (p. 141)

Bly's seeker goes in search of his shadow, which hides in all dark peoples, Negro, Eskimo, Indian, Asian. The equation between past and present betrayals, between Indian and Asian wars, is now complete, clear to the protagonist as well as the reader. Refusing to continue the old path of inner denial and outward oppression, he turns from the zeal of battle to view the littered land with primitive consciousness and compassion. He has begun to assimilate the consciousness of the shadow, and can now continue his journey of integration.

The second poem of the sequence finds the dreamer momentarily awake, noting but not yet comprehending the femininity of the earth on which he finds himself: "fragments of the mother lie open in all low places." But his task here is "Meeting the Man Who Warns Me," and the substance of the warning is that he may not understand, may not proceed further without realizing from a transcendental viewpoint where he has already been.

Dreaming again, the sleeper experiences everywhere the death of the father…. The dreamer experiences absolute separation from the presence of the father because he has seen the father only as external; he has not yet recognized the father-energy as a part of himself, waiting to be actualized.

But now that vision can change, for in the paradoxical logic of myth, once the shadow figure has become visible, the light may be seen. (p. 142)

Quite strikingly, as the protagonist of the poem 'sees the light' and realizes that "The energy is inside us," he immediately encounters a personification of the Self:

      I start toward [the light], and I meet an old man.
      And the old man cries out: "I am here.
      Either talk to me about your life, or turn back."

When the protagonist pauses for breath and begins to account for his experience, the rendering is most startling; for it comes from a greater completeness, and a greater mythic awareness than either reader or dreamer knew he had. He begins by announcing his own shadow-including nature and proceeds to recount a mythical journey which neither we nor he knew he had taken. (p. 143)

The synoptic recollection of the journey of the protagonist, which appears in the last lines of "Meeting the Man Who Warns Me," is expanded in "Night Journey in the Cooking Pot," which is a flashback composed of reflections on the experience and meaning of his immersion, of the dark, still uncomprehended part of his quest. Here, again, a problem of continuity confronts us; but the apparently confused and confusing emotional swings of "Night Journey" can be understood once we see that the poem divides itself into two movements, describing two phases of the mythic journey: the departure into the realm of mystery and also the return to the ordinary world. As the seeker begins to reexperience and rearticulate his journey retrospectively, we hear a familiar pattern: "I was born during the night sea journey." That he "love[s] the whale with his warm organ pipes" is less expected, but perfectly consonant: for Bly, this going-out is an ecstasis, a standing-outside-of the ego, an ecstasy; it is the return to the world of ordinary men and affairs that proves the difficult leg of the journey.

The departure into the water is a journey into ego-dissolving solitude, a necessary prelude to finding a path of effective action in the ordinary world: "I float on solitude as on water … there is a road" (Bly's ellipsis). The poem's first movement explores his privacy, which for Bly is sister word to privilege, not privation. Here we see the rejuvenating exhilaration of going a little crazy in private, deprived of human contact in the "womanless loneliness." The enthusiasm for isolation expressed in "Night Journey" is reinforced and clarified by several of the book's earlier poems. (pp. 145-46)

Finally, of course, this privacy is the solitude of the womb, for the voyage he recalls in "The Night Journey in the Cooking Pot," is the night sea journey in the womb of la mer, notre mère. The cooking pot of the title, like the oven and hearth as Bly explains in his essay, is the province of the woman and symbol of the womb. In the opening movement of "Night Journey" images of rebirth abound: "I feel … / the baby whirling in the womb," and "Nuns with faces smoothed by prayer peer out from holes in the earth." (p. 146)

In the second movement of "Night Journey" [the seeker] faces the difficulty of returning to the world of ordinary experience. Like Buddha, whose ultimate temptation was simply to stay in the oceanic trance of nirvana, like the silent Lazarus and other such questors, this seeker sees how difficult it will be to communicate the joy of going beyond the ego, the personality, the boundaries of our daily round. But like Whitman in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he urges us to realize that we are not separated from him, but united by a common experience we sometimes forget.

         I am not going farther from you
         I am coming nearer,
         green rain carries me nearer you,
         I weave drunkenly about the page,
         I love you,
         I never knew that I loved you
         Until I was swallowed by the invisible.

Here, in his protagonist's plea for understanding, it would seem that we have Bly's apologia for his own method. By writing in the language of dream and vision, he does not hope to remove himself from our experience, for we are all dreamers, and can eventually intuit the scheme of our dreams…. Though he acknowledges that the poem's oracular words may seem skew and difficult, he assures us that when he emerges from the water (night, mother, chaos, unconscious, dream) his speech will be straight as the branch—a promise, as we have seen, difficult to fulfill. (pp. 146-47)

But such a conclusion is far too optimistic, or else many would have returned and spoken, and redemption would be daily for all men. Bly realizes that—and in the second movement of "Night Journey," the questor suffers the inexorable difficulty of returning to the realm of ordinary experience while preserving his vision. (p. 147)

He is ashamed looking into the limpid pool of his dreams. The poem has moved fully from the ecstasy of the journey to the restrictions of the return. And those restrictions include the difficulty of making the poem "good enough."

In the fourth poem, Bly spells out the nature of the journey as explicitly as possible:

    Here is some prose
Once there was a man who went to a far country
      to get his inheritance and then returned

This, of course, is (in the phrase of James Joyce and the system of Joseph Campbell) the "monomyth" in its briefest form: the story of the hero who is called from the ordinary world of experience into the realm of the mysterious, where he battles various foes, conquers or converts them, and gains a boon, his "inheritance," a life-restoring elixir with which he recrosses the threshold and with which, after some readjustment, he transforms the world or his vision of it. (pp. 148-49)

There is a nascent realization, a new Self, "another being living inside" the poet: "He is looking out of my eyes. / I hear him / in the wind through the bare trees." (p. 150)

As Ginsberg ended Howl with a joyous footnote—not as a palinode, but to affirm the divinity of the horror he chronicled—so to this strange and often painful oneiric journey, Bly appends "An Extra Joyful Chorus for Those Who Have Read This Far." In several ways the chorus alludes heavily to Whitman. Its closing lines (and indeed the very title of the entire "Sleepers Joining Hands" sequence) bear strong resemblance to the opening of the last section of Whitman's poem "The Sleepers."… Yet, though both poems record psychological night sea journeys, and though both close with affirmations, the similarities between the poems are not continuous. Bly borrows from Whitman for his own ends, as we shall see.

And so with technique. The "Joyful Chorus," Bly's chant of polymorphous identity which echoes and goes beyond his handling of the protean shadow in "The Shadow Goes Away," also recalls Whitman's chants of universal identity. Here again, there are some important differences to balance the similarities. Whitman's sympathetic identifications are usually directed toward the commonplace and the possible, encouraging the reader to follow along…. Bly, on the other hand, opts to include the fantastical and folkloristic along with the ordinary and credible, which encourages the reader to relate these elements to other symbolic quests or to translate them into his own terms, but not to engage directly in the protagonist's own identification:

  I am the ball of fire the woodman cuts out of the wolf's stomach,
  I am the sun that floats over the Witch's house,
  I am the horse sitting in the chestnut tree singing.

While both poets work within the tradition of the psychic quest, Bly is also referring to it, and asking the reader to refer to it, schematically.

Like Whitman, Bly makes use of the transcendent power of the aggregate. The catalogue of beautiful and ordinary and terrible beginnings which dominates the first sixty lines of section 15 of "Song of Myself" yields the aggregate exhilaration of Beginning; in "The Sleepers" the catalogue of actor, nominee, stammerer and criminal in an averaged aggregate of sleeping humanity allows Whitman to say

  The soul is always beautiful
  The universe is duly in order…. every thing is in its place….

  The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite … they unite now.

For Bly's protagonist the transcendent aggregate is the experience of the completed quest: its component parts, no matter how painful, finally become redeemed because of their place in the whole. Even "fleeing along the ground like a frightened beast" or being "the last inheritor crying out in deserted houses" become fit matter for a "Joyful Chorus" when the protagonist realizes that he is at every moment "an eternal happiness fighting in the long reeds." Each act contains the imprint of all others, and of the completed sequence. Bly's questor images his life everywhere at once and at all stages simultaneously. Perhaps most summatively he is "the man locked inside the oakwomb, / waiting for lightning, only let out on stormy nights." He is that core of life in the tree of the Self, drawn from subterranean waters and waiting, now that the old foliage has died, to manifest himself in the new spring. He is everyone and "no one at all" simultaneously, for he is prior to personality. Thus, in the womb, aching to deliver himself, he can paradoxically say:

     I love the Mother.
     I am an enemy of the Mother, give me my sword.
     I leap into her mouth full of seaweed.

For he honors the womb of the unconscious and arational which he has reentered as embryo, and he honors the rational and masculine desire to translate that primeval wholeness into the articulate world of forms—water to leaves, sea to sword.

Further, he sees and feels the archetypal nature and universal possibility of his experience—new incarnations and new Bethlehems for all men who attend to their dreams:

   Our faces shine with the darkness reflected from the
   The panther rejoices in the gathering dark.
   Hands rush toward each other through miles of space.
   All the sleepers in the world join hands.
                                               (pp. 150-53)

Michael Atkinson, "Robert Bly's 'Sleepers Joining Hands': Shadow and Self," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1976, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 7, No. 4 (Fall, 1976), pp. 135-53.

Alan Helms

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The experience of reading Sleepers Joining Hands … is a bit like slogging your way through a violent storm.

The book begins in deceptive calm, with "Six Winter Privacy Poems."… Bly's central theme, beautifully rendered: the duality of inner and outer worlds, the deep duality of a consciousness often conflicted but existing here in a momentary state of peaceful coexistence. It's the American haiku, fully and quietly accomplished…. [However,] the final, frenetic Whitmanesque catalogue of wildly various identifications [in "An Extra Joyful Chorus for Those Who Have Read This Far"] should give you some idea of the bumpy ground Bly travels in Sleepers Joining Hands.

Bly's troubled yearning to achieve the condition of a Whitman most shows in passages of "The Night Journey in the Cooking Pot."… Whitman's influence is everywhere…. Whitman was not, so far as I can recall, ever ashamed sitting on the edge of his bed, nor did he ever announce a decision in his poetry that "death is friendly." For Whitman, death was a fact of his condition, not a subject for debate. Whitman's belief became the condition of his poetry, not the occasion for it.

No, "this is not the perfect freedom of the saints" for it lacks the saint's bedrock of belief; the result is a poetry of claim instead of conviction…. (pp. 284-85)

How difficult it must be to cultivate this special brand of solitary sensibility ("inwardness, inwardness, inwardness, the inward path I still walk on") and still hope for the kind of reader community Bly writes about, in this book but especially in his criticism. He's accomplished this job in the past, it's true—by shunting between inner and outer worlds, writing "private" poems of quiet, mystical meditation on the one hand and "public" poems of scathing political and psychological analysis on the other. Sleepers Joining Hands is an attempt to come to terms with the inner outer dichotomy, to integrate them or at least to lead them toward integration. (p. 286)

There is however one calm, searching eye in the midst of this storm. The prose center of the book, "I Came Out of the Mother Naked," explores the arguments of Bachofen, Neumann, and Jung that matriarchies only gradually gave way to patriarchies, and that "the Great Mother can best be understood as a union of four 'force fields.'" In working through his exciting "psychic archaeology," Bly achieves with his prose what he hopes for in his poetry: establishment of community created through an imaginative reading of the history of his own consciousness and the culture in which it lives, works, suffers, and sometimes exults. The essay focuses the energies dispersed throughout the poetry; it also provides Bly with a possible mythology. But it is as archeologists in search of a community that we finally come to read the poetry, discovering here a flying turtle, there a cooking pot, picking our way slowly through a littered maze of Jungian psychology and Great Mother imagery, backwards in the order of literature down to the foundation of Bly's theory which gives us the clues we need to reconstruct the poems. Though he will hate the comparison, Bly's latest poetry is written like almost all of Ransom's, in the service of a theory.

Says Valéry, "… there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography." Bly has given us a lot of his autobiography, including these rearranged quotations …:

For my own generation of poets the whole problem of the community has been an agony…. When I publish a book…. I try to give something to the community…. the more the weak function in the writer is developed, the closer the writer comes to the community, or to "humanity."…. my weakest function, feeling, is still poorly developed….

It follows that if Bly is to develop what, in his view, is his weakest function, thereby resolving his agony of the community, he should write fragmented poems full of feeling. That's just what he's done in the past, giving us poems of intense feeling in which discreetly marked fragments sit comfortably together, held by the power of his extraordinary imagery. (pp. 286-88)

[The] essential shift in Bly's recent poetry, as distinct from his prose [is] a turn from charting and chanting the geography of America's psychological and moral landscape, to mapping and mourning the battered terrain of his own fragmented sensibility. And coincident with this development, from having been our critic who most successfully demolished the confessional mode, he's recently opted for it himself: "O yes, I love you, book of my confessions." Insofar as that "book of confessions" is synonymous with his latest actual book, Bly's performance is sloppy and self-conscious, as if he could suddenly hear himself thinking, and out loud at that. (p. 288)

Alan Helms, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1977 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 2, 1977.

Hugh Kenner

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Robert Bly's prose poems have a parallel hallucinatory quality [to the drawings by Gendron Jensen that illustrate "This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood"]….

"My beloved is to me as a cluster of camphor," we read in the Song of Solomon (1:14); and the Ark, God told Noah (Genesis 6:14), was to be made "of gopherwood." The Ark was by some accounts an allegory for the body, and that's all the explanation you're going to get in these pages about what it's like to be alive in a body; in it, yet through it mysteriously part of everything else material….

Bly is attempting to write down what it's like to be alive, a state in which, he implies, not all readers find themselves all the time—certainly not all readers who lack the luck to live in rural Minnesota, where a voice isn't always trying to sell you something. (p. 10)

Hugh Kenner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 1, 1978.

James Finn Cotter

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Nowadays, everything Bly touches becomes a holy cause and reason for another book. [In This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood] he consecrates "the often neglected[?] medium of the prose poem." Like the snail in the book's twenty-one drawings by Gendron Jensen, Bly has crept into the shell of his own meditations and remains absorbed in Sufi poetry, Rilke, protozoa, animals, woods, and fog. The pilgrim's mecca is a small black stone, mysterious and impenetrable. One may admire such pure isolation, but the poet does not help us to share it. The result is not mysticism but solipsism, and we are left out in the cold by passages like this one from "The Pail"; "So for two days I gathered ecstasies from my own body, I rose up and down, surrounded only by bare wood and bare air and some gray cloud, and what was inside me came so close to me, and I lived and died!" In earlier collections—especially Sleepers Joining Hands—Bly could convince us of a mystical experience by imagining and hinting at its beauty. Too often these poems are overwrought and pretentious. The one delightful piece here describes the poet's children and their friends preparing to put on a play. Except for this "Coming In for Supper," a reader would not know a family existed or, rather, mattered in the poet's hermetic world. Even the love poem that closes the volume, "The Cry Going Out over Pastures," appears to be too rhetorical to be moving, talking more about the poet than the loved one: "I first met you when I had been alone for nine days." A strange way to greet someone you love. (pp. 214-15)

James Finn Cotter, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978.


Bly, Robert (Vol. 1)


Bly, Robert (Vol. 128)