Robert Bly Bly, Robert (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 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...

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Julian Gitzen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alan Helms

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.