Lawrence Kramer (essay date Winter 1983)

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SOURCE: “A Sensible Emptiness: Robert Bly and the Poetics of Immanence,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 449-62.

[In the following essay, Kramer discusses the conventions of Bly's “deep image” poetry and the presentation of immediate experience in Silence in the Snowy Fields and This Tree Will Be Here For a Thousand Years.]

The poetry of Robert Bly probably evokes the phrase “deep image” for most readers. Deep images are supposed to tap unconscious sources of energy, and the poetry that uses them is thought to give only a sketchy account of the phenomenal world. Everyday reality is only a surface; it becomes significant insofar as it is disturbed by dark forces that rise up from below. Bly has often endorsed this way of looking at his work, in part perhaps because to do so frees him from the burdens of a poetic tradition. The context for his poetry is not a genre or a movement among poetic generations; it is a primary truth, known to intuition and expressible in myth. But Bly's poetry does not always comply with the aesthetics of the deep image. There are many lyrics that seem to celebrate pure immediacy for its own sake:

It is the morning. The country has slept the whole winter.
Window seats were covered with fur skins, the yard was full
Of stiff dogs, and hands that clumsily held heavy books.
Now we wake, and rise from bed, and eat breakfast!—
Shouts rise from the harbour of the blood,
Mists, and masts rising, the knock of wooden tackle in the sunlight.

(“Waking from Sleep”)

Lines like these have poetic affiliations that Bly's deep image poetry obscures and even denies. My aim in this essay is to argue that Bly's successful poetry always depends on a poetic rather than on an esoteric context, and that his genuine achievement as a poet has little to do with deep images.

Bly's poetic tradition is a specifically American one, and he shares it with several other poets of his generation, especially Gary Snyder and James Wright. What these poets have in common is a feeling for the numinous value of objects divorced from all transcendental glamor. Their values depend on simple, tangible, elemental things, confronted almost without thought. Unlike the thing-intoxicated early Williams, they are not indiscriminate in their appropriation of reality; they are closer to the spirit of Frost's “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows,” and even closer to the definition of a poetics of immanence given by Walt Whitman:

An American literat fills his own place …
As he emits himself, facts are showered over with light,
The day-light is lit with more volatile light—the deep between
the setting and rising sun goes deeper many fold,
Each precise object, condition, combination, process, exhibits a beauty.

(“Waking from Sleep”)

The contemporary poem of immanence is written to be a fragment of a lost, privileged presence; it is not concerned with words but with things. Such a poem is meant to carry the facticity of things over into their representation by using a language in which the qualities of bodies—weight, position, texture, mass—is paramount. The logic of argument or narrative breaks down in favor of cinematic cuts from one item to another; Bly's poetry moves by groping forward metonymically:

 The storm is coming. The small farmhouse in Minnesota Is hardly strong enough for the storm. Darkness, darkness in grass, darkness in trees. Even the water in wells trembles. Bodies give off darkness, and chrysanthemums Are dark, and horses, who are bearing great loads of...

(This entire section contains 5295 words.)

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 hay To the deep barns where the dark air is moving from corners.


In lines like these, where the enveloping authority of a Whitmanian ego is lacking, value does not derive from a harmonization of subject and object but from the unspoken assimilation of both to a third, more primitive category. With the help of a rhetoric that shifts freely between personification and objectification, subjects are reduced and objects heightened so that both appear as prereflective fusions of consciousness and materiality—in other words, as bodies. Unrelated presences—horses, chrysanthemums, the corners of barns, the consciousness of the speaker—are drawn together as bodies in the medium of darkness, which is itself a kind of larger body here, diffused but tangible and animate. The traditional emphasis on “materials,” as Whitman called them, is exaggerated to such a degree that physical proximity appears as a form of primary awareness or intentionality. Things fill space as materializations of perception: bodies “give off” darkness instead of being dark, and the trembling of water in wells registers an anxious anticipation that belongs to no one in particular, yet belongs where it is. At the same time, subjectivity loses the indeterminate depth that it characteristically derives from subject-object opposition. Any sense of self is primarily physical; any sense of relationship is primarily spatial.

Bly's first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), is an important example of the poetics of immanence. Even before it was published, Donald Hall had celebrated its intimation of “a subjective life which is general, and which corresponds to an old objective life of shared experience and knowledge.” Already in Silence, however, other strains were apparent in Bly's work, and over the years they have become dominant. Political outrage, fueled by the Vietnam war and expressed most stridently in The Light Around the Body (1967), led Bly to attempt a fusion of lyric with prophecy. The ambition to tap a collective unconscious impelled him to an archetypal, irrationalist style that many readers, myself included, find histrionic or merely pedantic—a doctrinaire surrealism or Jungian evangelism. But in 1979, Bly published a small book of striking austerity, This Tree Will Be Here For A Thousand Years. Collecting poems written since the publication of Silence, the new volume tries to recapture the heightened immediacy and “thingy spirit” of the first.

Tree, in fact, is Bly's explicit attempt to return to his origins, both personal and poetic. In his preface, he announces that the newly collected poems are not meant to form a sequel to Silence but to complete it; “the two books,” he says, “make one book.” And the new half of that book is openly nostalgic, crowded with images that mark moments of origin and departure: first snows, first frosts, first glimpses, first perceptions of physical or emotional distance. Bly's Tree-graft is arguably the best measure of his work to date. The double book not only puts his approach to a poetics of immanence into sharp focus, but also—perhaps unwillingly—admits some of the limitations that constrain him.

Tree/Silence will occupy most of my space here, but before turning to it I want to eliminate its competition. It is as important to reject Bly as a poet of deep images as it is to acknowledge him as a poet of bodies and spaces, so for a little while I will be polemical. Bly's style is motivated by a will to subtraction, an urge to simplify that far outdoes Thoreau's. Bly wants experience reduced to its essential elements; to be a poet of space one must clear out the clutter. Part of this simplification is a restriction of the topics of the poetry to three: landscape, history, and the archetypal unconscious. But only the first of these can really endure a minimalist treatment. Bly's landscapes are bucolic, but their numinous physicality gives them the innocence of the pastoral, and it is as a pastoral poet that he must stand or fall. (American poets of immanence prefer pastoral as a genre; William Stafford and Wendell Berry, as well as Wright and Snyder, come to mind.) Bly's sense of history as a purely destructive force, all war and economic exploitation, is itself a pastoral convention: the complaint of Tityrus under the tree, the deserted village smothered by “Trade's unfeeling train.” But the convention is maintained with defiant sentimentality; it dismisses the complexity of social good and evil for a melodrama of victims and victimizers. When Bly turns to visions of “the murdered pine” laid low by “Arabic numerals … dressed as bankers and sportsmen” (“The Current Administration”), or proclaims that “There are lives the executives / Know nothing of, / A leaping of the body, / The body rolling—and I have felt it—(“Romans Angry about the Inner World”), history is reduced to a gush of antibourgeois rhetoric that confuses—sometimes willfully, as here—prophetic rage with self-congratulation.

With archetypes, something similar happens. Bly takes a pentecostal view of the unconscious; he receives the irrational uncritically as a form of revelation. His commentary on the subject tends to be more enchanted than informed:

You know Freud considered in the first half of his life Eros energy to be the most powerful energy in the unconscious; we could also call that Demeter energy or Good Mother energy. Then, during the First World War, he saw Europe committing suicide, and it came to him that there is another balancing energy involved, which might be called the Death Wish, or the desire to die.

The poetry rarely falls down this badly, but its trouble with archetypes is similar. As a poet, Bly reduces his irrational imagery to the reflex level by refusing to take it seriously enough. His dreamlike passages and surrealist fantasies are typically ambivalent, a blend of terror and ecstasy, delusion and vision. But the poetry is not ambivalent about them. The potentially devastating otherness of the mind is broken down into bundles of merely formal attributes, almost ornaments, while Bly unreservedly endorses the “joyful night in which we lose / Everything” in a primal darkness (“When the Dumb Speak”). This is easiest to see in poems like “The Busy Man Speaks,” where the plenitude of archetype is denied to the tribe of the poet's villainous executives. The Busy Man gives himself away to the paternal Chase National Bank with its “landscape of zeros” and rejects the maternal spirit that encompasses both “the night full of crickets” and “the suffering of death,” both “the mother of the open fields” and “the mother of Christ.” The poem satirizes this choice stridently but fails to confront the terrible rigor of the alternative. It is merely glib to say “I shall give myself away” to fertility and mystery when they embrace the kind of pain, isolation, and passivity that the images of the poem ascribe to them. Even in less tendentious pieces, this failure to suffer what is celebrated undermines the impact of Bly's admittedly striking images:

The blind horse among the cherry trees—
And bones, sticking from cool earth.
The heart leaps
Almost up to the sky!

(“Wanting to Experience All Things”)

The echo of Wordsworth here is a subtle act of self-aggrandizement: Bly's images celebrate the very collision of life and death, wholeness and maiming, that threatens to depress Wordsworth's leaping heart. Yet Bly's easy confidence in the therapeutic value of elementals seems facile when it is set against the bewildered stubbornness with which, say, the narrator of “Resolution and Independence” struggles through “the fear that kills; / And hope that is unwilling to be fed” just to achieve a workable defense mechanism.

That leaves the landscape, and particularly the landscape of Bly's native Minnesota. The rugged countryside, with its severe winters, seems to heighten the bodiliness of everyone and everything within its borders. Even at its hardest and sparest, it remains a locus amoenus, one that displaces the pastoral values of abundance and innocence from “the sweet especial rural scene” into a depth of appreciation for a scene that may be neither special nor sweet. Perceived with archaic, animistic simplicity, Minnesota is an austere Arcadia, a parcel of ground that appears sacred because everything inessential has been subtracted from it.

The decisive poem in this pattern of apotheosis is a famous one from Silence, “Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River.” Here, the Minnesota countryside appears as both an animating presence and an animate one. It fills its place like a large projected body, a corpus rather than a genius loci. To enter this space is to participate in an ecstasy of locations that spreads from one site to another as if handed or breathed around:

I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

(“Wanting to Experience All Things”)

Though the time of the scene indicates transience, the spatial relations point to a permanence of presence. Each depleted object is balanced by a vital one: stubble by breathing soybeans, the old men by the young poet, the car seats by the moving car, the failing sun by the rising moon, the empty houses by the turkey sheds. The happiness of the poet does not come from any particular part of the landscape, nor from a subjective integration of the details into a whole. It is simply a fact of being there, not to be distinguished—as the loose syntax indicates—from the fact of the rising moon stationed above the turkey sheds.

“Driving” establishes the mode that the poems of Tree would like to recapture: an awed sense of connectedness, a feeling for a perfect but nonrational, inexplicable order in things, a language of pure description that never merely describes. Bly's aim in Tree is to find a severe simplicity by submitting attention to a drastic discipline. He looks into his privileged landscape to single out two or three objects, not necessarily related ones, which animate each other or their horizon merely by existing together. The objects all belong to the life of rural work and its seasonal imperatives; they are all somehow innocent; and they are all sanctified by their participation in the primary mystery of natural space: “Sometimes when you put your hand into a hollow tree / you touch the dark places between the stars” (“Women We Never See Again”).

The Tree poems, like those of Silence, vacillate between observation and a sort of descriptive rapture. Their strongest impulse is to leap abruptly from bare perception to mystical vision, usually by finding that the merely physical objects at hand have a creaturely dimension, or even a primitive intentionality:

In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours in the grass.

(“Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River”)

The day is awake. The bark calls to the rain still in the cloud.
“Never forget the lonely taste of the white dew.”

(“July Morning”)

The release of vision is often triggered, as it is here, by proximity to the earth, particularly the grass, and by the passivity—tranquil, but always tinged with melancholy—that Bly associates with it. Often, too, the threshold of vision is an actual space where a line is drawn between light and darkness—the hollow of a tree, or a lake with reeds: “In the Ashby reeds it is already night, / though it is still day out on the lake” (“Pulling a Rowboat Up Among Lake Reeds”).

Bly's animism is a literal attempt to register what he calls “the consciousness out there among plants and animals.” “I've come to believe,” he writes, “that it is important for everyone that the second consciousness appear somehow in the poem, merged or not. It's time. The ‘human’ poem can become transparent or porous at the end, so that the city, or objects, or the countryside enters” (“The Two Presences,” Preface to Tree). The self-conscious innocence of these remarks makes them a little disingenuous; nothing is really at stake here but an overly naturalistic solution to the problem of subject-object relations that has confronted poetry in English since the Romantics. Nevertheless, Bly's impulse is distinctive. He does not want to empathize with objects, subtly mastering them in the process, nor does he want to internalize them. What he seeks instead is an impersonal poise, a detachment from both himself and the objects that will allow him to meet them as equals on—literally—the same ground. Unhappy with the mind's tendency to humanize external reality, he tries to limit his own subjectivity by naturalizing it. Unlike Charles Olson, who resists “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego” by programmatically treating persons as things, Bly treats all significant things as living bodies, dispersed locations of sentience.

In Silence, Bly's efforts to incorporate himself with otherness usually take the form of oblique, half-acknowledged personifications, like the image of light on all fours from “Driving.” In “Solitude Late at Night in the Woods,” birch trees paradoxically take on sentience when the poet seems to deny it to them:

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 cold fire!

(“July Morning”)

At first, the metaphorical identification of the solitary body with a desolate single birch tree suggests that the body has become inanimate, that its subjectivity has frozen. But the rhetorical equation of the lack of ambition and sodden body in winter birches with their lack of leaves reverses the implication. Feelings, like leaves, belong to the trees inherently; the birches' lack of ambition and soddenness is not an absence of mind but a passionate concentration of purpose that the poet's body shares. When the poem speaks of “bare trunks climbing like cold fire,” the image can refer equally well to the stark positioning of the winter trees or to the strained intensity of their “second consciousness.” Likewise, the poet's body can accept identification with both the inner and the outer trees. Their situations, in every sense of the term, are parallel:

I must return to the trapped fields,
To the obedient earth.
The trees shall be reaching all the winter.

(“July Morning”)

The same personification appears in a more attenuated, more disguised form in another poem from Silence, “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield”:

What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field?
It is a willow tree. I walk around and around it.
The body is strangely torn, and cannot leave it.
At last I sit down beneath it.

(“July Morning”)

Here, the tree's subjective presence manifests itself in the inexplicable pull of fellowship between its body and a man's. The strangeness of the experience comes from the poet's participation in the tree's solitude, a feeling, not an inanimate fact, which he feels compelled to cure for both of them. The two “torn” bodies heal into one when the restlessly moving poet sits under the willow, thereby accepting both the tree's stillness and its domination, and taking up Bly's position of richest consciousness, near the earth. The poem underlines this union later on when it refers to “the chill skin of the branches” and declares that “The mind has shed leaves alone for years.” With the closing image, the intimacy with the tree dissolves, but the poet recognizes that his identity is that of a body, not a subject:

I am happy in this ancient place,
A spot easily caught sight of above the corn,
If I were a young animal ready to turn home at dusk.

(“July Morning”)

Of course, only a subject can perform such an act of self-reflection, but the poem will acknowledge no paradox; it simply doesn't care.

When the poems in Tree “return” to the consciousness out there first found in Silence, they do it, stringently, without personification. Bly seems to have rejected the figure as too rhetorical, tainted by lyrical interference. No matter how subtilized, it always retains its link to the eighteenth-century pictorial ode, where abstractions are forced to “posture” and naturalness is covertly denied as a value. To realize the “second consciousness” in Tree, Bly depends primarily on a movement of language that effaces the presence of his voice, and thus his presence as a subject, as the texture of the poem modulates from sparseness to richness. In recent years, many American poets have tried to acknowledge the power of otherness by writing in a peculiarly “quiet” language, simplified in syntax, sparing of metaphor, and commemorative in intent. The style is one that minimizes the poet's action; the object, the other, borrows his language and seems to write through him. Many of the poems in Tree begin in this mode, often to the accompaniment of unemphatic first-person pronouns that both signal the poet's presence and dissolve it into a minimalized, anonymous articulation. Then, as the second consciousness takes hold, the “I” is wholly obscured and the eye takes over. The poet's presence merges into the landscape's, and the language, now writing for both the self and the other, shifts from description to figuration or from transparent to intricate syntax.

Elaborate though it is in the telling, this pattern gives the effect of a heightened simplicity, and it can be remarkably compressed:

How lightly the legs walk over the snow-whitened fields!
I wander far off, like a daddy-longlegs blown over the water.
All day I worked alone, hour after hour.
It is January, easy walking, the big snows still to come.

(“After a Day of Work” )

Each couplet of this poem encapsulates the basic rhythm of dissolving subjectivity. In the first, the poet wavers on the edge of self-estrangement, half-lost in the movement of “the legs”—legs almost no longer his. He recovers his selfhood only long enough to record how far he wanders off from it into the mood of the snow-whitened fields. The image of the daddy-longlegs both completes his effacement—together with his transformation into pure body, a pair of legs that move lightly—and expresses the feathery inwardness that belongs to the fields. The first line of the second couplet brings the poet back to himself, but only in the past tense, which robs his returning identity of any immediacy it might have had. Finally, the closing line absorbs him back into January, the frail, impersonal condition of “easy walking” that has already shaped his consciousness all day.

Another poem, “Nailing a Dock Together,” spontaneously discards the satisfactions of selfhood with a gesture that is half generous and half nostalgic. The poet lets his awareness shift away from the pleasure he takes in working with boards—“How I love / putting my wet foot / on the boards I sawed myself!”—to the charismatic presence of a penned horse whose inner freedom works with boards in another way:

It is a horse whose neck human
beings have longed to touch for centuries.
He stands in a stable of invisible wood.

(“After a Day of Work”)

Once again, there is a movement from reflective awareness to simple sentience, from mind to body—here, to an image of ideal bodiliness. But the visionary leap in this case rebukes the poet as well as obscuring his presence as a subject. His dock is “a ladder stretching back to land,” a literal attachment linking him to the earth. It enables him to approach the horse's consciousness, but it also humbles him: the horse does not need such external props. It dwells in a space of its own making more fully than the human body, beset by a longing that spans centuries, can ever do. The seductive neck is not only untouched, but untouchable.

The rigor of Bly's engagement with the second consciousness in Tree diffuses itself in the ascetic, quietly mournful tone of the book, and marks it off in yet another way from Silence, that origin it can never quite reach. Many of the earlier poems are founded on a sense of irrepressible joy that surges up in the community of feeling between the human and the natural. In a world subject to personification, the mere physical energy of the self can seem to reflect a universal exuberance. Dazzled by bodily existence, the poet can bask in an illusion of innocence and permanence that seems to be a transparent appreciation of reality:

Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live for ever!
I am wrapped in my joyful flesh,
As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Outside of elegy, the will to personify is more often than not a will to celebrate. With personification stripped away, the consciousness of objects appears in a new light, rooted in the pathos of change and the vulnerability of being still or set in place. Bly remarks in his preface that “the second consciousness has a melancholy tone, the tear inside the stone, what Lucretius calls ‘the tears of things,’ an energy circling downward, felt often in autumn, or moving slowly around apple trees or stars” (“The Two Presences”). The surprising substitution of Lucretius for Virgil makes its own kind of sense: the melancholy of Bly's poems reflects a sense of fatality in natural process, an ominous undertone of “night being ripped away from day.” The poetry of Tree is constantly envisioning things at a vanishing point. In “Late Moon,” the farm of the poet's father appears half moonlit, half dark, in “the west that eats it away,” while Bly himself, about to go in, fades into his own shadow as he sees it reaching for the latch. Many of the poems end in startled isolation as something disappears: a rabbit scooting under a granary joist, snow falling from a window, a column of smoke rising over a distant field. Silence is also marked at times by the tear within the stone, but the mark is often erased by poems that close with an image of fullness or continuation: people talking in a boat in “Driving,” or the moonlit road of “After Working”:

We know the road; as the moonlight
Lifts everything, so in a night like this
The road goes on ahead, it is all clear.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Tree is consistent in refusing to balance its tilt towards desolation. Most of the poems close in muted sadness, some in despair, none in a pleasure without a shadow. The book as a whole is carefully framed between a falling away and a falling inward. The first poem, “October Frost,” ends with ears “reaching far away east in the early darkness,” half lost, half (literally) reoriented. The last poem, “Out Picking Up Corn,” lapses into disorientation with the image of a blanket of fog near a cliff—not a description, but a closing metaphor for the self in danger from its own sense of depth.

Bly responds to this entropic movement by setting a new value on the barrenness it leaves behind. Emptiness, or a few objects lodged in a too-open space, is simply the extreme to which a poetics of subtraction can go. Naturally, such a blankness suggests death. The few scattered objects left to be seen turn into memorials, cenotaphic images, of a lost plenitude: “Clods rose above the snow in the plowing west, / like mountain tops, or the chest of graves” (“Roads”). One poem, “A Long Walk Before the Snows Began,” so surrounds the poet with remnants and absences—“a few grains of white sleet on the leaves,” the tracks of mice and a deer—that he is forced to respond by positing his own death, which appears as the gradual withdrawal of other presences from his body:

I see my body lying stretched out.
A woman whose face I cannot see stands near my body.
A column of smoke rises from Vonderharr's field.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Yet the emptiness can also appear as a rent in the phenomenal world, a site of sudden epiphany like the hollow in the tree that encloses the space between the stars. Bly's ambivalence is genuine on this point. A blank space can stand as a bleak authenticity, the meager reward for the poet's devotion to otherness, or it can give rise to a third consciousness, beyond and including both the self's and the other's, that consoles the bleakness from which it arises: “There are women we love whom we never see again. / They are chestnuts shining in the rain” (“Women We Never See Again”). Another poem, “Driving My Parents Home at Christmas,” grasps both facets of emptiness at once and incidentally measures the lostness of all origins. On the drive, over a treacherous road, the parents recollect their lives in tiny fragments—“hauling water … eating an orange”—but their old age gives this the air of recalling the dead (“their frailty hesitates on the edge of a mountainside”). Ironically, their safe return home is their entry into emptiness: “When they open the door of their house, they disappear.” Yet the abyss of their disappearance turns abruptly into a house without walls, in which their presence is recaptured by a dialectical image: “They sit so close to each other … as if pressed together by the snow” (ellipsis Bly's). Here, love and mortality fuse in their antagonism, each both repealing and heightening the other.

Bly calls such sensible emptiness as this “a place to live,” and the poem that offers the phrase, “An Empty Place,” is the key text in Tree. It starts with prose, praising empty places as “white and light-footed”: “There is a joy in emptiness. One day I saw an empty corncob on the ground, so beautiful, and where each kernel had been, there was a place to live.” The joy here is the sleight of mind that turns the fleeting of things into the freedom of light-footedness, transience in time into movement in space; the beauty is the trick of sight that turns vacancy into plenitude, one empty corncob into a landscape of places to live. The poem shifts to verse for a gloss on these sentences, covertly giving them a quasi-scriptural status as a text for explication. The poet's eyes again turn to the ground and find a scattering of debris there. Some of it he reanimates, using figuration to connect the broken to the whole; some of it he leaves as a sign that all breakage is irreparable:

The eyes are drawn to the dusty ground in fall—
small pieces of crushed oyster shell,
like doors into the earth made of mother-of-pearl;
slivers of glass,
a white chicken's feather that still seems excited by the warm

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

As a last fragment, the poem brings back the corncob, expanding “room after room in its endless palace.” Unfortunately, this leads to a weak ending, a wishful rather than integral identification of the corncob “palace” with Christ's house of many mansions. But the poem's scanty particulars retain the warmth and luminosity that Bly's ascetic attention has given them: minuscule body-fragments, but still warm.

“An Empty Place” is not the only poem in Tree marred by tendentiousness. A few others play tired archetypal tricks. Most of the book, though, carries the austere conviction of a backward look that forgives what it cannot recover, and it achieves a somber intensity not present in Bly's work since the darker poems of Silence, which it surpasses in harshness and resonance. Taken together, in their essential discontinuity, the two books represent Bly and the style of immanence at their strongest. The power of this poetry is limited, but real, even if its “cosmic” proportions are sometimes more fuzzy than suggestive. When Bly's lyrics are ascetic about the memory of immanence, when they are stringent about the placement of bodies on the margins of an emptiness, the emptiness becomes a persuasive sign for the original presences that it displaces. The nostalgia of the text for lost immediacies becomes seductive because the language of the text appears as the impression—a scratch, a scuff, a bruise—left behind by what is not there.

Principal Works

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Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl [translator; with James Wright] (poetry) 1961

Silence in the Snowy Fields (poetry) 1962

Chrysanthemums (poetry) 1967

Hunger[by Knut Hamsun; translator] (novel) 1967

The Light Around the Body (poetry) 1967

Ducks (poetry) 1968

The Morning Glory: Another Thing That Will Never Be My Friend (poetry) 1969

The Fish in the Sea Is Not Thirsty: Versions of Kabir [translator] (poetry) 1971

Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo [editor and translator] (poetry) 1971

The Teeth Mother Naked at Last (poetry) 1971

Christmas Eve Service at Midnight at St. Michael's (poetry) 1972

Water Under the Earth (poetry) 1972

The Dead Seal Near McClure's Beach (poetry) 1973

Jumping Out of Bed (poetry) 1973

Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca and Juan Ramon Jimenez [translator] (poetry) 1973

Sleepers Joining Hands (poetry) 1973

Point Reyes Poems (poetry) 1974

Old Man Rubbing His Eyes (poetry) 1975

The Kabir Book: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir [translator] (poetry) 1977

The Loon (poetry) 1977

This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood (poetry) 1977

Twenty Poems of Rolf Jacobsen [translator] (poetry) 1977

I Never Wanted Fame [by Antonio Machado; translator] (poetry) 1979

This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (poetry) 1979

Visiting Emily Dickinson's Grave and Other Poems (poetry) 1979

Canciones [by Antonio Machado; translator] (poetry) 1980

News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness [editor] (poetry) 1980

Finding an Old Ant Mansion (poetry) 1981

The Man in the Black Coat Turns (poetry) 1981

Night and Sleep [by Rumi; translator] (poetry) 1981

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: Translation from the German and Commentary [editor and translator] (poetry) 1981

Four Ramages (poetry) 1983

Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado [translator] (poetry) 1983

The Whole Moisty Night (poetry) 1983

Mirabai Versions (poetry) 1984

Out of the Rolling Ocean (poetry) 1984

In the Mouth of May (poetry) 1985

A Love of Minute Particulars (poetry) 1985

Selected Poems (poetry) 1986

Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (poetry) 1987

The Pillow and the Key: Commentary on the Fairy Tale Iron John (criticism) 1987

The Moon on a Fencepost (poetry) 1988

The Apple Found in the Plowing (poetry) 1989

American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity (criticism) 1990

Iron John: A Book about Men (nonfiction) 1990

Angels of Pompeii (poetry) 1991

The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men [editor] (poetry) 1992

What Have I Ever Lost by Dying?: Collected Prose Poems (poetry) 1992

Gratitude to Old Teachers (poetry) 1993

Meditations on the Insatiable Soul: Poems (poetry) 1994

The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy [editor] (poetry) 1995

The Sibling Society (nonfiction) 1996

Lorca and Jimenez: Selected Poems [editor and translator] (poetry) 1997

Morning Poems (poetry) 1997

The Maiden King [with Marion Woodman] (nonfiction) 1998

Holly Prado (review date 29 December 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of Loving a Woman in Two Worlds, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 29, 1985, p. 11.

[In the following review, Prado offers tempered assessment of Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.]

Robert Bly's latest book of poems is being presented as a volume of love poetry. It is, and it isn't. The phrase “… in Two Worlds,” which makes up half the title is a clue that Bly is not only speaking of human relationship but also of an enigmatic, inner realm.

Bly has a history of exploring the feminine that lives within—in men as well as in women. “The peony says that we have been given a gift, / and it is not the gift of this world. / Behind the leaves of the peony / there is a world still darker, that feeds many.” The dark, nourishing world is the mystery that moves us—the knowledge that nature is alive. In these poems, Bly worships the mystery rather than trying, as many have, to destroy it by forcing it to make rational sense. He suggests that accepting the rhythms of nature amounts to accepting the secret rhythms of our own lives. The message-threads of meaning that run behind the poems, aren't blatantly stated but intuited: “A power neither of us knows has spoken to us.”

There's human love here, too, a distinct “you” to whom Bly speaks. But is she really an outer woman? Is she Bly's interior feminine, perhaps? “The night is moist, and nourishing as your mind / that lets everything around you live. / I saw you carry the plants inside tonight / over the grass to save them from the cold.” Taken literally, someone has brought plants into the house; taken figuratively, a caring figure protects and tends nature in a way that has ever-deepening spiritual resonances. With the abundance of flat, me-me-me poetry being written today, it's wonderful to read poems that shimmer on more than one level of possibility.

Because Bly has been practicing the art of poetry for many years, the poems in Loving a Woman in Two Worlds are distilled, offering an informed simplicity that can be mistaken for simple-mindedness unless the reader pays attention. Bly now seems to trust that a reader can attend fully to his special voice; therefore, one wants to listen closely, to lean toward the poet and be whispered to about mysteries. “What We Provide” is a four-line piece that a reader could hear, whispered, and then want to hear again and again. “Every breath taken in by the man / who loves, and the woman who loves, / goes to fill the water tank / where the spirit horses drink.” What are those horses doing there? Whose water tank? This isn't poetry to be analyzed intellectually but to be mused on in the quiet of the reader's questioning mind until the images gather the occult clarity that's a product of Bly's long journey into the psyche and into poetry.

Occasionally, there's disappointment in the poems. Although Bly's instinct for the right form and language carries him well most of the time, there are a few short poems that do have an oversimplified tone: A quick list of objects or animals is supposed to provide sudden revelation, but sometimes a list is only a list; the poet's vision falters. He is also tempted by preciousness from time to time—oddly strained lines, such as, “I am faithful as the ant with his small waist,” can mar the distillation that he's achieved in the whole of the book. Small objections, but one of the best spiritual poets we have should consider them. We don't expect perfection, only the uninterrupted enchantment that Bly is capable of sustaining, that he does give us, often, that we deeply need.

Further Reading

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Allen, Charlotte. “The Little Prince.” Commentary 91, No. 5 (May 1991): 58-60.

An unfavorable review of Iron John.

Beneke, Timothy. “Deep Masculinity as Social Control: Foucault, Bly, and Masculinity.” In The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer), edited by Michael S. Kimmel, pp. 151-63. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Applies Michel Foucault's theories of knowledge, power, and authority to Bly's interpretation of masculinity in Iron John.

Bernard, April. “Sad, Sorry Critters.” New Republic (7-14 September 1992): 43-5.

A negative review of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.

Chappell, Fred. “Sepia Photographs and Jazz Solos.” New York Times Book Review (13 October 1985): 15.

A review of Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.

Delville, Michel. “Deep Images and Things: The Prose Poems of Robert Bly.” In The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre, pp. 150-68. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Examines the major themes, artistic concerns, and significance of nature and inanimate objects in Bly's prose poems.

Doubiago, Sharon. “Enemy of the Mother: A Feminist Response to the Men's Movement.” Ms. II, No. 5 (March-April 1992): 82, 84-5.

Presents strong objection to Bly's interpretation of masculinity in Iron John.

“The Gifts of Growing Old: An Interview with Robert Bly.” Utne Reader 75 (May-June 1996): 58-60.

Bly discusses The Sibling Societyand his views concerning art, myth, and parenthood in contemporary society.

Gutterman, David S. “A Woman for Every Wild Man: Robert Bly and His Reaffirmation of Masculinity.” In The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer), edited by Michael S. Kimmel, pp. 164-72. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Examines Bly's interpretation of masculinity and heterosexual gender roles in Iron John.

Harris, Peter. “Separate Anthologies: Poems by Women, Poems for Men.” Virginia Quarterly Review 70, No. 4 (Autumn 1994): 679-96.

Offers evaluation of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.

Johnston, Jill. “Why Iron John Is No Gift to Women.” New York Times Book Review (23 February 1992): 1, 28-9, 31.

Discusses Bly's attitudes toward male initiation and womanhood in Iron John.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Beyond Iron John? How About Iron Jane?” New York Times (27 August 1993): C1, C28.

Discusses Bly's relationship to the men's movement and offers comparative analysis of Iron John,Marianne Williamson's A Woman's Worth,andClarissa Pinkola Estés's Women Who Run with the Wolves.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Man and Nature.” New York Times (3 May 1986): C14.

A review of Selected Poems.

Kooser, Ted. “Five Chapbooks Out of Many.” Georgia Review XLVIII, No. 4 (Winter 1994): 812-21.

Provides a brief review of Gratitude to Old Teachers.

Kupers, Terry A. “Soft Males and Mama's Boys: A Critique of Bly.” In The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer), edited by Michael S. Kimmel, pp. 222-30. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Discusses positive and negative aspects of Bly's masculine ideal in Iron John. Though affirming Bly's call for forgiveness and sensitivity, Kupers objects to implicit sexism and homophobia in the book.

Lammon, Marty. “Something Hard to Get Rid Of: An Interview with Robert Bly.” Ploughshares 8, No. 1 (1982): 11-23.

Bly discusses his poetry, his artistic concerns, and his relationship with poet Donald Hall.

Milne, Kristy. “Cubs in Charge.” New Statesman (15 November 1996): 47-8.

A review of The Sibling Society.

Morrow, Lance. “The Child is Father of the Man.” Time (19 August 1991): 53-4.

Provides an overview of Bly's life, career, and relationship to the men's movement.

Murry, Gordon. “Homophobia in Robert Bly's Iron John.” In The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer), edited by Michael S. Kimmel, pp. 207-12. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Discusses Bly's silence on the subject of male homosexuality in Iron John and among participants of the men's movement.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Soft Touch.” Parnassus 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1982): 209-30.

A review of The Man in the Black Coat Turns.

Savran, David. “The Sadomasochist in the Closet.” In Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture, pp. 161-210. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Examines interpretations of masculinity presented in Iron John and Bly's relationship to the men's movement.

Schulman, Robert. “Boys Will Be Boys: Ode to the Old Days.” Wall Street Journal (19 December 1990): A14.

A review of Iron John.

Shakarchi, Joseph. “An Interview with Robert Bly.” Massachusetts Review XXIII, No. 2 (Summer 1982): 226-45.

Bly discusses his philosophical views, artistic influences, and interest in Eastern literature and spirituality.

Stitt, Peter. “Coherence Through Place in Contemporary Poetry.” Georgia Review XL, No. 4 (Winter 1986): 1021-33.

A review of Selected Poems.

Warren, Catherine. “Myths Make the Man.” New Statesman & Society (27 September 1991): 54.

A review of Iron John.

Additional coverage of Bly's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revisions Series, Vols. 41, 73; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors Module: Poets; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

Joyce Peseroff (review date 25 May 1986)

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SOURCE: “Minnesota Transcendentalist,” in New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1986, p. 2.

[In the following review, Peseroff offers positive evaluation of Bly's Selected Poems.]

I first heard Robert Bly read his poems in the mid-1970s, sitting in the drab, fluorescent-lighted cafeteria of a community college. Most of his audience of students had been brought by their teachers, and stoically waited to have culture imposed upon them. Within the first 30 minutes of a two-hour reading Mr. Bly had every listener leaning forward, enthralled by his stage presence and props as well as by the tenderness of “The Dead Seal,” and by the terror of “Counting Small-Boned Bodies,” which he recited from under an enormous straw mask in a high-pitched, witchy voice. Poetry was no embroidery, it was the fiber of life; a hundred people walked away convinced.

Mr. Bly has never believed that poetry makes nothing happen. For almost 30 years he has been a busy and energetic advocate for certain spiritual, political and literary values; a publisher, translator and shaman. A man who praises privacy and solitude, he writes poems that rush toward and embrace the world, both the outer world, acutely observed in its glory and decay, and the inner world, to him the source of the soul's ecstasy and grief. Reconciling these two worlds has always been his mission as he writes poems meant, in words he quotes from the French prose poet Francis Ponge, to “nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle.” In Selected Poems, his new collection, he has shaped from both worlds his record of the body's journey and the soul's quest. This is not just an anthology of Mr. Bly's best work; its 11 new essays and its particular method of organization require a fresh look at the poet's achievement.

The book is arranged in nine sections, each introduced by a short essay. Two longer essays, “Whitman's Line as a Public Form” and “The Prose Poem as an Evolving Form,” conclude the book. Although he begins with early poems previously uncollected and ends with excerpts from his most recent volume, Mr. Bly avoids strict chronology. Rather, each section is designed to illustrate a step in the evolution of his poetics.

The third section, for example, includes poems from Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), written in a rhapsodic mode, as well as others written in the same mode (“adapted from Waley's translations of Chinese poems, Frank O‘Connor's translations of Celtic poems, and my own translations of Machado, but a certain gaiety carries them along. The line breaks usually come where the thought ends, and bring a moment of “silence”) but published only 17 years later in This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years. Part Five—prose poems from The Morning Glory (1975) and some from The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981)—precedes (heavily revised) selections from Sleepers Joining Hands (1973) in Part Six. This arrangement allows the poet to contrast prose poems, like “The Starfish” and “A Bouquet of Ten Roses,” that “carry us to the new place on their minute detail, on what they give us to see,” with those written “to turn away from seeing. … While I was still writing the Morning Glory poems, I felt a longing to compose a radical or root poem that would speak to what has its back turned to me.”

          I sent my brother away.
I saw him turn and leave. It was a schoolyard.
I gave him to the dark people passing.
He learned to sleep alone on the high buttes.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

That is from a poem originally titled “The Shadow Goes Away,” the long poem in Sleepers Joining Hands that immediately follows the poet's 20-page essay. “I Came Out of the Mother Naked.” I regret alterations here to this poem and to other long poems. Mr. Bly omits his homage to the Great Mother, preferring to shift emphasis from the female anima to male images “suggesting Joseph's betrayal of his brother.”

The volume becomes a quest to find a voice to fit the poet and a prosody to fit the poem. After abandoning the iambic “lute of three loudnesses” described in Part One (“I loved the music so much I could have written such lines for the rest of my life, but something in them didn't fit me”) and, I surmise, Harvard University, the poet moved to New York. He sank, through solitude, “past … stones, past Eros, past family affections.” From this period of estrangement came poems of both despair and healing that Mr. Bly would publish 14 years later in The Light Around the Body. It is only after this period that the poet, who had married and returned to his native Minnesota, composed the poems published in his first book. Sympathy between the soul and the countryside is the subject of Silence in the Snowy Fields:

Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!
I am wrapped in my joyful flesh,
As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

I know of no contemporary poet, except perhaps Allen Ginsberg in his exuberant poems about sex, who is so unafraid to write about joy.

One of the pleasures of reading Selected Poems is to discover themes, language and imagery that will recur, transformed, throughout the poet's body of work like DNA passed from the acorn to the oak. The poems in Part One may not sound much like Robert Bly, but titles like “Dawn in Threshing Time” and ”from Four Seasons in the American Woods” indicate subjects the poet would write about again and again. “Where We Must Look for Help” presages the “deep image” poems of psychic connections, mythic comparisons and unexpected junctures:

The dove returns; it found no resting place,
It was in flight all night above the shaken seas
Beneath ark eaves
The dove shall magnify the tiger's bed.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

More surprising is “Schoolcraft's Diary Written on the Missouri: 1830,” a three-page dramatic monologue poem including a good deal of narrative. The speaker observes the conflict between “busy whites” with “steel traps hanging, swung from saddle thongs” and the Sioux, “as still as Hudson's blankets winding them.” He joins a party of men armed to confront a mysterious white apparition stalking the camp.

So armed in case of Sioux, to our surprise
We found a white and wounded Northern Bear
Shot in that day about the snout and head.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

As well as demonstrating the poet's early and abiding interest in American history, this long poem marks the beginning of his lifelong reliance on narrative.

Throughout his later work he would adapt narrative techniques to the lyric, just as he would appropriate the rhythms of sentences to replace a prosody based on counting syllables:

The boy gets out of high school and reads no more books; the
son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her rolling pin and makes no more bread.
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party and loves him
no more.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Powerful, succinct, poignant, such stories make up another sort of history. The personal connects us to the world's master plot. In fact, Mr. Bly has been able to write successful poems about public events because, for him, the political is personal. His response to the Vietnam War was rooted in grief, not grievance, and he never excluded himself from the darker manifestations of our national consciousness:

We have carried around this cup of darkness.
We hesitate to anoint ourselves.
Now we pour it over our heads.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

But Mr. Bly is a public poet even in poems without overt political content. Although in Part Four he introduces “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” with a description of the long, cadenced line inspired by the Bible, Christopher Smart, William Blake and Walt Whitman—a line “that embodies power in a direct way … that throws or catapults itself into the outer world”—even his most intimate and meditative poems, with their frequent use of the pronoun “we,” are designed to instruct and exhort. These poems function like stained-glass windows in a cathedral; their images direct us to wisdom and salvation. Mr. Bly's impulse to teach (some would say preach) unites him to Emerson on his platform, Bronson Alcott in his lyceum and Thoreau (whose nature writings Mr. Bly likens to prose poems) awake in Concord jail. He is, in a sense, the most recent in a line of great American transcendentalist writers.

Selected Poems begins with images of “this smoking body plough\ing] toward death” and ends with a series of love poems, including the sexy “At the Time of Peony Blossoming”:

When I come near the red peony flower
I tremble as water does near thunder,
as the well does when the plates of earth move,
or the tree when fifty birds leave at once.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

It is a mellow ending to a good journey, one that is not over yet.

Robert Richman (essay date December 1986)

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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Robert Bly,” in New Criterion, Vol. 5, No. 4, December, 1986, pp. 37-46.

[In the following essay, Richman provides an overview of Bly's poetry, literary career, and critical reception.]

With the publication this year of Robert Bly's Selected Poems—a volume preceded by a number of books celebrating this writer's work—the time has surely come to take a closer critical look at one of the most “radical” poetic careers of our time. Robert Bly himself has always insisted that, of the many poetic movements spawned during the Sixties, none was more radical than his. To establish the priority of his own literary outlook, Bly has spent much time belittling that of his rivals in this period—the confessional and New York School poets, on the one hand, and, on the other, the formalist poets who survived the Sixties. In Bly's view, “both cooked and raw poetry in a certain sense in the United States is head poetry.” To deal with the objects of the external world, as both the confessionals and the New York School poets do, is, in his view, to be in thrall to the “logic” of that world. True free-associational surrealism, which is what Bly has long advocated for poetry, is achieved by turning inward, “into” the body and away from the “head” and the world. It is therefore hardly surprising that the only criterion of quality for this poetry of “weird” and “deep images” is said to be its resistance to analysis. Bly's best poetry, according to William Heyen in Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake, has always “defied serious inquiry and involved \that is, complex] explication.” “The prized conditions,” according to Donald Wesling, another admirer of his work, “are Not Understanding and Not Saying.”

A look at the recent publications devoted to Bly's writing suggests, however, that far from defying serious inquiry and explication, Bly's poetry is as full of explicable matter as The Waste Land. And the question of form in Bly's poetry has also been recently opened for review. Bly himself has lately abandoned the harsh antiformal polemics that used to be his stock-in-trade. In the new Selected Poems he has chosen to include a few previously unpublished poems from the late Forties and early Fifties written in iambic pentameter. In addition, Bly's comments, interspersed throughout the book, show the poet far more willing to make concessions to the value of form in general and to acknowledge its presence in poems we had been previously asked to perceive very differently. This is not to say Bly has abandoned every vestige of his radical outlook. Indeed, one of the more amusing things about the Selected Poems—as well as many of Bly's prose writings of the Eighties—is the rhetorical hole he digs himself into by trying to maintain his old radical principles while flaunting an admiration for form: “It is not iambic,” he says about one group of poems in the Selected Poems, “but free verse with distinct memories of form.” For a writer whose unequivocal rantings against form and meaning were long a familiar feature of the literary scene—most of them on the order of, “I refuse to say anything at all about prosody. What an ugly word it is!” and “It's so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What's the interpretation of this poem?’”—even this small shift in outlook acquires a certain significance. Clearly a concerted effort is being made by Bly and his many supporters to present a more tempered picture of his aesthetic position for posterity. But does this revisionist view of Bly's poetry really account for what he has written and what he has claimed for it?

Robert Bly was born sixty years ago in the rural farming community of Madison, Minnesota. He belongs to the impressive generation of American poets that emerged in the years immediately following the war. Bly's fellow students at Harvard—he was there from 1947 to 1950—included Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery. Like many of his classmates, Bly was under the sway of the formalist impulse then governing American poetry. According to the chronology in Howard Nelson's Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry, Bly had “virtually memorized” Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle, which had been published the year before Bly entered Harvard. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he chose to withhold from publication the book of formalist poems, entitled The Lute of Three Loudnesses, which he had assembled after graduation. The work from this book that is now included in the Selected Poems reveals an immature but by no means inconsiderable talent:

Spring has come; I look up and see
The agile companies of April sit
As quaint and graceful as medieval guilds.
Grouse feathers float away on the still lake.
Summer and reeds; summer and partridge chicks.
Then bees: eaters of honey till their death.
The honey gatherers, coming and going, drive
Their endless honey circles to the hive.
The sedge root in the river lifts and frees,
And blackbirds join in flocks, their duties through.
And now the last autumnal freedom comes,
And Zumbrota acorns drop, sun-pushed as plums,
To half-wild hogs in Carolina trees,
And disappointed bees, with half-gold feet,
Sail home. For me this season is most sweet,
And winter will be stamping of the feet.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Bly's dissatisfaction with the poems of The Lute of Three Loudnesses—“I heard a whisper of Milton,” writes Bly in the Selected Poems, and “something in it didn't fit me”—led to a period of self-imposed isolation in New York City and Cambridge from 1951 to 1954. These years of reading and reflection have taken on a considerable importance in the Bly mythology, almost as important as the suppressed first book of poems. According to Bly and his commentators, this period was crucial in the transformation of the writer from a craftsman in rhyme and meter (what Bly would later call “antique work”) to a surrealist free-verse poet. For this period of loneliness, as Bly describes it in the Selected Poems, “made clear to me \the] … interior starvation” which had given birth to the formal poetry Bly had been so unhappy with.

In 1954 Bly enrolled in the writing program at the University of Iowa, and the following year he married Carolyn McLean. In 1956, Bly travelled to Norway on a Fulbright grant to translate Norwegian poetry. Bly is of Norwegian descent but knew no Norwegian at the time. It was in the Oslo Public Library that he encountered the work of the South American poets Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, the Spanish poet Juan Jiménez, and the German poet Georg Trakl. Overwhelmed by what he perceived to be the imaginative freshness of the work of these “surrealist” poets—far more authentic, Bly believed, than the French surrealists—Bly promptly started a literary magazine when he returned to the United States. Its express purpose was to provide a forum for translations of the work of these writers. But The Fifties, as the magazine was called (it would eventually become The Sixties, The Seventies, and The Eighties), was also used as a vehicle for attacks on the poetry establishment. The editorial in the inaugural issue, published in 1958, read, in part: “The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America is too old-fashioned.” Bly sent copies to all the contributors to The New Poets of England and America, the anthology of formalist poetry edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson which had appeared that same year. By the time the second installment of The Fifties appeared in 1959—featuring the first surrealist-inspired work of James Wright, a young poet who, like Bly, had abandoned the formalist path—Bly's commitment to his new aesthetic was solidly established.

In 1958 and 1959 Bly interrupted work on the surrealist “country poems” that would appear in his first published book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), in order to finish a book of political poems. It was called Poems for the Ascension of J. P. Morgan, and failed to find a publisher. (A few of these poems would turn up in Silence in the Snowy Fields and The Light Around the Body, Bly's second published book, which appeared in 1967). Bly remained undeterred in his sense of poetic mission. American poetry was then going through a tremendous upheaval: Allen Ginsberg's Howl had appeared in 1956 and Robert Lowell's Life Studies in 1959—and Bly was anxious to be a part of the new movement. In 1961 he brought out Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by himself and James Wright. By this time Bly had forged more alliances with poets, among them Donald Hall and Louis Simpson, two of the editors of The New Poetry of England and America who were experiencing crises of confidence in their own formalist verse. Bly also met Galway Kinnell and David Ignatow around this time, two more poets sympathetic to his cause.

Silence in the Snowy Fields was the first major contribution to Bly's burgeoning surrealist movement. The first poem in the volume, entitled “Three Kinds of Pleasures,” provided the movement with a kind of brief poetic agenda:


Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin
Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles
One by one lift themselves out of the fence line
And slowly leap on the gray sky—
And past them the snowy fields.


The darkness drifts down like snow on the picked cornfields
In Wisconsin, and on these black trees
Scattered, one by one,
Through the winter fields—
We see stiff weeds and brownish stubble,
And white snow left now only in the wheeltracks of the combine.


It is a pleasure, also, to be driving
Toward Chicago, near dark,
And see the lights in the barns.
The bare trees more dignified than ever,
Like a fierce man on his deathbed,
And the ditches along the road half full of a private snow.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Bly's pleasures are indeed threefold: the surreal, as tentatively evidenced in the image of the leaping telephone poles in the first stanza; the freedom to assert one's emotional state rather than conjure it through an elaborate network of poetic devices, as in “It is a pleasure, also, to be driving …”; and the freedom to construct a poem out of a series of plain, if finely drawn, random observations. Most of the other poems in the book are made up of sequences of description—also occasionally interspersed with “surreal” images—that are far more random than this. As Bly remarked, “when the poems of Silence in the Snowy Fields came, I set them down with very little rewriting, maybe one or two lines only … they arrived as complete as they came.” They were, he said on another occasion, finished “in the thirty or forty seconds that it took to write the poem.” The final stanza of “Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River” seems to confirm Bly's remarks:

Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

By attempting to “penetrate down into an evolutionary part of the mind,” as Bly felt Neruda, Trakl, and Vallejo had done, the poet challenged the orthodoxies not only of the formalist poetry of the late Forties and early Fifties but of the modernist poets as well. In the poetry of Eliot, for example, seemingly disparate images and allusions are united by an underlying intellectual structure. Bly's bursts of private subjectivity, on the other hand, seek to do without such structural links. If the imagery happens to cohere, as Bly insisted, the poem had to be disposed of. According to the poet, the most “genuine line” in a poem is the “weirdest line … the one that apparently doesn't make any sense. …” “To Pound an image meant ‘petals on a wet, black bough,’” said Bly. “To us an image is ‘death on the deep roads of the guitar.’”

Silence in the Snowy Fields also repudiated Eliot's notion of the objective correlative. In Bly's view, the emotion that the correlative objectifies is destroyed by the very process of its objectification. Bly's “deep” poetic images, emerging from “within,” purportedly contained purer emotions whose psychic energy was still intact: “If I reached my hands down, near the earth, / I could take handfuls of darkness!” or “The sun lies happily on my knees.” Bly's other way of challenging the objective correlative (for which he is perhaps more famous) is to make simple statements of his feelings. Two well-known examples of this in Silence in the Snowy Fields are “I have awakened at Missoula, Montana, utterly happy” (the last line of “In a Train”) and “Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!” (the first line of “Poem in Three Parts”).

It is easy to understand why Bly's aesthetic—or anti-aesthetic—became so popular in the Sixties and Seventies. It found sympathetic readers among the growing number of people who resented the complexity of modernist—and postwar—poetry. Eliot made no bones about the fact that the poet must be learned and his work difficult. It was those who felt themselves to be disenfranchised from Eliot's exclusive club that Bly claimed as his own. Being a poet could not be simpler, he told them, because each one of us

has our own psychic rhythms … Anybody at his peak moment, who wants to sit down and write a poem, can write it …

All one needed was a little “inner animal imagery,” or, failing that, the ability to state that one was happy, sad, or indifferent in a given town at a given time of day. The idea spread like wildfire.

It is not surprising that many perceived Bly's poetry to be a long-awaited resurgence of Romanticism. But the nineteenth-century English Romantic poets' suffusion of their being into the external world is vastly different from Bly's solipsistic engorging of the world. As Robert Langbaum points out in The Poetry of Experience (1957), the Romantic poets did not so much seek to overwhelm the world with their subjective being as confirm their inner experiences in the crucible of the world. “There remains,” Langbaum tells us, “the hardheaded critical awareness \on the part of the poets] that the self is something other than the object” of the poet's attention. The Romantics never sought, as Langbaum says, “to put the head to sleep.” Putting the head to sleep is a perfectly apt description of the poetic program of Robert Bly.

Silence in the Snowy Fields was not entirely devoid of poetic virtue, however. There is something to be said for the freshness of Bly's language, and for the poet's attempt to bring a wide-eyed wonder to the Minnesota countryside. But the solipsism of this poetry—perfectly embodied in Bly's barren, unpopulated landscapes—all but obscures the musicality of the language.

As appealing as the solipsistic poetry of Silence in the Snowy Fields was, it lacked the single element crucial in the Sixties for a truly popular—and critical—success: politics. This element was firmly entrenched in Bly's next book, The Light Around the Body, which was published in 1967 and received the National Book Award for poetry in 1968. The conflation of surrealism and politics—a practice Bly also borrowed from his South American models—is evident in “War and Silence”—

The bombers spread out, temperature steady.
A Negro's ear sleeping in an automobile tire.
Pieces of timber float by, saying nothing.
Bishops rush about crying, “There is no war,”
And bombs fall,
Leaving a dust on the beech trees.
One leg walks down the road and leaves
The other behind; the eyes part
And fly off in opposite directions.
Filaments of death grow out.
The sheriff cuts off his black legs
And nails them to a tree.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

—as well as in “Driving Through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings”:

The sergeant said,
“I felt sorry for him
And blew his head off with a shotgun.”
These instants become crystals,
The grass cannot dissolve. Our own gaiety
Will end up
In Asia, and you will look down in your cup
And see
Black Starfighters.
Our own cities were the ones we wanted to bomb!

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

In “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last”—first published by City Lights Books in 1970 and included three years later in Sleepers Joining Hands—surrealistic imagery is for the most part disposed of. Replacing it is a sustained, hate-filled invective against everything in American life that Bly loathed:

Helicopters flutter overhead. The death-
bee is coming. Super Sabres
like knots of neurotic energy sweep
around and return.
This is Hamilton's triumph.
This is the triumph of a centralized bank.
The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television reporters
lie, the priests lie.
What are these lies? It means that the country wants to die.
This is what it's like for a rich country to make war.
This is what it's like to bomb huts (afterwards described
as “structures”).
This is what it's like to kill marginal farmers (afterwards
described as “Communists”).
It's because the average hospital bed now costs two hundred
dollars a day
that we bomb the hospitals in the north …

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Any poet not mentioning the war in 1970 ran the risk, of course, of being implicated in the “genocide.” All the same, this appeared to be an egregious about-face for Bly. Unlike the confessional poets, for whom politics was a logical next step, Bly had presented himself as the poet of interior life. He had claimed, again and again, that society and culture threatened the purity of the poet's psychic rhythms. He had vociferously campaigned against what he called the “journalistic mind” in poetry, and had criticized poetry in which the words, as he said, had “their energy corrupted” by evil external forces. If Silence in the Snowy Fields demanded a poetry truly free of the rhetoric of the world, then The Light Around the Body seemed to be an outright betrayal of the earlier book. It was a book swamped by the rhetoric of the world.

Bly had an explanation, of course. The political poems of The Light Around the Body, he reasoned, were attempts to show “that the political poem comes out of the deepest privacy.” “Neruda, Vallejo, Antonio Machado, Aleixandre, and Lorca,” says Bly in the preface to the section of poems from The Light Around the Body in the Selected Poems, taught him that it was “just and natural to write of important national griefs in one's poetry as well as of private griefs.” As long as these “national griefs” emerged from one's body, insisted Bly, they were not simply political rhetoric but the authentic subjective eruptions of a deeply grieved person. And who was to say whether these poems emerged from one's inner soul or were the product of the fallen world? Why, the poet himself? What we were offered was, in short, the same old solipsism. And as before, anyone who dared to question whether political imagery could be of the requisite psychic depth was automatically accused of using the superannuated critical tools of a dying culture. In the Sixties and Seventies, few wanted to be guilty of this crime.

Even if we take The Light Around the Body and “Teeth Mother” in their own terms—as attempts to expiate the alleged sins (greed, commercialism, aggression) of America—they still miss their target. Bly's high moral fervor is undone by some gross miscalculations. Most obvious of these is Bly's repeated stereotyping of people. “No one in business can be a Christian,” says Bly in one poem. Accountants, executives, advertising men, and Indians are all similarly typecast (the last in a poem entitled “Hatred of Men with Black Hair”). This alarming attitude crops up in Bly's other works and statements from this time as well. In an interview from 1966 Bly declared that “the typical football player … mistreats women, because he has always mistreated the woman that is inside him.” What this stereotyping now looks like is the inevitable point of view of someone who has dwelled too long in the unpopulated landscapes of his own subjectivity.

Bly's political poetry corresponded to some real-life activism during these years. In 1966 he organized the first anti-war poetry readings at Reed College and the University of Washington. The same year he co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War. In 1967 he took part in a Pentagon demonstration, and was arrested for blocking the entrance to an induction center. And in 1968, at the ceremony for the National Book Awards, Bly in his acceptance speech urged the young people in the audience to defy the draft. At the same ceremony he donated his award money to the “resistance.” Ten years later Bly was still castigating his fellow poets—John Berryman was his bête noire—for “refusing to get up on one of those \anti-war] stages.” Much of the other work Bly produced during the late Sixties and early Seventies—Twenty Poems of Pablo Neruda (1969), translated by Bly and Wright, The Morning Glory (1969), a chapbook of prose poems, Twenty Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1970), and Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (1971)—was obscured by the running political commentary. In 1971 Bly predicted “a very swift disintegration of all the structures of society” replaced by a world of isolated, self-sufficient communes. Clearly, Bly's primary interest was in taking his solipsism to the streets.

“The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” was the first poem written following Bly's intensive reading of Jung, which had begun in 1969. Jung's association of the unconscious with femininity and the conscious mind with masculinity struck a responsive chord in Bly, who promptly caricatured it in his writings. As Bly explains it in the essay “I Came Out of the Mother Naked” in Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), masculine awareness—which Bly identified with rules and morality—defeated the feminine consciousness—identified with nature, compassion, intuition, and poetry—in a struggle for control of the planet. Sleepers Joining Hands was an attempt, in Bly's words, to “right \the] spiritual balance” on earth. But for Bly righting the balance naturally meant giving the mother consciousness the upper hand. Bly condemns everything associated (in his own mind, anyway) with the masculine impulse, from literary criticism to the desire to “go out and conquer Africa,” and is full of praise for everything associated with the feminine outlook. What Bly really liked about Jung's theories, or what he saw in them, anyway, was their simplicity. The world was neatly divided into two camps: the good and the bad. One is to be disposed of and one is to be saved. All special circumstances, contingencies, and complexities are conveniently ignored.

Of course, the masculine attribute most roundly condemned by Bly during his Jungian phase was poetic form. In an interview published in Craft magazine in 1972, Bly went to considerable lengths to indicate that his poetry is written without the assistance of what he refers to as “the stiff part of the mind.” After the interviewer gets Bly to admit grudgingly that the poems of The Light Around the Body are composed in “high” or poetic language, the interviewer—clearly relishing the idea that he'll go on record as the only person ever to have forced Robert Bly to admit that his poetry is crafted—proudly declares: “That's a matter of craft.” But Bly retorts: “… what guides this craft is an instinctive sense for when a sentence is alive and when it's not. … ” When it comes to his “technique” or to what gives birth to a poem, Bly is even more evasive. He simply does not say anything.

Not surprisingly, Bly tried to revise literary history along these same anti-formal lines. All “great poems,” he said, “like the Odyssey, take\s] \their] form … without mind intervention.” Bly sought to revolutionize the art of translating poetry in a similar fashion. Knowing the language well wasn't the most important factor in translating poetry, Bly insisted, since “[w]hat you are essentially doing is slipping for a moment into the mood of the other poet … into an emotion which you may possibly have experienced at some time.” In truth, Bly's ideas about translation merely allowed the translator, as James Dickey put it, to take “as many liberties as \he] wants to take with the original, it being understood that this enables \him] somehow to approach the ‘spirit’ of the poem \he] is translating.” The emergence of public readings of poetry during this time was also given encouragement in Bly's ideas. When you read poetry, Bly explained, the mind intervenes. When you hear poetry, on the other hand, there is less chance of the mind analyzing the work and thereby suppressing a deep subjective interaction with the poem. Criticism of poetry also underwent a drastic change, thanks in part to Bly's theories. Fewer and fewer writers on poetry analyzed what they read. Instead poetry was admired for—to borrow a phrase of Howard Nelson's—its “flowing, rushing, knotting, whirling” energy. An entire way of writing about poetry was quickly becoming obsolete, and it was Bly who had played a major role in drafting the blueprint of its destruction.

Bly provided the generation of poets coming of age in the Seventies with plenty of examples of anti-poetic poetry to accompany his anti-critical rhetoric. The following excerpt, for example, from Bly's “Six Winter Privacy Poems”—which opens the book Sleepers Joining Hands— reminded budding poets how easy it was to stand by whatever banality they had first put down on paper:

My shack has two rooms; I use one,
The lamplight falls on my chair and table
and I fly into one of my poems—
I can't tell you where—
as if I appeared where I am now,
in a wet field, snow falling. …
There is solitude like black mud!
Sitting in this darkness singing,
I can't tell if this joy
is from the body, or the soul, or a third place!

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Bly wasn't through yet. After all, he was still using the stanza and line—“antiquated” poetic units of measure. The prose poems of The Morning Glory (1975) and This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood (1977) sought, in Bly's words, to “calm the language down” even more, thereby making it a truer reflection of the timeless flow of the inner body. “[I]t was as if I had descended into my body at last,” says Bly in the Selected Poems, “and that immersion is the subject of the poems. The joy \of the poetry] lies in its being unfocused”:

The cucumbers are thirsty, their big leaves turn away from the wind. I water them after supper; the hose curled near the rhubarb. The wind sound blows through the head. … What is comforted words help, the sunken islands speak to us. …

Is this world animal or vegetable? Others love us, the cabbages love the earth, the earth is fond of the heavens—A new age comes close through the dark, threatens much, so much is passing away. …

Even some of the critics who had previously supported Bly rebelled against This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood. One of them, Philip Dacey in a piece entitled “This Book is Made of Turkey Soup and Star Music,” cited by Nelson, wrote:

Although Bly, a classic literary demagogue, rails against artifice in poetry … many of the prose poems in this book are more artificial—pieces clearly contrived in a language one is not likely to hear outside the poem—than virtually any of, say, Frost's poems in blank verse. Frost and countless others achieve the natural or a semblance of it through the artificial; Bly wishes to bypass the latter and ends up smack in the middle of it.

Apparently Bly was sensitive to the charges. His next book, This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979)—a group of surrealist country poems much in the vein of those in Silence in the Snowy Fields—was an obvious effort to conciliate the critics and readers who had grown impatient with his work. But these poems, written at intervals during the previous sixteen years, are more literary and less spontaneous than their predecessors. The book was promptly attacked by Eliot Weinberger—never a supporter of Bly's—who began his review, which appeared in The Nation on November 17, 1979, with the sentence, “Robert Bly is a windbag, a sentimentalist, a slob in the language.”

Bly attempted to start off the decade of the Eighties on a new foot. The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981) was heralded as the poet's long overdue reconciliation with the masculine consciousness, a “return to the father,” as Bly put it. “To be able to respect your father is such a beautiful thing!” Bly declared in an interview at the time. Although the surface details of the poems in this book seem to be vaguely “about” masculinity, little else has changed. Indeed, the same undiluted anti-rationalism and anti-formalism that governed the earlier poetry governs almost everything here. This is from “What the Fox Agreed to Do”:

And the shells, the mollusc shells, grow large.
Smoke twists up through water,
the moon rockets up from the sea floor.
The fox agrees to leap into the ocean.
The human being feels a splash around him.
Hebrews straddle the slippery dolphins.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

And this is from the prose poem entitled “Eleven O‘Clock at Night” (none of these prose poems were included in the Selected Poems):

I lie alone in my bed; cooking and stories are over at last, and some peace comes. And what did I do today? I wrote down some thoughts on sacrifice that other people had, but couldn't relate them to my own life. I brought my daughter to the bus—on the way to Minneapolis for a haircut—and I waited twenty minutes with her in the somnolent hotel lobby. I wanted the mail to bring some praise for my ego to eat, and was disappointed. I added up my bank balance, and found only $65, when I need over a thousand to pay the bills for this month alone. So this is how my life is passing before the grave?

The critics in Bly's thrall—there were still many of them—responded to this book, as they almost always had, by relinquishing their critical powers: “I risk, of course,” said one, “by trying to be too rational (male-conscious), damaging \Bly's] subtle fabrics.”

Howard Nelson, in his recent book on Bly, does not view the poetry in The Man in the Black Coat Turns as another episode of solipsistic surrealism. He finds it not only full of meaning—an attempt, in his words, to “recover the past”—but full of allusions to the New Testament as well. But then Nelson discovers allusions, “sexual metaphors,” “symbols,” and coherent imagery everywhere in the Bly oeuvre. “The consciousness in the Snowy Fields,” Nelson avers, “is in fact quite complicated.” Nelson's ability to misconstrue Bly's poetry—not to mention his ignoring the poet's numerous statements of intention—is remarkable. Bly's defiantly illogical imagery is said by Nelson to be a “smooth arc of association”—a phrase more easily applied to the poetry of the despised Eliot than to that of Bly. Astonishingly, Nelson asserts that Bly

prizes spontaneity but also believes in revision. For him, the free flow of the mind in and of itself is neither avant-garde nor necessarily very interesting.

This is not the blatant contradiction of Bly's aesthetic it appears to be, or so Nelson claims. For the “intelligence” Nelson finds running rampant in Bly's poetry is not the mind's intelligence, but the “body's wisdom,” the consciousness of nature. “The rational intelligence,” explains Nelson, “is not the only intelligence.”

John Unterecker, who has contributed a foreword to Nelson's book, resorts to a similar strategy in his discussion of Bly's musical effects. Bly's “high” poetic language, Unterecker says, is “probably largely uncalculated,” “perhaps casual in composition,” “half-conscious,” and written “without a great deal of premeditation.” Yet a few sentences later Unterecker acknowledges that Bly “trusts to an ear that he's trained by careful listening….” Now trained is very much the opposite of casual, half-conscious and uncalculated. But Unterecker, like Nelson, wishes to honor Bly's free-associational method while simultaneously claiming some quality of mind for the poetry. Clearly, it is no easy task.

In truth, though, Unterecker and Nelson are only responding to a tack recently taken by Bly himself. In a 1981 essay called “Form that Is Neither In nor Out”—which begins, “I have been thinking lately that we have not been very faithful servants of art”—Bly declares:

… I have often thought of form as a prison … a kind of dungeon in which heart material gets imprisoned. Suppose I were wrong on that. If so, we need to find a way to speak of form so that its wild or intense quality becomes clear. The distinction between form as prison and form as wildness may correspond to a distinction between kinds of form, in particular, the mechanical and the organic. … I maintain then that the more form a poem has—I mean living form—the closer it comes to the wild animal.

This view is reiterated in an essay in the Selected Poems entitled “The Prose Poem as an Evolving Form,” in which Bly speaks of how “form in art relies on form in nature for its model.” But whether it is Nelson's “organic” form, Unterecker's “half-conscious” form, or Bly's “wild” and “living” form, it all bespeaks a willed effort to conflate two irreconcilable attitudes toward poetry. For Bly and his critics, it is not enough for poetry to appeal to a primitive level of consciousness. It must be “composed” by that consciousness too.

Intelligence and form have been praised by Bly in other recent essays and interviews too. “All artists love art,” he says in one, “but we miss sometimes in Whitman reminders of what a triumph the intensely worked poem can be.” “Before solitude can give any nourishment to the poet, evidently a certain level of literary culture has to be reached.” “Writing poetry means a lot of study.” “Obsession with image can become a psychic habit as much as obsession with persona.”

Robert Bly's recent change of heart is interesting as a part of the cultural history of our time—and anyway, he has every right to change his mind. But his well-publicized shift does nothing to rescue the poems, the majority of which suffer from the two worst poetic excesses of the Sixties: politics and solipsism. This is unfortunate, because Bly has displayed from the start an enormous gift for language, and these excesses have worked against his strongest talent. To this reader, only a handful of the pastoral poems in Silence in the Snowy Fields, an equally small number of the “thought” poems from the early Eighties, and the previously suppressed formalist work of the late Forties do not betray this gift. Here is a section of another early poem—entitled “Schoolcraft's Diary Written on The Missouri: 1830”—which we are now seeing for the first time:

Now night grows old above this riverboat.
Before I end, I shall include account
Of incident tonight that moved my wonder.
At dusk we tied the ship to trees on shore;
No mortal boat in these night shoals can live.
At first I heard a cry: then shufflings, steps.
The muffled sounds on deckoak overhead
Drew me on deck. The air was chill, and there
I sensed, because these senses here are sharp
And must be, something living and unknown.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Far from being evidence of “interior starvation,” as Bly claimed they were, these youthful lines hint at what Bly's poetic achievement might have been had he not chosen to abandon formalism for the gratifications of a half-baked surrealism. What we have instead is poetry disfigured by politics and the supposed pleasures he derives from being “wrapped in my joyful flesh.”

Dana Gioia (essay date Summer 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Successful Career of Robert Bly,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 207-23.

[In the following essay, Gioia offers critical analysis of Bly's poetry and an overview of his literary career and critical reception. According to Gioia, “Bly insists on being judged as a major poet, but his verse cannot bear the weight of that demand.”]

Robert Bly is one of the most famous and influential poets now writing in America. The author, editor, and translator of over eighty books and pamphlets, Bly has been a constant and outspoken presence in American poetry for the last three decades. Now at sixty, he is one of the few contemporary poets who, like a rock star or sports celebrity, seems bigger than life. Indeed in parts of the academy Bly has already achieved canonic stature. His poetry has entered the curriculum and inspired a sizeable secondary literature of books, dissertations, and articles. He has demonstrated that it is still possible for a contemporary poet to become a public figure.

Bly's fame did not come by accident. He has not only poured immense energy into the solitary act of writing but also into developing his public personality as a writer. No contemporary poet (except Allen Ginsberg) has better understood the value of publicity or used it more aggressively to his own advantage. Bly realized early in his career how important it was for a poet to create an attractive public image independent of his work. There was little fame in the poetry world and many contenders. To become well-known one had to court a broader public—and not by poetry but personality. Bly knew that the mass media would always have room for a few poets, provided they were sufficiently colorful.

Bly created a series of timely public images, each suited to a particular decade. The sixties saw Bly as a fiery anti-war activist; the seventies as a mysterious shaman explaining the myths of contemporary culture; the eighties as a gentle spiritual counselor healing the psychic wounds of modern life. In the meantime, he gave more interviews than a Hollywood starlet, campaigned more miles than a presidential hopeful. He appeared on television, spoke on radio, made recordings, even engineered mass-market mailings to announce his books and seminars. Though he professes a preference for the contemplative life, Bly is not shy about sharing his talents. Traveling for months each year to give readings, performances, lectures, and workshops, he has probably reached a broader public than any American poet since Robert Frost.

Although Bly has achieved considerable literary fame, his position in contemporary letters remains curiously ambiguous. His importance to recent literary history seems incontestable, but his achievements as a poet are open to question. No comprehensive account of American poetry since 1950 can ignore Bly's manifold contributions as poet, translator, editor, critic, performer, and personality. One might even claim him as the most influential poet of the sixties and seventies. He helped introduce surrealism into American poetry, popularize Latin American verse, renew interest in literary translation, strengthen the identity of regional poetry from the Midwest, and lead the movement of political poetry during the Vietnam War. He also played a critical role in discrediting the American tradition of formal poetry, offering as an alternative his own vision of poems which would be, as Charles Molesworth has summarized, “more open in form, associative in structure, and ecstatic in intention.”

This much Bly has certainly done. The debate begins when one stops chronicling and begins evaluating his achievements. Bly's advocates esteem him as a contemporary Ezra Pound, a multi-talented pioneer, who has used poetry, translation, and criticism innovatively to create an authentic and genuinely new style. His detractors see him as an industrious opportunist, a writer of immense but overwhelmingly pernicious influence and shallow achievement. Such controversy is not unexpected for so prolific and mercurial a writer. While criticism usually clarifies a writer's achievement, in Bly's case critics have been hard-pressed merely to keep up with his latest transformation. But now with the publication of his Selected Poems and the appearance of several critical books about his work, the time for an informed and frank appraisal has arrived.

Bly's work profits by being seen in the context of his life and background because he is one of the few twentieth-century American poets who has remained deeply rooted in his native landscape. Born in Madison, Minnesota in 1926, the poet grew up on a farm in the tightly knit, Norwegian/Lutheran society of the Great Plains. Although Bly left Minnesota to join the Navy in World War II and then spent more than a decade elsewhere, he returned to rural Minnesota in 1958 and has kept it as his base during his entire public literary life.

For all his later eccentricity, Bly began his literary career in the most conventional way for an ambitious young poet of his generation. In 1947 after a year at St. Olaf's, a stolid Lutheran college in Minnesota, Bly fled his native pastures for Harvard Yard. In those postwar years, Cambridge was the right place for an aspiring poet. John Ciardi and Archibald MacLeish were on the faculty. Richard Wilbur was a university fellow. Bly's fellow undergraduates included John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Kenneth Koch, Frank O‘Hara, and L. E. Sissman, with Adrienne Rich at Radcliffe. Like everyone else literary, Bly competed for the staff of the Harvard Advocate and, as always, competition suited him. Eventually the Advocate not only made him a senior editor but also published his lively essays and awkward, metrical poems. In 1950 he left Harvard with a magna cum laude in English, and, not surprisingly, moved to New York City to write. This relocation proved unsuccessful, and he wrote very little. Several frustrating years later, Bly took the next conventional step and left for the University of Iowa to earn an M.A. in Creative Writing. His time at Iowa remains murky because he has maintained an uncharacteristic silence about this period, consistently skipping over it in his many autobiographical interviews and essays. Perhaps the most telling testimony of his years in the famed Writers' Workshop comes from his current advice to aspiring authors. When asked how to become a poet, Bly now replies that one should go off alone for two years and talk to no one. In 1956, however, having himself spent two years talking to his teachers and fellow graduate students, Bly left with his bride for Norway on a Fulbright. At the age of thirty, Bly seemed headed for a comfortable academic career.

Europe was the turning point in Bly's creative life. His subsidized scholarly project was to translate Norwegian poetry (although he knew no Norwegian at the time, Bly has never lacked self-confidence). Instead in Oslo he discovered modern European and Latin American poetry, especially the work of Georg Trakl and Pablo Neruda. Returning to the U.S. in 1958, he was filled with a religious mission to reform American poetry. His aim was to push aside the now decrepit “Puritan, American isolationist tradition” of Pound, Eliot, and Williams and replace it with a vital new international style. The old tradition, he claimed, strived for clarity and reason which created “a spare, bare poetry” with few images. The new movement would create “poetry heavy with images from the unconscious” (Bly's italics).

Bly saw himself at odds with the literary establishment—both in the academy and in New York—against which he waged a wily generational and geographical war. If rural Minnesota was remote from the center of American literary life, he would then bring it closer to the mainstream of world poetry. If he was a young man with no critical authority, he would discredit the older generation of literary arbiters. Not employed on any faculty, Bly could ignore the restraints of standard scholarly and critical writing and leap instead into polemic, satire, and speculation to accomplish his ends. He would overstep the narrow boundaries of academic departments and explore not only literatures in foreign languages but also ideas from sociology, psychology, and anthropology. He would fight on his own terms to transform the poetic standards of the coming decade.

To accomplish this transformation, Bly began what would become the most influential small poetry magazine of the next decade, The Fifties (later updated to The Sixties and briefly, before it expired, to The Seventies). Though it published the work of other writers, The Fifties was largely a one-man show with Bly supplying poems, translations, reviews, editorials, and fillers from cover to cover. For an average issue Bly wrote about two-thirds of the material, mostly under his own name but often under pseudonyms (including that of the arch-critic, Crunk). It was an exciting performance and one which quickly revealed Bly's strengths and weaknesses as a writer. His clarity of purpose gave vitality and directness to every page. His intellectual curiosity rejected the conventional limits for literary discourse set by the New Critics. He was not interested in careful, textual analysis but in ambitious cultural criticism. Bly responded to poetry with the whole of his intelligence, frequently making illuminating political, psychological, and sociological observations. One sensed a bold, original mind with a true talent for making unexpected associations. Bly also understood how a living literature needed innovation to avoid stagnation. In The Fifties he brought news to American poetry—news of foreign poets, critical alternatives, and revolutionary aesthetics.

The Fifties was an overtly didactic magazine, a paperbound church with Reverend Bly permanently at the pulpit. There might be a little poetic music to work up the crowd, but the sermon was the main attraction. There were souls to be saved. Bly's articles were not carefully crafted essays. Indeed the scholarship he proudly flaunts on all occasions often proves embarrassing under scrutiny, as when he analyzes Lucretius' image of “the tears of things” not realizing he is quoting one of Virgil's most famous phrases. The didactic impulse rarely leads to perfectionism, and too often the excitement of Bly's best prose often coincides with an enthusiastic hastiness.

Not only Bly's prose was spoiled by this didacticism. No where are its damaging effects more evident than in his copious translations. In The Fifties Bly translated the work of foreign writers, especially those involved in the surrealist and expressionist movements (which had not yet entered the mainstream of American literature) to illustrate how contemporary poems might be written. For all his fascination with contemplative figures like Meister Eckhart, Bly has always chosen action and involvement. As a propagandist for a new poetics, he quickly discovered that translation was more important than his own poetry for demonstrating his theories in convincing, concrete terms. But as a translator, Bly reveals the aesthetic simplification inherent in his “deep image” school of poetry.

Bly's versions usually conveyed the surface sense and images of the original, but the careful shapes of sound which embody them and the nuances of meaning which enliven them were largely ignored. The main problem a translator of poetry faces is not in bringing across the surface sense. That task, at least in modern languages, is relatively easy. The difficulty comes in recreating the complex design of sound and connotation that charges the original with energy. Bly usually solved this problem by ignoring its existence. He merely provided prose translations, often curiously awkward ones, lineated as verse. His versions were usually good enough to make a particular critical point. Unfortunately they were rarely strong enough to bring the poetry itself across with the theory. In the pages of The Fifties, poetry truly became what got lost in translation.

Is this judgment an exaggeration? Here are the opening stanzas of two famous poems in the original French and German. (I offer two languages to increase the chances that the reader will be able to compare Bly's versions with the original text.) First the opening quatrain of Mallarmé's “Sonnet”:

Sur les bois oubliés quand passe
l‘hiver sombre
Tu te plains, ô captif solitaire du seuil,
Que ce sépulcre à deux qui fera
notre orgueil
Hélas! du manque seul des lourds bouquets
s‘encombre ….

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

And now the beginning of Rilke's famous “Der Panther” describing a caged panther in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris:

Sien Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Here are Bly's versions. First the Mallarmé:

While the dark winter is passing over the woods now forgotten
Lonesome man imprisoned by the sill, you are complaining
That the mausoleum for two which will be our pride
Is unfortunately burdened down with the absence of masses of flowers …

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Now the Rilke:

From seeing and seeing the seeing has become so exhausted
It no longer sees anything anymore.
The world is made of bars, a hundred thousand bars, and behind the bars,

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

As an impromptu translation in a French II oral exam, the Mallarmé might eke out a passing grade, but as poetry in English it fails the most rudimentary test. Not only does it not seem like the verse of an accomplished poet, it doesn't even sound like the language of a native speaker. Nor does the Rilke exhibit the virtues of a smooth literal translation. It transforms the tight, musical German into loose, pretentious doggerel. In the first line, Bly gratuitously introduces awkward, unidiomatic repetitions as equivalents to Rilke's clean phrasing and substitutes a long limp line for the original's appropriately controlled iambic pentameter. (“The Panther” is a poem about the repetition of confinement.) In the second line Bly indulges in more vague, clumsy word play (“anything anymore”) and meaninglessly varies the rhythm of the line from his opening, once again betraying Rilke's tight stanza design for no apparent benefit. In the third and fourth lines, Bly yet again shifts the sense of rhythm and lineation with a jerky enjambment falling in the middle of a phrase (“a hundred thousand / bars”) before tightening up his syntax suddenly.

If this language is indeed verse, it is verse of the most amateurish variety. Not only are Rilke's subtle repetitions vulgarized in Bly's heavy-handed language, but the intense spiritual identification between the poet and the caged animal is clumsily undercut in Bly's English. In the German Rilke carefully presents the panther as masculine. It is “his glance” on the bars. The image of a thousand bars occurs “to him.” Of course this sexual identification comes from the masculine gender of the German word for “panther.” But, like other great poets, Rilke uses the deep structure of the language to heighten the meaning of his images. Focusing such subtle connotations gives poetry its intensity. Bly, who has repeatedly cited this particular poem as a source for his theory of “twofold consciousness,” misses this crucial nuance entirely. While understanding the central idea of the poem, Bly is strangely deaf to the subtler side of its language, and he mechanically neuters this imprisoned masculine panther into an “it,” although English grammar can neatly duplicate German in this case, and common American speech uses gender to personalize animals. What can one say about translations so insensitive to both the sound and nuance of the originals?

By propagating this minimal kind of translation Bly has done immense damage to American poetry. Translating quickly and superficially, he not only misrepresented the work of many great poets, he also distorted some of the basic standards of poetic excellence. His slapdash method ignored both the obvious formal qualities of the originals (like rhyme and meter) and, more crucially, those subtler organizing principles such as diction, tone, rhythm, and texture which frequently gave the poems their intensity. Concentrating almost entirely on syntax and imagery, Bly reduced the complex originals into abstract visual blueprints. In his hands, dramatically different poets like Lorca and Rilke, Montale and Machado, not only all sounded alike, they all sounded like Robert Bly, and even then not like Bly at his best. But as if that weren't bad enough, Bly consistently held up these diminished versions as models of poetic excellence worthy of emulation. In promoting his new poetics (based on his specially chosen foreign models), he set standards so low that he helped create a school of mediocrities largely ignorant of the pre-modern poetry in English and familiar with foreign poetry only through oversimplified translations.

Bly's weaknesses as a translator underscore his central failings as a poet. He is simplistic, monotonous, insensitive to sound, enslaved by literary diction, and pompously sentimental. Moreover these are not accidental faults. They are the consequences of his poetic method and they are exacerbated by his didactic impulse. Curiously Bly's prose rarely exhibits these problems. Whatever its intellectual failings, it is usually fresh, vigorous, and diverse. Much of the poetry, however, suffers from being written according to a method.

As Selected Poems makes clear, Bly's earliest work was awful. A few lines written when the young Bly lived in New York City will suffice to show his wisdom in waiting till thirty-five to publish a book:

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 …

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

By the time his premier volume, Silence in the Snowy Fields, appeared in 1962, Bly had developed a quiet, personal style capable of creating fine short poems within a limited range. The most noticeable qualities of this style were simplicity, coolness, and compression. Even eighty volumes later this strangely unified book remains the central Bly collection, the one most often praised by critics and cherished by readers. Now in its thirteenth printing, it appears on many university course lists. Its contents are frequently anthologized (not infrequently by Bly himself), and in his Selected Poems, Bly preserves more poems from it than any other collection. Here Bly created a type of poem which would not only become his trademark but also influence two generations of poets. Here, too, one sees the beginning of the problems which would weaken most of Bly's later work.

“Old Boards” from Silence in the Snowy Fields demonstrates the usual Bly manner:


I love to see boards lying on the ground in early spring:
The ground beneath them is wet and muddy—
Perhaps covered with chicken tracks—
And they are dry and eternal.


This is the wood one sees on the decks of ocean ships,
Wood that carries us far from land,
With a dryness of something used for simple tasks,
Like a horse's tail.


This wood is like a man who has a simple life,
Living through the spring and winter on the ship of his own desire.
He sits on dry wood surrounded by half-melted snow
As the rooster walks away springily over the dampened hay.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

“Old Boards” like all the “country poems” from Silence in the Snowy Fields is short and undeceptively simple. The rhythm is calm and deliberate. All of the lines are end-stopped with the line lengths matching the units of sense. The vocabulary is ordinary and traditional. One cannot find a single word or image which is distinctively modern. The diction is flat and old-fashioned or, to use Bly's more ambitious formulation, “dry and eternal.” The tone, like the rhythm, never departs from a cheery peacefulness. Roman numerals have been placed between each stanza to slow the reader down and put each section in isolation. The first stanza presents an ordinary farm scene. Old boards have been laid over the muddy ground to make a walkway in spring. The second stanza equates this commonplace sight with something unexpected, the wood used to build the decks of ships which take men on voyages. The final stanza combines these notions to show how a farmer's seemingly ordinary life also encompasses a spiritual voyage. “Old Boards” is a simple, honest poem. While not particularly exciting or memorable, it has the modest virtues of brevity, directness, and precision.

The problem with Bly's work is that he has rewritten “Old Boards” several hundred times, usually less well. Not only is every poem in Silence in the Snowy Fields similar both technically and thematically, but so is most of Bly's subsequent verse. The style which this early book achieved through compression and discipline, quickly relaxed into an uninteresting set of mannerisms. Worse yet, as the style grew more slack, the intellectual demands Bly placed on it became more onerous. Bly's “country” style works best for simple, static scenes. It operates in isolated flashes that generate no complex narrative or intellectual energy. Despite their gestures of spiritual profundity, the poems operate too superficially to recreate any but the most elementary spiritual insights, and even these they usually assert rather than dramatize—and, as Bly develops, assert with increasing crudity. Bly's initial clarity and simplicity quickly became pious pretention like this section from “Six Winter Privacy Poems,” which opened Sleepers Joining Hands (1973):

There is a solitude like black mud!
Sitting in this darkness singing,
I can't tell if this joy
Is from the body, or the soul, or a third place!

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

This short poem deserves scrutiny because it is a microcosm of Bly's faults. It begins with the supposedly bold but ultimately corny “deep image” of solitude as “black mud.” Anyone schooled in Bly's poetics will know that mud is a positive, profound symbol. It is earthy and elemental, especially when modified by black, the favorite “deep image” color after white. Although Bly's opening line is flat and abstract, he announces his metaphor in great excitement. (One can always tell when Bly is excited. He adds an exclamation point.) He then switches to an image which attests to his spiritual discipline. After all, how many of us desire spiritual growth strongly enough to spend time sitting alone singing in the dark? After one line of such grueling discipline, Bly is properly rewarded by a transfiguring joy which so confuses him that he is unable to determine whether it comes from his body, his soul or, in his inimitable phrase, “a third place” (second exclamation point). At this point the reader may want to go back to the beginning to see what he or she has missed. A second look will probably not help much. One may even begin to wonder what “black mud” is doing in the poem besides sitting around seeming profound. This indescribable quality is apparently what makes it a “deep image.” Reaching the end a second time, the reader should simply appreciate the last line for what it is, a small masterpiece of bathos, a Hallmark Cards version of mysticism.

This poem also demonstrates the pompous sentimentality that pervades much of Bly's work. In poetry sentimentality represents the failure of language to carry the emotional weight an author intends. There is an excess of some lofty emotion which the reader understands but cannot participate in. Instead the reader remains outside the emotional action of the poem, a little embarrassed by it all, like a person sharing a train compartment with a couple whispering romantically in baby-talk.

This edifying sentimentality is one of the keys to Bly's popularity. Most people like sentimental art, as long as its emotions are stylish. The last century sentimentalized tender emotions like love and pity. This Old Sentimentality is now passé. The New Sentimentality prefers other ennobling qualities like alienation, loneliness, and especially sincerity. But traditional or contemporary, the sentimentalist always asks the reader to experience more emotion than the poem generates. Poets know that many readers will collaborate in the deception. A few bells will suffice to set off emotions readers want to experience anyway.

Reading Bly one continually comes across purple passages of the New Sentimentality like:

There is a restless gloom in my mind.
I walk grieving. The leaves are down.
I come at dusk
Where, sheltered by poplars, a low pond lies.
The sun abandons the sky, speaking through cold leaves.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Is it possible for a stanza of poetry to be both unadorned and overwritten? Here every phrase contains at least one heavy-handed hint to the author's mood. (Excerpting these clues, one could easily compose a telegram version of the poem: “Restless gloom grieving down dusk low abandons cold.”) But despite its crude overstatement, the language remains weirdly inert for a lyric poem. Characteristically Bly simply asserts his emotions. His utilitarian language does little to recreate them in the reader. Instead, in the manner of the New Sentimentality, he tries to bully the reader into an instant epiphany of alienation and self-pity.

If Bly writes this sentimentally about the weather, watch out when he talks about love, as in his recent volume, Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1985). Here the Old and the New Sentimentality meet with truly gooey results. The gap between the intense emotions Bly intends and the tepid language he employs is broad enough for parody, but unfortunately, the poems are not intended to be funny. Sincerity alone cannot save a poem like “Letter to Her” which opens with this stanza:

What I did I did.
I knew that I loved you
and told you that.
Then I lied to you
often so you would love me,
hid the truth,
shammed, lied.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Is Bly then only a sentimental poet with mystical pretentions? From much of his Selected Poems it would appear so, but then in the middle of all the early work one suddenly comes across sharp, startling poems like “Counting the Small-Boned Bodies”:

Let's count the bodies over again.
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
the size of skulls,
we could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
maybe we could fit

a whole year's kill in front of us on a desk
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
we could fit
a body into a finger ring, for a keepsake forever.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

This remarkable short poem appeared in Bly's second full-length collection, The Light Around the Body, published in 1967 just as the movement against the Vietnam War hit full stride. This moment in American history became crucially important to Bly. His leadership in organizing poets to protest U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia gave him national notoriety. His decision to write political poems incorporating the lessons he had learned from translating Neruda, Lorca, Vallejo, Trakl and others produced his finest poems. And his cross-country trips to give readings against the Vietnam War created in him the hunger for celebrity and attention that characterized his later career. This historical episode was therefore doubly ironic for Bly. The political events, which cheapened the poetry of so many of his contemporaries, invigorated his work, while the occasion for his national fame eventually created the conditions for his literary decline. The politician produced a poet of rare quality just as the shaman degenerated into a showman.

One sees this transformation in the poems from The Light Around the Body and the pamphlet, Teeth Mother Naked at Last (1970). Several things happen there which rarely occur in his other work. First, the language breaks out of the monotonously literary diction of his “country” poems. Fresh, unexpected words and images appear. Second, the languid mood and syntax of the earlier poems acquire an urgency and excitement. Third, a powerful, illuminating anger disperses the fuzzy sentimentalism that weakens so much of his other work. Finally, Bly's view now broadens from his narrow private concerns to confront the rest of humanity. The poems no longer confine themselves to the easy juxtaposition of the poet alone with nature. They face the difficult world of human history. Bly seemed to be developing from the minor mode of his early work into a major new identity. In the process he wrote a few of the most stunning political poems in American literature—strange, frightening pieces like “Romans Angry About the Inner World,” “Johnson's Cabinet Watched by Ants,” and especially “Teeth Mother Naked at Last” (which, like many of the Selected Poems, has now been significantly revised by the author). Here Bly truly created a new type of American poem driven by stunning images and startling associational connections for which nothing earlier in the national literature fully prepared one:

Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck.
Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets.
Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep
over the huts with dirt floors.
Chickens feel the fear deep in the pits of their beaks.
Buddha and Padma Sambhava.
Meanwhile out on the China Sea
immense gray bodies are floating,
born in Roanoke,
the ocean to both sides expanding, “buoyed on the dense marine.”
Helicopters flutter overhead. The death-
bee is coming. Super Sabres
like knots of neurotic energy sweep
around and return.
This is Hamilton's triumph.
This is the triumph of a centralized bank.
B-52s come from Guam. Teachers
die in flames. The hopes of Tolstoy fall asleep in the ant heap.
Do not ask for mercy.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

Unfortunately, this exciting phase lasted only a few years. By the time “Teeth Mother Naked at Last” appeared in the volume, Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), Bly's political poetry had already dulled into a method as monotonous as his “country” poems. Bly's immense facility had again proven his undoing. The once frightening juxtaposition of myth and politics had become another easy routine. The new style and content were roughly similar to the best poems from The Light Around the Body, but the intensity and surprise had vanished. From now on Bly's writing becomes depressing to survey. When he risks large new themes as in the long poem, “Sleepers Joining Hands,” the work fails (as even he now senses, having broken this “too expansive and excitable” long poem into a number of shorter pieces in the Selected Poems). More often Bly remains content to revisit familiar themes with increasingly less compression and precision. A book like This Tree Will Be Here For a Thousand Years (1979) repeats self-consciously the mode of Silence in the Snowy Fields. Nor was this sentimental journey enough. As one of Bly's notes in Selected Poems makes clear, a third volume of “country poems” is on its way. This retrenchment would be less disappointing if Bly could still handle this mode as well as he did earlier in his career. Instead one sees a decline in quality as well as failure of real imaginative growth.

Bly's failure to build on the achievement of his best poems and his subsequent decline into self-parody makes Selected Poems a major disappointment. Whatever my reservations about Bly, I like the sensibility behind the work. I admire most of his basic values. I delight in his energy and irreverence. I want him to bring his poems to life—to dazzle, frighten and move me. Instead I read page after page of predictable, edifying poetic exercises. The experience would not be quite so bad if I did not hear the author so energetically applauding his own performances. Bly insists on being judged as a major poet, but his verse cannot bear the weight of that demand.

There is nothing subtle in Bly's bid for major stature. He has unabashedly organized his Selected Poems to demonstrate his own importance. He argues for this position overtly by chronicling each and every change in his poetry and equating them with growth. (One of the most interesting critical assumptions currently prevalent seems to be that the more a poet changes his work the more he grows in stature.) For Bly there is no subject so thoroughly engrossing as himself, and in recent years even his literary criticism, once so exciting and iconoclastic, has veered into pious autobiography. In Selected Poems this compulsion to annotate his own work proceeds unchecked by the Harper & Row editorial department. In only 204 pages of text the author has provided no fewer than 11 substantial prose commentaries. There is an introduction for each of the nine selections of the book plus two “afterthoughts” at the end, short essays which link the poet's technique with that of Smart, Blake, Whitman, Baudelaire, Ponge, and Jimenez. Of course, a Selected Poems should advertise a poet's achievement. Usually, however, a volume accomplishes this by presenting an author's best poems and letting the reader evaluate them. From the organization of this book, however, it would seem that Bly distrusts either his readers or his own work.

What use is poetry that cannot speak to its contemporary audience without the support of intermediary prose? Perhaps these insistent commentaries are only the miscalculations of an overly eager author. But in Bly's case even a sympathetic reader may begin to wonder about what is really going on. Reading the commentary in this volume is like watching a ball game from the stands while listening to someone describe it on the radio. The announcer, however, seems to be describing an altogether different game, one much more exciting than the hum-drum contest down on the field. One should not be too surprised though. It is just that gift for self-marketing that has built Bly's successful career. Some readers enjoy the sales pitch enough to accept the poetry on faith. I advise a more critical reading of these Selected Poems. There are a few breathtaking moments here as well as many quiet revelations. If only one did not have to push through all the dullness and pretention to find them or shut out the author's eager guided tours along the way. Bly's best poems make this volume worth the effort, but, unfortunately, it is an effort.

Askold Melnyczuk (review date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Robert Bly,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LV, No. 1, 1988, pp. 167-71.

[In the following review, Melnyczuk offers analysis of Bly's poetry and artistic development in Selected Poems.]

My first thought on opening Robert Bly's Selected Poems was how much this volume could not contain. Like Ezra Pound half a century earlier, Bly has centered himself in poetry and proceeded to radiate his energies out to nearly all corners of the world of letters. He has been influential as an editor, translator, theorist, and publicist for his gifted contemporaries. Where Pound schooled us in Greek, Latin, and Chinese classics, Bly has tutored us in Spanish (Machado, Neruda, Vallejo), Swedish (Ekelof, Transtromer), Norwegian (Hamsun), German (Rilke, Trakl), and even Hindu (Kabir). His public persona has been that of a guru, a bard of the people's court, a hyper- vitaminized skald, a WASP shaman (some would insist on abbreviating that word), a kind of straight Allen Ginsberg. Bly also resembles Pound in his talent for vexing the soberer doctors of letters, who tend to tsk and hiss, de haut en bas, at the work of mere masters of spirit.

The Selected, like all Bly productions, is an idiosyncratic affair. It is divided into ten parts. Nine of these contain excerpts (often much revised) from both published and unpublished material. A final chapter, “Afterthoughts,” offers two brief essays on prosody. Bly introduces the poetry sections with semi-autobiographical prefaces that are variously illuminating and irritating. He is capable of awesome banality: “All poems are journeys. They go from somewhere to somewhere else.” His need to personalize the rhetoric of poetic convention produces some quaint locutions: he describes the “English melodic line” as “the lute of three loudnesses.” But he also surfaces in these pages as a dues-paying guildsman tirelessly testing rhythm and pitch, carefully building the craft that will carry his voice. Like most of the poets born in the twenties, he began by writing in conventional meters. But “something in it did not fit” him; he continued to cast about until he discovered the loose and placid (though not flaccid) line that is his signature. The swivel and pivot of syllables and consonants in Bly's verse are quiet and regular as the plains and fields of his native Midwest.

Until recently, Bly's poetry has been Janus-faced, revealing alternately a public and a private aspect. Bly is aware of this dualism. He calls the work focusing on the inner life “poems of affinity,” while those touching on social and political experience he labels “poems of judgment.” In solitude, away from society, Bly suggests, we commune freely with nature and spirit and all that makes us feel large and whole. In community, however, we compromise and are compromised, we are driven by greed, motivated by fear, and live at the mercy of the tamas gunas. This book charts the poet's movement toward integrity and wholeness.

The earliest poems here reflect the poet's apprentice status. Tender sentiments are tritely expressed in a diction straightlaced with Wordsworthisms: “For me this season is most sweet,” vows the young swain of autumn. The following line, however, redeems that confession by its engaging rhythm and evocative image: “And winter will be stamping of the feet.” Had Bly developed along the lines he traced out for himself, he would have become a conventional taxidermist of nature: “The honey gatherers, coming and going, drive / Their endless circles to the hive.” A notable exception is the longer “Schoolcraft's Diary Written on the Missouri: 1830” which, though a little fuzzy in details, convincingly fuses narrative, symbolism, and period diction to convey something of the awe and mystery that must have enveloped the forays of the American pioneers. Toward the poem's end, the speaker, having just seen a wounded white bear, declares: “I felt as I had once when through a door, / At ten or twelve, I'd seen my mother bathing.” His memory of the accidental trespass of a human taboo illuminates the more public and deliberate violation of the American wilderness.

In later books Bly sought a language with which to limn the struggles of the inner man—or, rather, the interior city:

Inside the veins there are navies setting forth,
Tiny explosions at the water lines,
And seagulls weaving in the wind of the salty blood.

“Waking from Sleep”

The mood of the poems is generally ecstatic: “Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever.” Bly's sense of the numinous probably owes something to his study of the Christian mystics Boehme and Eckhart, both of whom saw the divine as immanent rather than transcendent. Drawn mainly from The Silence in the Snowy Fields, and influenced by Waley's Chinese translations and his own versions of Machado, the best of these poems are lapidary and comprehensive:

V. Listening to Bach
Inside this music there is someone
Who is not well described by the names
Of Jesus, or Jehovah, or the Lord of Hosts!

“Six Winter Privacy Poems”

The counterparts to these terse panegyrics are the public poems, many from the Vietnam era. To evoke the psychic dislocations of a nation divided, Bly deployed a brand of neosurrealism which came to be known as deep imagism. Simplifying grossly, the technique has the poet juxtapose radically disparate images aimed at detonating an emotional explosion in the reader. Here poems that fail lack inevitability. Their images seem arbitrary and cartoonish:

Filaments of death grow out.
The sheriff cuts off his black legs
And nails them to a tree.

“War and Silence”

But the blunt rhetorical strategies can also be unnervingly effective:

Tonight they burn the rice supplies; tomorrow
They lecture on Thoreau; tonight they move around the trees;
Tonight they throw firebombs; tomorrow
They read the Declaration of Independence; tomorrow they are in church.

“Johnson's Cabinet Watched by Ants”

The war also inspired what may be Bly's finest single poem, “The Teeth Mother Naked At Last.” Structurally reliant on Whitmanesque anaphora, the poem, part catalogue, part document, keens the loss of America's political innocence. A combination of Mauberley, a condensed Cantos, and Howl, it could be read as the bloody right parenthesis to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”:

I know that books are tired of us.
I know they are chaining the Bible
to chairs.
Books don't want to remain in the same room with us anymore.
New Testaments are escaping … dressed as women they slip out
after dark.

Pasternak once remarked that a book is nothing more than a “cubic piece of burning, smoking conscience.” The pyre Bly lit with his war poems continues to smoulder and disturb our night.

Bly's prose poems deserve an essay of their own. While his meditations on the prosody of prose are provocative, the things themselves embody and magnify some of the weaknesses of Bly's less successful verse. They can be obvious, faux-näif, packed with posturings and banal observations. Memorable exceptions include “The Hockey Poem” with its Ovidian metamorphoses, and “The Dead Seal” which, as a meditation on death and physical decay, is every bit as good as Richard Eberhardt's much anthologized “The Groundhog.”

A “selected poems” may become either a tombstone or a capstone to a career. In Bly's case, however, it appears to be a stepping stone. The poems included here from his last two books, The Man in the Black Coat Turns and Loving a Woman in Two Worlds are his finest yet. Previously Bly's community seemed comprised of trees, turtles, horses, and the poet's own soul. Now that humans have entered as subjects of the poems, the tensions between public and private, outward and inward, have diminished. Bly writes about trying to come to terms with his father and about learning his own limitations as a father and a lover:

I know there is someone
who tries to teach us.
He has four ways
to do that …
… I usually ignore
the earlier three,
and learn by falling.

“Four Ways of Knowledge”

He speaks, with startling luminosity, about loving a woman simultaneously muse and mortal:

And we did what we did, made love attentively, then
dove into the river, and our bodies joined as calmly
as the swimmer's shoulders glisten at dawn.

“The Good Silence”

And his meditations on the sources of our otherness are worth attending to:

We are bees then; our honey is language.
Now the honey lies stored in caves
beneath us, and the sound of words
carries what we do not.

“Words Rising”

The ebb and flow of the spirit now surges in every line. The separate profiles of Janus have merged and he looks out at us at last full face.

Deborah Tannen (review date 18 November 1990)

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SOURCE: “Born to be Wild,” in Washington Post Book World, November 18, 1990, pp. 1-2.

[In the following review, Tannen offers a favorable evaluation of Iron John.]

In addition to being one of our finest poets, Robert Bly has, over the last 10 years, inspired—through talks, workshops and tapes—a growing men's movement, conceived not to oppose the women's movement but to claim for men the strength and rejuvenation that he sees the women's movement giving women. Iron John is Bly's brilliantly eclectic written meditation on why men today are unhappy and how they can become happier. Iron John, in the Grimms' fairy tale, is a wild, hairy man living at the bottom of a pond deep in the forest. Since the story's gradual unfolding provides the book's suspense, I will not reveal it, but simply note that Bly sees Iron John as a metaphor for what men need.

Bly's premise is that the ’60s and ’70s created a “soft male” who is in touch with his feminine side, eschews violence and seeks harmony, is “a nice boy who pleases not only his mother but also the young woman he is living with”—and is full of grief. Suffering from passivity, naiveté and numbness, what he needs to know is not only his feminine side (though it also is of value) but the “deep male” symbolized by Iron John. Making contact with (not becoming) the Wild Man entails forsaking parents for a male mentor. Though “a clean break from the mother is crucial,” Bly refreshingly does not blame mothers when this break isn't made; he blames fathers, who abandon their sons, leaving a vacuum that mothers fill. He finds our society deficient in mythology and impoverished by the loss of ritual, especially initiation rituals by which older men take boys from the women and teach them how to be men.

The book is structured around Bly's colloquial rendering of the Iron John tale, told piece by piece, interspersed with commentary, snatches of tales from other traditions and mythologies, anthropological lore of non-literate cultures, Jungian insights and, most gloriously, poetry, much of it written or beautifully translated by Bly. The book is illuminated by the poet's image-rich vision and voice, generous in such wonderful phrasings as “old-man-minded farmer,” “the Idaho of the mind” and “Men and women alike once called on men to pierce the dangerous places, carry handfuls of courage to the waterfalls, dust the tails of the wild boars.”

The growth of the men's movement is testimony that Bly has struck a resonant chord: the need for ritual and for new stories and images to replace the ones that have worn out and let us down, the alienation of father and son in post-industrial society. He seeks to restore the terms “masculine” and “feminine” as legitimate, apolitical descriptions of the sexes as essentially different but not opposed. His observations about the differences between the sexes are true—and work both ways. Indeed, “how often every adult man has felt himself, when baffled by a woman's peculiar interpretation of his behavior—so different from his own—go into a sulk.”

Though she may be more likely to talk than sulk, every adult woman, too, has been baffled by a man's peculiar interpretation of her behavior. Similarly, Bly correctly observes that mothers can distort their sons' views of their fathers: “Mothers can be right about the father's negative side, but the woman also can be judgmental about masculine traits that are merely different or unexpected,” such as not talking about his feelings. This is important and also applies to fathers who give sons (and daughters) a view of their mothers as hysterical, manipulative, and illogical.

I am a bit nervous, not about Bly's own enlightened and enlightening vision, but about what might be made of it. He cautions that the Wild Man, who is fierce, should not be confused with the “savage man,” who is aggressively destructive; yet the two are easily confused. Writer Trip Gabriel found that, during a men's retreat inspired (but not run) by Bly, the participants easily danced like savages but were at a loss when asked to dance like wild men. And I could imagine Bly cringing at a letter responding to Gabriel's article about the retreat in which a man claims to have displayed his Wild Man by fighting in gang brawls and beating on garbage cans during college keg parties.

A theme running through the book is that men must regain comfort with the sword, learn to fight, get in touch with their “inner warrior.” Despite Bly's emphasis that the inner warrior is better expressed through ritual display, such as poetry, than by literal warfare, he uses much warlike imagery. For example, he says of the naive man, “If his wife or girlfriend, furious, shouts that he is ‘chauvinist,’ a ‘sexist,’ a ‘man,’ he doesn't fight back, but just takes it. He opens his shirt so that she can see more clearly where to put the lances. He ends with three or four javelins sticking out of his body, and blood running all over the floor.” But then, my objection to such imagery serves to illustrate Bly's point about women's discomfort with male agonism—fighting or warlike behavior.

Bly overestimates the effect of the women's movement, of women's strength and self-assurance, of the change in men resulting from New Age thinking. It hardly seems that most men have rejected the sword, when child abuse, rape, wife-beating, street crime and war are increasingly evident. If, as Bly eloquently demonstrates, agonism is an inherent and essential part of male consciousness, he is also right that our hope lies in the rediscovery of ritual enactments to replace the literal enactments that have both our society and the future of the earth under siege. This rewarding book is an invaluable contribution to the gathering public conversation about what it means to be male—or female.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (review date 9 December 1990)

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SOURCE: “Bring on the Hairy Mentor,” in New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1990, pp. 15-6.

[In the following review, Csikszentmihalyi offers positive assessment of Iron John, though notes that “the overall style of the book is a bit disappointing.”]

It is refreshing these days to read a book that does not lay the blame for America's collective ills on social injustice, the savings and loan scandal, Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts, but—get this—on defective mythology. The reason so many young people are ruined by drugs or senseless violence, according to Robert Bly (who is well known for his verse as well as for his recent forays into the reconstruction of the male psyche), is that to grow up as a wholesome adult one needs not only material comforts but the wise guidance of one's elders; and that is becoming increasingly scarce.

Anthropological literature is filled with accounts of how the Hopi Indians or the Arapesh of New Guinea nudge their youth into adulthood with the help of myths, symbols and initiation rituals. It is generally understood that such cultures would not endure unless elders spent a great deal of energy passing on their knowledge and values to the younger generation. But one could read a towering stack of enthnographies without encountering the suggestion that perhaps the same necessity holds also for us. Primitive people may need myths and rituals, because, well, they are primitive, aren't they? We, being rational, need none of that. Just give us the facts and the truth shall set us free.

It is with this dry Cartesian notion of human development that Mr. Bly takes issue. He starts with the assumption that boys don't become men or girls women by simply getting older and better informed. They also need a spiritual infusion from myths and mentors, in the form of a caring relationship that gradually discloses to the young what adulthood is all about. According to Mr. Bly, women in the last few decades have begun to rediscover what femininity means, while for men—separated from their fathers and from other male models—the concept of masculinity gets progressively blurred. To grow up healthy, young males need a positive ideal of manhood, and Iron John intends to provide it for them.

The model explored in this book is an archetypal character who recurs in myths and literature from the Gilgamesh to the brothers Grimm. Iron John is a hairy wild man who inhabits the forests and helps aimless young princes in their quest for fame and fortune. Mr. Bly's reading turns this Iron John into a perfect combination of untamed impulses and thoughtful self-discipline. This, and not the macho idols of the 1950s or the androgynous flower children of the 60s, should be our guiding ideal of mature masculinity. Although Iron John is an unregenerate male, man and woman can be whole only through each other. Mr. Bly does not believe that blurring the distinctions between the genders makes sense. As in biological development, integration requires prior differentiation; a fulfilling relationship requires a masculine man and a feminine woman.

It is possible that people who think of themselves as liberated will find Mr. Bly's theses somewhat reactionary. After all, why assume that the two genders need different myths, or that women can't initiate boys into manhood? Why not assume a generic human psyche, and unisex role models? To these questions Mr. Bly gives reasonably convincing answers. Four million years in which men and women prospered by maximizing complementary characteristics, eons that etched different patterns on the neural networks of the two genders, cannot—with all the good will in the world—be erased in a few decades. Nor can the subtle tendrils of culture, which entangle us in traditional gender roles, be cut without running the risk of bleeding the sap out of a growing man, or woman.

In terms of what it tries to accomplish, Mr. Bly's book is important and timely. We need powerful jogs such as this to help us remember that, moon shots and genetic engineering notwithstanding, we are still befuddled creatures needing all the help we can get from the distilled experience of the ancients of the tribe. It is easy to forget that culture gets transmitted from the psyche of one generation to the next, and that when the chain gets broken, savagery is likely to ensue. There is no question that Mr. Bly has focused on a real source of malaise. His prescriptions for a cure are more difficult to assess, partly because of his oracular prose, partly because the issues are too complex for a definitive judgment. Perhaps all one can do is repeat the Italian aphorism, se non è vero, è ben trovato, or, it need not be true as long as it is well said.

However, in this case it is not always well said. The overall style of the book is a bit disappointing. Donald Hall once commented, “Bly moves like a huge hummingbird from Jung flower to Zen Flower, from the Buddha to the Great Mother,” and this modus operandi is very much in evidence in the present volume—except that the field of flowers has expanded to include a few up-to-date anthropologists, psychologists and the headlines of the daily papers. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, except that the shift in ontological and epistemological perspective implied when the author moves from legend to commentary to psychological interpretation to sociological aside disrupts the reader's involvement with the story. A well-written sociological treatise creates its own symbolic universe, just as a great novel or play does. But alternating genres is difficult, because the reader becomes aware of the artifice as one form passes into the other. The many voices of Iron John occasionally drown one another out, and none imposes itself with authority.

Mr. Bly, like other rehabilitators of ancient myths (such as Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, Carlos Castaneda), tries to reflect the complexity of existence by making every symbol, image or event both good and bad, helpful and dangerous. Soon all the landscape is filled with ambivalent characters flashing red and green, stop and go, do this but watch out for the consequences. The great King is the ideal father not to be confused with the real father, and he is to be looked up to but escaped from, admired but abandoned, and so forth. This approach shows a sophisticated understanding of the dialectical nature of psychic reality, but it is also rather confusing. It suggests that a young man better forget about growing up unless he has the sensitivity of a Jung, the brains of an Einstein and the determination of a General Patton, plus a good dose of luck. Yet one senses that the author holds a map that would insure a safe passage over the booby-trapped terrain, but he is coyly withholding it from the reader. The riotous ambivalence of the mythopoetic imagination makes one nostalgic for the simple-minded clarity of the scientific approach, in which different outcomes are explained in terms of general principles and necessary conditions.

It is easy to find fault with a book that tries to accomplish something as novel and difficult as this one does. Iron John is Mr. Bly's first full-length volume of prose, and one hopes that with successive excursions into the hermeneutics of myth he will develop a style that fits its subject. In the meantime there is much that is thought provoking in the present book, and whenever Mr. Bly shares with us his acerbic poet's vision, the provocation is very enjoyable.

Ted Solotaroff (essay date 9 September 1991)

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SOURCE: “Captain Bly,” in Nation, September 9, 1991, pp. 270-4.

[In the following essay, Solotaroff provides an overview of Bly's literary career and intellectual development, and an analysis of Iron John.]

Recently in these pages Gore Vidal remarked that instead of politics Americans have elections. One sees what he means, but it's not quite on the money, because elections matter mostly to the politicians, their PAC groups and their dwindling party loyalists. For the rest of America, elections are a peculiar form of TV entertainment in which the commercial has become the program. The affiliations and ideologies people care about are elsewhere, in what Theodore Roszak fifteen years ago termed “situational groups,” the politics of the personal. “In less than a generation's time,” he wrote, “every conceivable form of situational belonging has been brought out of the closet and has forced its grievances and its right to exist upon the public consciousness.” He was writing about the mitosis of the counterculture, but his observation was no less prescient about its opposition—the pro-lifers, creationists, apocalyptics, neoconservatives, school vigilantes, et al. There are also the expressive therapeutic groups: The most influential ideology of change in America today is probably that of A. A., not only because it works so dramatically but because it provides a model of psychological and spiritual community, which is what the ethnic, racial, gender, sexual and other situational groups are partly about. The most interesting recent example is the men's movement, a complex phenomenon that appears to derive from A. A., feminism, New Age religion and therapy, environmentalism and the culture and charisma of Robert Bly.

That a poet is the spokesman of a broadly based movement as well as at the top of the charts has, of course, struck many readers but not, I imagine, many poets. They are used to Bly the group leader, publicist, ideologist, translator, mythologist, guru and scold, he having played these roles in the American poetry of the second half of the century, much as Ezra Pound did in that of the first half. Poets are also used to Bly the showman, his hit performance on Bill Moyers's program, which sent the men's movement into media orbit, having been preceded by hundreds of his sold-out poetry readings and seminar star turns.

Like most literary careers that last, Bly's has been formed from the ongoing play of oppositions, but his have been particularly intense: Lutheran and pagan, rural and international, reclusive and engaged, austere and grandiose. These contending traits and inclinations have generated Bly's high energy and also created a certain rhythm to his career that makes his present celebrity and function almost predictable. Also they are compacted into a strongly lived life that personalizes the mythopoetic structure and far-out counsel of Iron John and gives the book, for all of its discursiveness and highhandedness, an overall staying power and a kind of charmed ability to hit paydirt about every third page.

Iron John is less about male identity than it is about what Jungians, following John Keats, call “soul-making.” Much of Bly's soul has been forged and refined by his relationship with the Wild Man, his favorite name for the tutelary figure in the fairy tale that he unpacks and unpacks, embroiders and embroiders to tell the reader how boys psychically become men and men remain psychically boys.

Bly grew up, as he says, a “Lutheran Boy-god” in Minnesota, being his mother's favorite, and in good Freudian fashion, drawing from that a heightened sense of entitlement as well as a tendency to see the world through her eyes and feel it with her heart, which means he didn't see or feel very much on his own. In Bly's terms his soul or psyche had a lot of conducting “copper” in it, which would come in handy as an editor, critic and translator, and not much of the “iron” of autonomy that he would later have to extract on his own from the mines of the archetypal warrior king in himself. In short, he grew up “soft,” like the males of today to whom Iron John is mainly addressed. Bly's brother appears to have been his father's son, the one who took up the family occupation of farming, the hairy Esau to his tent-dwelling Jacob. His father was strong, kindly, intensely moral, and alcoholic, creating a particularly poignant remoteness that broods over Iron John, as it does in some of Bly's later poetry: “the man in the black coat” who appears only to turn away again and whose haunting absence, along with his mother's haunting presence, has created Bly's lifelong project and process of fathering one's soul, which is his particular contribution to the men's movement.

For the rest, Bly was a well-raised product of Madison, Minnesota, a small plains community with a Norwegian cultural accent. He was properly clean and godly, cheerful and repressed, “asleep in the Law,” as he puts it in his major autobiographical poem, “Sleepers Joining Hands.” A Lutheran Boy-god who remains in this state is likely to become a minister, his grandiosity put into the service of interpreting doctrines and counseling the flock. Bly has, of course, taken the opposite road, “from the Law to the Legends,” as he puts it in Iron John, but the deal he apparently made with his psyche is that the nascent preacher has gone with him and adapted to his various stages and purposes.

Bly doesn't talk about his Harvard experience in Iron John—he seldom has in a career otherwise rich in self-revelation—but it was a determinate stage in which this wounded Boy-god and naïve “ascender” was both endowed and banished, a literary version of the prince of his fairy tale. Here he is as an editor of the Harvard Advocate, reviewing a collection of British poetry edited by Kenneth Rexroth. One sentence tells the tale:

Perhaps it is unfortunate that Rexroth should have been let loose on the Romantics; there is, I think, a difference between the desire to express personal emotion by increased direct reference to the world of nature, and the desire to overthrow all external discipline of morals of government.

This is, of course, the T. S. Eliot act that many young writers in the postwar era used to put themselves on the cutting edge of modernism. In Bly's case, it suggests that he was turning over in his sleep from the Lutheran law to the Anglican one. The literary air at the time was thick with conservative authority and decorum. It had an archbishop, Eliot; a set of bishops, the New Critics; a martyr, Pound; and lots of acolytes, who were becoming half paralyzed by the dogma that poetry was a hieratic vocation, that the imagination lived, worked and had its being within The Tradition. As Eliot had laid it down, it was mostly Dante and the metaphysical poets, the high Anglicans like himself. The dogma came equipped with Eliot's emphasis on the impersonal, objective image and with a set of literary heresies and fallacies that were meant to nip any revival of Romanticism in the bud.

To subscribe to this ethos typically led a young writer to graduate school or to the pits. Bly chose the latter, having become “overcommitted to what he was not,” as Erik Erikson would say, and badly needing to find his way to his own “inner tradition.” He ended up in New York, where he spent the next three years being mostly blocked, depressed and poor: the state of “ashes, descent, and grief” that forms a major early stage in his mythic prince's initiation. According to Bly, life reserves this “katabasis” particularly for the grandiose ascender, putting him in touch with the dark, wounded side he has tried to ignore and evade and ministering to the naïveté, passivity and numbness that comes with the apron strings of his entitlement. The road, in short, that leads “from the mother's house to the father's house.”

The one poem that Bly published from this period, “Where We Must Look for Help,” is based on three types of birds that were sent forth from Noah's ark into the flooded world: the glamorous peaceful dove and the graceful swallows find no land, only the crow does:

The crow, the crow, the spider-colored crow,
The crow shall find new mud to walk upon.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

As Bly was to tell Deborah Baker, who has written an excellent biographical essay about him, “It was the first time … I ran into the idea of the dark side of the personality being the fruitful one.” After a year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Bly went to live on a farm his father had bought for him, and a year later, while visiting relatives in Norway, he discovered his new mud lying adjacent to his inner tradition.

In primitive societies, as Bly tells us in Iron John, the male initiation is viewed as a second birth, with the elders acting as a “male mother.” Bly's were first Georg Trakl, a German, and Gunnar Ekelöf, a Swede. From them he began to grasp the subjective, intuitive, “wild” side of modernism as opposed to the objective, rationalist, “domesticated” one. In their work as in that of the French and Hispanic surrealists—Char, Michaux, Jiménez, Vallejo and Lorca, among others—Bly sensed the missing water, the unconscious, for lack of which he believed Anglo-American poetry was suffering vastation. Increasingly dry, ironical, exhausted, remote, it was itself The Wasteland, while the European poets were still fecund, passionate and present. Returning to the family farm, Bly started a magazine, The Fifties, to say so as aggressively as possible and to provide translations of the European and Latin American surrealists in three or four languages, as well as to give welcome to his contemporaries who showed signs of new life and put down those who were dead on their feet. Flying a woodcut of Woden as his logo, Bly almost single-handedly led the charge against the reign of the “Old Fathers” in the middle, joined by the New York School on his right and the West Coast Beats on his left. Neither wing was anywhere near as relentless, reductive and brutal as Bly. He was out to deauthorize as well as replace the Eliot-Pound-Tate tradition, stamping on it well into the next generation—Lowell, Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, whomever. In Iron John he chides himself for contributing to the decline of “Zeus energy,” attributing it to the demons in his father-wound: a false note from someone who has repeatedly insisted that literature advances by generational strife and deplored the absence of adversarial criticism among poets.

Be that as it may, in the late fifties Bly entered his warrior phase, developing the strategy and service to a cause that in Iron John distinguish the warrior from the soldier. Though his magazine was known mainly for its demolition jobs, it also blazed, paved and landscaped a new road. Bly wrote many essays that developed his concept of “leaping” and “wild poetry,” both in concept and prosody. In “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” Bly hooked together a countertradition to the Christian-rational-industrial one that provided a kind of culture of the Wild Man. It begins with Gilgamesh, in which the “psychic forces” of an early civilized society created the hairy, primitive Enkidu as the adversary and eventual companion of the golden Gilgamesh (the first harbinger of Iron John). After Beowulf (Bly's Nordic touchstone) the “dragon smoke” of inspired association with primal memories is not much in evidence until Blake arrives to give the lie to the Enlightenment, as do the associative freedom and “pagan and heretical elements” in his German contemporaries Novalis, Goethe and Hölderlin. With Freud and Jung the unconscious is back in business again, and the romantic/symbolist/surrealist wing of modernism provides Bly with a whole range of leaping, dragon smoke poets from Scandinavia south to Spain and across to Latin America to translate, publish and emulate.

Compared with Trakl's images (“On Golgotha God's eyes opened”) or Lorca's (“Black horses and dark people are riding over the deep roads of the guitar”), Bly's own early leaps as a poet did not take him very far inward. About a horse wandering in the moonlight, he wrote: “I feel a joy, as if I had thought / Of a pirate ship ploughing through dark flowers.” The poems of his first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, are noticeably restrained, wishing to be admired for the integrity of their mood, mostly a meditative one: a young pastoral poet getting his act together rather than appearing with snakes in his hair or as a messenger from the deeps.

Then, in the mid-sixties, Bly got caught up in the antiwar movement. He became a leading mobilizer of the literary community and provided one of the great moments in the theater of demonstrations when he gave his National Book Award check for his second collection, The Light Around the Body, to a draft resister while on the stage at Lincoln Center. Auden said of Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”; the Vietnam War hurt Bly into writing the kind of poetry he had been calling for and that in places matched Neruda's in its creeping balefulness. Evoking the fallout of evil that has settled in Minnesota, he ends:

Therefore we will have to
Go far away
To atone
For the suffering of the stringy-chested
And the short rice-fed ones, quivering
In the helicopter like wild animals,
Shot in the chest, taken back to be questioned.

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

In the course of writing these poems and of editing a collection of antiwar poetry, Bly developed his concept of the intuitive association to reconnect literature with politics, two realms that most criticism and most experience of their “bloody crossroads,” in Lionel Trilling's phrase, counseled to keep apart. Bly's position was an early version of the statement, long before it became cant, that the personal was political. As he put it, “A modern man's spiritual life and his growth are increasingly sensitive to the tone and content of a regime.” Since much of our foreign and domestic policy comes from more or less hidden impulses in the American psyche, and because that psyche is in the poet too, “the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward.”

Along with strengthening his own poetry, Bly's involvement turned him into a performer of it. His high-visibility poetry readings developed into a countercultural event, the Lutheran Boy-god and warrior now reappearing as the bard. I first caught his act in the early seventies, when he entered a symposium on literary editing dressed in a serape and tapping a Tibetan drum, as though he were a cross between Neruda and Chögyam Trungpa, the meditation guru Bly studied with. After his poetry reading, complete with primitive masks, the other Bly, the literary caretaker, appeared on the panel of editors—sharp, shrewd and no less dominating.

He supported himself by his public appearances; otherwise he remained on his farm, tending to his chores as an editor, publisher, critic and poet and using his solitude to nourish “the parts that grow when we are far from the centers of ambition.” Through the writings of Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman and other psychic/cultural explorers he developed his encyclopedic command of the great heuristic myths, legends and folklore that understand us, concentrating on those that involve the female side. He gave lectures on Freud and Jung, as well as on Grimms' Fairy Tales, in the church basement in Madison, his trial by fire in making the esoteric vivid and meaningful to the public. He turned from America's shadow to his own, producing eleven collections of poems, most of them inward, associative, naked—Bly fully joining the tradition he had been staking out. He put out only one issue of The Seventies, a noticeably temperate one. The warrior was giving way to the gardener and lover, two roles that Bly lived through and that noticeably “moistened” his poetry in the eighties. They also provided two more stages in the process of male initiation that he took into his work with the men's movement. So did certain personal experiences of shame, guilt and loss, along with the aging process through which the holds that a father and son put on each other can turn into a yearning embrace. So, too, did his awareness that the young men in the literary and New Age circles he visited and who visited him on his farm had been weakened by the feminism of the era, and that male consciousness was in short and despairing supply. It was time, as Bly would say, to do something for the hive again.

Iron John, then, grows not only out of Bly's experience during the past decade in the men's movement but out of the central meanings of his life. If he has bought into the confusion and anxiety of many younger men today, caught between the new sensitivity and the old machismo, he has done so with the capital he has earned from his own growth as a man, a poet, a thinker and a husbandman of the culture. The souled fierceness that he prescribes for staking out and protecting the borders of male identity has provided much of the motive energy for his career as a literary radical. By the same token, his devotion to asserting and cultivating the primalness and primacy of the imagination in a highly domesticated and institutionalized literary culture has led him to view the condition of men in similar terms and to apply the learning he has acquired in the archeology and anthropology of the imagination to remedy it. This authority is finally what makes Iron John a serious, groundbreaking book.

The startling public appeal of Bly's therapeutic sermon is not hard to fathom. Based on Jungian psychology, it takes a much more positive measure of human potential for change than does the Freudian model, whose Great Father and Great Mother are pretty strictly one's own and give not much quarter to altering their influence: a foot of freedom here, a pound less grief there. Bly's pagan goodspell is that the gods are still around and within each of us, able to be mobilized or deactivated, as the case may be. Like Rilke's torso of Apollo, they search us out where it aches and command us to treat it and thereby change our lives.

Also, Iron John has a lot of specific insight and lore to teach men and employs a very effective method. It takes an old story and gives it a new spin, thereby enlisting the child in us who is still most open to learning and the adult who is keen to escape from his own banality. Along with combining therapy for men, or at the very least clarity, with a course in the world mythology and ethnography of male initiation, Iron John is also a spiritual poetry reading in which the words of Blake and Kabir, Rumi and Yeats and many others join Bly's own poems as a kind of accompaniment to the text.

The prominence of poetry in the men's movement is perhaps its most surprising feature; none of the other situational groups seem to be particularly disposed to it, and most poets would tend to agree with Auden that poetry “makes nothing happen.” Perhaps it's only an aspect of Bly's influence, but I see it as part of the same reviving interest in the imagination signified by the increasing popularity of poetry readings.

Some people say that the men's movement will have to move into national politics, as the women's movement has done, if it is to survive its trendiness and become socially significant. I‘m not so sure. As the bonanza of the Reagan era recedes and the midlife crisis of its favored generation draws on, there are a lot of men in America who have mainly their imaginations to fall back upon. As a social analysis of male distress, Iron John is pretty thin stuff; but that's not why it is being read. It's not the Growing Up Absurd of the nineties but rather a deeply based counsel of self-empowerment and change. Like the men's movement itself, it offers the sixties generation another crack at the imagination of alternatives they grew up on, right where they most inwardly live and hurt and quest. This is the imagination that they turned in to become Baby Boomers; if it can be let loose in America by this broad, influential and growing situational group, there's no telling what can happen.

Anne Compton (essay date Summer 1992)

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SOURCE: “In Iron John’s Sloshy Swamp, There Is a Bitterly Cold Undercurrent,” in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 72, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 273-82.

[In the following essay, Compton objects to Bly's presentation of women and mothers in Iron John. Compton concludes, “Iron John is a reactionary book, and, I believe, a dangerous book.”]

The usual criticism of women these days focuses on their alleged inattention to their children's needs. A woman's pursuit of a career, so the argument runs, results in the breakdown of the family, an argument favored by right-wingers and the moral majority. But for those women who have successfully managed family and career, there is Robert Bly, American poet and winner, in 1968, of the National Book Award for Poetry, who will certainly dampen any sense of success. In Iron John Bly argues that for sons over twelve, or perhaps it is over two, or earlier—“One could say that the father now loses his son five minutes after birth”—the mother is bad news. “Mother love” cripples. Among other things, Bly worries about “certain kinds of intellectual conversations proceeding from her rationalist mind that the unconscious mother indulges in with her teenage son.” He continues,

We are aware of a disturbing rise in the number of sons who report sexual abuse by mothers, as well as by fathers, uncles, and older brothers; but the culture still does not take seriously the damage caused by psychic incest between mother and son. … Much sexual energy can be exchanged when the mother looks the son directly in the eyes and says, “Here is your new T-shirt, all washed.”

This nonsense should not be taken seriously, except that so many do. Iron John is “a serious, groundbreaking book“; “a transforming book,” offering “reassurance”; “Mr. Bly's book is important and timely.” That so many applaud the book's advice without interrogating its context, makes Iron John a dangerous book. That, and other things.

Bly believes that “manhood doesn't happen by itself.” “A boy becomes a man … only through the ‘active intervention’” of an older man, a mentor who guides the boy into manhood. This advice is transfused through the Grimms' tale “Iron John,” making the preachy palatable. Bly moves back and forth between tale and present-day circumstances—“men in crisis.” Along the way, many other tales, poems, anecdotes, and statistics get told. “Iron John,” an eight-staged story, recounts the Wild Man's leading the prince-turned-pauper into adulthood. The boy's father has caged the troublesome Wild Man, a swamp-dweller, responsible for the disappearance of some of the king's subjects. The boy, stealing the key from beneath his mother's pillow, frees the Wild Man and the adventures begin. These adventures, or stages in development, include: life with the Wild Man, the period of ashes and kitchen work, tending the garden, warriorhood, and a ritualized festival leading to marriage and kingship. Guided throughout by Iron John, the boy takes on the energy and initiative of the Wild Man. The tale is entertaining; the advice is sound. Of course, boys need the company of male elders. How unfortunate, then (and how surprising), that one phrase in the tale—“‘the key is under your mother's pillow’”—advances the anti-feminist tone of this work.

Even if it weren't offensive on that head, Iron John is unpleasant reading—boring and chaotic. Written in a style somewhere between a self-help manual and poetry, Iron John adopts a folksy tone: “Let's see what we've learned so far” kind of approach, as if it were a manual on fixing bathroom plumbing. Indeed, in one of the book's many metaphors, “children turn into copper wires.” Sometimes these homely metaphors are affectedly coy:

When the father-table, the groundwater, drops, so to speak, and there is too little father, instead of too much father, the sons find themselves in a new situation. What do they do: drill for new father water, ration the father water, hoard it, distill mother water into father water?

With all this plumbing, it is little wonder Iron John comes unstuck from his pond.

The book, however, lacks the clarity of a do-it-yourself repair guide. Bly introduces and repeats phrases that never get clarified as if repetition conferred authority. What anyway are “women's values,” and how do you know when you have had too many of them? Distinctions are similarly asserted but never secured. There are times when “wild man” seems a good deal like “savage man,” although Bly insists that they are different. Lacking rigorous distinctions, the book “swamps” us in the mythopoetic imagination so that, as Csikszentmihalyi says, “one \feels] nostalgic for the simple-minded clarity of the scientific approach… .” Bly could have made greater use of the “Logos-knife” that he himself recommends. Metaphor, myth, literature are all instrumental in this self-help manual, but when literature is an instrument serving thesis, as it is in this case, the effect is reductionist. Hamlet, we are told, is “stuck” on his mother (How about that criminal uncle for a mentor?), and Ophelia is reduced to an aspect of Hamlet: “We could say that some sentimental girl inside Hamlet, here called Ophelia, has gone mad at this clumsily performed move \to the father's world] and will ‘die.’” Perhaps this bias—girls are merely aspects of boys—explains why girls do not need the careful mentoring that boys require: “A girl changes into woman on her own. …” Girls as well as boys need the father, and both children need the tutoring of the elders of both sexes, but as Jill Johnston points out, Bly's “only concern here \absentee fathers in relation to daughters] is the damaging effect of such deficits on ‘the daughter's ability to participate … in later relationships with men.’”

Bly begins Iron John by outlining three historical stages—macho man, soft man, and wild man. Through the fairy tale “Iron John,” Bly explores this third possibility—the wild man. Soft man is really quite unhappy; wild man must correct the soft man's problems. Responsibility for this softening rests with the feminists, who wanted sensitive men. This is a straw dog, straw bitch, I should say; what women actually wanted, and still want, is not men who easily weep, but fair men and just practices in gender relations.

Feminism, Bly argues, reconstituted the world, creating the new couple—softer men and harder women. The terms, of course, are phallic; women have appropriated phallic power, and power must be reclaimed. The new woman is described elsewhere in the book as “fierce” and as “warrior,” and since fierce warrior is one of the forms, or stages, of the truly initiated man, it is not difficult to see that Bly's real worry is not “soft men” but “hard women.” Bly sets out to remind us what men and women are supposed to be. He does this by staking out and fortifying the territory of the male identity. Men need to recover the twenty-thousand-year-old heritage of “‘natural brutality.’” Natural is supposed to make the “brutal” all right, but as we all know, often what is passed off as “natural” is really a cultural construct. In the “natural,” that is in the traditional order of things, men are hard and women are soft. To ensure male identity, boys must be kept safe from the contamination of mother love: “When women, even women with the best intentions, bring up a boy alone, he may in some way have no male face, or he may have no face at all.” Readers who can get beyond the patronizing tone in this passage will appreciate Bly's lesson on how things “naturally” ought to be.

Essays on and reviews of Iron John have focussed, thus far, on the book's message for men; this is not surprising as it is sub-titled, “A Book About Men.” Bly is seen as a “spokesman” for “the men's movement.” Iron John is “an important text for anyone trying to make spiritual sense out of contemporary male development,” but the book also has a good deal to say about women. The urgency in Bly's voice as he advises men on the need for the father, arises out of an equally urgent warning about the danger of the mother. It is time then to examine further Bly's view of women.

Bly contends that men have been enervated by the feminism of our era. Reading women's gains as men's damage, Bly renders recent cultural changes significant only to the extent that these affect men. The putative deleterious effects of feminism in recent decades—man's supposed softening—is equated with centuries of female powerlessness. “You think you have suffered, well look at what's happened to us,” or as Neil Lyndon, British broadcaster and writer, puts it: “‘Men are suffering from systematic disadvantages … \which] represent a body of grievous, institutionalised discrimination.’” In terms of sexual oppression, the twentieth century belongs to men. Bly writes:

We know that nineteenth-century men characteristically failed to notice female suffering. The Madwoman in the Attic, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, describes how strong that suffering was. In this century, men have added another inattention: they characteristically failed to notice their own suffering.

Bly's book is stirred by the emergence of the “strong” woman, the “fierce” woman, but Bly does not engage with this figure. Instead, he tackles the mother. Although Bly claims that it is not necessary to lay “a lot of blame on the mother,” he does. Iron John is riddled with assumptions about maternal behavior, referring, for example, to “the possessiveness that mothers typically exercise on sons” \emphasis mine]. Boys need “more hardness than she could naturally give” \emphasis mine]. The mother's ascensionism imparts to the boy, Bly implies, a contempt for physical labor. D. H. Lawrence, learning too late an honor for his father and his father's work, is Bly's example here:

The children of his \Lawrence's] generation deduced that their fathers had been doing something wrong all along, that men's physical work is wrong, and that those sensitive mothers who prefer white curtains and an elevated life are right and always have been.

“Women's values” are equated with “white curtains,” with prettiness, and include a deprecation of physical work. In the household I live in, a mother taught sons to handle an axe, glaze a window, and dig a garden. Children, of course, must see work done, but work is not gendered. There is not man's work and woman's work. This notion that work and “values” are gendered widens the gender gap. Supposing a mother does “male work,” should a boy avoid imitation because the work has been done by a woman, out of “women's values”? And if that were not confusing enough, there is, Bly tells us, “male initiation, female initiation, and human initiation.” A life could be used up just getting through all that initiation.

If the work of women is a useless example for maturing boys, women's feelings, particularly the mother's feelings for the father, cripple masculinity: “when the son is introduced primarily by the mother to feeling, he will learn the female attitude toward masculinity and take a female view of his own father and of his own masculinity.” In Bly's view of marriage, the mother cannot help but present a negative image of the father—marriage is imbricated with competition, with viciousness—so that the mother imposes on the son a “wounded image of his father.” Throughout the work, Bly assumes there are sides in marriage—not a couple, and not a couple raising children—but sides, as in a debate, or a war. In the household I grew up in, my mother, the mother of five sons, passed on to her sons her feelings of respect, even veneration, for her husband, and he communicated the same about her. It is absurd to contend that mothers “naturally” undermine the image of the father, and it is equally absurd to deny a child exposure to the mother's feelings. Is he to be deprived knowledge of one half of the human race? But Bly imagines mothers so irresponsible as to impose their adult pain on their children: “When at five years old he sat at the kitchen table, his mother may have confided her suffering to him, and he felt flattered to be told of such things by a grown up….” The mother who “confided her suffering” to her son is responsible for his becoming a “naive man,” one who often lacks “‘natural brutality.’”

Mother's work is a useless model to the male child; her feelings destroy his masculinity; her pain leads to his naïvete; and worse, her protection of him is numbing. The “Iron John” fable suggests, says Bly, “that a mother's protection, no matter how well intentioned, will not do as a substitute for the father's protection.” Bad news that for all those single mothers trying to raise sons, but second best just won't do! Perhaps the numbness of mother and child has more to do with the fact that “\f]ifty-seven per cent of single-parent families headed by women live below the poverty line,” a figure recorded in the 1992 report of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

In the “Iron John” tale, when the boy takes the key from under the mother's pillow, escaping her civilizing force, her possessiveness, the mentor, or male mother, enters the landscape, and in his presence, a “hint will come to us as to where our genius lies.” Favorably reviewing Bly's book, John Bemrose says, “And with women taking on jobs that used to be held solely by males, it is no longer possible for a man to define his masculinity by occupations”; enter the “male mother,” a new role for man, one which restores exclusivity.

In the company of Iron John, the prince, like any boy in the company of his mentor, learns about his genius (his gold finger); his acceptable instincts (his gold hair); and an intelligence in nature (his eyes reflected in the pond). When the boy leaves the forest and Iron John, he enters the “ashes” stage, the way down is the way out. The place of humiliation, of katabasis, for the prince is kitchen work (oddly enough, this is where women spend a good deal of their lives). To go through “ashes” is to give up the “safe life promised to the faithful mother's son.” In initiation, the naïve boy, the comfort-loving boy dies. Unless the boy sheds the “earthly, conservative, possessive clinging part of the maternal feminine” and identifies with the king father, he will believe he is a defective male. In the “Iron John” fable, the kitchen boy has occasion to serve at the king's table, but making a mistake, he is fired, well, not actually fired, but relocated to the garden. All boys, Bly extrapolates, long to live with the king. To do so, they must honor the father's clear and helpful side, but this is difficult as “something in the culture wants us to be unfair to our father's masculine side … assume he is a monster, as some people say all men are.” “Some people” have made fathers seem smaller, resulting in a world with “‘too little father.’” Similarly, “\f]orces in contemporary society recently encouraged women to be warriors, while discouraging warrior hood in boys and men,” and although these agents—“some people” and “forces”—remain vague and undefined, it is clear that woman's advance implies man's diminishment. As Jill Johnston points out, Bly's “program for men, as defined in Iron John, depends strictly on women playing their traditional roles at home.” One wonders, then, if Bly doesn't actually mean to put the statement—“A man who cannot defend his own space \be a warrior], cannot defend women and children”—the other way around. Being a warrior depends on women staying in their “natural” place, in need of defence. Men aren't going to be able to play out the “Iron John” story unless women stay in place, at home. But why should we play out an ancient folk tale at all, and if this one, why not, let's say, “Bluebeard”? When my son, at three, was read the “Frog Prince” at nursery school, he tried to translate that story into action. If the princess, throwing the frog at the wall got a prince, he was sure that by throwing his cat at the wall, he would get something even better. Folk tales, fairy tales, are not the eight steps to deliverance, either from boredom or debilitation.

By the time a child in our culture is twelve, he “will be crippled by shame,” his warrior weakened, stunted, or killed off. The mother's insistence on “improper intimacies,” or the father's “improper belittling” causes shame, or “\t]o be without a supportive father” is “to be in shame.” Mythologically, the boy's shame is a lamed horse; only the Wild Man can provide the magnificent mount which the boy needs for the battle; in our culture, only an older man, a mentor, can work to prevent further shaming. The boy, indeed the adult man, must raise a sword in battle to cut “his adult soul from his mother-bound soul.” The warrior “can teach us how to hold boundaries” against too much merging, how to hold in oppositional tension the distinction between genders, and although Bly assures us that “living in the opposites does not mean identifying with one side and then belittling the other,” a paragraph later, he says, “More and more women in recent decades have begun identifying with the female pole, and maintain that everything bad is male, and everything good is female,” a fairly sweeping, condemnatory, and erroneous statement about his “opposite.”

The encounter with the mentor, the awakening of the warrior within, enables the boy to replace his addiction to harmony and safety with a vigilant look-out for shamers. The mother is chief among shamers. One's personal mother is receptive or transparent to the great mother, who “doesn't want the boy to grow up,” who wants to keep him “locked up.” It is at this stage that Bly introduces the most offensive of ideas—“psychic incest between mother and son.” “Psychic incest” occurs in intellectual conversations between mother and son, or as an earlier quotation illustrates, in the passing of a clean T-shirt. “Marian Woodman,” Bly tells us, associates these dangerous intellectual conversations between mother and son with the “‘false phallus.’” Is intellectual tutoring the prerogative of men? Who will accept, even for a moment, that bright women should silence their ideas, their learning, their language in the company of their sons?

That boys must have male mentors, that grown men must get in touch with the wild man within, is the tactic of regrouping. Using poetry, fairy tale, myth and personal story, General Bly attempts to rally the forces in a palisade which he believes to be besieged. Bly's Iron John is an insidious expression of the backlash because it pretends to approve women's gains in recent decades, but in fact, Iron John is oppositional and the opponent is woman, in particular, the mother. Using the fairy tale, Bly shows that woman is fine in her place, and her place comes at the end of the tale. She is the well-deserved reward—the king's daughter—at the end of the male quest: “Give me your daughter as my wife”: mine and yours, and therefore owned. Iron John more than affirms the patriarchy; it shores it up. It sets up an exclusive, elitist world of boys and men, relegating women to the earliest stages of childrearing, and denominating them dangerous if they are participants in the later stages of a boy's development. As rewards, they are fine.

Bly devalues and contaminates “mother love,” ignoring the fact that women learn to be mothers from their own mothers, a heritage equally as glorious, not to mention useful, as that passed from fathers to sons. Moreover, a mother's love is inclusive, not exclusive, and wide-ranging; it requires neither swamp nor desert for its expression; does not wait upon a developmental clock; is ignorant of stages; cherishes daughters as well as sons. In reading Iron John one cannot help but be struck by a similarity between Bly's mythic images (“Riding the Red, the White, and the Black Horses,” for example) and those in Revelations. As I read this book, I remembered a particular image in Revelations: “And when the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child” (13: 13).

In making the case for the boy's deepening need for male elders, it was not necessary to deprecate mothers and traditionalize women. Iron John is a reactionary book, and, I believe, a dangerous book. In insisting that a boy move from “the mother's house to the father's house,” it proposes a diminished, an either/or, world.

Allen Hoey (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of American Poetry, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 189-92.

[In the following review, Hoey offers evaluation of Bly's critical essays in American Poetry.]

Perhaps no one has exerted greater single-handed influence on the course of mainstream American poetry since the early sixties than Robert Bly. The rise of creative writing programs coincided with Bly's energetic and broadcast polemicizing on behalf of a vision of a poetry revolutionized, internationalized, and politicized. The simultaneous escalation of the war in Vietnam gave Bly even wider exposure and influence. His essays spoke to a generation impatient with the status quo, irritated at the slowness of change, and enraged at the obduracy of an obsolete establishment. How easy it was to spill politics into poetry; the injustice of the war, of a national posture revealed in the Civil Rights movement, made Bly's message all the more urgent. And it didn't hurt that the ideas he advocated for poetry were easily applied in poetry workshops: focus on the image, on its psychological and political resonance, with little attention to the forms of verse, other than discarding the traditional (what worse condemnation?) trappings of rhyme and meter. Even the models he proposed were tailored to the political climate: Central Americans, Spanish surrealists, wild-eyed and free-spirited political activists or at least licensed outsiders.

Bly's essays are best read in light of this historic context. To this end, the essays bear the date of their initial publication. The essays from the first of the book's three divisions, “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” represent his thinking from the sixties through the early seventies, “sum\ming] up,” as Bly writes, “the platform or viewpoint of my magazine, The Fifties,The Sixties, and The Seventies.” The second section consists of essays on twelve of Bly's contemporaries, culled from reviews and, in some instances, combining shorter reviews of a poet across a span of many years. Finally, “Educating the Rider and the Horse” concentrates on the evolving shape of American poetry over the past thirty or so years. Most interesting here are the essays, composed in the eighties, wherein Bly levels a critical eye at the workshop mentality's effect on American poetry.

These essays show a concerned, synthetic imagination at work. References abound to politics (domestic, international, and historic), to psychology, and to a diverse group of writers. He has read widely, if selectively. Unfortunately, his scope of learning is not always matched by broadness of interpretation. In some instances this limitation seems to result from a too-narrow frame of reference, as when he translates the title of Baudelaire's “Correspondences” as “Intimate Associations,” completely missing the title's allusion to the Medieval theory of correspondence. Or perhaps this alteration just stems from Bly's quirky tendency to overly Americanize his translations. In other cases, his failures seem to arise from a dedication to his program, his sense of what poetry has been and must be; true believers doctor the “truth,” such as we can know it, in service to a higher vision. Bly's rendition of the main currents of American poetry too often suffers from being fed through his grinder. Writing of Pound, Bly avers that he “was not interested in the ‘Voyage’ or in the ‘Holy Thing’….” What, then, are we to make of “The Seafarer,” of the voyage motif that runs through the early Cantos, and of Pound's concern with establishing an ideal city, a vision that includes what many readers have construed as the sacred?

Bly also tends to elevate what might be specific criticisms to the level of the general, and such pronouncements seem unapologetically ex cathedra. In his seminal 1963 essay, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” while chiding his contemporaries and immediate predecessors for excluding the unconscious from their poetry by concentrating on formal rather than imagistic aspects, he suggests that the work of finding rhymes is conducted by the conscious mind, by the will. While he may intend for this criticism to apply only to the particular poet under discussion, he implies that all poets rhyme consciously. That many of the poets Bly himself praises have worked—and worked extensively—in rhyme alone hints that his assertion fails when too broadly applied—or would if his translations of poets like Rainer Maria Rilke indicated that they used those outmoded devices. In fact, much of the strength of Bly's argument for what has come to be called the “deep-image” poem results from his comparing American poems he finds spiritually bankrupt to poems by European poets more in touch with the unconscious. How much does he beg the question by using his own translations of these poet' works to underscore his point? This essay in particular, with its valorization of the unconscious image and denigration of the conscious mind, its elevation of passion and untrammeled inspiration and dismissal of craft, has led to many of the excesses of what Bly's friend Donald Hall calls the “McPoem”—gratuitous use of image for its own sake and reliance on a facile and privatistic surrealism.

Although Bly never takes any credit for the promulgation of the “Workshop Esthetic” (as David Dooley calls it), his essays dating from the eighties, mostly included in the third section, are concerned with ways in which his own program took a wrong turn in its evolution. By the late seventies, Bly was castigating American poets for neglecting their responsibility to review poetry; what reviews appear, he complains, largely consist of uncritical praise, which he identifies as an outgrowth of the sixties “and its odd belief that criticism is an attempt to put down the young or minorities.” To address this tendency, he suggests “that every person publishing poetry or fiction in this country take a vow to review two books every six months.” In another essay, he clarifies a mistaken conception of the image, correcting the notion that to focus on image means forsaking the intellect: “A great image contains logic, that is, thinking.” Most notably, two essays revise his ideas regarding form. Form now can be playful, can function to help mediate meaning in a poem, can itself even be “wild”—always here a term of praise. Form, he recognizes in “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” contains, certainly, but in giving shape it also imposes order, “something that chaos does not have.” These musings bring him to “the threshold between domestic and wild form,” a recognition that all forms of order cannot be discarded willy-nilly.

Bly's commentaries on his contemporaries provide an opportunity to see his critical program applied. He chooses primarily from the “mainstream” of post-World War II practitioners: James Wright, David Ignatow, Etheridge Knight, Denise Levertov, William S. Merwin, Thomas McGrath, Robert Lowell, Louis Simpson, James Dickey, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, and John Logan. Many of the pieces survey the whole of the poet's career; in the case of Wright and Kinnell, reviews written in the eighties synthesize a view of what they have accomplished. More interestingly, essays on Ignatow, Simpson, and Dickey assemble reviews written as individual volumes appeared that span, in some cases, more than twenty years. The piece on Dickey combines a review of his first two books, in which Bly finds considerable imaginative power somewhat blunted by “a curious narcissism,” with a scathing review of Buckdancer's Choice, a book whose content he finds morally repugnant. Bly quotes generously from Dickey's poems to argue that the speakers of such poems as “Firebombing” and “Slave Quarters” are not presented at a remove from the poet; Dickey was neither “outside of \n]or beside the poem… . On the contrary, the major characteristic of all these poems is their psychic blurriness.” Yet “\r]eaders go on applying \New Critical ideas] anyway, in fear of the content they might have to face if they faced the poem as a human being.” Borrowing a psychological term, Bly identifies this pervasive flaw as “inflation” and concludes that, although many American artists “collapse,” “in Dickey's case the process seems accelerated, as in a nightmare, or a movie someone is running too fast.”

These essays reveal Bly's mind at work—quirky, insightful, yet resistant to the “niceties” of prose style. He writes with little sense of transition, impatient to move to the next point, or too willing merely to repeat just to be sure the reader really, absolutely got it. Yet flawed as they are, taken together they represent the mind and manner of a writer who has had a profound impact on how poetry is written and read.

Robert Peters (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “News From Robert Bly's Universe,” in Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry, Asylum Arts, 1994, pp. 27-34.

[In the following essay, Peters discusses Bly's artistic preoccupations and poetry in The Man in the Black Coat Turns.]

Mountains, rivers, caves, and fields quicken us in solitude. We leap toward connections lost to our rational selves and defy logic. This, as Bly explains in Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (1975), occurs when the newest of our three brains is activated. This, the Reptile Brain, acts coldly to preserve us against dangers real or imagined. The Mammal Brain, constituting the cortex, creates our institutions, affections, and sexual fervors. The third, and least-used brain, one lying as a one-eighth inch thick layer over the Mammal Brain, is the New Brain, the neo-cortex; this generates “wildness” and produces the “leaping poetry” written by Lorca, Rilke, Neruda, Takahashi, and Vallejo.

This activated New Brain evokes verbal miracles. “Watery syllables” well up from mythic depths, from the Dordogne caves and the aboriginal South Sea islands where men lived “under the cloak / of an animal's sniffing.” Ancient angers explode. One of Bly's poems, “Words Rising,” echoes howls once declaimed by ancient priests in furs holding aloft luminous barley heads. They generate verbal wildness. We are “bees” with language for “honey.” We express the inexpressive, the archetypal, what was residual long before the invention of the wheel. Both celebrant (priest) and sufferer (aborigine and political victim) dwell within our words:

Wicker baskets and hanged men
come to us as stanzas and vowels.
We see a million hands with dusty
palms turned up inside each verb,
lifted. There are eternal vows
held inside the word “Jericho”

(“Poem in Three Parts”)

As mystery, language reflects profound events unlimited by space. During meditation, cortextual cells generate dance and ecstasy.

I simplify, and urge readers to turn to Bly's provocative essays (in addition to “Leaping Poetry” see “I Came Out of the Mother Naked” in Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), and the prose sections of his Sierra Club anthology, News of the Universe). I wish here to employ his main distinctions as a way of perceiving his new poems. His verse techniques reflect his theories. No matter how good Bly was in the past—and he was good—this poetry is an impressive advance. The Man in the Black Coat Turns was one of the seminal works of the eighties.

Some readers complain that Bly's poems are almost completely devoid of living persons other than himself. Clear the stage is Bly's refrain. The creative occurs in a nurturing isolation. Forest, pasture, clearing, the isolated building, all suit him for meditation. His writing-shack is so private that even his wife doesn't know where it is, and he carries his own drinking water with him in jars. He recalls Thoreau with whom he has many similarities, and tangentially, Wordsworth. He would not hesitate to eat Thoreau's woodchuck raw if it would intensify his perceptions; and he would welcome the stark fear induced in Wordsworth by that shadow looming suddenly over the water at Mt. Skiddaw. “Urge and urge and urge,” wrote Whitman: “Always the procreant urge of the world.”

Bly is unlike other contemporary nature poets who seldom take themselves off very far from the boat landing or the fire tower. In him there's nothing genteel. His reclusiveness is itself a metaphor for toughness. He is no Sunday dabbler, taking nature trails through museum-forests which some placid ranger has marked for easy recognition. His secret places are invested with agents of psychic confrontation: mythic mothers and fathers bearing fangs; the male instincts to kill, waste, and subdue are omnipresent in our psyches, in conflict with our gentler, creative selves. Only in solitude is our mental subsoil activated, proving equal to these conflicts, stilling the nagging, demanding Father who speaks for order, reason, and obedience. You can't build a birdhouse or haul much manure sitting on your haunches in a forest, or in the lotus position beside a stream.

To achieve quietude, Bly has explored various disciplines, including Tibetan ones. No matter the guides, he remains himself, quizzical, self-reliant, choosing from an eclectic feast only what will enhance his spirit. There is no wastage.

We observe Bly on his own mind-stage with minimal properties, peopled with a few souls acting out scenes as he invites them in. Like Whitman (about whom Bly has written a most valuable and perceptive essay, \in Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, ed. Jim Perlman, 1981] we “loaf” with him and share his urges and leapings, which drift to us like bird feathers, or leap with the brilliance of arcing trout, or does in meadows. Energy and largeness, two of Whitman's favorite concepts, for Bly induce ecstasy and insight. To adapt one of Mary Baker Eddy's images, Bly is utterly at ease in those natural vestibules where the material sense of things disappears.

Before scrutinizing Bly's new work, I should like to speculate briefly on Bly the Surrealist. Despite the fact that he sees his poems deriving from, or inspired by, poets he calls Surrealist—Rilke, Vallejo, Lorca, and Neruda, among others—I don't find the term useful when applied to him. Most obviously, Surrealism refers to that movement in the arts initiated by André Breton, c. 1924, attracting Aragon, Eluard, Desnos, Cocteau, Dali, and Tanguy, among other writers and artists. They sought juxtapositions of irrational images, often derived from easy associations. The result was an often trivial, zany melange produced by an imagery of pyrotechnics rather than one emergent from a substratum of psychic fears and joys, from dream and archetypal energies. Bly's surrealism is of these deeper perceptions. No Tinker Bell waves her wand over a gaggle of pastel oblivion ha-has. No snickering, skeleton-bone, Halloween belly-riffs here. Bly's images emerge from a neocortical loam, with an unpredictability and speed distressing to readers prizing the linear, the rational, the easily deciphered—readers with Mammal brains. Bly is a whirl of color in a field of cabbages.

“Visiting the Farallones” will clarify what I mean. Here Bly revisits concerns that have occupied his energies for years—the pollution of the environment and the insane destruction of natural life. While his fervor has not diminished, his approach has. He seems more content now to allow his rage a less programmatic, less didactic, breath. Imagery, rather than direct statements. He trusts his readers more.

Clubbing seals initiates the poem, followed by the decimation of whales and tortoises. The latter are crammed into shipholds. Often for Bly, the daily news triggers memories of past disasters. The plundering of the tortoises is a leap back to the nineteenth century (a.k.a. “The Age of Darwin”) when sailing ships used tortoises for ballast and food. There are more connections, as Bly arraigns decadent human cultures. The Roman empire was the first universal culture to rot. The American frontier, symbolized by a wagon breaking to pieces on boulders, is gone, the landscape is now littered with beer cans and the air is befouled. “Darkness,” Bly says, is reality—as is the feather he spies lying near him on snow, leading his gaze to the carcass of a half-eaten rooster. For most of us, a maimed bird is revolting, no matter how rich the thematic evocations. But if we are to be enlightened, Bly believes, we must scrutinize the gross and painful as well as the scenic and palatable. “Crumbling” is the word he employs to interweave these disparate materials. Animal species have crumbled, as have empires, and once vital frontiers.

Thus far, Bly has seen objects clearly. Now he turns to a fresh image, one not literally seen, contemporary, emblematic of all crumblings. In an old folks' home, life crumbles, wasted and brutalized. A sadistic society tucks these ancients out of sight, much as sailing ships stowed the turtles. There's a perversion/inversion here of a life principle. The death-mother works in loathsome ways her wonders to perform.

In “Snowbanks North of the House,” the mysterious man in black of the book's title starts up a hill, changes his mind, and returns to the bottom. Is he a minister? An undertaker? Is he Bly's father? Is he Death? What would he have found on the hill? Once more, Bly generates thematic leaps by an initial meditation on something concrete—here it's a great snowdrift stopped about six feet from a house, a phenomenon I witnessed often when I was a boy in northern Wisconsin. In meeting the house, vectored air currents kept the snow back. If the sweeps had piled themselves tight against the building, that building would be insulated and warm. This house, though, contains failed marriages and memories of children who don't write home. A son dies. The bereaved parents never speak to one another again. The church too fails, as the wine sours, and the minister “falls.” These failures seem debris in some ocean of life, lifting and falling (failing) all night long. The saving image is the moon, as it proceeds through clouds and stars, achieving a splendid isolation, a symbol for the self apart, for a lone sufficiency bathed in moon-radiance.

Like the snow drifts, the man in the black coat, who eschews the hilltop, symbolizes the poet in isolation. He seems an “advocate of darkness” (see “For My Son Noah, Ten Years Old”), an associate of the Earth death-mother who appears to ease our way through life. He also suggests what Bly terms “the masculine soul” or “Father consciousness.” In its “middle range,” the masculine soul is “logic and fairness”; in its higher leapings it “hurries toward the spirit.” Like the feminine consciousness, its counterpart and opposite, it is a “good,” can't be eradicated and remains ever mysterious. It is a “veil,” Bly says, drawn against the death so feared by men. The best we can hope for, Bly writes, is to meld these two consciousnesses and experience what lies beyond the veil. Bly's best images possess a koan-like quality of unresolved suggestiveness—so also with the black-suited man. I shall return to him.

In another poem, “the walnut” of Bly's brain glows in solitude. Even when thus charged, his insights are not all they might be; he has mere intimations of the visionary, of deciphering the vast enigmas behind Shelley's veil. Even Albert Einstein reputedly utilized only a small part of his neocortex. By stimulating his third brain, Bly releases a genie who, alas, flies off to hover over some “car cemetery” and won't return to his bottle. We must accept the presence of such contradictions and our dimly realized visions. By accepting, we may be preparing for later insights of a hitherto unknown grandeur.

One of the best of Bly's efforts to reflect the glowings of that “walnut brain” appears in “The Dried Sturgeon,” a prose poem. Insight, ecstasy, growth, and death are the primary motifs. On an October walk along a riverbank, Bly finds a dried-out sturgeon which he examines. A “speckled nose-bone” leads back to an eye socket, behind which is a “dark hole” where soft gills once grew. This hole, a sort of cave, the poet enters to confront his female self. A hunchback appears and is made whole by the “sweet dark,” a virgin with magical black stones in her cloak.

These seem elements in a fairy tale, evocative of the narrative inconsistencies children love. Our poet, himself flawed, enters his healing meditation via images of fish corpse, pine needle, sand, and hunchback. Underground, he thrills to the proximity of Death, a duende experience he prizes in other poets. As he returns to light, to Father consciousness symbolized by the sturgeon's scales which are “dry, swift, organized, tubular, straight and humorless as railway schedules, the big clamp of the boxcar, tapering into sleek womanly death,” he is invigorated. In a sense, he closes up the rich female concavities of the “dark hole.” Reason prevails, symbolized by the straight line, by schedules, by speed—antitheses for the female underworld. To this “womanly” region we shall return at our deaths, completing the circle that began on leaving the womb, on peregrinations to and through our father-selves.

Another striking presence of shadow/duende is in “Mourning Pablo Neruda,” written in brief lines reminiscent of the Chilean poet's own. Bly is driving to his shack. Beside him on the seat is a sweating jar of water. Glancing down, Bly observes that the jostling jar creates a wet shadow on the seat, a paradigm for Neruda's death, a shadowing itself of subtle, tragic effects. Bly drives through granite quarries, filled with blocks soon to be shaped into gravestones. A leap: our memories of the dead are watery traces within us, mere hints of the moisture still resident within granite. If we accept this diminution, we see that the dead have merely flowed “around us” to the Gulf Stream and out to the Eternal Sea.

Bly's techniques of moving from the concrete to the universal are well-realized in “Finding an Old Ant Mansion,” another prose poem. Asleep on a floor, he dreams that a rattlesnake is biting him. He rises, dresses, and goes to a pasture where he senses the ground beneath his shoes, their rubbery texture allowing feel in a way leather would not. He likes these “rolls and humps,” and marvels that the earth “never lies flat.” It must accommodate a varied debris both falling down upon it (trees) and emerging from its depths (stones). He passes through a strip of hardwoods to another pasture, and finds a chunk of wood on the ground, strangely etched into some sixteen layers by ants. He fetches the piece home and props it on his desk.

The cavities in the wood create doors into “cave-dark” places—Persephone redivivus. Leaps evoke memories: the shadows recall the “heavy brown of barn stalls” he knew as a boy, and other dark insights—a daughter understands her mother's silences. The ant artifact is a universe all its own, a paradigm for our psyches, so antlike and male, in their obsessions. We scurry to execute our father's hopes and wishes: “infant ants awaken to old father-worked halls, uncle-loved boards, walls that hold the sights of the pasture, the moos of confused cows … some motor cars from the road, held in the same wood, given shape by Osiris' love.” According to designs taught us by our great benefactor and primal father image, himself son of Nut and Geb, the legendary Osiris, we shape our lives.

The ant-riddled wood suggests primeval forces (it recalls, perhaps, in its unchewed state, the erect father) and provides residences, “apartments,” for spirits to inhabit. The ants, thus, have wrought “a place for our destiny” that sweep of time within which “we too labor, and no one sees our labor.” Uncannily, and with a delicate compassion, Bly retrieves the specific from the universal, returning the motif to himself. He recalls his own father whose labors he has symbolically discovered in this chunk of wood. What follows? Who will discover Bly's labors when he dies? His wood will lie somewhere in a pasture “not yet found by a walker.” This poem moves me: the gentle voice, so mature and exploring, is the exfoliation of a man large in both physique and spirit. Bly's leap into that image of our lives as wood pieces waiting for discovery resolves the poem profoundly in areas of the psyche hitherto untapped. To most observers, that ant-eaten, riddled hunk of dead fibers would deserve, if noticed at all, to be thrust aside by a boot.

Bly's gatherings of objects include many we normally feel squeamish about: a partially devoured bird, a dangling eyeball. A “sick” rose, as William Blake knew, is as conducive to insight as a healthy one. To see whole, Bly implies, we must encompass all of Experience we can, the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. In “Kennedy's Inauguration,” a Sister hands Bly the seed of a witch hazel tree, a globular fruit with hornlike projections. When it ripened, it discharged its seed in an explosive burst. The pod is as fertile, one feels, as Persephone's pomegranate. Now pinecone dry (an echo of the desiccated sturgeon), the pod is the size of a cow's eyeball. The seeing once possible there, like that in the eyeball, has “exploded out through the eye-holes,” leaving behind a husk of spikes and dark vacancies resembling hen beaks “widening in fear.”

Bly next reviews his day. He went on errands twice, both times avoiding the funeral parlor. He held three “distant” conversations (by phone?). The gift of the seed followed. Now, as he starts to meditate, the cow's eye reminds him of a Lorenzo shot by a cannonball that left his eye dangling from his face, a horror. Like the seedpod, history, exploding, is both germinative and sterile, humanizing and destructive. In this poem, though, it “seeds” the worst—mayhem and torture: a Papal candidate is murdered by an enemy. Belgian King Leopold's plantation overseer (ca. World War I) chops off the hands of an African youth and deposits them near his father. Fascists destroy contraceptive clinics and carry the women off to breeding brothels. Our drugged sex-mistress, Marilyn Monroe, lies dead on her bed. Young men are decimated in purposeless war, viz., the Vietnam conflict which Bly, as we know, protested vociferously and courageously. A Marine whose head and feet are shot off “cries” for a medic. John Kennedy, a vigorous, youthful man, stands in the cold, taking his oath of office. Nearby waits the old poet Robert Frost. Bly hopes that the inauguration will produce a new national destiny. Hindsight, of course, has it otherwise. The Reptile brain kills and wastes. A father ejects his seed from his loins, delaying his son's return to his primal mother. She, in imitation of Persephone, carries a round red fruit in her hand. Both figures draw us into magnetic fields; both must be departed from, abandoned, and returned to. The father, finally, may be the more difficult of the pair to please.

In “The Prodigal Son,” a son kneels on dried cobs in a swine pen and reflects on his hostile father. He hears the latter's death-fearing plea to the doctor: “Don't let me die!” and recalls a particularly venomous altercation. As he was dragging his father over the floor, the father saw a crack in the boards and shouted for him to stop: “I only dragged my father that far!” Brutal conflict seems the norm. As the son resists the father, he pursues his own maleness. His departure vexes not only the father but also the mother—both feel deserted by him (cf. the parents in “Snowbanks North of the House”). Before he can accept his father as an equal, the son must dance to his own music, honor his own dreams, and write poems.

In “The Ship's Captain Looking Over the Rail,” Bly observes that to tell a captain or a father that they are “good” is to say nothing; for these men conceal their true scars, limps, and blemishes from underlings—sailors and children. In “Kneeling Down to Look Into a Culvert,” the final poem in the book, Bly merges his own father and his sons. The culvert (as reason, rod, conduit) is a masculine image from which the female water is released into merry light. Bly imagines his children splashing in the brightness at the culvert's end, where they sense his presence, and where he performs a similar commemorative act for his own father.

“My Father's Wedding 1924” links Bly's father with that puzzling figure in the black coat. Once again a prosaic object, another chunk of wood, stripped of its bark, triggers leaps and recollections. What was Bly's father like, as a younger man? Was he a masked birdfather, Bhutanian, with giant teeth and a pig nose, dancing ritually on a bad leg? Was he really as assured as he seemed? No. He concealed a limp from his son. When he, Bly, fathered his own children, he saw that his father's limp reflected his craving to be loved. Showing affection has not been a desirable masculine trait. Like the log which once held bark, Bly's father kept people at a distance, even members of his family. He covered his vulnerabilities with a gnarled, rough exterior. At his wedding, his true bride was not the woman of flesh and blood beside him; rather, she stood invisible between him and his bride interposing herself as a kind of Fata Morgana. This strange ceremony was performed by a man in a black coat, a preacher who lifted his “book” and called “for order.”

Who is the preacher? Possibly he serves as a father-spirit who marries us to our mythic mother, Death, as she waits in those shadowy concavities, death-spaces, burnished through eye sockets, wood, and culverts. The father in black appears when we wed ourselves to Death, which we do when we allow our emotions, our feminine selves, full play, thereby resolving our struggles with our father. Thus, partially fulfilled, we are able to proceed to our Mother (Death) with minimal fear. Male and female spirits balanced.

I don't pretend that my reading of the black figure as a kind of Robert Mitchum Bible-thumper who initiates our journey back to the womb is the only possible reading. The image remains complex. To read the figure merely as Death is facile. Finally, my efforts to sort meanings have made me aware of how male directed are my critical acts.

Walter Goodman (review date 19 June 1996)

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SOURCE: “Fe, Fi, Fo, Whoa! The Inner Giant Has Taken Over,” in New York Times, June 19, 1996, p. C15.

[In the following review, Goodman offers tempered assessment of The Sibling Society, which he describes as “a mix of imagination, scholarship and remarkable silliness.”]

As you can discover in any chapter of Robert Bly's new jeremiad, he is outraged by a society in which children grow up without fathers and with rotten schools, their brains stupefied by television, their imaginations squelched by computers, their sensibilities coarsened by rock music and exploitative movies, their dreams corrupted by advertising. Instead of growing into maturity with the help of older mentors who can pass along the experience of generations, they remain in a state of perpetual adolescence: selfish, acquisitive, spiritually flattened, dangerous. Welcome to The Sibling Society.

The indictment, less original than the label, is a cousin to Iron John, Mr. Bly's best seller, which generated a sort of men's movement in America. Here again, he draws on myth, religion, fairy tales, poems and even science of sorts for evidence of the wisdom that he argues has been discarded by a society that disdains the past. To borrow his language, we now live laterally, keeping an envious eye on one another, rather than vertically, in the glow of wise authority.

The book begins with an elaborate exegesis of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” especially the nature of the Giant whom Mr. Bly likens to the primitive human brain, to the nafs, which, he reports, is the ever-demanding soul of Muslim and Sufi tradition, and to the Freudian id, all of which keep human beings in perpetual battle to satisfy insatiable appetites. As for Jack, he “represents all men and women who live in a fatherless and, increasingly, motherless society.”

Mr. Bly is an accomplished storyteller, and his affection for the tales of many peoples over many centuries can be catching. But when it comes to the contemporary condition, his propheteering arias seem as out of control as the nafs: “The teenagers in our inner cities are expressing the presence of the Giant, who is fundamentally opposed to life. He is the one who stabs people in the library and eats children.” And beware: “We don't realize that when we put a computer or television in a child's own room, we are sending that child to be alone with the Giant.”

Before you know it, Mr. Bly is attributing the growth of armed militias, unemployment and all manner of other ailments to siblingitis. For him, politics is psychology; he finds the roots of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the opposition to affirmative action in societal dysfunction.

Some of the presumable facts he losses in as evidence of the national disarray are risible. Lamenting the flat language bred by television, he writes: “A poll a few years ago revealed that the average American father talked to his child for about 10 minutes a day. We know by contrast that in certain parts of Russia, earlier in the century, the Russian father spent more like two hours engaging in such talk. Russians have a word for ‘soul-talk,’ and it wasn't unusual for a grandfather to say to a granddaughter, ‘Let's go out by the tree and have some soul-talk.’”

And he combines a vacuum-cleaner approach to the world's problems with a salesman's bent for wildly disproportionate comparisons. After lumping together the slaughters in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and Cambodia as expressions of siblingdom triumphant, he adds, “Our sibling society came into existence by different means, but there is a comparable elimination of elders, accompanied by increasing anger on the part of youth.”

Toward the end of his new book, Mr. Bly complains that most reviewers, trapped in “the flat, literal or sociological mode in which there is only one world,” treated Iron John in a simplistic way. But the notable thing about his first book of prose was its success. With help from a Bill Moyers interview on PBS, it stayed on the best-seller list of The New York Times for more than a year, several weeks as No. 1. It was like a second coming of Joseph Campbell. As for reviews, most of those I have read swallowed the whole thing.

Credit for that success must go largely to Mr. Bly's enthusiasm for myth, his talent as a storyteller and the fact that he was onto a serious subject, the pathology of sons without fathers. It also offered the novelty of a men's movement as a sort of counter to or sibling of the women's movement and the promise of self-improvement cultivated by public broadcasting.

The Sibling Society has some of the same appeals. It should also please liberals. Noting that “our first thoroughly sibling Congress” is not about to “defend children, nor wetlands, nor blacks, nor women, nor full-growth forests, nor the Alaska wilderness,” he concludes, “Some sibling meanness has interrupted the understanding people had in the 1960s that we are all related.” Was that really “the understanding” in the 1960s?

If I cannot rouse more enthusiasm for The Sibling Society, it may be because grandpa never took me out by the tree for some soul-talk. That is probably why I do not share the author's admiration for such hierarchical or God-directed communities as medieval monasteries, mistrust his treatment of history and find his rhapsodies to supposedly more spiritual cultures a touch smoky. (“Native Americans felt horror that white people would take peyote with no elders present, no one to clear the air or protect the souls from invasions by those spirits who do not wish us well.”) And generally, the use of myth to make points in political argument strikes me as no favor either to myth or to politics.

The book ends with a charming telling of a great story from Sweden, the “Lind Wurm”: When the queen is delivered of a tiny snake, as her first offspring, the midwife throws it out the window, with momentous consequences. Typically, Mr. Bly reduces a rich tale to fit his by now predictable litany: “Because of ‘downsizing,’ parental neglect and bad schools, almost every member of Generation X, or the Day-Care Generation, feels thrown out the window.”

No, don't throw his book out the window. At least read the fairy tales. The Sibling Society is by turns engaging and exasperating, suggestive and tendentious, a mix of imagination, scholarship and remarkable silliness. Although he announces, in his take-no-prisoners way, “Television is the thalidomide of the 1990s,” I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Bly showed up on PBS again soon.

David Bromwich (review date 16-23 September 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Young Republic,” in The New Republic, September 16-23, 1996, pp. 31-4.

[In the following review, Bromwich offers analysis of Bly's social concerns in The Sibling Society.]

A child knows the world of the living. A grown-up knows something of those who are dead, and can think of those who are still to be born. So a society that has a past and looks to a future had better be a society with a fair ratio of grown-ups—a disheartening announcement in America today. Our passage from childhood has grown murky, and ten minutes with a TV or the Internet will show a country densely populated by childlike adults, people who would like to share everything and decide nothing.

To assist them and to increase their numbers, there has arisen a ghostly regime of mediators, prophets of arrested development who hold an undeclared interest in keeping the children just as they are. The entertainment-information complex has yielded symptoms hardly measurable in economic terms, and it is these that concern Robert Bly: above all, a loss of respect for the old, so that the very idea of elders has come to seem a quaintness. We are all one generation now, or getting close to it. Nobody knows how to stop the process, even though nobody much likes the generational tone: laid back, wised up, serviceable.

The Sibling Society is loosely written, in places hardly written at all, and if the author were capable of consecutive argument he would make a better show of it. Its texture is a Jung-and-Campbell soufflé of archetypes, its sole narrative device an ad hoc exegesis of fairy tales, from Jack and the Beanstalk to the story about the snake that ate its first twelve brides and was tamed by the thirteenth, a resourceful woman who strips off one of his skins for every wedding shirt she removes, scrubs him with lye and a wire brush and finds him changed to a man. Bly trots out the archetype-analysis side by side with his unorganized free reflections, and the only rule seems to be that anything may be said anywhere.

Yet Bly has lived in our society and watched it to some effect, and his title deserves to catch on. We lacked a name for what is happening when we are first-named by a sales clerk, a real-estate agent, an investment broker, or the doctor offering a gloomy prognosis, and for all its slackness of structure the book has a genuine firmness of purpose. We must work hard, it says, to restore the dignity of such lost categories as mentor, apprentice, leader and stranger—the last most of all, since it denotes the unfamiliar person to whom politeness, not intimacy, is owed.

Books of social criticism by Christopher Lasch, William Greider, Neil Postman and many others supply the background picture of American mores that Bly takes for granted, but his motive for writing seems to have come from a personal recognition:

I was startled one day walking on Madison near Eighty-fifth Street, when I saw a poster that asked this question:

What is 24 stories tall, carries the most sophisticated armament on earth, and is run by a crew of 21 year olds?

The answer was “an aircraft carrier,” the poster being an advertisement for a program on the Discovery channel. The “most sophisticated armament on earth” means the ability to devastate entire countries—and this is to be run by a crew of twenty-one year olds? There is a lie involved, spoken to flatter young men and women: a lie that resides in the ambiguity of the word “run.” The ad people want to have twenty-one year olds running the carrier; and the twenty-one year olds believe they can and should run it. We understand that they don't “run” a carrier, but why is this word made inexact? The confusion of who should run the carrier is a confusion deep in the sibling society. Freshman members of Congress believe they can and should run the government.

Advertising has become the universal solvent of education, and “those devoted to the bottom line,” Bly suspects, “have effectively interposed themselves between the father and the family. Part of the effort has been to get at the children more easily. The more the parents' dignity and strength are damaged, the more open the children are to persuasion.” Our long adolescence can now extend well into our 40s and 50s, and it routinely begins for children at the age of 9 or 10.

In every earlier generation, a rebellious child, turning against the rules of parents, could see beyond the hottest resentment a solid grown-up world whose behavior gave a reason for the opaqueness of the barrier. It was a different world: unattractive for the most part, but different. Bank clerks, teachers, ballplayers, shopkeepers, even journalists acted and looked like “men and women who knew how to have fun, but they had one foot in Necessity,” as Bly reflects when comparing photographs of a baseball crowd in the ’20s with the look of Americans on the streets of Europe today.

Square America, however, has died. We will never know who or what killed it, but one casualty was an ethic of reticence, the sense that a large part of life is not meant to be lived in reactions or even words. Reticence and decorum are close neighbors. When I was 7, the father of a friend, giving a lesson in manners, told me coolly to address him as “Mr.” or “Sir” and never as just “you.” It was an unpleasant moment and I thought him an unpleasant man, but the lesson was learned; and on the whole it probably gave childhood a freer feeling to have the assurance that grown-ups were different from one's friends.

A boy growing up today gets much more confusing signals. A lot of the authorities are trying to be cool, like him, and clever in a way not markedly different from his: they do not slow down and speak from a distance. Classwork in grade school has become largely an affair of peer education, the class divided into groups to “pool their resources,” that is, to share their opinions and to dig up random facts before being called together to present an audiovisual product. Methods such as those of the Whittle corporation, whose Channel One broadcasts curricular films mixed in with commercials, were unthinkable a generation ago and would have been discountenanced. Our licensed amusers are preparing appetites to which the concept of the infomercial is in no way suspect.

It is perceptive of Bly to have noticed that this is a war of bad parents and nonparents against the right of children to grow up as thinking beings. He blames the academic left, among others, for lowering the tone of education, and calls its adepts “colonial administrators”—scions of a privileged class, who teach the undesirability of inheriting anything and so cheat their constituency of the powers of self-invention. This last point is not false, but it is not new and does not rise above the level of grousing annoyance. The word “deconstruction” appears in these pages as an approximate synonym for poison gas.

Bly's acquaintance with left-wing opinion lapsed after his service in the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and was only renewed with mutual shock at the scandalized reception of Iron John, his masculine self-help tract. Traces of the tribal-mythic homily of that book linger in this one: “We need to institute something like the Artemis bear-clan to protect young girls from the pressure of Junk culture or siblingism, and to institute as well rituals to honor their associations with the divine world.” Not just the colonial administrators but also some of the natives may wonder what to make of that. But therapeutic proposals are a minor element in The Sibling Society, and it cannot be called anti-feminist since, according to Bly, every boy is in a worse fix than every girl from the moment “the nipple is inserted in his mouth; later he will have trouble with anything inserted.” I cannot guess the meaning of such a passage. It seems put in to show new readers where the author was coming from, a matter of small interest compared to the things he is pointing to.

Bly writes mostly from the stance of a perplexed citizen, and once his leading observation has lodged itself in your mind, the evidence to confirm it is everywhere. Consider a symptom we never really bother to analyze—the enormous numbers of Americans who rage against taxes. The complaint is as old as the country, but the rage is not, and it ought to be unsettling. It is not that taxes are too high, or that people wish at least their property or their whiskey could be spared. Rather, it seems to many a transparent offense that there should be taxes at all.

Politicians, who cannot escape knowing better, only in rare instances have refrained from wheedling with this delusive style of resentment. They go along with the grievances because they want to be good siblings. In the years of the cold war, when money saved out of taxes might have helped to buy a bomb shelter and a shotgun to keep out the neighbors, nobody grudged the payments to support decently functioning police and fire departments, public schools and public parks. It would have been thought a low boast, the sign of a shady character, to be heard congratulating yourself about how cleverly you cheated the government. That kind of talk was for mob lawyers. Today the fact that a rule or a request or a protocol emanates from established authority is enough to warrant any brutality of abuse in the fight against it.

Violent resisters may be few, but they have many apologists. We make a poor show opposing the distrust by which citizens are recruited from believing that they have duties to society to believing that they have none. The prevalent view of authority in the middle classes is a generalized irony—a graceful attitude struck for its own sake—and one of the best speculative passages in Bly's book tells how this posture acquired its appeal:

Parents of my generation taught our children the codes of responsibility, restraint, and renunciation, but also we taught them how to evade the codes. Stepping through the codes was a secret game among parents in the 1970s, a little payback for being a parent. That would be all right—at least humanly normal—if the code were strong. But widely varying codes from a dozen attractive cultures flood our receptors. If we want to evade a certain element in our code, the renunciation of selfishness or thievery, for example, we can always find another code—the codes by which the Hindu gods live, for example—in which the forbidden is allowed. Some of us spend our whole lives looking, successfully, for holes in the codes. When our parents teach us how to do that at the dinner table, we find those lessons very appealing. We could say that flatness lies in saying yes to everything.

And in saying no to nothing. For people in authority today, especially people in their 30s and 40s, have an extraordinarily hard time saying no. They have a hard and endless time with cases that present a genuine test—turning down an honest plea or disappointing a party with a quasi-official entitlement for pleading. Negotiation postpones the final no and changes its meaning, and when the authorities do say it at last, they often show a visible reluctance with a bending of the head, knees or voice. The refusal is of the serial kind that lays the ground for a future request.

Freud thought that every group demands of its masters “strength, or even violence. It wants to be ruled and oppressed and to fear its master.” That was in a paternal society. Today the masters act in the self-fulfilling belief that the group wants to be their friend. Compare the Steichen portrait of J. P. Morgan with the jacket photo on Bill Gates's corporate memoir: there a murderous father, perfect in his powers of repression; here a brother among brothers, superior only in his billions.

Our masters dominate now by the creation of spectacles, electronically proliferated. “Some sort of trance,” writes Bly, “takes over if enough people are watching an event simultaneously,” and the trance becomes harder to break when we have the mysterious knowledge that a given event is being watched by others just like ourselves. An elder in this setting is rather like a judge, and with none on the scene, the siblings are free to astonish each other. The judges in actual courtrooms today, if Lance Ito and Harold Baer are not anomalies, have a hard time carrying themselves like judges even in conditions of maximum exposure. Jurors in famous trials of the past two years have begun to share every detail of their deliberations: the task of private conscience seems a pointless renunciation, or an instruction they did not understand. Yet so fixed are American reflexes in these matters that opinion-makers can imagine the remedy lies in still more spectacle. It would serve the cause of uniform justice, The New York Times lately suggested, to televise all criminal trials.

The want of humility in “our talking America,” as Emerson called it, has long been part of our eagerness for distinction. Citizens in a democracy are always looking for new grounds for approval. Practically, this means finding reasons connected with merit, or with social conformity, or both. No earlier observer could have guessed how suddenly this would change to a quest for exemption from the social order—a contractual exclusion which itself becomes a source of distinction shared with others. Pausing to note the way impeccable political time-servers affect to speak from the margins, Bly brings together his cultural and educational themes in an aphorism: “If your arguments have been rejected by four or more institutions, they do not need any evidence at all to be accepted.” I recently heard a high-school teacher attending a talk on Abraham Lincoln inform the speaker that Lincoln was a slave-owner. The truth was in some documents that had never been translated.

The Reagan years were a turning point. You will not find quite these words in The Sibling Society, but Bly says as much in other words, and his remarks on the subject are just wrong enough to be irritating. Reagan was “a poor father by all accounts,” while leaving the impression of a good and fatherly person, but this need not be hypocrisy, nor does it follow that he was “utterly unable to stand for any important ‘traditional’ values.” Stand for them is exactly what he did, as a mascot stands for a team. He felt the force of those values as a thing of the past, which gave a reflected glory to Americans in the present, and required in observance neither acts nor habits of self-sacrifice. “He managed to represent limitless acquisition, disguised as family,” says Bly, but fondness for money was surely a recessive note in the Reagan personality, and that was part of his appeal. Familial piety was more important, and if he summoned only the echoes of paternal dignity, echoes can often succeed by their shallowness: the depth is supplied by our memory of the original.

Reagan's was a piety without a burden, a loyalty that floated free of specific duties, and we have only begun to see how much his illusions will cost. Yet Bly succumbs to an ordinary failure of observation when he says that this president showed an “envy of the rich.” Reagan never conveyed a particle of that sentiment, being always utterly trustful of the rich and successful, an old man who shone with the confidence that “a boy like me,” as he called himself at a late press conference, would have a house built for him and the future taken care of by the benevolent order that attends to such things. He conveyed gratitude extremely well—something that does not go with envy.

We could wish for a gratitude more discriminating of its patrons and less willing to bankrupt the future at their pleasure. That kind of moral and personal strength has few public exemplars today, and a more inquisitive mind than Bly's might ask why this is so. Gianni Vattimo in The Transparent Society described philosophically many of the same phenomena as The Sibling Society, but he did his best to feel encouraged: the leveling of manners is democratic; the reluctance to blame or praise heroically, or to decide hard cases, may be a benign effect of tolerance; and with the dismantling of the Enlightenment ideas of reason, judgment and historical continuity citizens are arriving by default at the conclusion postmodern theory has reached by sophistication. The uneasy signs in our time of “disorientation” and “weak thinking”—words that Vattimo uses in a favorable sense—are therefore healthy and may foster less violence than their enlightened precursors. Once we have given up the idea of human nature, and realized that we are infinitely malleable, why not suppose our adjustment time will grow shorter and shorter?

A surprising number of intellectuals are comforted by some such view of contemporary life. Faith in progress was always strong in America, and it has never flourished more wildly than now, but progress for us means almost exclusively technological improvement: traveling faster, talking faster, making money faster. Capitalism lives on this faith as credulously as Marxism. If a piece of improvement can be executed all across the society, we ought to do it in a clean sweep, for the good that we lose is calculable, the good that we gain incalculable. But all the new tools a people master cannot assure their generous use. Technology travels a different road from political stability, moral well-being or aesthetic achievement, and it is for us to say whether a decent society is compatible with what the master siblings want to call progress. Anyway, the choice of manners is separate from the choice of materials. Bly's intuitions about the decomposition of authority may be confirmed or qualified by empirical observers, but in questions like this it is not only empirical answers that one wants. His call to “face the children,” half formed as it is and half-unhinged, is also an earnest warning to count the casualties, the ones who will never grow up.


Bly, Robert (Vol. 10)


Bly, Robert (Vol. 15)