Robert Bly Bly, Robert (Vol. 128) - Essay

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Lawrence Kramer (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Holly Prado (review date 29 December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joyce Peseroff (review date 25 May 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Richman (essay date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dana Gioia (essay date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Askold Melnyczuk (review date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Deborah Tannen (review date 18 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (review date 9 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ted Solotaroff (essay date 9 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Compton (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Allen Hoey (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Peters (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Walter Goodman (review date 19 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Bromwich (review date 16-23 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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