Robert Bly Bly, Robert (Vol. 15) - Essay

Anthony Libby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bly is most explicitly [a] mystic of evolution, [a] poet of "the other world" always contained in present reality but now about to burst forth in a period of destruction and transformation. Bly's poetry of the transformation of man follows logically from his early poetry of individual and private transcendence. Repeatedly, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962) announces an "awakening" that comes paradoxically in sleep, in darkness, in death, an awakening depicted in surrealist images as compelling as they are mysterious, evasive. Bly's sense of mystical transformation is not really completely articulated until, primarily in the 1967 collection The Light Around the Body, it achieves an apocalyptic dimension, the awakening no longer individual or private, but part of the spiritual evolution of the race.

This general awakening, like the analogous experience of the isolated mystic, comes in the long dark night of a dying civilization. The poems of ecstatic prophecy in Light achieve much of their force by juxtaposition with the poems of political despair which dominate the collection. Constantly and convincingly Bly suggests that the psychological impact of Vietnam on America is as destructive as the physical presence of America in Vietnam; the victims in "Those Being Eaten by America" are not Vietnamese but Americans…. Bly's spiritual perceptions find physical articulation not only because Bly the poet uses images which make the abstract concrete, but because Bly the mystic of "the two worlds … both in this world" has always sought transcendence through immersion in the physical. Frequently his concrete imagery suggests the traditional apocalyptic vision of destruction in order to define the end of a psychological process already begun. (pp. 112-13)

But the confluence of physical and psychological or spiritual in Bly is most...

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William V. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Bly has suggested that the prose poem surfaces in situations when the culture of a period is moving dangerously close to abstraction. It is almost as if the prose poem surfaces at a specific time in a specific culture as a way of maintaining the possibility of poetry in an age about to abandon it. Bly's notions would be interesting in the abstract; they are all the more interesting in that his own most recent poems are in prose.

Since Bly tends to see himself as paradigm of the poet in our day, it is perhaps not surprising that he should attempt to define the age through defining himself. He may well be right that we are going through a period of reform. Surely he himself, following the great mental and emotional strain of Sleepers Joining Hands, is going through a period of renewal. What is immediately recognizable is that the poems of Bly's … Old Man Rubbing His Eyes and The Morning Glory, return imagistically and thematically to the territory of his first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, from 1962 and to the "Six Winter Privacy Poems," which open Sleepers Joining Hands. In this sense it is possible that Bly is so insistently going back to his own poetic beginnings because he is on the verge of some new beginning—at the very least he has returned for renewal to old familiar springs fed by deep underground currents startled awake anew. (p. 85)

[The] use of the visible to penetrate the invisible, a central thesis throughout Bly's work, is everywhere evident in The Morning Glory, perhaps Bly's most specific version of his personal apocalyptic. Here we find the body born into a new kind of birth through the exercise of careful observation...

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Eliot Weinberger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Bly is a windbag, a sentimentalist, a slob in the language. Yet he is one of the half-dozen living American poets who are widely read, and of them, the one whose work is most frequently imitated by fledgling poets and students of creative writing. His success, however, is less disheartening when considered as an emblem of an age—perhaps the first in human history—where poetry is a useless pleasantry, largely ignored by the reading public. (p. 503)

Bly sees his mission as the restoration of the "feminine" to American poetry. (At his many public readings, he still stomps around the stage in a rubber L.B.J. mask, to symbolize "masculine"—which he believes is destructive—energy.) He has dismissed most of the North American masters (Pound, Williams, Eliot, et al.) and has publicly knelt and kissed the hand of Pablo Neruda, his muse and role model. Following Neruda, he has ignored musical structure and precision of language in order to exalt the image; imitating Neruda's imitation of Whitman, he has adopted the persona of the poet as the embracer of all beings: Bly's poems are a forest of exclamation marks, through which the phrase "I love" runs like an asylum escapee.

This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years … opens with a short essay on "The Two Presences." They are, according to Bly, the poet's own consciousness, which is "insecure, anxious, massive, earthbound, persistent, cunning, hopeful," and "the consciousness out there, in creatures...

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Charles Molesworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bly has touched and often irritated virtually every poet and every issue in contemporary poetry in at least one of his roles: editor, satirist, theorizer, organizer, translator, regionalist, prizewinner, and iconoclast. One might well say, as Eliot said of Pound and Chinese poetry, that Bly has invented South American poetry for our time. No literary history of the last twenty years would be complete without reference to Bly's magazine, The Sixties. And few social aestheticians would ignore Bly's acceptance speech at the 1968 National Book Awards ceremony: "I know I am speaking for many, many American poets when I ask this question: since we are murdering a culture in Vietnam at least as fine as our own, have we the right to congratulate ourselves on our cultural magnificence? Isn't that out of place?"

As a critic and as a poetic theorist, Bly has contributed much to the recent shift from a tightly ordered, highly structured verse, with irony as its dominant mode, toward a poetry more open in form, associative in structure, and ecstatic in intention…. Bly doesn't exclude ideas or choke them into submission or dilute them into mere fancies when he writes his poems. Instead, he places himself differently in relation to the idea, approaches it differently, than would a writer of expository prose or more traditional poetry. Ideas lie close to the source of nourishment and support in his poems, but they must work their way in almost by stealth. Bly's use of animal imagery, his emphasis on olfactory and kinesthetic sensation, tells us more about his "thinking" than any paraphrase can. His thought aspires to a form in which gesture and intention are the same, to an integrity that ties together perception and conception, object and subject. His psychology and epistemology are clearly much closer to those of the phenomenologists (such as Merleau-Ponty) than those of the classical materialists or idealists.

The other principle in Bly's poetics creates more heat than light in his polemics but vitalizes his poetry in ways that are very important: it claims that technique is the work of rationality, ego, and hence suffocation…. Bly's poetics resembles his populist political sentiment: it is rooted in deep feeling, intimately "known" but seldom analyzed, and often more vigorous in its denials than its affirmations. (pp. 113-15)

Bly draws up his poetic sensibility out of at least three obvious sources: the heritage of imagism, with its brevity at once precise and evocative; the argumentative diffidence, especially in metaphysical matters, associated with the haiku; and the body-centered mysticism perfected by such Protestant writers as Jakob Boehme. This relatively wide-ranging literary mix both precedes and results from Bly's interest in translation, for he is quick to appropriate structures of feeling and thought from whatever region or epoch he finds necessary and usable…. [Few] writers are more aware that they are drawing on an extensive, multivalent jumble of traditions than is Bly. For all his emphasis on cutting against the grain of too readily accepted poetic modes, and for all his antipathy to questions of technique, Bly demands of himself an unequivocally centered sense of his vocation—it is only because his aesthetic geometry seems eccentric to others that his polemics become necessary. What critics might view as the limitations of various modes, he insists on regarding as poetic necessities. (pp. 115-16)

My sense of Bly's poetry is that it exhibits the skill it does because of its author's high seriousness, but such a sense can only be averred, not demonstrated. However, we can register the characteristic energy of Bly's lyrics by exploring them as resolutions (not solutions, in the sense of problems disposed of, but resolutions, in the sense of a consciousness articulated) through which two apparently opposing compulsions redefine one another. One of these compulsions is most visible as theme, the other as style. Thematically, the concerns of meditative poetry, namely the structures of consciousness and the relation of fact and value, outline the range and subject of these poems. Poetry for Bly offers a criticism of life, but a criticism available only through discipline, by a rectification of thought and feeling. Bly's antiwar poetry doesn't settle for expressing humanistic values; rather, he alleges that the grossest forms of false consciousness are necessary for such inhumanity as a war to occur and that only through a fundamental relearning of the world can it be prevented. This accounts for Bly's aggressive, sometimes intemperate modernism: he sees the poet simultaneously as a solitary craftsman and as a moral scourge.

With regard to style, the language of ecstasy and spiritual autobiography energizes Bly's exploration of his themes. Resembling voices employed by authors as distinct as Thoreau and Mailer, this style employs a dialectical structure as it oscillates between ecphrasis, or heightened description, and a schematizing impulse akin to allegory. Bly insists that the reader surrender to the moment, the intensely peculiar conjunction of sensations stripped of any mediating common circumstances. On the other hand, any satori can be equivalent to any other; the hidden world constantly surrounds us, and any breakthrough, despite and almost by virtue of its arbitrariness, can serve as a template to reassure and instruct readers in the abiding presence of that hidden order. The sacred, masked by the ordinary, escapes our vision, trained as it is to look for the wrong significances. Neither strictly transcendental nor existential, Bly's style owes much to these "methods," especially in their American guises. (pp. 116-17)

Bly's political poetry plunges past the metaphysical tenuousness of imagism and symbolism into a hidden order. But this hidden order he openly declaims. Like the Marxists with their notions of false consciousness, Bly posits a common awareness of mundane reality as something to be altered, and if necessary smashed, if we are to uncover the true (and truth-revealing) relations that shape the polis and the psyche…. His politics insistently slice along an emotional bias that is essentially populist, though without the xenophobic isolationism of the populists, and tolerate no analysis, no "party structure," no compromised platform…. Bly's political poetry thus arrives repeatedly at a crux: though the language must be hushed or ecstatic, appealing to suprarational truths, the evils must be squarely, almost pictorially, addressed. Part dream-vision, part diatribe, the poems seem laughable to anyone who is unsettled by all-embracing pathos or all-damning bile. Satire and ecstasy make strange bedfellows and often produce a tonelessness, a cancelling out of affect, in the service of an ineffable wisdom…. Because Bly mastered the idiom of pastoral ecstasy in Silence in the Snowy Fields before the directly political poetry appeared in The Light around the Body (1967), many people will continue to regard his political writings as deviant, as a falling away from a purity of diction and viewpoint that was perhaps too intense for its own good. The voice, however, is a seamless garment, and the "leaping" imaginativeness operates in both field and city, imprinting victim and villain with a distinctive animism. (pp. 118-19)

[The title poem of Sleepers Joining Hands] stands as Bly's most challenging and most beautiful poem to date, one that merges perfectly his pastoral and political obsessions and mythologies. "Sleepers Joining Hands," with its five sections and long, loosely cadenced lines, is Bly's celebration of himself, a poem that attempts to reconcile the chanting openness of Whitman with the mythical intensity of Rilke. Before considering it closely, however, we might linger a while on that medium Bly has slowly, unobtrusively, and patiently mastered: the prose poem.

Most readers think of the prose poem in connection with Rimbaud's Les Illuminations, in other words, as a series of aggressively scintillating but fragmentary insights spilling from a deranged mind, perhaps the devil's work, perhaps...

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William V. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the key metaphors of [Light Around the Body], suggested in the title and alluded to in virtually every poem in the volume, is the metaphor which encompasses the dichotomy of light and darkness….

Light begins in a kind of twilight zone in which light and darkness seem to vie with one another for dominance. This is one of the ways in which Bly utilizes Boehme's notion of the "Two Worlds," a notion which Boehme tended, often, to describe in terms of a light-dark dichotomy….

[In] the first section of Light, "Commuters arrive … at dusk like moles / Or hares flying from a fire behind them…. Their trains come through the air like a dark music." These...

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Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Robert Bly is a] poet I don't believe and never have. He explains in the preface to his new book, This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years, that he is aware of two consciousnesses, his own and those of the "inanimate" things around him: pebbles, moons, dry grass. For my part, this is Swedenborgian nonsense, very dangerous. It saps our minds as it saps the beauty of the natural world. Distance and difference are what make us conscious, not fuzzy homologies. But let it go; Bly writes against my grain, yet in some poems he catches me, and I am not off my guard. "Sometimes when you put your hand into a hollow tree/you touch the dark places between the stars." Not many of Bly's readers have done that, I imagine, but I am a country poet, like him, and I have done it. I'm damned if he isn't right. I pull back. Sometimes it is good, better than good, to guard oneself and still be caught.

Hayden Carruth, "Poets on the Fringe: 'This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years'," in Harper's (copyright © 1980 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the January, 1980 issue by special permission), Vol. 260, No. 1556, January, 1980, p. 79.

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[As a poet] Mr. Bly has been limited by a relatively weak sense of the musical and connotative value of words; his poems often seem made of images and ideas alone. And he has a way of hectoring the reader (and quite possibly himself) into accepting his experience as visionary or profound—a tonality registered in his insistent exclamation points.

["This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years"] is culled from more than 16 years of work, but restricted, as he tells us in his introduction, to poems that record a personal experience of "two presences" or forms of consciousness—one his own, the other a larger, "impersonal" one, shared with plants and animals. So conscious and extra-literary a criterion...

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