(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Sleepers Joining Hands,” the title poem of Bly’s 1973 collection, marks a departure from the type of poetry for which Bly had been known previously. His antiwar poetry, remarkable for his energetic, manipulative handling of the language of politics and political thought, had served as a training ground for the more mature, more personal poetry that distinguished this volume. Here language is used to uncover the truth of the psyche on a personal level. The use of Jungian psychology becomes more than a mere feature of the poetry; it becomes a central impetus—a tool for digging into the unconscious to discover the self.

The imagery of the poem is essentially autobiographical—recounting Bly’s days in New York reading poems by Rilke in solitude, recalling his relationship to his mother and his father, describing his life at home with his wife and children. To say that this poem is autobiographical is misleading, however, because the poem is not written in normative language but written instead in a crazy-quilt juxtaposition of images in a tone Bly calls psychic. The language in the poem is like the language of dreams—bits and pieces of memory alongside half-thoughts and inner, often unvoiced, fears.

The poem has been described by the critic Richard Sugg as an epic quest seeking selfhood, but to understand this quest, one must first turn to the ideas of Jung. Jung believed each personality was made of three features: the individual...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Altieri, Charles F. “Varieties of Immanentist Experience: Robert Bly, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara.” In Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Davis, William Virgil. Understanding Robert Bly. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Friberg, Ingegard. Moving Inward: A Study of Robert Bly’s Poetry. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta University Gothoburgensis, 1977.

Harris, Victoria. The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, eds. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Malkoff, Karl. Escape from the Self: A Study in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Peseroff, Joyce, ed. Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Robert Bly Web site.

Smith, Thomas R. Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. New York: Perennial, 1991.

Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986.