For those of my generation--who came of age in the 1960's--the work of Robert Bly has been a lightning rod, of sorts, for the preoccupations of the age. Bly, who was born in 1926, and was in the U.S. Navy at the end of WWII, studied at Harvard, then, after a four year hiatus, attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop, along with Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass, among others. In a generation of polite versifiers, Bly's inspiration was doubtless stifled in this setting, which may account for the late blossoming of his career (his first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, Wesleyan University Press, was not published until 1962, when he was 36). Bly, as can be seen in retrospect, had carried a tremendous burden of spiritual and personal baggage, which prevented him from finding a voice. His extensive efforts in the area of translation, and promotion of foreign literatures, facilitated through his editorship of The Sixties (& Seventies) poetry journal (& books), his high-profile anti-war activities during the Vietnam years (& later), and his later pursuit of new age psycho-social guru-ship as a spokesman for the "man" movement, etc., all testify to his expanding concerns for extra-literary matters over the years. Bly, it seemed, never was content to think of himself as a mere writer of poems, but sought to push himself into other, larger, areas of concern. Nevertheless, he has always had an intensely private side, an attachment to his Minnesota roots, and a monkish dedication to solitude and private meditation which is the source of much of his poetic inspiration. Many of his poems are clearly written out of this condition, in a small writing hut on his property outside of Minneapolis.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
On Two Poems by Robert Bly
Bly's first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, was something of a revelation. The poems in it are quiet, relaxed, direct, unrhymed, and patiently descriptive--nearly all of them suggesting the country of Northern Minnesota. They don't explain, but merely report and declare. Here are two of the shortest of them.
Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter
It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.
This is the simplest kind of writing imaginable. It seems to lack a complex strategy, though its clarity and economy of means suggest a careful approach. Unlike most polite poems of the 1950's, it isn't intended to impress you with its means, its mastery of phrase and form, or the profundity of its thought. It pays homage to Williams, with its concentration upon things, rather than abstract ideas, but its sentiment is, on the contrary, Eastern in feeling. "Driving around, I will waste more time." There's a kind of rashness, of greedy hunger for unfocused experience, which is an acknowledgment, and even a celebration, of mortality, and the hopelessness of striving and care. These are not the prevailing social mores of the immediate post-War period, not the middle-class optimism of acquisitiveness and pedestrian respectability which characterize so much traditional poetry of that era. The coldness, too, of the Northern climes, is embraced, almost as if embracing death itself.
The other poem has become a lightning rod for the conservative reaction to the "naked poetry" of the 1960's, as Howard Nemerov--an arch-conservative American poet, and contemporary of Bly's, who taught for many years at Washington University in St. Louis--used it in a high-profile negative review to condemn the tendency towards abbreviation, and unadorned formal structure.
In a Train
There has been a light snow.
Dark car tracks move in out of the darkness.
I stare at the train window marked with soft dust.
I have awakened at Missoula, Montana, utterly happy.
The sense of surprise, here, is achieved in a way that is common to Chinese haiku, brief lyrical observation intended to reveal and disclose buried feeling. To begin with, we have no bearings: The poem only lets us know at first that it has been snowing, but where? Dark car tracks "move in" out of somewhere--"the darkness"--but what darkness? Clearly, this darkness surrounds us--it's either night, or it's heavily overcast, in "snow light," that sort of deep, fuzzy blueness you get when it's snowing. Then there's a train window--are we inside the train, or out? "I have awakened"--okay, so we see the speaker is inside the train, looking out the window. "Awakened"--so he's been sleeping. Is this an old-fashioned "sleeper-car", or has the speaker just fallen asleep, sitting upright? Probably doesn't matter. But he's arrived in Missoula, Montana--from somewhere else (wherever, it doesn't seem to matter), "utterly happy." Why so happy? Does it matter? We aren't given enough information to cloud our apprehension of the simplicity of this feeling. For anyone who has ever slept on a train, and wakened while the train has stopped at a station, our emotional feeling is specific in a generic way. This generic emotional quality is precisely what Bly is trying to capture. As in the earlier poem, it is Winter, it is snowing, the speaker is forsaken by his vague feeling of isolation, but this isolation, and the coldness (suggesting death) aren't the occasion of loneliness, or sadness, but of exhilaration. Has Bly taken the train from Minneapolis to Missoula to give a poetry reading at the University of Montana (in Missoula?). It isn't important that we know this. Dry facts (details) only tend to obscure what is, indeed, a common, but vivid, sensation.
What would have irritated Nemerov so much, was the arrogance of assuming that the reader--any reader--would be satisfied with this bald statement of event. Its presumption, that the speaker's happiness was sufficient in itself to justify our interest and participation, without explaining, in greater detail, or with more craft and skill, what reason there might be for us to share in that exhilaration. We must be convinced through prosody and rhyme and carefully considered argument, that the experience is worth our time and attention. Nemerov would say it's the poet's duty to provide these things, rather than relying on the naked statement, unadorned with detail or explanation.
In the years since Silence in the Snowy Fields was published, Bly has often taken a position of authority to his various audiences, has preached and prodded and pestered his readers and listeners to follow the right path, as he sees it, to accept his version of the deeper truths of consciousness and experience and tempered wisdom. The old Bly--the Bly of modest, humble means and simple revelations, expressed through direct language, without pretension-- this is my favorite Bly. By the end of the 1960's, he had turned to propagandist, using his role as public speaker and spokesman on the Left to devote his second collection, The Light Around the Body (Harper & Row, 1967), to an attack on the Johnson Administration and its Vietnam War policies. He has never turned back from this pontificating stance, moving from cause to cause, confident in his own righteousness, pompous and secure in his choices.
Poets--writers in general--so often turn away from early accomplishments, frequently editing and revising themselves (and their work) in an attempt to "correct" earlier excesses or youthful naivite. Bly's career has gone on so long, by now, that it hardly matters what people may remember from that early book. He's probably published 1000 pages of poetry since Silence in the Snowy Fields, and he continues even now. But none of this changes the quality of that early work, for me. It's still his best. None of the wild Third World surrealism, none of the "Father" stuff or "Men's" work or anti-War sanctimoniousness has changed that one iota.