Robert Bly edited a magazine in the 1950's and 1960's and 1970's, called The Fifties/The Sixties/The Seventies. In it, he introduced readers to the work of contemporaries whom he admired, as well as foreign poets in translation. Also, he occasionally used it to offer polemical assaults on what he regarded as faults and problems in contemporary poetry writing. In the issue above from the Fall of 1960, he published an essay criticizing the work of W.S. Merwin, "The Work of W.S. Merwin." The essay is interesting to me, from the vantage of the present, since much of what Bly criticizes in Merwin's work seems pertinent to criticisms I would make of contemporary poetry writing. History offers many examples of ironic correspondences among shifting points of view and changing allegiances. I doubt whether Bly would stand behind the charges he made against Merwin in 1960, today, but it's interesting to compare how attitudes or cycles of fashion repeat themselves in succeeding decades.
Bly's primary criticism of Merwin's early verse is based on a proposition that the tradition of European poetry since the time of written language has been transformed from a primarily oral medium to one influenced by writing (or print), which he calls "prose language." Bly feels that the problem with so much contemporary American poetry (circa 1960) is that it's the application of this "prose language" to traditional forms of versification. Even poets as diverse as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, Bly says, fall prey to this basic contradiction, of using the language of prose--of journalism, or science, or sociological language--in traditional forms of lyric utterance to which it is unsuited or not adapted.
"One might speculate that beginning in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the written language has been used by more and more poets for the language of poetry, and the increase still continues...Whitman, and after him Yeats and Eliot abruptly break away from this written language, but the American poets after them have not been that radical. They have for the most part gone on using the written language, and these poets, sensing that poetry is becoming each year more prosy, more and more try to overcome the anxiety by fusing with the language elements indisputably 'poetic'--namely rhymes, strict meters, elaborate forms such as sestinas, etc. The heavy emergence of form in the poets of the nineteen fifties, as in New Poets of England and America...a poetry which adopts written language will sooner or later be driven to adopt heavy, usually archaic, form...futile attempts to reintroduce intensity, while keeping the written language. Many of the weird phenomena of the last twenty years, including Yvor Winters' school, which has been so destructive, are more easily understood if we keep in mind that the most generally recommended language for poetry as been prose."
Bly goes on to add that this trend also seems to require the use of certain classical subject matter--myths and paradigms from ancient literature. Against this movement, Bly remarks a tradition of "objects, objectivism"--the "poetry of things."
"The absorption in a poetry of things is shared by almost all the poets in America today...the poetry of the Black Mountain group, who after Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams emphasize 'objects' and 'objectivism'...."
Against which Bly proposes a renewed interest in the "deep" image and the "deep song" which he sees being practiced abroad, especially in the work of Neruda, Trakl, Vallejo, Lorca, etc. This indictment and summons is by now an historical commonplace, leading to a kind of poem realized in the work of Bly, Wright, Simpson, Kinnell, Levertov, among others, during the 1960's and 1970's.
Merwin, of course, would abandon his academic versifying of the 1950's for a stripped-down free verse style inspired largely by French models, which he has continued to employ ever since.
In 1962, Bly carried his argument further, attacking Eliot, Pound and Williams for leading their descendants away from the inner voice of the unconscious, to mere outward pictures of conscious life, to concepts of the poem as repository of wisdom, or descriptive banality--and encouraging instead, mystical notions of the buried power of spiritual awareness and enlightenment.
And yet Bly eventually also became a strident political advocate for peace, during the Vietnam War years, and later during our foreign adventures in the Middle East. In his poetry, beginning with The Light Around the Body , Bly attempts to unite a political activism with a stream of deep imagery designed to liberate the Western mind from the archetypical strictures of confining sexual roles, predictable ethical categories.
Nevertheless, Bly resisted the impulse to look inside language, regarding it instead as a stale "vehicle" for the description and conveyance of cathartic messages or ritualistic sublimation. For Bly, the oral tradition was just that: The language of every day speech, apprehensible to all, immediately accessible, easy, transparent, dependable and fixed. It seems never to have occurred to him that an active oral tradition might suggest rapid manipulations and augmentations of syntax, signification, and formal eccentricities. Bly himself, in other words, seems to have become trapped in the same dead end paradigm of prosaic (written, printed) language employed inside forms of hackneyed lyric expression, as those he found so repugnant (in 1960) in the earlier work of Merwin and others of his generation (of the 1950's).
My own analysis suggests that Bly lacked either the linguistic skill to invent new form, or the daring or insight to explore language at the level of syntax, or of the signifier. But he did see how the academic post-war poetry of Merwin (and Hollander and Wilbur and Hill and Merrill and Nemerov and so on) had become trapped inside a tradition which was closing down. Merwin, as we know, made the effort, probably unsuccessfully in my view, to transform himself into an experimental writer, as did certain other figures of the time (Wright, Simpson, Finkel, Hall, Hecht, Rich, Silkin). Today, we continue to see examples of both kinds of choices among active poets. Figures such as Richard Kenney, or Robert Pinsky still strive to make finely crafted traditionally constructed poems using the same tools that Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley employed, writing light verse in the 1930's or 1940's. Jorie Graham or Leslie Scalapino explore free-form structures whose possibilities may seem endlessly enticing, but open-ended and unfocused.
Bly's call for a lyricism based on the "deep song" of the South Americans and Scandinavian mystics was answered; it had its vogue, and it passed into history. Perhaps today we may see part of its effects in the popularity of Rumi--a figure who seems to possess nearly all the requirements which Bly set forth in his program of the early 1960's.