Sunday, October 4, 2009

On Two Poems by Robert Bly

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.

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.    


Phanero Noemikon said...

fascinating post, Curtis.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


Bly is one of those poets I wish more people were trying to imitate these days. You're right: the quiet (and meditative) dignity of the man, very Eastern, appears in his verses.

I first discovered Bly through his translations of poet Antonio Machado (perhaps Vallejo, too)

Curtis Faville said...

Much as we must admire Bly for doing his utmost to bring the literature of the Third World into English, I can't say that, on balance, I think it has really helped his poetry very much.

He has consistently used his version of "surrealism" and "mystic" inspiration to make a sort of stilted reverent or epiphanic poem, adopting improbable images that don't say much about direct experience.

I like better James Wright's approach, which seeks to exploit the power of certain rhetorical devices to bring a power into direct experience.

Bly abandoned this directness at some point, and adopted a style more like his heroes Neruda, Transtromer, Rumi, etc. In the end, I think he's best when sticks closest to home.

Curtis Faville said...

It's most evident when you see him try to talk about why he likes, or admires, certain poems. I sometimes feel he doesn't have a clue about what makes his mind, or his poetry, interesting. It's almost as if his best writing is unconscious.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

That's interesting.

Do you think poet-translator's run the risk of losing their 'voices' or perhaps of not even finding one?

It's precisely the 'epiphanic' and 'mystic' I like about him: perhaps because of the years I tried writing Eastern verses myself. I've only dabbled in 'translation', mostly Italian and Latin authors but just for the fun of it. I can't say I'm qualified to judge Bly's (or anybody's) success as a translator of Third World literatures.

I'll check out James Wright.

Ed Baker said...

I moved my books around 22 years ago so-as to make things easier to locate! Dang

I know that next to Iron John is two books I "dug" and inhaled..

one was about Shadows
and one was about A Poem Every Morning... a bow towards Bill Stafford

(another 'under-read' poet)

there IS with these certain poets a demand and a sense of both "place" and "integrity"

sorely lacking (for the most part) both in contemp poetry here in the States AND in Canada..

every-boddhi(now-a-daze) seems to be in a rush to sloppy/sappy/boring "Poetry"

Bly and his ilk produce one-poem-at-a-time and pay FULL attention to the landscape around them...


are always (almost) "in the picture"

nice post as are most of yours..


I betcha Robert Bly knows Mose Alison's

Devil In The Cane Field

Phanero Noemikon said...

Curtis, you'll probably never get it quite either, though, haven't you learned that in a singularity, ie life on this planet, eccentricity is its own reward.. There's even a word for it, it's called subjectivity..

The point is in subjectivity that nobody really has a clue, or is that everybody?

Eccentricity, complicity or contentionism, it sort of all
ends up looking like a coffee-stain
on an old newspaper..

Anonymous said...

Way back then I came across Silence
in the Snowy Fields and was amazed at the way it felt so different from anything else I was reading. It was an opening for me. Chancy and wayward in its simplicity.

Unknown said...

Way back then I came across Silence
in the Snowy Fields and was amazed at the way it felt so different from anything else I was reading. It was an opening for me. Chancy and wayward in its simplicity.

Curtis Faville said...


Of course, none of us will ever get it.

I don't pretend to.

I just like the privilege of liking what I like, doubtless for all the wrong reasons.

It took Bly half his life to discover who he was, and he's spent the 2nd half unraveling it. It's all good. He says as much over and over.

jh said...

after i had read bly i was introduced to his schtick here in minnesotah it was a jungian affair all the couples were dressed alike and their hair was all the same length and evrything was being done to reduce any sort of overt difference short haired men and women in suits of khakhi and plaid
then bly comes on in odd array of colors and a sitar player sits and a little drummer as well and he begins this persian diplay of poetry right here in st cloud i thought well this is certainly strange

i've heard him read with no fanfare just sitting there and like his early work that seems to work best for his poems

he wants to channel rumi i guess

he's managed to make money
tapping into the pulse of american psychosocial drama
that's sort of interesting

i agree curtis
the no-nonesense prairie school of simply saying the wind is blowing
the spare essential ways of life on the land are important
the poetry should smell like where you grew up..his early stuff really does


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Right on, Ed!

"every-boddhi(now-a-daze) seems to be in a rush to sloppy/sappy/boring "Poetry"

Bly and his ilk produce one-poem-at-a-time and pay FULL attention to the landscape around them...


are always (almost) "in the picture"

Yes, one poem at a time and with full attention.

Ed Baker said...

well Conrad, I certainly (sort of envy you your coming discovery of James Wright's woik! Sort of "local" to here.. a "Wesr-by-Gawd-Virginnie Boy"

found my Bly 'stash' next to Bly Wright's The Branch Shall Not Break and his Shall We Gather At the River

in same area of shelf some Kunitz and Roethke and Berryman and Tate not far away Plath, Merwin and Kinnell

Wright more than once visited U of Md (in the 60's read and visited Rudd Fleming...

I recall once he brought his "new" book ... The Branch Shall Not Break..

Rudd said of it something like " they (the critics) are calling this 'surrealistic'... WHAT DO they (the critics) know?"


what is fun when discoering a new-to-me-poet's work... collect 2-5 of his books THEN
D I V E innnnnn

entirely and simultaneously..


dough-nut dismiss, either, James Dickey... try his Helmets...

seems to me James Writght was as Jack Gilbert was, a Yale Younger Poet (via Auden?)

maybe Curtis has a stash
of Wright's books at his "store" mention my name and see where t h t gets you... maybe a small discount on purchase.. I forget the name of his shoppe The Krispy Cream, or some such..


Conrad DiDiodato said...


What's in that 'singularity' (as in 'seriality', 'subjectivity' et al) that seems to privilege everyone's reading/writing of poetry these days? Isn't bad poetry written anymore? I know Curtis is being critical of some aspects of Bly's writing (to which he's entitled),but the privilege of being 'critical' comes with a duty to find real weaknesses. And Curtis may have come close enough to doing that in his reading of Bly.

"Nobody really has a clue." Really?

Curtis Faville said...


No Krispy Kream at The Compass Rose. We still have protein for breakfast around here.

I think Wright was so good in those last two Wesleyan books that it was like dessert--you didn't even have to eat your meat and potatoes, just go straight to the sweets.

Phanero Noemikon said...

Well, you certainly don't, or do:

compare your quotes to mine:

""Nobody really has a clue." Really?"

"The point is in subjectivity that nobody really has a clue, or is that everybody?"

Now move down to my index:

Eccentricity, complicity or contentionism.

I'd say your comment touches on all 3! Excellent illustration of my point.

It's actually really sort of funny
this whle idea of liking or disliking any media as it is recieved. I have a hard time looking at things that aren't sufficiently complex, but then even the simplest thing is the avatar of a general complexity
and in this case, perplexity..

and I actually also dig

and even
as it can easily (E Sea)
become lame'

ever lambasted a lame' lamb?

its like a disco ball
but the axis is horizontal
and there's a tromp l'oeil
zoomorphic element..

Ed Baker said...


I'll show you mine
you show me yours

the "horozontal' is death and it is

wayyyyyy over in the never-get to distance..




I was looking for his poem but found this it may bolt-of-lightening you!

Ed Baker said...


I found that Yeats poem

this is the poem that "did me in"


heck, and

eggcentricity makes for a lonely x-istence or worst
;few lovers

Ed Baker said...

oh, more heck / The Poem:

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Ed Baker said...

maybe I WILL get 'it' strait
and fly write



I gotta take a brek fum all tis
and get to splitting
some wood


about 3 cords

and drinks some beer for breakfast

I am cen-tric and looking for

in all the wrong places!

Phanero Noemikon said...

Ed, you are a nut, man. cool.

I remember reading that Yeat's A Vision when I was about 16 in 83,
and some Yeats in general that year.

I remember digging the part about the sweet-smelling spirits.

That summer I worked on a Coca-Cola truck as a 'swamper' and read the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol between deliveries
and also Kentucky Ham.

I guess what you are saying though is that if I want to Eat at the Y
I might have to yoda my yadda along with the other gorks, well notso o woodsman, as I was born
of a fair brow and a clean straight voice like a magnet..

cheers, darling.

wv: hanes

Kirby Olson said...

I bought this book. It's the second book I've bought that you recommended -- first was by the poet that wrote about the little town in Iowa -- La something.

Oh, and I bought an Eigner book, too.

I have read a lot of Bly -- I never liked any of it, but loved these two poems. The Iron John book struck me as fatuous.

These two poems are sterling, though.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Dedicated to Robert Bly.


So overwhelming these mundane things,
these relentless daily problems that torment.
Sometimes they seem almost cruel, even
intentional, and with life and death at stake
it requires, should we survive,
that we not be careless.

But not really so significant, all these things,
these wasteful, pointless things
once seeming so important,
for the most essential things are never
guaranteed and, after all, we may pay our debts,
to our ownselves be true
but still we end up dead.

I suppose I’ve become somewhat careless.
So maybe today I won’t pay the bills,
won’t get a haircut or go to work
and go to the beach instead.

Copyright 2009 - Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

Ed Baker said...

pardon me

but, everything is in the details.. absolutely
ease up on adjectives
and abstractions

silence is the last word

breathe and let
the words breathe too

(but, what DO I know?)

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Kirby Olson said...

I got the book!

It's a great book!

Kirby Olson said...

Now I've read through the whole book. I think it doesn't work as a book. It's got a lot of good lines, but there is an overuse of snow, for instance.

And it's the same morose images of fields over and over and over.

And then he puts on the sno-cone and serves it up.

I get bored of it.

Corso is quite a lot better because he has an actual brain. Brains are nice things for poets to have.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

BTW, Curtis, you and I have debated on Silliman's blog a time or two, but this is the first time I've been to your blog.

Damned good stuff!

Curtis Faville said...


Just back from the Pacific Northwest.

Isn't there an honesty and certainty about Bly's concentration on the facts of his own regional identity? Should he have gone to Italy and written about ruins and royalty?

Or invented game poems and cut-ups and chance operations?

The snow may seem monotonous, but that's pretty much how snow is, right? Winters in Minnesota are long and indelible. You deal with it. Or you move to Arizona and retire from life. At least Bly stayed and faced the music: His birth, his failures, his own death. That's worth our admiration, surely. I find many of these poems quite moving, not evasive, not cute, not speciously triumphant.

Bly is honest and searching, whereas Billy Collins is trite and flagrantly condescending.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Um...Bly ain't quite dead yet.

Curtis Faville said...

No he isn't.

May live another decade!

Ed Baker said...

I just googled Billy Collins and did my first read of him /

forgettable at best..

a little ways into

number 5 consolation
here: and I baled!

mere passionating and as you say condescending, trite and boring..

just what feeds our Amerikan Cultshurul humongous bellies!

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Well said, Curtis.

Please no more "game poems" and "cut ups", or if you're going the route of serial or genre-bending poetry, do it right.

Bly wrote about what he knew, like snow. Otherwise when you don't, as Ed said, you're as forgettable as charming Billy.

Kirby Olson said...

Collins has data in his poems, too, but he lives on Long Island which isn't Minnesota, so perhaps he has to deal with where he's living, too, and it's a big advertising mecca, and has lots of flaky people, and is a violently capitalistical place, with lots of fake people, once described by Fitzgerald (who started off in MN but ended up on Long Island), and that arc is also important to think about. What isn't fake on Long Island was once written up by Whitman, but now the fakery is part of the bakery, and Collins is good at getting at that creampuff filled island.

I have been amazed by some of Collin's poems. He's much better than most people give him credit for. I think most people think that we should try to find something that's real, but the only thing that's real is that this country is fake, fake old cobblestone streets, fake breasts, fake skin, fake fur, knockoff sweaters, churches that are actually social clubs for perverts, bookstores that foreground books that have been paid for by Soros and Co., even the crab we eat in our Sushi is Pollock, and is wrapped by white people in the suburbs of Peoria, but marketed with all kinds of Asian wisdom glitz, and the green mustard is actually horse radish instead of Wasabi.

There's fakery in Minnesota, too, and it's fakey not to notate it down. People still pretending they are Norwegian, and still pretending that barns are crucial to their identities. Fewer farmers than there are insurance executives.

Fargo (the movie) caught some of the turmoil of the great northern plains, and what's really going on in the winters there.

Bly is fakier than Collins in that he's writing a tourist brochure of the Minnesota snow, and the quiet suffering of the people there.

They are actually quite glitzy, wearing Hawaiian shirts as they eat too much and pond-skate from one mall to the other, thinking about buying another chotchke glass which you can turn upside down and watch crystals fall and think about Christmas without even thinking about Jesus, just what kind of lead-lined toy you should get for little Brenton (a fakey Brit name) from communist China.

Collins is truly more on to what our real lives are like.

Curtis Faville said...


Your post here is almost like a poem, an inspired rant.

I disagree with you, but very much appreciate the flow.

Comparing the movie Fargo with Bly's poetry of the early Sixties is inapropo. The Coen Brothers aren't poets of the lake country.

You could call the regional specificities of any place just tourist cliches. Even Arabia could be called a Disney set in T.E. Lawrence's accounts, but try walking a mile on the desert without water, and you'd see how real landscape can be.

If you want to appreciate Bly, you're going to have to confront him on a deeper level. Certainly, with his work, that's openly invited. The book is filled with "deep images."

In the end, Collins is no more, or no less, trite, than the culture you think he's exploring (and exploiting). Can a poet write greeting card verse, or television commercials? Sure. That could even be intriguing, on a certain level. But in the end, that's not what real poetry is about.

jh said...

some say bly should've left translation to word scholars
but i think he learned the languages as he went along he took the time to get the sounds and the rhythms what more could you ask
yes collins is a master at highlighting the superficial which is all but blurred because it is moving too fast and he gets people to look at the superficial blur he slows the film down and looks at the frames so to speak
collins has built himself an audience
as has bly bly has done that he's made a bunch of norwegians understand
that the heritage of writing verse is part and parcel to the ancient ways the viking ways
he defied the cultural incestuousness of the nordic north
i don't know
collins' poems never cause me to reflect on anything too much
bly sort of draws you in and says hey look you could stand to think about this a little...and sometimes he tips into the soup of maudlin expression...generally wiping the broth neatly and elegantly from his chin
...collins seems to say
phuqU i'm a poetaster
bly says
i don't know what i am but i'll try this today and try to figure it out some more tomorrow it's a wierd trip but come along

he has a sense for the value in the primitve expression



Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Hey jh:

Does your religious order require a vow of abstinence from punctuation, too?


jh said...

it is simply the way
i have appropriated the new mechanisms
of communication
perhaps i should take a moment to edit
everything i type out in spaces
such as this
i simply find it a way
of being cleaner on the screen
but runonsentences don't i know it
they're crazy
like my mind most the time

i take a vow of metanoia
that's phuqqing hard enough pal

peace like a river


Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Dear jh:

Hoping that you understand my post above was intended to be humorous.

W.S, Merwin just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for a book with no punctuation at all.

Seriously, though, I am basically what one might call an ‘ontological’ poet (what used to be known as a wisdom poet). I am a Taoist. But also a Christian, and a Pantheist and an Agnostic.

I have surmised that you are Theologically oriented, so, I wonder, what you would make of this poem:

How reconcile this paradox,
this Creator who loves creation,
with the brutality and blood
that makes it turn,
this endless flow of life,
forms granted their existence
by the eating of each other,
the bewildered, starving young
still awaiting their dead mother?

How resolve this lack of compassion,
this cruelly designed summation
by the One who loves us all,
those lost to fire and fang and flood
or blown from nests in storms?

We will reason, of course, for we are human,
and create our fine Religions
which our reason then deforms.

Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

J said...

every-boddhi(now-a-daze) seems to be in a rush to sloppy/sappy/boring "Poetry"

Bly and his ilk produce one-poem-at-a-time and pay FULL attention to the landscape around them...


are always (almost) "in the picture"

I nearly agree with dat. While I don't deny Bly's vision or skills, perhaps, his poesy seems....miniature, a collection of diary entries. And N-word-ish, as in narcissistic. To some of us raised on movies, sci-fi, PK Dick, Pynchon, rocknroll--Bly's pretty bor-reeng

His translations of Neruda and Vallejo were ok, but his espanol somewhat awkward.

Actually he's probably more suited to the spokesman, or unitarian preacher role

Curtis Faville said...

"Actually he's probably more suited to the spokesman, or unitarian preacher role"

This might be a natural conclusion to draw from what I said in the blog about his pontificating.

But I think Bly's a poet through and through. He may carry a heavy burden of duty or advocacy around, but he can't help writing about his life.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Watering The Horse

How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!

Robert Bly