The All-Too Familiar Arc Of Robert Bly
Ó by Dan Schneider, 2/5/01

  The genesis for this essay occurred about a month ago when my wife & I were browsing books in Brad Zellar’s Rag & Bone bookshop in Minneapolis. I had bought a used book of poetry & Zellar insisted on giving me a book gratis. When I saw it I graciously declined his beneficence but Zellar was so insistent he would not let me leave his establishment without the book in tow. The book was Robert Bly: 2000 Distinguished Artist- a photo-filled festschrift put out by the McKnight Foundation; an organization best known in Minnesota artsy circles as being the main bankroller of that literary plague The Loft. As is known to most who would recognize either Zellar’s or my name, such a tome is a guarantee to induce projectile vomit from either of us. Thus gifted, we drove home that poxed January evening all the while antsy over a possible nausea-induced driving accident. A week or so later I got around to reading the book & will now detail & critique its contents, as well muse on the poetic path Bly has twisted through this life.
  First, let me acknowledge I’ve no personal animus toward the man, nor his oeuvre. I actually think Bly was a solid-good poet at times in his youth, & he had the very realizable potential to be a great poet. This is not a talentless wordcrafter- a la Donald Hall, Maya Angelou, or ___________(fill in the blank with your own MFA’d college English professor). But, something went terribly wrong! A # of factors prevented his fruition as a great artist. I will now limn what is known, guess at reasons why, & try to give perspective to this event (or more literally non-event), for he is certainly not alone in his failure. The overwhelming majority of poets (not exclusively- but especially- published academes) similarly trace this arc.
  The syllabus to attain this goal is as follows: THE BOOK- a piece-by-piece critique of what the book contains, and any natural digressions therefrom. THE POETRY- a critique of some of Bly’s verse (early & late). THE MAN- personal observations of the man, his career, & a summary of things culled, denuded, & posited.
  THE BOOK- For each of the book’s sections I shall point things good & bad out, & then comment, for with such demonstrably bad writing it’s usually best to let the dreck do the bulk of work. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!: for those with a weak stomach for the bad writing I will highlight, feel free to skip ahead to THE POETRY.
  1st comes a Bly translation of the Pablo Neruda poem The Art Of Poetry. It is from Bly’s Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (1971).   Next comes the Introduction, by Chairman Noa Staryk of the McKnight Foundation. I do not know if Staryk is a professional writer or not, but this wan 5-paragraph piece is larded with what are known as critical cliches- the kind that infest magalogs diverse as Rain Taxi & the American Poetry Review (please don’t laugh). Because this piece is so emblemic of the book’s writing (as well most critical writing) I shall leadoff each review of the book’s section’s with a chronological summary of their critical cliches. I do so only to hammer home a point about the terrible state of criticism- forgive me. These from the Introduction: “the uniqueness and magnitude of his literary contribution” (what- not “the best of his generation”?), “His work never shrinks from the truth” (a platitude foisted by those who conflate art with truth), “penetrating honesty” (see above- but not just surface, mind you), “a generosity of spirit” (it’s always good to praise the person when the art lacks merit), “his memorable readings and performances worldwide” (good or bad? I guess lisped tautology, condescenscion, & contempt for his audience qualify as memorable- but….), “the most obvious proofs of his generosity” (generosity- et tu?!), “He could hardly have given us a finer gift” (Noa- this is what the generous do!), “his influence and work reach far” (see magnitude- 1st critical cliché), “by staying here all these years, he certainly honored us” (Always praise the happenstance when little else avails).  And this beaut (& I must quote the entire 2nd paragraph to give you a sense of the book’s coming assault on regurgative-restraining powers of the body):

  The important body of literary work he’s produced over five decades is reason enough to single out and celebrate him, but it is Bly the relentless teacher who amazes me. The more I read about how many people- from neighbors to renowned poets- he has helped, taught, nudged, stretched, entertained, and enlightened, the greater my admiration grows.

  One of this essay’s foci will be to point out that all of these helped/enlightened claims, while perhaps true to a degree, were things never practiced by Bly himself. Thus the state of his work. Note how the paragraph does nothing to bolster the claim of his literary import, but emphasizes his goodness. This theme is the whole book’s kilter, as well as American Poetry Criticism’s at this eon’s dawn. It is, interestingly, a technique Bly has oft used in his criticism of others.
  3rd up is the Contents page- You will suffer the essay’s titles soon enough- trust me! Otherwise. Pretty standard fare.
  4th comes the first real attempt at essay by writer & University of Minnesota English professor Patricia Hampl, called Midwestern Sublime (I told you you’d suffer!) On my 1st read I was gonna write: “Aside from its subservience to Bly, this is the book’s best-written piece- with only a few ridiculous cliches”….I was wrong! On reread it’s pretty bad- such for merit-seeking here! It’s a near-virtueless piece whose dry preamble on Bly’s & Minnesota’s literary past gives way to a fawning close which merely recapitulates the Introduction (except being 2 1/2 times as long- Editor Gayle Thorsen must have thought Staryk’s points 5 pages earlier had faded in the time needed to turn said pages). That length preempts me, ethically, from listing all the cliches. Suffice with these few “observations”: pre-Bly she claims, ‘There were no creative writing classes in the English Department, and there was no Loft, no ‘literary community’ in the Twin Cities.” So, the smoking gun at last! ‘I read Bly’s magazine [referring to The Sixties], and his good-spirited but deadly attacks on the literary establishment, and I knew I was reading the future. // That was the first conversion. There were two to follow. I need digression here- for my sanity & to analyze this piece's import & syntax. [Breathing deeply] The import- if true, I’d best be wary lest play the revolutionary-cum-apparatchik Bly has! I recall confronting Bly, in ’98 at a reading, with his own ‘60s-era attack essay on Robert Lowell & the need for youth to tear down their elders. [from Robert Lowell’s Bankruptcy (1966)- ‘the last thing we need is another review trying to show he is a master”, “He is surrounded by flatterers.’] He seemed to abjure its relevance to his own latter-day position. Now, to the syntactic illogic. Rare is the “deadly” also “good-natured”- but allowing that those words could describe this essay, as well, I turn to “conversion”. Need we another psychospiritual moment? And can one convert 3 consecutive times to the same thing? Hampl apparently can- for Bly’s work told her they misled her (calling Scully & Mulder!). Logically she must have fallen for Bly, gone apostate, & re-entered the Promised Land. To her credit Hampl does not milk this travail! Bly also ended the Vietnam War, with minimal assistance from others. ‘It was scary, and it was courageous. And it made poetry absolutely essential, and as real as the bread and roses we sang about.’ I hear you laughing! Stop it! What else would you expect from “a figure that large” (he was slimmer then, to be fair, Pat- & has a Baby Boomer ever been known to lead a small life?), & “that consequential” (Goddammitallanyway!). He is “protean”, with “unprecedented generosity” (but not unnoted generosity!). She details how Bly replied to would-be poets with “fiercely honorable candor”- yet she forgets how she became aware of this. The question is- if true- what happened? Or is this more PC Elitist myth-making? Or truly forgetting the truth? She ends with her inability to scry her own life & American literature sans Bly, stating, “He is not simply another beloved Minnesota writer, harmless and endearing.” This is a classic critical sleight-of-hand; a tacit (if not unconscious) acknowledgement of  American Poetry’s current sad state by praising the One (or more) who transcends the muck, while damning the ever-nameless horde of poetasters (the Other[s]). Just who are these harmless, endearing simpletons? I guess we’ll never know- at least not from Hampl’s lips. Whenever I see this particular critical cliché I am reminded of the infamously bad comic strip The Family Circus & its “Not Me” spirit who is never responsible for the mischief the scene portrays. Ah, Bil Keane & Pat Hampl- great minds & all that!
  “Go back now twenty years later and you will still find it, lying silently in ditches beside the road, drifting noiselessly in with the snow at nightfall, standing dry and bristly in a field of weeds: the spirit of the American prairie. For that is what Robert Bly discovered for us in Silence in the Snowy Fields”
  Thus opens the 5th part of the book, essay excerpt  Back to the Snowy Fields (must we?) by Wayne Dodd, editor of The Ohio Review (explains a lot, it do!). The piece never again reaches this Himalayan height! Some dales: After this book “the body of America was never again the same to us- never again ‘merely’ there….” Oh, you get the point! Apparently we all, unknowingly, converted with Hampl for “That’s what the silence is filled with, what it frees us for: the other half, the realm of dark knowledge, night….”…. Hold me, I’m scared! Geez, not only is the sentiment trite, but all 5 phrases are cliches! But, maybe that will pass  when “we are, at last, fully inside the land of ourselves”. In truth, writing like this is so easy to destroy that, out of fear for being labeled a bully, I shall refrain. “So, after Silence in the Snowy Fields we were never quite the same again, either. The darkness in us was never the same again. Nor the snow.the barns.the houses….” etc. And NO! He is actually the one who repeats the claim in case we missed it en face. But worse than his writing is his critiquing & quoting. Note how the bland, trite poem excerpt is championed by the wonder-inducing preface:

  ‘We come to be aware, as Bly is aware, of the abiding presence of a hidden order, the sacred masked by the ordinary. Poems arrive to suddenly opened vistas:

                        We know the road; as the moonlight
                        Lifts everything, so in a night like this
                        The road goes on ahead, it is all clear.

                                                (‘After Working’)’

  Certainly the excerpt gives us nothing of the supposed wonder. This is another bane of criticism- poorly pulled quotes. I’ve read Fabio novels that contained more literary & intellectual merit than this. All in all, if Hampl’s piece is near-virtueless, then this piece of fellatio is virtueless.
  Bly’s Later Poems is a 1979 reprint of an essay by Charles Molesworth; & this 6th section is probably the best essay to this point simply because it has the least # of cliches & is merely bland. Still, however, it harps NOT on the poems but the essayist’s ideas of what the poems are, or should be. The pieces’s thrust is that Bly is religious, in “a pre-Orphic sense” The best, although most manifest, quote in the book is this: ‘For many readers, especially those with secularized imaginations, Bly’s work strikes a thoroughly false and, what is worse, an utterly outmoded note. For others, the religious….are likely to overpraise Bly, to read him with little critical or historical awareness….’. Still no talk of craft, only blasé philosophy- yet, an improvement.
  Seventh Heaven of this hagiography is occupied by Bly’s Recent Poems- a reprinted essay by Jonathan Blunk- which makes you long for Molesworth’s masterpiece preceding. A raft of clichés infects this piece- but since you’ve literally read them in the other pieces I will get to the 3 main points of the piece. 1st he tells us “the stunning elegies” of Morning Poems intend “a double meaning”- like morning (a.m.)/mourning (grief); get it? Huh? Huh? The 2nd revelation is how Bly followed William Stafford’s advice to write a poem every morning- Stafford was, recall, the sapient who chimed “Well, then I just lower my standards.” when asked what he did on days when his writing wasn’t so good. 3rdly, he quotes 2 of Bly’s poems for critique: Early Morning In Your Room & Section 6 of  It’s as if Someone Else Is with Me. The analyses are pitiful, so I’ll spare you the latter & detail the former’s critique. The poem is a simplistic 16 line free verse poem about aging & appreciating the little things. Yet Blunk divines its meaning as “celebrating the solitary craftsmanship of poetry”. Where Jon? The room may be a den/study but no act of writing is in nor implied. And too bad the poem does not display what Blunk claims it celebrates! He then notes the first 8 lines have a lot of “er” sounds & the second half “oo” & long “o” sounds. Nice to note- something not all critics would- but what does he make of it?: “In a way, this modulation toward more open and vibrant sounds underscores the poem’s movement toward acceptance and affirmation.” Well, that’s a stretch- the equation of “oo” & long “o” with acceptance rings hollow. However this interpretation may induce one to seek out the poem it champions. But a good reader will find not Blunk’s masterwork but a poem that (in narrative order) has a meager title that merely states the obvious & lends no play nor tug to the poem. Line 3 gags one with “gray light” & “gleaming water”, while in line 4 the seems in “It seems you’ve traveled years to get here.” does not rescue the cliché- especially after the rote setup of lines 1-3. Lines 5-11 are the core of the poem, decently written sound-wise, although the attempt at irony/humor is pallid. Lines 12-14 grind out “the snowflake falling” & “Even the blind man / Can see”.  The poem ends with this (cue up the Thus Spake Zarathustra theme!): “When Robert Burton / Said he was melancholy, he meant he was home.” Now, one can use an old idea like that, but it must be cast in some new light. This poem does not. Bly attempts to invert or subvert it by pinning the notion on another- Burton- but doesn’t succeed since all the previous accoutrements already detailed in the poem scream, “HOME IS SWEET- REALLY!” This poem is not doggerel- but by no means a good poem. Were it brought to the Uptown Poetry Group for critique it would get what I dished out & a lot more from other poets. This analysis- in loose terms- is symptomatic of the book as a whole.
  8th up is Michael Ventura’s Speaking in Tongues: The Translations of Robert Bly. Apparently, in his spare time from forging a poetic corpus nonpareil, ending the Vietnam War, & making young MFA coeds swoon, Bly found time to virtually invent translation in America. Ventura swipes at Hart Crane & Wallace Stevens as being too lingually self-enclosed & leaving America bereft of “a more expansive vision of what poetry might be. Apparently Berryman’s Dream Songs, Archibald MacLeish’s corpus, Charles Olson’s Maximus & others passed Ventura by, for it was those noted Regional Spiritualists (or is that Spiritual Regionalists?) Bly & James Wright- neither of whose work is noted for its intellect nor cosmopolity- who, in their translations, brought such to these shores. Ventura then talks of Bly’s translations being an “extraordinary and unparalleled dozen years of masterwork” &, in Hamplian gongor, how “in terms of poetry, nothing has ever been the same for me.” But he leads off with a boost of Bly’s Rilke translations from 1981. He boosts them over earlier English translations to hit America- C.F. MacIntyre’s, yet ignores the manifest flaws in them- ones even critics spotted with ease- such as their lack of music. Yet Ventura does not even acknowledge the later, superior Stephen Mitchell & Edward Snow versions. Perhaps because in Mitchell’s book his defender- noted doggerelist Robert Hass, no less!- pointedly details Bly’s sloth. So let’s compare some of these translations, a Bly translation vs. 3 other translators’- you be the judge [note- I will not present the German original because my concern is not fidel trans-literation, but the interpretation of the words to form the best English poem- OK?]:

Buddha Inside The Light
Stanza 1
[Robert Bly] 

The core of every core, the kernel of every kernel,
an almond! Held in itself, deepening in sweetness:
all of this, everything, right up to the stars,
is the meat around your stone. Accept my bow.

Buddha In Glory
Stanza 1
[Edward Snow]               

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond, that closes tightly in and sweetens,-
this entire world out to all the stars
Is your fruit-flesh: we greet you.

  OK, what jumps out side-by-side? The title in Snow’s is more concise, accurate (although not a concern here), & poetic- i.e.- less trite than the over-used “Light”. The whole stanza in Bly’s is longer- filled with prosifying articles & music-dulling phrases: “meat around your stone” vs. “fruit-flesh”. Bly’s love of deep image (read cliché) gives us “deepening in sweetness” vs. “sweetens”- notice the poesy conveyed by Snow’s concision. Bly even begins the poem with the cliché “the core of every core” which Snow wisely puts second & shortens to “core of cores”. To argue that the Bly version is better writing is to revel in basic ignorance of poetic craft.
  But, perhaps that’s a fluke. Maybe, but let’s peer further:

Stanzas 3 & 4
[Robert Bly]

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one….It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, hold up all this falling.

Stanzas 3 & 4
[M.D. Herter Norton]

We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is one who holds this falling
Endlessly gently in his hands.

  It should be noted that Norton’s work was published in 1938- 43 years before Bly’s. So much for Ventura’s claims of Bly’s import to American translation. Need I point out its superiority? Bly’s contractions detract from the poem’s elegant ending. Again, superfluous  words, & “Someone” rather than “one”. Note the last stanza- Bly ends it with the force of the hands’ holding, whereas Norton end with the softer falling into hands. Concision, dramatic structure, & music makes Norton’s clearly superior.
  Still not convinced of Bly’s shoddy work? One final comparison- this with Stephen Mitchell- considered with Snow as Rilke’s best translator:

The Panther
Stanza 3

[Robert Bly]

Only at times the curtains of the pupil rise
without a sound…then a shape enters,  
slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
reaches the heart, and dies. 

The Panther
Stanza 3
[Stephen Mitchell]

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly- . An image enters in,
rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

  Again, Bly uses more words- this time just one more- but note how unmusicked. Bly uses the more tactile & less mysterious “shape” over “image”. Bly “slips” rather than “rushes”, his more prosaic & trite “tightened silence” contrasts to Mitchell’s “tense, arrested”. Bly “reaches the heart” as Mitchell “plunges into the heart”. Bly “dies” while Mitchell is more shadowy & “is gone”. Bly tells his reader what is happening- Mitchell shows- a Poetry 101 formula that works more than 98% of the time in improving poetry. Where drama is needed earlier, Bly is blasé. Where mystery is needed at the end, to engage a reader to reread, Bly thuds out & leaves nothing to the imagination.
  In contrast with Ventura’s claims Bly is demonstrably a bad translator & his importance wildly overstated. Such poor translations have led me- & others- to decry Bly’s befoulment as “THE RAPE OF RILKE!” One of the things to note about being a good translator is that one must be a mediocre poet- someone with good technical skills but not too strong a voice. I even told this to Mitchell himself a few years ago when he came to Minneapolis pushing a book. Think of the great translators into English: Allen Mandelbaum, John Ciardi, Robert Fitzgerald, Randy Blasing, Edward Fitzgerald, A. Poulin, Snow, Mitchell, etc. Contrast them to Bly, Pound or Rexroth. Poets with too strong a “voice” impose their own personae on the translated. Think of these Bly examples, or Pound’s The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, or any of Rexroth’s Oriental translations. Not that they cannot be good- they simply are not “translations” in the strictest sense. Now look at any of the original verse by the Translation Masters I’ve noted- it’s OK technically but lacks range, verve & vision; they pick that up from the great stuff they translate, & their very lack of such talents helps the original filter through unimpeded by a “strong voice”. They are less translators than interpreters, or re-crafters of others’ poems. Don’t believe me- just reread these 3 snippets. Case closed!
  The Zero-Niner spot is held by Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialist Jim Lenfestey & hyperbolically dubbed, Robert Bly’s Leaping Influence in This World! More fellatio that I’ll try to briefly give you a sense of: opening line- “A deep well of Minnesota’s earthen energy propels Robert Bly.” [underlined emphasis mine] He speaks of “nationally beloved poet Jane Kenyon” (huh?), & of a Blyvian translation of Antonio Machado- “this poem moves through our culture like life-giving water” (No! I swear I am not making these quotations up!). 3 points he dwells on are “[Bly] quotes like scripture the lines and poems of dozens of world poets from his encyclopedic memory”. No doubt true- I’ve seen Bly do it & it does impress, however the logical thread to pick up here is how often those with filing cabinet-like minds lack the necessary fluidity of thought necessary to make the interesting associations needed for great poetry- thus, perhaps, a simple explanation why Bly’s poems reek of cliché, or- his preferred defense of such- deep image- a nice coinage but poor rationale for cliché: snow, deep, dark, etc. Cliché is cliché. It’s a word, phrase, or idea so overused that one tires at & with its usage. But it’s also that thing in familiar context- it can be subverted or inverted by its surrounds. One cannot argue a cliché’s existence (i.e.- numerical proof), only if its mileu or usage redeems it- & one cannot argue with someone who likes clichés. That is the terrible conflation of likeability with excellence. But whatever Bly calls them they help render his art stagnant- such the benefits of  encyclopediae. In fact, it is a bad memory that makes for fluidity of association- perfect for poetic ferment. Next he refers to Bly’s  habit of helping younger poets- & he does not forget where, as he cites a 1970 edition of the Tennessee Poetry Journal. “He believed a generalized note did the poet no good….In that way he challenged thousands of poets to better work. He still does.” The beat missed here is why Bly stopped challenging himself. Lastly, he quotes Wisconsin poet Thomas R. Smith’s dedicatory comments at a Bly shrine: “Perhaps Robert’s greatest gift to Madison is that through his poems he has given Madison to the world.” Ugh, but speaking of Tommy….
  The decimal spot is held by Smith’s Praising the Soul in Women and Men: Robert Bly and the Men’s Movement. (Quite a mouthful!) Smith has the dubious distinction of being T.H. Huxley to Bly’s Darwin, or Harold Bloom to Bly’s Stratfordian. He also was the editor of the only possible book that could be worse than this- 1992’s Walking Swiftly: Writings & Images On The Occasion Of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. Why is it worse? Length- 287 pages vs. this travesty’s 46! The odd thing is that Smith is a pretty good poet himself- in fact, at times, an excellent nature lyricist- far beyond anything Bly’s essayed poetically. So, it’s curious why he so blatantly & fawningly shills for someone who is not as good as him. But, to be fair, this is a trait Smith is not unique in. Even good poets I know seem to give undue praise to lesser poets: Don Moss to a John Ashbery & James Merrill, Cindra Halm to a Charles Simic- yet neither displays the bootlicking subservience of Smith. I’ve seen Smith read on occasions & even had him read at the 1997 Stone Arch Festival I helped organize. I am not gonna comment on Iron John here, for these reasons- 1) it has long since lost its relevance- much like that other bane of early ‘90s pseudo-thought, Andrea Dworkin. 2) I’ve never read it fully- only snippets, reviews- although I saw Bly on many TV talk shows (including Bill Moyers) pushing it, declaiming & defending it, as well as his slavish bend to Joseph Campbell. 3) Like trying to talk seriously about a Steven Spielberg film it’s almost impossible since the arguments are so hopelessly foisted & its devotees will never go apostate anyway! Although its conclusions are predictable, Smith’s piece surpasses all before because it does not rely on critical clichés, although it does uncritically accept all effluvia Blyia. But here are points where it fails critically: “Characteristically deflecting emphasis from himself”- well, this is obviously a partisan comment since even Bly’s best friends have noted his egoism & delight at reveling in being in the limelight. I’ve seen Bly read 4-5 times & the words most dear to him are: me, myself, I, mine, etc. Smith then attacks a 3-4/92 article (or letter?- Smith does not specify) published in Ms. Magazine by Sharon Doubiago. Smith claims Doubiago accused Bly of supporting the Gulf War, which Bly did not- according to Smith. Well, I’ve not seen the article/letter, nor do I know (nor care, for that matter) Bly’s positions on varied political events. But I do know the classic usage of a supposed negative/wacky/out-of-context claim or reference in another arena or field to bolster a positive (& usually specious) claim whose only supportable evidence is its opposition to the negative/wacky/out-of-context claim when I see it. But when one is in thrall to “Bly’s genius” I guess it’s to be expected. Smith includes a gratuitous reference to the Columbine massacre & ends with Bly’s denunciation of a clever Dewar’s liquor ad (“You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.”), all the while revealing that both he & Bly have missed the point that whether or not Bly intended drum-beating & tree-hugging to be the cultural remanence of the Men’s Movement, that’s what happened. The moment passed. Bly & his ilk failed. Their failure to acknowledge that results in the bitterness & lack of grace at a clever skewering. And I am a teatotaler- I’ve no interest in people poisoning themselves! But Smith unwittingly points out the danger in artists straying too far in keeping art as the #1 priority of the artist. Now that’s an essay that this book could really have used!
  The 11th section is 3 of Bly’s poems: 1999’s The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (wretched!), Thinking of Gitanjali, from Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems (little better), & Night, from Silence in the Snowy Fields ( a good poem that shows where Bly might have gone with a little hard work!).
  The Nation’s Ted Solotaroff excerpts from his well-known Captain Bly essay for the dozenth piece. Aside from its typical Bly boosterism (especially of Iron John!) it rivals Smith’s piece as the best because it’s basically an inoffensive litany, yet good recitation, of Bly’s history up to Iron John. The only soft spot is that the piece does nothing to show why the book is good. But this is probably Editor Gayle Thorsen’s fault for poor excerption.
  Triskaidekaphobia is warranted for the next section, Among Friends. It consists of 9 brief reminiscences: 1) Psychologist Marion Woodman’s pointless piece on falling out of chairs with Bly. 2) Poet Nils Peterson says moments with Bly tell us “we are in the presence of a true thing”. 3) Activist Marv Davidov compares Bly to Thoreau. 4) Poetaster Donald Hall says  that without Bly “My life would have been poorer, thinner, less energetic; there would have been less excitement and less confrontation.” It’s difficult to conceive of how Hall could have outdone himself to those nadirs- but is he accusing Bly of actually giving him a pulse? 5) Author Gioia Timpanelli tells us, “I wouldn’t want to give the impression he’s flawless.” (Word, G, don’t crimp mah mind, Ahyight!) 6) Poet, & wannabe mall Santa, Bill Holm roars: “Every complaint the academics make of ‘The Teeth Mother’ is true; it is excessive, rhetorical, preachy. But watch an audience of Americans listen to it, read by Robert or by any passionate voice that can do it justice. They are bolted, fixed, trapped by it. They weep. Best of all, they think, for years afterwards.” All true, but what Holm leaves out is folk bolt for the exits, long to have Bly fixed, feel trapped like a beaver gnawing its leg off in a trap, weep at- not with- it, & recall it like most do 11/22/63! 7) Poetaster Jane Kenyon relates this exchange with Bly: “Kenyon: ‘I cannot choose a man for a master.’ Bly: ‘Then read Akhmatova.’” Wow! 8) Psychologist Robert Moore tells us Bly’s “true greatness lies in the way in which he has, in struggling with his own masculine wounds, enabled an entire generation of men around the world to begin asking some of the most significant questions of our time.” (deep exhalation….) 9) Joseph Campbell Archivist Barbara McClintock shares with us that Bly’s heart intends “to merge with the tear in the stone or in the eye.” 2 words- Mama Mia!
  Part 14 is a chronology & photos uniquely dubbed A Poet’s Life.
  15th comes a publications list, 16th is About the Award, 17th is a credits page, & we end this book of sincere but vapid essays which assay Mount Hagiography with Bly’s translation of a Rumi poem. I think I will not comment further- Whew! That was worse than I thought- for those who need to retch or laugh- do so. For the rest- & in fact all- I apologize. Now, for those readers who skipped down to this next section of the essay….
  THE POETRY- OK, the hypothesis is that Bly was talented but desuetude & willful ignorance brought rot to his incipient poetic powers. I shall look at a good early poem that shows potential & a bad late poem that illumines his decline. I shall also refer to other works of varying quality. Up first is a good little poem from Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962) called Snowfall In The Afternoon:


The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.


If I could reach down, near the earth,
I could take handfuls of darkness!
A darkness that was always there, which we never noticed.             


As the snow grows heavier, the cornstalks fade farther away,
And the barn moves nearer to the house.
The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.


The barn is full of corn, and moving toward us now,
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.

    This terrible free verse sonnet, The Face In The Toyota, is from 1997’s Morning Poems:

Suppose you see a face in a Toyota
One day, and you fall in love with that face,
And it is her, and the world rushes by
Like dust blown down a Montana street.

And you fall upward into some deep hole,
And you can’t tell God from a grain of sand.
And your life is changed, except that now you
Overlook even more than you did before;

And these ignored things come to bury you,
And you are crushed, and your parents
Can’t help anymore, and the woman in the Toyota
Becomes a part of the world that you don’t see.

And now the grain of sand becomes sand again,
And you stand on some mountain road weeping.

  I will be brief. The first poem should lose stanza 2- it pulls the poem down from excellence to merely being good- there is nothing there that is NOT trite & of any real value- as written, especially compared to the rest of the poem. The best course is to drop it. However, my wife suggests that merely removing the words darkness makes the real grasping of soil much stronger an image- and she’s right, but it’s arguable if that makes the stanza fit in with the rest of the poem. Yet either option eluded Bly even then. His inclusion of it- as is- hints at unsavory preachy tendencies that would surface over & over in later poems. Other than “storm at sea” the balance of the poem is a nice inversion of expected images. Soundwise this poem is not too prosey nor affectedly poetic- a decent balance. The snow is less symbolic here than in any of the book’s other poems & the unsettling & dissociation of the speaker with the narrative is a nice effect that spins the poem’s banal moral: Notice the little things! in a fresh & effective way. (Just how many poems with that moral has he written?) Even the idea of blindness is not too distracting because of that effect. It shows he could be fresh & inventive- even with mediocre themes. One wonders what a poet as this could do when deeper & more complex themes come his way- how will he spin it?
  35 years later, however, in a poem typical of Bly’s later garbage we see the ravages of celebrity, easy publication, self-importance, & flat-out laziness of craft. The moral of this poem is virtually identical to the earlier poem’s, however its crafting is much poorer. The 1st 2 lines are OK, then we get the annunciation of Muse, & clichés like “world rushes by” & “like dust blown”. Stanza 2 is a travesty- each line a cliché- & heightened by the choral “And” leading off the 1st 3 lines. “And” appears 4 more times to lead off a line & in the couplet provide rime crosshatched within. The repetition of “And” is meant to heighten a sense of building urgency & drama, but the triteness of the situation dramatically disallows such. The invocation, again, of everything become a grain of sand, & then not, is so clichéd one wonders if Bly spent more than a second on this in rewrite. And instead of letting us wonder what the protagonist’s final reaction will be, we’re told- condescending pedantry at its worst, with no trust in the readers’ abilities- & it’s a melodramatic piece of schlock that makes nothing of the intriguing title- the only part of the poem that’s better than the earlier poem’s.   
  Soundwise, the poem only stumbles with the couplet’s “-and” sounds. I commented earlier on Bly’s devotion to William Stafford’s silly dictum- I guess he really took it to heart.
  But it highlights the frequency with which Bly falls into didacticism- a trait he always displays with audiences- reading & rereading the most inconsequential images, lines, stanzas, & poems as if of cosmic import. It’s also the dead giveaway of a man unsure of himself, his talent, & in need of constant reinforcement. But then he’s always played  the “insecure liberal”, wasting time & energy in politics that should go to art, who needs to show his/her innate goodness, go to a [3rd World country/rehab center/orphanage/social activist group] to see how the other ½ lives, translate 5th rate poetasters into English, & leach bad poems from the transformative period so crucial to their growth as a poet/person. It’s all part of the co-opting of language & freedoms by so many groups- PC Elitists among them.
  In today’s bastardized tongue a “Conservative” can claim that title even though he/she wants to peer into people’s bedrooms & women’s bodies. A “Libertarian” can claim it part of his/her creed that corporations can run roughshod over the environment & the populace’s health- for poor corporations need to have liberty just like individuals- in fact MORE liberty than individuals. And a “Liberal”, today, can say with a straight face, that it’s fine & even constitutional to censor books, games & ideas if it offends someone for ANY reason- especially if it “Harms Children!”- the ultimate skirt for cowards to hide behind. For "Liberals", especially, the NEED to tell truths (a noble pursuit- to "Liberals") trumps the WANT to entertain (a frivolous waste). So few poets today- of any stripe- enjoy “foolin’ with words” (as Bill Moyers might grin)- they must SAY something; oblivious to the fact that all words & phrases have meanings, & by occasionally letting wordplay guide one, you get ideas anew, & sometimes a better way to express the original idea desired. But to that ilk joy, knowledge, & such discovery become gauche- how dare you contemplate or luxuriate when there’s so much suffering! It is quite easy in art to decry rape, genocide, nuclear war, incest, drug abuse, racism, homophobia, etc. I mean, in arts circles the pro-rape, pro-genocide, pro-nuclear winter, pro-incest, pro-drug, KKK, & John Birch lobbies are so pervasive! I recall what  Don Moss uttered after reading Carolyn Forche’s travesty The Angel Of History: “Y’know, Dan, before reading this book I never realized WAR IS BAD!”
  You see, “Liberals” prefer being liked to being excellent. I like Maya Angelou’s sentiments- who wouldn’t? – Ted Bundy? But they’re trite & poorly structured. It’s part of a noxious trait that artists have- a desire to both show, yet shield their humanity from non-artists. Instead of merely acknowledging artists DO things differently &/or better than non-artists, artists adopt the hubris that they ARE different &/or better than non-artists. Artists KNOW implicitly that art is not a life necessity- go 2 weeks without garbagemen or 2 weeks without artists & tell me who you’ll miss more. Same goes for doctors, plumbers, & policemen. Art is not meat & potatoes like those pursuits. It is a chocolate sundae & artists resent this fact furiously (as a poet, trust me- few artists accept art’s superfluity as I do) so they concoct & construct grand rationales for art’s relevance/necessity. They then engage in banal homiletics- both poetic & prosaic- rather than engage with fresh wordplay, startling POVs, interesting & diverse subject matter. This is the dirty little secret artists (overwhelmingly liberal) dare not speak. This is why PC Elitists, nowadays far more so than conservatives, traffic in censorship- something, to his credit, even Bly excoriates. (I guess he’s not totally hopeless, after all.) But the sway of PC Elitism over contemporary art is just a passing phase. Multiculturalism will sort out its own in a few decades & the bad will fall by the hands of the next waves of Multiculturalists themselves. The Millennial era will be seen as one of laze, lost opportunity, & frittered talent.
  For Bly is certainly not alone in this trait of withering away his talent with the years. Most poets have a prime of 35-50 years old. It takes a couple decades or so to ramp up your talent, shed your imitations, & gain the maturity to formulate a POV that is unique & not generic. After 50 youthful desire wanes, success weakens what age does not, & the mind loses its elasticity a bit, in most. Rare is the poet that improves with age (usually it’s stagnation, then regression)- among big-name English language poets only Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, & Robert Hayden stand in contrast. Bly’s company includes Allen Ginsberg, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Quincey Troupe, Carolyn Forche, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Gary Snyder, & dozens of recognizable names (at least among those who had some talent to begin with). Yet, that still does not absolve the individual, nor his/her work. For this Bly stands accused, tried, convicted, & sentenced to a slow fade away from any lasting import in American poetry.
  THE MAN- I’ve encountered Bly several times; 2-3 times I saw him read in the late-‘80s in New York. Once, I believe, at the 92nd Street Y, & 1-2 other times at smaller venues. In 3/98 at a Minneapolis church, where I punctured & denuded him in public. In spring 2000 I called him to invite him to the WHY ALL POETRY DOESN’T SUCK! Forum, & a male voice with a lisp (who?) picked up midway through my leaving a message on his answering machine & (seemingly in an altered state of mind) cursed me out (“Goddamn you!”) & slammed down the phone. Then, in 11/00 I saw him read in Minneapolis, with Emily Carter, at the Open Book shop. Bly was gaunt & pale, lost some of his hair, was very weak-voiced, & I thought he was seriously ill. So, I did not confront his bizarre behavior that night- which included denouncing Ralph Nader with expletives, consistently answering questions directed at Carter, & calling an effeminate male questioner “an Up Boy”- whatever that means. Even Carter could only sheepishly say of that night- “he was sweet to me.”
  I’ve often said this to other poets re: Bly, Hall, & other DWM big boys, & it’s true- the real Bly, the one with talent & potential, died a long lingering death about 1972- but his body just forgot to stop moving. And that death was chosen. Bly became PC decades before that term was coined. And, yes, he denies it & slams other PC advocates- but that reminds me of this poet who ran the old Garden Crow Poetry group- Don Farrell. As a recovering addict he would counsel people who had opinions that differed from “the group norm”, throw out people who did not conform, yet claim he wasn’t pc merely because he would fart in public & laugh about it. Similarly, Bly thinks being egotistical & condescending exempts one from being PC- but that only makes him a boor, something PC Elitists seem to own trademark rights on anyway. I’ve challenged Bly, in the past, to debate me on any topics related to poetry- especially those that relate to its sad state currently and/or the technical aspects of what makes a poem good. But Bly refuses. Too bad, especially since I don’t think his reason why is because he knows he would lose intellectually- although he knows that after our ’98 encounter where I described his wasted potential in 4 words, the next Joe DiMaggio, & he hung his head, knowing exactly what I meant- but because he fears he might not be seen as being as good a person as he believes he is. Why else would he allow this embarrassingly bad book’s surfeit of crapola  to be published about him? It’s just the last crashing bars of what started out as a potentially grand rainbow become gray solipsistic smarm, & just reinforces his goodness from an outside source- & what “Liberal” could live without that?

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