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Robert Bly is one of the most prominent and influential figures in contemporary American poetry. He writes visionary and imagistic verse distinguished by its unadorned language and generally subdued tone. His poems are pervaded by the landscape and atmosphere of rural Minnesota, where he has lived most of his life, and are focused on the immediate, emotional concerns of daily life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Minnesota to Norway and Back
Robert Bly was born in Madison, Minnesota, and grew up on a farm nearby. After two years in the navy, he enrolled in Saint Olaf College in Northfeld, Minnesota, and in the fall of 1947 transferred to Harvard, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1950. Returning to northern Minnesota to live, he had a chance to read and to study poetry on his own before pursuing graduate study at the University of Iowa. In 1955 he married Carolyn McLean, and the next year he received an M.A. from the University of Iowa and a Fulbright grant to visit Norway and to translate Norwegian poetry into English.
Impressed with the works of foreign poets who were neglected in the United States, Bly determined to start a magazine devoted to publishing poetry in translation. Upon his return to the United States, Bly settled on a farm near Madison, Minnesota. In 1958 he founded the Fifties magazine and press, which subsequently became the Sixties, the Seventies, and the Eighties with the changing of the decades.
Bly s first volume, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), established him as an important voice in American poetry. The serene, haiku-like poems in this book evoke the pastoral settings of the Midwest where he was raised and espouse the virtues of solitude and self-awareness. His second volume of poetry, The Light Around the Body (1967), received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1968.
An Activist Poet
In the years following World War II, the country of Vietnam, which had for a time been ruled as a colony of France, became an independent nation partitioned into a region under Communist rule (North Vietnam) and a republic (South Vietnam). The two sides were to be united by free election, but instead they began battling in a civil war to determine the political and ideological fate of the country. The United States supported the government of South Vietnam and sent nearly three million Americans to the region over the course of the war. Many Americans, however, felt that the conflict was not one in which the United States should have been directly involved.
During the 1960s, Bly was active in protests against the Vietnam War, and his political and social convictions are prominent in the poetry he wrote during that period. Bly even co-founded a group called American Writers Against the Vietnam War. The Light Around the Body is noted for its overtly political content, centering on Bly’s reactions to the horrors of the Vietnam War. These poems typify his attempt to merge the personal and the public, an effort, as he explains in his essay, written during the same period, ”Leaping Up into Political Poetry,” necessitated by the hate and injustice rampant in the world. Before donating his National Book Award prize money to an anti-draft organization, which protested the government’s requirement for certain citizens to serve in the war effort, Bly delivered an acceptance speech attacking the American role in Vietnam and chastising the literary world for its silence on the issue.
Political concerns are again present in Bly’s next major work, Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), but they are fused with the quiet tone and pastoral imagery of his first book. One of the subjects explored in Sleepers Joining Hands is the division within each individual of male and female consciousness, an area of considerable importance to Bly. In an essay included in this volume, ”I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” Bly advocates a return to the virtues of the ”Mother” culture which, in opposition to the currently dominant male-based system of rationality and aggression, stresses a sensuous, spiritual awareness of self and nature. Though some critics faulted Sleepers Joining Hands for flatness and pretension—most notably Eliot Weinberger, who renounced Bly’s talent and importance as a poet in his review—others praised the book and asserted the continuing validity of Bly’s work.
Return to the Personal
Although Bly is still convinced that the poet must attend to public concerns as well as the private, interior world, his work has become more and more directed toward a personal exploration of natural, spiritual, and familial matters. With its emphasis on nature, solitude, and quiet contemplation, This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979) represents a return to the concerns first developed in Silence in the Snowy Fields. The inward-looking, personal quality of these poems is even more strongly present in The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981). Many of the poems in this volume examine the dynamics of father-son relationships and male grief, focusing particularly on Bly’s feelings about his own father and sons.
With the publication of his prose work Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), Bly helped start the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement in the United States. Following on the success of this book, an international bestseller that has been translated into many languages, Bly began conducting workshops for both men alone and men and women together. Along with his second wife and other writers, he also conducts seminars on European fairy tales, which Bly feels can be used as a tool for self-exploration and personal growth.
Works in Literary Context
Bly is often associated with ”deep image” poetry, a loosely defined movement whose adherents include James Wright, Donald Hall, and Louis Simpson. These writers look to the unconscious for inspiration, as does Bly, who uses the term ”leaping” to define the associative process by which images combine to create a poem. Bly’s use of imagery reflects the influence of such surrealist writers as Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, and he has frequently translated the work of these and other international poets.
Connecting the Conscious and the Unconscious
Bly’s poetry is a conscious rebellion against what he sees as the prevalent literary mode in the United States, poetry that is too intellectual and too rigid. Bly often attacks modern American poetry, though he praises a number of poets, such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Cesar Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, among others, who point the way toward a visionary poetry that, as Bly says of Neruda’s verse, is capable of finding ”the hidden connection between conscious and unconscious substances” without forsaking ”the outer world” of reality.
The dominant direction of Bly’s verse has been towards that kind of poetry and away from the pessimism and topical relevance of his Vietnam-era poems, where he overtly dealt with moral and political issues. Most of his poetry has been an exploration of duality and the unconscious begun in his first volume, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962). In both This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood (1977), a book of prose poems written in a visionary style, and This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979), with its emphasis on nature, solitude, and quiet contemplation, Bly attempts to bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious. In his introduction to This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years, Bly claims that his intention is ”to achieve a poem where the inner and outer merge without a seam.”
The Mythopoetic Men’s
Movement After a divorce in 1979 that led to a personal spiritual crisis, Bly began an emotional journey that led him to the writing of Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), the foundation of his work on the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. The character of Iron John, which is based on a story by the Brothers Grimm, is an archetype intended to help men discover their true masculinity, which Bly contends is based on virtues such as courage, strength, and wisdom, not the culturally-dominant vision of men as macho or aggressive. Bly’s most recent poetry, as well as his personal appearances, have been oriented towards helping men explore their psyches and wrestle with the dark side of male domination and the exploitation of others that has characterized men’s behavior for centuries.
Works in Critical Context
Though his first collection, Silence in Snowy Fields (1962), enjoyed success, it was The Light Around the Body (1967), which won the National Book Award, that demonstrated his central importance to American poetry. Howard Nelson observed that The Light Around the Body is ”an angry, uneven, powerful book, and clearly with it Bly made a major contribution to the growth of an American poetry which is truly political and truly poetry.”
Although some reviewers have been more impressed with his poems ofsocial consciousness, Bly’s quiet poems of the unconscious are seen as more clearly in the main stream of his poetic development. As Anthony Libby said in the Iowa Review (1973), ”Bly is … the mystic of evolution, the poet of’the other world’ always contained in present reality but now about to burst forth in a period of destruction and transformation.” In the same journal three years later, Michael Atkinson praises Bly’s ability to weave together ”the personal and the public, the psycho logical and the political modes of experience in a carefully rendered volume that echoes much of Whitman.” Charles ”Let America Be America Again” (2005), a poem by Langston Hughes. This poem speaks of the author’s relationship to the American Dream and his hopes for the renewal of that dream.
Molesworth in the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature (1975) summed up Bly’s contribution in his first three major volumes: ”Robert Bly has shaped contemporary poetry as forcefully and distinctly as any other poet now writing.” Considerably less enthusiastic is Alan Helms in the Partisan Review (1977), who likens reading Sleepers Joining Hands to ”slogging … through a violent storm.” Helms concludes that Bly has turned ”from charting and chanting the geography of America’s psychological and moral landscape, to mapping and mourning the battered terrain of his own fragmented sensibility. … Bly’s performance is sloppy and self-conscious, as if he could suddenly hear himself thinking, and out loud at that.”
Silence in the Snowy Fields Bly’s first volume of poetry, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), established him as an important voice in American poetry and met with praise from some critics. David Ray in Epoch described Bly as ”one of the leading figures today in a revolt against rhetoric—a rebellion that is a taking up of the Imagist revolution betrayed, a reassertion of need of the good sense Pound brought to poetry—but also a movement which has in it much that is perfectly new.” Writing in the Nation, D.J. Hughes found Bly’s first book impressive in ”its purity of tone and precision of diction.” And Stephen Stepanchev in American Poetry Since 1945 (1965) stated: ”It is evident that Robert Bly’s theory and practice cohere. His poetic voice is clear, quiet, and appealing, and it has the resonance that only powerful pressures at great depths can provide. Not all comments are laudatory, however. Thomas Gunn in the Yale Review noted a certain naivete in the poems. He objected to the assumption that ”the presentation of things is sufficient meaning in itself,” and he criticizes Bly’s romantic optimism that reveals ”a world generally free of evil.”
- Daniels, Kate and Richard Jones, eds. On Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.
- Davis, William Virgil. Robert Bly: The Poet and His Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.
- Friberg, Ingegard. Moving Inward: A Study of Robert Bly’s Poetry. Goteborg: Acta University Gothoburgensis, 1977.
- Lensing, George S. and Ronald Moran. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge, La.: 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.
- Smith, Thomas R., ed. Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. St. Paul, Minn.: Ally Press, 1992.
- Stepanchev, Stephen. American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
- Molesworth, Charles. ”Thrashing in the Depths: The Poetry of Robert Bly.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature (1975).
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