Here’s a wonderful, in-depth profile of Robert Bly, with several related videos. Thanks to Jilly Dybka for linking to it on her Poetry Hut Blog. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Bly was a crucial influence for me—one I had to overcome, of course, or I suppose integrate would be a better word. I admire Bly as a poet and translator, but also for his decision early on to lead a life centered around poetry, with as little compromise as possible with Caesar.
Today Robert Bly is a wealthy man, and it’s easy to forget the years of poverty he endured well into middle age in order to preserve his poetry-centered existence. Not until he published Iron John in 1990 did he begin to develop an income comparable to a tenured professor or an insurance company middle manager, chiefly due to the explosion of interest in the Men’s Movement, which Bly had helped to foster throughout the 1980s.
My path was quite different: I worked inside corporations for many years before being launched (15 years ago, via downsizing) into my own business. The point is that my work life has always conflicted with “a life centered around poetry,” which I’ve never mustered the will to create for myself. It’s not something I regret, necessarily, but I often wonder if I’ve ceded something crucial that I can no longer even tell that I lost.
In the midst of writing the previous paragraph I remembered a passage from a poem that I thought I’d look up and include. Sure enough, Bly has been there before me in this kind of doubt as well. There is a glimpse of his pre-Iron John life in this prose poem from The Man in the Black Coat Turns:
Eleven O’Clock at Night
I lie alone in my bed; cooking and stories are over at last, and some peace comes. And what did I do today? I wrote down some thoughts on sacrifice that other people had, but couldn’t relate them to my own life. I brought my daughter to the bus—on the way to Minneapolis for a haircut—and I waited twenty minutes with her in the somnolent hotel lobby. I wanted the mail to bring some praise for my ego to eat, and was disappointed. I added up my bank balance, and found only $65, when I need over a thousand to pay the bills for this month alone. So this is how my life is passing before the grave?
The walnut of my brain glows. I feel it irradiate the skull. I am aware of the consciousness I have, and I mourn the consciousness I do not have.
Stubborn things lie and stand around me—the walls, a bookcase with its few books, the footboard of the bed, my shoes that lay against the blanket tentatively, as if they were animals sitting at table, my stomach with its curved demand. I see the bedside lamp, and the thumb of my right hand, the pen my fingers hold so trustingly. There is no way to escape from these. Many times in poems I have escaped—from myself. I sit for hours and at last see a pinhole in the top of the pumpkin, and I slip out that pinhole, gone! The genie expands and is gone; no one can get him back in the bottle again; he is hovering over a car cemetery somewhere.
Now more and more I long for what I cannot escape from. The sun shines on the side of the house across the street. Eternity is near, but it is not here. My shoes, my thumbs, my stomach, remain inside the room, and for that there is no solution. Consciousness comes so slowly, half our life passes, we eat and talk asleep—and for that there is no solution. Since Pythagoras died the world has gone down a certain path, and I cannot change that. Someone not in my family invented the microscope, and Western eyes grew the intense will to pierce down through its darkening tunnel. air itself is willing without pay to lift the 707’s wing, and for that there is no solution. Pistons and rings have appeared in the world; valves usher gas vapor in and out of the theater box ten times a second; and for that there is no solution. Something besides my will loves the woman I love. I love my children, though I did not know them before they came. I change every day. For the winter dark of late December there is no solution.
Bly was probably in his early 50s when he wrote this poem; I’m in my late 50s now, and wonder if I’m not too old to be occupying this state of mind. Or maybe it’s simply that our economic meltdown has dragged be backward financially, so that I find myself morosely adding up bank balances—as Bly did 30 years ago. “So this is how my life is passing before the grave?” Well, yes. More mournfully than I thought possible back in 1981, when I bought The Man in the Black Coat Turns at an independent bookstore in Denver, which has long since vanished, and I had published nothing but a slender chapbook called Weathers, Vistas, Houses, Dust. I remember reading the first paragraph of Bly’s prose poem all those years ago, marveling at the idea that a man I and many others recognized as one of America’s most important poets could be fretting over money in some hotel lobby in Minnesota.
Me? I felt at the time like I was sitting in what they used to call the catbird seat. I had just landed a job in the marketing department of a Colorado bank network, and for the first time in my life had money left over at the end of the month. I didn’t know, of course, that my catbird seat would be swallowed up 11 years later by Norwest Bank. It was well known that Norwest had a robust marketing operation at its headquarters in Minneapolis (where Bly’s daughter had gone to get her hair cut), so I moved on, working for two more corporations before my job was eliminated and I found myself freelancing. My aim was to eke out a living until I found another job, but I discovered there was good enough money in freelancing (and teaching off and on, when time allows), and I haven’t worked inside a corporation since.
I never regretted that choice, but running a business has taken even more of my energy than the corporate world required—and the Muse has taken to visiting even less often. It’s a personal frustration, and the example of Robert Bly sharpens my sense of failure. I don’t envy his collections of original poetry, or his many translations, or his international success with Iron John. I have no illusion that I could write as well as Bly “if only I had the time.” What I envy is strength of character it required for Bly to honor his passion and insist on his particular “habit of being.” Where did he get that strength? How did he manage to protect and even cultivate it? And what about those of us without it?
For the autumn dark of early October there is no solution.