Hazard’s Portrait of Robert Bly


  1. Joe Hutchison
    Joe Hutchison May 23, 2024 at 4:27 pm .

    I agree, John. Bly was no lightweight. His translations did sometimes turn the originals into Bly-ish, but saying that his Rilke was not Rilke, as Dana Gioia did in his essay, is simply silly. No translated poem is the same as the original; we have Bly’s Rilke, and Stephen Mitchell’s, and David Young’s, and Rika Lesser’s, and C. F. MacIntyre’s, and more! Reading multiple versions of the original can only help us get closer to that original. The only alternative would be to master German! And I’ve heard that even native German speakers struggle with Rilke, as native English speakers still struggle with Stevens, Moore, Ashbery, Plath, Hayes … and, of course, Robert Bly!

  2. J.R. (John) Thelin
    J.R. (John) Thelin May 23, 2024 at 4:08 pm .

    Thanks, Joe, for the link and the various comments. I, too, was moved by Bly in Performance, as well as many of his poems throughout the years. I think certain poets/critics should be careful when they openly or indirectly refer to an artist (like Bly) as a lightweight….

  3. Joe Hutchison
    Joe Hutchison May 18, 2024 at 9:51 am .

    Bill, oh yes—Sons of Bly! He was the first living poet I ever saw, and the shock of his presence, his voice, the rising and falling wings of his serape as he performed “The Busy Man Speaks” wearing a deeply wrinkled rubber mask of senescence, just woke me up to what poetry might be.

    Wayne touches on Dana Gioia’s 1987 take-down of Bly (“The Successful Career of Robert Bly”—https://www.jstor.org/stable/3851095), in which envy drips from every sentence. I suppose it’s common for any poet to envy another poet’s accomplishment (“Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,” wrote one for whom fame came too late). And Gioia honestly disapproved of the whole free verse “orthodoxy,” the success of which he laid at Bly’s feet. He sneers at the fact that Bly was a performer, as if poetry were not performative by nature (think Browning, Whitman, Yeats, Williams, Bishop, Dove), and trashes both Bly’s own verse and his sometimes—let’s be honest—inadequate translations. But the ferocity of Gioia’s envy taints his essay from beginning to end. Well, envy and fear, I suppose. In opening up the performative dimensions of poetry, Bly increased the pressure on “New Formalism,” with which Gioia self-identified, to find and/or create a comparable audience. He acknowledged as much in an even more famous essay published four years after his attack on Bly, “Can Poetry Matter?” (https://www.theatlantic.com/past/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm) There he concluded:

    It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the dessicated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.

    Earlier in that essay he even supports his critique and his proposed remedy with a trenchant quote from Bly! So it’s probably fair to suggest that Gioia ultimately realized that both Formalism and Free Verse* can achieve power and permanency.

    Wouldn’t it be pretty to wake up in the year 2224 and see whose poems have been saved from oblivion by anthologists of the future?
    *A term I dislike: I prefer either Denise Levertov’s term, “Organic Form” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69392/some-notes-on-organic-form-56d249032078f), or my own, drawing on jazz: “Improvisational Verse.”

  4. Patricia Dubrava
    Patricia Dubrava May 18, 2024 at 8:37 am .

    I remember Bly saying somewhere that if he knew who the man in the black coat was, he’d have written an essay instead of a poem. Translators have disparaged his work, but as a beginner translator in the 90s his Eight Stages of Translation was useful to me.

  5. Wayne A. Gilbert
    Wayne A. Gilbert May 18, 2024 at 5:54 am .

    I’ve been re-reading Bly’s translations of Rilke in an old 1981 paperback edition. His brief introductory mini-essays at the beginning of each section of poems are brilliant and helpful — intended to help the reader get “into” the poems, not show off his scholarly credentials or high-wire poetry feats. These translations renewed my interest in Bly. Gioia apparently dismisses Bly because he was a good performer/self-promoter, and insists his translations had “done immense damage to American poetry.” Gioia declares Bly a lightweight. For our generation (I’m 74 next month), Bly was a heavy hitter who did much to make poetry “relevant” as we used to say (as opposed to museum artifact or high literary esoterica) , and who introduced so many of us to poets and forms from other languages and cultures. His own poetry always seemed to me to emerge from a commitment to grow and develop as an artist and as a human. He embodied an excellent balance of solitude and social engagement I continue to admire. I did not know him personally, but sometimes felt I did. I look forward to watching the video. Thanks for posting it.

  6. Bill Tremblay
    Bill Tremblay May 18, 2024 at 5:29 am .

    Thank you, Joe, for making this portrait of Robert available to us. I watched the whole thing straight through and it provided answers to many questions I’ve had over the years such as: What does Madison, MN, look like? What does the Bly farm look like? I never knew Robert had a tractor, nor how much fun he has had with it, nor how engaging and tender he is with his children. There must be a thousand poets in America who will never forget how generous he was with them. Not that long ago I wrote a poem about a long walk he and I took along the Snake River in Spokane when he told me a story about his father and I realized that “the man in the black coat” was his father. I miss him a lot at times. I remember that one time in Evergreen when you and I and Jared Smith were together and I knew we were all in different ways his sons. Love, Bill

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