I’ll never forget the evening I first encountered Robert Bly. He’d come to read at the University of Northern Colorado, where I was an undergrad English major with poetic pretensions. I’d heard of him but never read his poems. The event took place in one of those featureless industrial classrooms with accordion partitions, and the audience was large enough to fill the second room, so Bly ended up reading into a long narrow space awash in humming fluorescence. For most poets the physical situation would have been a disadvantage, but Bly wore a brightly colored serape that flapped like surreal bird-wings whenever he gestured. His energy and intensity filled the place.
Bly spoke for a few minutes about the American psyche and the war in Vietnam. He’d co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War to oppose the conflict, and the money he’d received for winning the National Book Award the previous year he’d publicly donated to the anti-war resistance. “Here’s a poem about the people behind this war,” he said at last. “‘The Busy Man Speaks.” He turned his back, pulled on a rubber mask, then turned to face us. The mask was a sagging wizened face with sparse, straggly gray hair, and Bly began in a voice appropriate to the mask—guttural and ferocious—and as the poem went on he swept down the length of the room and back, leaning down into people’s faces as he roared out the lines:
Not to the mother of solitude will I give myself
Away, not to the mother of love, nor to the mother of conversation,
Nor to the mother of art, nor the mother
Of tears, nor the mother of the ocean;
Not to the mother of sorrow, nor the mother
Of the downcast face, nor the mother of the suffering of death;
Not to the mother of the night full of crickets,
Nor the mother of the open fields, nor the mother of Christ.
But I will give myself to the father of righteousness, the father
Of cheerfulness, who is also the father of rocks,
Who is also the father of perfect gestures;
From the Chase National Bank
An arm of flame has come, and I am drawn
To the desert, to the parched places, to the landscape of zeros;
And I shall give myself away to the father of righteousness,
The stones of cheerfulness, the steel of money, the father of rocks.
—from The Light Around the Body
I can’t speak for everyone in the room, but for me the impact was almost overwhelming. I knew the man who spoke in this poem! And men like him were all over TV and newspaper opinion pages, cheering our murderous adventure in southeast Asia. (They’re all still with us, of course, as our troops fight in “the parched places” for the benefit of the same elites that grew even fatter on the Vietnam war.) Bly’s ability to deliver that voice in a poem made him one of my instant heroes.
The downside for such heroes for young poets is that they inspire imitation. It took me two years of writing anemic versions of Robert Bly poems to get his influence out of my system.
Of course, Bly was just one of many influences—among them Creeley, Ammons, Levertov, Snyder, Merwin, James Wright, and Spicer/Lorca—but he remains a favorite, not least because he has continued to transform himself and his writing. When, in an earlier post, I talked about poetry as relations, I had in mind Bly’s exemplary willingness to relate poetry to history, mythology, politics, the wisdom tradition, brain science, fairy tales, depth psychology and more—as if it were more than a language game. Maybe it’s Bly’s commitment to bringing as many relations (what Bly calls leaps“) as possible into his poems that has kept his work fresh, book after book, into his eighties, unlike many aging poets who decline into mannerism and self-parody.
Ron Silliman, of course, has consigned Bly, along with all but two of the personal poetic influences I listed above, to his School of Quietude. So I wanted to offer a few more Bly poems here—a small selection intended to illustrate the openness of Bly’s work, early and late. These are presented in chronological order, so far as I can determine it:
WALKING AND SITTING
That’s odd—I am trying to sit still,
trying to hold the mind to one thing.
Outdoors angleworms stretched out thin in the gravel,
while it is thundering.
—from Old Man Rubbing His Eyes
WATERFALL COMING OVER A CLIFF
Eight hundred feet up, there is water pouring out of the sky! It drops a few feet, and then the long plunge, after the slanting blow off the cliff. . . . It is a deep plunge, loveless, floating; it falls by the cliff like tufts of sleep . . . the long sleep the truckdriver sinks into after he has driven three days from the coast, or the clouds that pass across the sky of a dog’s eyes, when he dies in a room with human beings . . . or the glimpse the meditator has of something floating under the water, neither moving nor not moving, seeming to slow as it nears the bottom.
—from The Morning Glory
AUGUSTINE ON HIS SHIP
Each time we bring a violin near the Nile River,
The low G string cries; it’s like the cry a ribbon
Makes when a raven carries it into his nest.
No one knows what the jaguar’s whisker feels
Immersed in the bathwater of St. Francis.
We each have to be careful talking of our betters.
How can the literalists with their heavy voices
Speak through the thin bill of the thrush, or the spark,
Alone in we cow dung, call to its friends?
So much flesh muffles the slow bones
Of the beaver that it’s difficult for light
To pass from the tip of the tail to the skull.
Perhaps that’s why Rimbaud, whose gold tooth
Was so delicately tuned to the Milky Way
Of language, could still die as a slave trader.
Every fall the Kraken comes up and brushes
With his Gnostic arms the hull of the ship
On whose planks Augustine walks at night.
from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars
Just unraveling Bly’s relations, including his references to writers and thinkers and myths and historical events, is a powerful education in itself.