There might be little left to say about Robert Bly, the poet, critic, translator and nonagenarian whose astonishing “Collected Poems” is now available. Ever since 1962, when “Silence in the Snowy Fields” established him as a poet of desperate sincerity, he has been a paragon of Jungianism against the brutality of capitalism and militancy. He’s hardly changed. But everything else has, and with it the significance of a poet who believes that poems should be near the center of life.
Bly was born in 1926 in a Norwegian Lutheran community in Minnesota, the son of a farmer. He served in the Navy during World War II and entered Harvard as a 21-year-old sophomore in 1947. It is superfluous to say that Bly is one of the legends of contemporary poetry, which never got over its bewilderment at producing him; reasonably or not, he remains the prototypical non-modernist, the one who set in motion a poetics of intensity for generations to come. His methods were mined and sifted by peers. The use of the poem as a luminous mat was gleaned by W.S. Merwin; as a field for erotic surprise by Galway Kinnell; as an awakening into consciousness and moral decency by James Wright and William Stafford.
Bly rejects décor. What you see throughout “Collected Poems,” this 532-page retrospective of 14 books and some 600 poems, is that he is not interested in covering an entire poem with incidents, but in hierarchies of emphasis, beginning with longing. He offers little interest in the hedonism of thought championed by his Harvard classmate John Ashbery. Instead, Bly’s precinct of the imagination is like a womb of consciousness: “Inside me there is a confusion of swallows,/Birds flying through the smoke.”
Here lay ambiguity, tangibility, the scrutiny of tiny passages of existence abounding in a pastoral field, all with the intensity of fairy tale. The title Bly gave his most enchantingly atmospheric collection, “The Man in the Black Coat Turns,” about sums it up.
In early poems such as “Surprised by Evening,” “Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River,” “The Shadow Goes Away,” “The Grief of Men,” one sees the translucency with which he traces the patterns of spiritual renewal. It is what his imitators fail to do, those who can’t match his almost supernatural control over the total effect of an image as representative of thought and depth of emotion:
“The evening … has come through the nets of the stars,/Through the tissues of the grass,/Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.”
This language illustrates what’s known as the Deep Image in American poetry, where light and darkness are always idealized and memory is absolutely spontaneous, a perfected visual analogue to the cry of the psyche, where “our skin shall see far off, as it does underwater.”
No wonder audiences were stunned by his anti-Vietnam War book, “The Light Around the Body,” which won the National Book Award in 1968, a year that saw the deaths of nearly 17,000 Americans and an estimated 180,000 Vietnamese. The best poems in that book are triumphs of reserve, where his drive to preserve the essences of human reality under assault leaves no doubt of the strength of his conviction about a nation gone berserk, beset by discrimination, poverty, mass marches, riots and war: “Let’s count the bodies over …/If we could only make the bodies smaller …/We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight.”
Because American democracy is again under threat, coming apart with chaos and bloodshed, I urge you to read what Bly said the night he won the award. Addressing “gross and savage crimes” by the government, he said institutions would have to preserve the nation, and risk “committing acts of disobedience.” Donating his prize check to the draft-resistance movement, Bly urged young men “not to destroy their spiritual lives by participating in this war.”
You cannot read Bly’s poetry without appreciating his belief that cultural integration might redeem us all. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his translations of several centuries of European, Middle Eastern and South American poets, especially Pablo Neruda, whom Bly considered the greatest poet of the 20th century. You won’t find any translations in “Collected Poems” — a shame, since in those translations there is something more than just an echo of his focus on the nature of a capacious imagination:
“Night after night goes by in the old man’s head./We try to ask new questions. But whatever/The old poets failed to say will never be said.”
In hindsight, the trajectory is pretty direct from Deep Imagism to political poetry to “Iron John” — with its attacks against corporate visions of masculinity — to his recent apologues of the unconscious. But the popular success and controversy of “Iron John” resulted in Bly being kicked out of the insular American poetry community for the crime of being too influential in the broader public. For decades few literary magazines have reviewed his new books.
How can one read “Collected Poems,” then, from its first wintry still lifes, whose lyricism is as clean as snow falling onto bare trees, through the grapplings with injustice, to the mannered ghazals of the last decades, without seeing that Bly’s career is one of the few great models of integrating the citizen with the mystic, whose body of work makes the argument that being a poet does not excuse you from joining in the national debate?
By my reading, Bly’s best poems are sketched with earnestness, with reverence to self-authority, and with the subtle and strange forces of myth, where intricate connections of disparate motifs reveal the terrors and charms of the world. In his fashion, he makes metaphors for grace. Compared with that, the big, popular blunderbuss of Bly hardly matters.
David Biespiel is the author of the memoir “The Education of a Young Poet.” His sixth book of poems, “Republic Cafe,” was published in January. He wrote this piece for the New York Times. Used with permission.