As a student at Harvard in the late 1940s, Robert Bly studied with Archibald MacLeish. Bly and his classmates — including Frank O’Hara, Adrienne Rich and Kenneth Koch — weren’t shy about voicing their opinions about MacLeish’s reading selections. MacLeish, who had just left his post as Librarian of Congress, told Bly, “Either you change your behavior in class, or I’ll have to jump out the window.” Bly replied, “Well, jump.”
For more than 50 years as a publishing poet, translator and critic, Bly has advocated for jumping; he champions poetry that leaps intuitively and trusts the irrational imagination to take us somewhere transcendent.
“Stealing Sugar From the Castle” starts with unpublished poems from 1950 and brings together poetry from 15 of Bly’s collections. This allows a reader to see the evolution of plainspoken early work through the bitter, surreal anti-war and anti-capitalist poems of the late 1960s, and into the spiritual themes of his later volumes.
But what is more striking is Bly’s consistency. His work is always rooted in the image and those images are playful, strange and simultaneously startling and apt. He describes an ice hockey goalie: “When the players are at the other end, he begins sadly sweeping the ice in front of his house.” He speculates that “a trapdoor sends [men and women] down to the Lords of Misreason,/ Where baby kangaroos carry us all off in their small pouches.”
His poetry is also marked by an intimacy and comfort with the spiritual. He asks, “why shouldn’t the miraculous, / Caught on this earth, visit / The old man alone in his hut?”
Though his poems often feel deliberative, the speaker is never in crisis. Instead, a farmer will sit down with the soul and survey a field. Similarly, the sensual pleasures of the natural world inspire delight and satisfaction rather than awe. He writes; “We are diggers, like badgers; we love to feel / The dirt flying out from behind our back claws.”
Bly’s poetry prizes the imagination for its irrationality, which can take us to beautiful and unexpected places.
“You can wander into the wrong classroom, / And hear great poems lovingly spoken / By the wrong professor.”
In one of the earliest poems presented in the book, Bly writes, “There’s a joyful night in which we lose / Everything, and drift.” Fifty years later, his poetry is still imbued with a deep gratitude without needing to possess what it loves. Fifty years later, he writes, “The donkey we have loved for years may be killed / And cooked one day while we go on singing. / Let’s not write a single poem without gratitude.”
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.