In its heyday, the pugnacious and politically witty literary magazine The Fifties became notorious for its personalized rejection slips, which tended toward sarcasm and bordered on rude. Rather than the staid form rejections resorted to by most publications, an aspiring poet might receive such a cutting brushoff as, "This sounds like car-bumper poetry," or "This should go someplace where they have the tendency to like 'cute' poems," or even, "This poem is like lettuce that's been in the refrigerator too long."
Plenty of recipients bristled at this linguistic brutality, while others appreciated the personal touch so absent from most official correspondence, as well as the indication that at least their poems had been read. Everyone marveled at the stamina required for such consistently speedy and frank critique, forming passionate opinions about the man who held the barbed pen, none other than the rural Minnesota poet Robert Bly, often with the assistance of his friend and co-editor William Duffy.
This is the kind of fun esoterica the reader can expect from teacher, reviewer and Bly biographer Mark Gustafson's "Born Under the Sign of Odin: The Life and Times of Robert Bly's Little Magazine and Small Press." Published by Nodin Press, itself a Minnesota staple for over half a century, Gustafson's book offers a comprehensive and deeply researched descriptive bibliography of Bly's work as an editor, critic, polemicist and all-around cultural gadfly.
Born in 1926 in Lac qui Parle County, Minn., Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his collection "The Light Around the Body," and his 1990 book "Iron John: A Book About Men" cemented his position as a leader of the mythopoetic men's movement.
Gustafson, however, focuses on the lesser-known efforts of Bly as a combative and cantankerous editor who saw it as his mission to "foster 'a new imagination' in American poetry, to demonstrate the need for honest criticism, and, with a sustained and unprecedented commitment to translation, to direct attention beyond the traditional confines of the English language, to poetry from South America, Europe, China, and elsewhere."
With a unique blend of Midwestern and cosmopolitan sensibilities, Bly and Duffy began The Fifties in 1958 intending it to be a quarterly. Ultimately, they released just 11 issues between that debut and 1972, but Gustafson — dedicating a chapter to each issue — makes the convincing case that the tiny publication had an outsized influence on American letters. Not only did it encourage poets to be "socially and politically engaged," but it also stood — as Gene Frumkin, editor of fellow little magazine Coastlines put it — as "one of only two or 3 mags worth reading for the pleasure of it."
Although "Born Under the Sign of Odin" is first and foremost the biography of a magazine and press, it also sketches a vibrant portrait of Bly as a believer that creativity can be an existential condition, not a hoarded resource — an individual who, as his friend James Wright once said, "is not afraid to leap into the dark and wrestle with strange animals."
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
Born Under the Sign of Odin
By: Mark Gustafson.
Publisher: Nodin Press, 368 pages, $19.95.
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