The influential poet and writer Robert Bly died on November 23, 2021 at the venerable age of 94. He had dementia for the last fourteen years of his life, during which he stopped communicating with his many correspondents, disciples and fellow poets. He was a mentor to me off and on for nearly forty years.
Although I’ve known more than my fair share of Famous Poets, Robert Bly stands above them all in his personal intensity and his level of humanistic commitment. He even surpassed the energetic Allen Ginsberg in these traits. No mean trick. Like Ginsberg, he was devoted to the promotion of other poets whom he admired, but in my view, he was less self-serving than Ginsberg.
Our relationship began with a week of intense contact, in the context of the 1st National Poetry Festival, held at my alma mater, Grand Valley State University, in the summer of 1971. Bly was one of the Featured Poets at the festival along with Paul Blackburn, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creely, Sonja Sanchez, John Logan, Al Young, David Henderson, Philip Whalen, Gregory Corso, Jackson Maclow, Anselm Hollo, Nikki Giovanni, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly and Diane Wakoski. It was a large cross-section of the primary strains of the American poetry of 1971. There were also several poets, including myself, Dudley Randall and James Wright, who were there on fellowships. We weren’t famous enough to be featured poets, but they waived the fee so we would attend. The paying attendees numbered around a hundred.
We were each given the choice of two week-long workshops with our choice of the featured poets. I chose Robert Bly and Ted Berrigan, both based on their statements of poetics. I didn’t know who Berrigan was at that time, and was only minimally familiar with Bly, who had only published two poetry books. I was particularly impressed by his first one, Silence In The Snowy Fields (Wesleyan University Press, 1962). Both Bly and Berrigan were also active small press publishers. Berrigan edited “C” Magazine and Bly a series first called The Fifties and subsequently The Sixties and The Seventies. I was a huge believer in the Whitmantic tradition of self-publishing then, and I still am. Robert wrote his entire magazine himself, using several nom-de-plumes to give the impression that he had a large staff. In the more radical pieces, usually reviews of well-known American poets, he used the joke-name “Kronk”, a take-off on “crank” the way a Scandinavian would pronounce it. He felt strongly that American poetry was too shallow. Even though I thought that the New York School poets (especially Frank O’Hara) exemplified spontaneity and the use of popular cultural imagery, Robert criticized them as “merely entertaining poets of pleasure.”
Robert was heavily into free association, which he called “leaping”, and a long list of international poets that ranged from the Swedish Tomas Transtromer to South American surrealists like Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. He wasn’t as into the French surrealists as I was, because he felt that they didn’t go as deep in their imagery as the South Americans.
His manner was intense and charismatic yet warm. He was openly affectionate towards James Wright, unafraid to express how much he liked him. They’d travelled to the festival together. In later years they would often collaborate on translations.
Robert advocated for “poetic translations”, where the essence of the poem is translated by a poet with a similar sensibility into his own language. This idea was very appealing to me. Robert loved to re-name things. He called his poetic translations “versions”, to emphasize that they were intentionally non-literal, being based in a (presumably) higher aesthetic value. He strived always to be an original thinker, which also impressed me. I learned that he too was a big fan of Henry David Thoreau.
We had more than a love of Thoreau in common. Both of us were veterans. (Robert was in the Navy and I was in the Coast Guard.) Both of us were from the upper Midwest and had a deep appreciation for it. Robert lived on a farm in Madison, Minnesota then, in the area he’d grown up in. Both of us had Lutheran, Scandinavian grandparents, his from Norway, and mine from Sweden. We both loved to spend time outdoors in woods and fields. Neither of us felt the need to live in NYC. Many of Roberts early “disciples” hailed from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. On a deeper level, both of us had experienced significant father absence, which requires a boy to learn quickly to become self-sufficient. Over coffee, after the workshop, a few of us hung out with Robert and got to know him well. The isolated campus was surrounded by corn fields so the featured poets were there for us 24/7. It was good to experience them as “regular people” when they weren’t “on”. But actually, Robert was always on. He was intense. Very intellectual and full of original theories that excited him.
When he gave his official evening reading, Robert wore a colorful Mexican serape. He held his arms straight out from his shoulders and alternated between small circular motions and flapping like a bird. He used a dramatic voice, raising and lowering it for emphasis. He was an excellent reader, an early pioneer of “performance poetry”. He told me that he did it to evoke a shamanistic effect.
Here’s how Joseph Colin Murphey described it in his article about the event, published in Stone Drum (1972).
“Bly came on next. You realize by the time he is into his first poem that here is where his poetry comes alive for its own worth and power and that you will never be able to read his verse again without seeing his two arms, his two hands, flailing and turning gracefully like a Balinese dance, the hands, the fingers beckoning, pulling you into the emotion, the voice controlled and with a fine range, now loud, now soft, weaving the texture of the feeling and meaning. I feel that no one has read poetry like this in our time, unless it is Yevtushenko. If Vachel Lindsey was this good, then those who have described him were unable to pass the greatness on. Bly is not a pounder of syllables and rhythms after the manner of Pseudo black rhythms. He is himself coming alive in his voice and feeling, the strong-willed mover of an Age of Poets, reading to them, letting himself lead them with closed eyes and a now crying, now pleading, now angry, now living voice, to the deep images of his inner self, the coming together of two traditions in American poetry: the outer phenomenal voice of Emerson and nature combined with the inner, dark subconscious voice of Edger Poe in dreams and visions; as in “Looking at Some Flowers:
Light is around the petals, and behind them:
Some petals are living on the other side of the light.
Like sunlight drifting onto the carpet
where the casket stands, not knowing which world it is in.
(Light Around the Body, Harper and Row, 1968)
Or like the second stanza of “Looking into a Face”:
I have wandered in a face, for hours,
passing through dark fires.
I have risen to a body
not yet born,
existing like a light around the body,
through which the body moves like a sliding moon.
(Light Around the Body)”
He had an undeniable paternal quality. He was disappointed with his own father (an alcoholic who paid little attention to his children) and had vowed to be a better father himself.
When his third book, Sleepers Joining Hands came out, I reviewed it (exuberantly) in Poetry Americana (1973), I went a little overboard in that review, and Robert Loved it, even though I also did not hold back the criticism. Here are some excerpts from my review:
“Sleepers Joining Hands” is a great book! MUCH better than “The Light Around The Body”, the book that won him the 1968 National Book Award. If there was any fairness of justice in the granting of that award, Bly should get another one for this book. Because it’s great!
The major criticism I have of Bly is that he lets his political zeal make poetic decisions for him. This is to say that in certain poems you get the feeling that the outcome is fixed. Whereas he is a true Surrealist in what might be called his (yech!) “nature poems”, he tends to be rhetorical in his “political poems”
I can forgive him his zeal precisely because it is his zeal which gives him his poetic powers, & in such a man as this, one could not exist without the other. For a true Surrealist, political truths are created & discovered through dream symbolism. Bly is not always surreal, that’s all. I suppose this could be taken as a lack of faith in the power of surrealism to subvert & destroy IN ITS OWN WAY the killers & the madmen – but I really think that with Bly it is not a lack of faith so much as it is a total zeal & commitment to change at the earliest possible time, & he just doesn’t have the patience to wait for the revolution.
“Sleepers Joining Hands” is an example of what kind of Art can result when an Artist BREATHES his Art full time.
Finally, the section of the poem “Water Draws Up Into The Head” called “a joyful chorus for those who have read thus far” is a chant with the same power as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”:
I have floated in the eternity of the cod heaven,
I have felt the silver of infinite numbers brush my side –
I am the crocodile unrolling and slashing through the
I am the baboon crying out as her baby falls from the tree,
I am the light that makes the flax blossom at midnight!
I am an angel breaking into three parts over the Ural
I am no one at all.
The Panther rejoices in the gathering dark.
Hands rush toward each other through miles of space.
All sleepers in the world join hands.
Many will no doubt recognize that the last line is a kind of climax in Bly’s work. The idea of being “asleep in the outward man” has been his major theme.”
Wise words from the uninhibited, poorly informed, young upstart, but Bly took me seriously anyway. Here’s an excerpt from the first letter he wrote to me, after I sent him the review:
“Thank you for your generous and wild review of Sleepers – it’s just the sort of reviewing I like best, with enthusiasm not hidden, nor advice to the poet held back – we all need advice, I’m convinced of it and I agree that rhetoric is just a dam holding up the flow of water – – The Chinese teach how to write a poem in a gentle voice without
rhetoric, but who can teach us how to write a poem in a high or strong voice without rhetoric?”
Along with his letter, he sent me his latest publication, the fish in the sea is not thirsty – Kabir (Lillabulero Press, 1971), setting the tone for many of our future exchanges. Over the years, Robert sent me a large number of his books, generally in response to something I sent him.
For a time in the early seventies, I was part of a poetic triangle between Robert, Donald Hall and myself. I had been befriended by Hall following a review I did in my university literary magazine Amaranthus, of his poetry collection The Yellow Room (Harper & Row, 1971). I regularly drove to Ann Arbor to spend a day with Don, talking about poets and poetry at his house or driving around town doing his errands, or going to watch his daughter at her horseback riding lessons. I had already spent the festival week with Robert, but I didn’t realize they were close friends until I mentioned Roberts poetry to Don. He told me that they had been close friends at Harvard, rooming across the hall from each other. When Don graduated, they made a pact to be each other’s first readers. They had a rule that a poem must be responded to within three days. I found myself corresponding with both of them, often with amusing results. They often ridiculed each other and told me not to pay attention to the other one. They were quite different in their poetics, even diametrically opposed on some important points, but they remained great friends throughout their lives. Looking back, I realize what a strong dynamic existed between us. I learned a lot from this experience with two of the important poets of my fathers generation.
To truly understand the work of Robert Bly, you need to understand the work of Carl Jung. Bly devoted his life to the poetic expression (and prosaic explanation) of Jungian theory. Freud and Jung discovered the existence and psychological power of the unconscious. For Freud, powerful subconscious forces motivate conscious thoughts and actions and these forces are often in conflict with each other, especially when the conflict is between primal feelings (id) and social feelings (superego). Jung went further into the unconscious mind than Freud, applying and mixing in ideas from mythology and Anthropology. Jung focused on the universal. His major discovery was the subconscious symbolic archetypes that we share as a species.
Bly’s understanding of Jungian theory was breathtaking. Although I had delved into Jung ever since high school, it wasn’t until I studied him formally and ultimately earned my degree in Psychology that I understood the full extent of Robert Bly’s Jungian orientation. By then, he was working on Iron John, his Jung-based best seller.
After the exchange over my review of Sleepers Joining Hands, we began a sporadic correspondence. It intensified when I published the first small edition of my Rimbaud translations, The Drunken Boat & Other Poems from the French of Arthur Rimbaud (Free Books, Inc, 1974).
Robert was nothing short of wildly enthusiastic about my “versions” (as he called them) of Rimbaud’s great poem The Drunken Boat and the others I had done. He wrote me a letter after I sent him the small 1st edition, saying that my take on Rimbaud was the best he’d seen, including the then standard New Directions versions by Louise Varese. As a 26 year old poet, I was deeply flattered and encouraged by his response. Nor did it stop there. Following the receipt of each subsequent edition he was equally enthusiastic. I added eight new poems to each edition. The 4th edition (Presa Press, 2007) was 100 pages and included the original French on facing pages.
Here are some excerpts from my poetic translation of The Drunken Boat. generally considered Rimbaud’s greatest lined poem:
In the roar & whipping of the tide,
I, through that snow, like a child’s mind
Rode! & free floating driftwood
Has not known the triumph I have known.
As sour apples are sweet to boys,
The green sea penetrated all my seams,
&wine & vomit washed away,
Along with tiller & chains.
Since then I’ve been bathing in the poem
Of the star-encrusted milky sea,
Drinking in the azure greens, where, pale
& dreaming, a pensive corpse sometimes drifts by;
& where, abruptly blue, delirious & languid
In the burning day, the rhythms of the sun,
Stronger than alcohol, more vast than song,
Churn in the beaming reds of love!
Sometimes, martyred & weary of zones,
The sea would roll me on her gentle breasts,
& lift me to her shadowed, yellow knees,
& I would sleep upon her lap, then, womanly.
It’s true, I weep too much! Dawn breaks my heart!
Moons are cruel & suns are bitter,
When you have been drunk with love’s sad water.
O, let my keel break! O, let me bleed into the sea!
If ever I shall return, it will be to the pond,
Where once, cold & black, toward perfumed evening,
A child on his knees set sail
A leaf as frail as a May butterfly.
I began my study of Rimbaud after my own poems were compared by some critics to his. I thought I’d better get acquainted with Rimbaud if others were reminded of him by my own poems. None of the translations I read fully captured the essential lyricism or adolescent perception of the originals. So, armed with several translations, a French dictionary and one year of high school French, I produced a version of The Drunken Boat and other poems by Rimbaud that, according to Robert, plugged into the original collective vein that inspired Rimbaud. Robert, as a true Jungian, believed that poems existed first in the collective unconscious, waiting for poets to discover them. He paid me the ultimate compliment that a mentor can give when he told me, following the 4th edition (Presa Press, 2007), that he kept the book on his night stand and liked to read it before going to sleep at night.
(I also received a complimentary note from Rimbaud scholar and translator Wallace Fowlie. His book of Rimbaud translations, along with Louise Vareses translations, were the primary versions I’d used, because I felt they were the closest to the Rimbaud sound and attitude. Lawrence Ferlinghetti also wrote me a supportive and appreciative note. Ferlinghetti had a particular interest in French poetry.)
Poetic translation became our primary topic for the next three decades. He had a particular interest in ancient poets whom he felt had a greater connection to the shaman role originally practiced by the bards and skalds of early tribal cultures. He sent me several small-press chapbooks of these poets, usually accompanied by an enthusiastic note. The last one he sent me was Ten Poems By Issa (Heaven and Earth Publishing, 2005.)
There were several years, in the late eighties, when he was obsessed with the prose poems of the French poet Francis Ponge. He sent me a small book, Ten Poems of Francis Ponge, translated by Robert Bly & Ten Poems of Robert Bly Inspired by the Poems of Francis Ponge (Owls Head Press, 1990). He would immerse himself in a poet he was enthusiastic about and then move on to a new obsession. I think our only phone call happened around this time. I remember that we spoke primarily about Francis Ponge. Robert felt that Ponge had a unique objectivistic take on the prose-poem. When The Winged Energy of Delight – Selected Translations (Harper Collins, 2004) was published, he sent me a copy with a drawing of a fish on the title page and the inscription “For Eric, for his Rimbaud versions!” He considered translation to be a major element of his total work. My Robert Bly was never as excited about his original poetry as he was about his Herculean effort to restore a more universal type of poetry to the American literary scene.
Nothing I ever wrote impressed Robert like my Rimbaud translations. I dedicated a poem (The Snowy Fields) in my fourth collection Iron Rose (Pilot Press, 1973) to him, hopefully evoking a feeling similar to Robert’s poems in Silence In The Snowy Fields. He thanked me for it but didn’t elaborate.
I wrote and published a second poem (The Sound) that I dedicated to Robert, in my collection Wild Strawberries (Presa Press, 2008). Again Robert sent his thanks, but typically, liked other poems in the book better. He particularly liked The Terms, a deconstructed sonnet “about” the O.J. Simpson trial that had polarized the nation:
Mute witness to these killings
Doors slam forever
In your famous nightmares
Blood stains forever
The Swiss Army reputation
When you take the gloves off
You find they still fit
For a moment
The Emperor wore clothes
All ears tuned for the verdict
All eyes glued to the screen
We’ve come to accept as real
Of our heart-felt appeal
Once I was bold enough to ask Robert Bly to identify the most important element of a good poem. He replied that he thought it was “the mystery”. I’ve thought about this idea for many years and have concluded that he was referring to the unplumbed depths of the images in a poem that implies meaning rather than spells it out. I think he was telling me that a good poem relies on a necessary degree of ambiguity. This falls in line with my belief that poems actually happen in the mind of the reader.
Roberts letters usually featured theories he promoted, always derived from Jungian psychology. After I became a professional social worker, the subject of our correspondence became our work with men’s groups. This phase began when I wrote to him about a support group that I had developed for fathers of developmentally disabled children. My reason for starting the group was that we found at my agency that 80% of the fathers divorced the mother, when they gave birth to a child with a severe developmental disability. This statistic initially made me feel ashamed to be male, then I remembered to light one candle rather than curse the darkness. I also did it to prevent yet further attrition by the nearly overwhelmed fathers. When I told Robert about it he replied that my group was one of only two that he knew of and was a pioneering effort. By this point, following the popularity of his book about fathers and sons Iron John, Robert was in great demand as a presenter at mens gatherings all over the country. (Iron John was on the New York Times best seller list for 62 weeks.)
The topical shift in our correspondence was to lead to our first conflict. I had a case I was particularly frustrated about, a young man with a bi-polar disorder, a secondary obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe alcoholism. He was in prison for a bank robbery committed while drunk. He’d been an honor student and star athlete in high school. All the professionals were puzzled.
Robert responded in an uncharacteristically concrete way, offering to become personally involved. He was nearly 80 then. I declined his offer to write to the man. In his next letter, he asked again. Again, I declined, for serious reasons. He asked yet again in his next letter, ending with an exasperated “I have already offered to help, and that’s all I can do.” The old Robert would have offered sympathy and advice, both abstractions. Instead, he’d interpreted my description of the case in a very concrete way. This was before he was diagnosed with senile dementia. In someone else, I might have recognized it as a symptom of early onset. It was hard to make the connection when I’d known the man as a brilliant intellectual.
I didn’t hear from him for over a year after our misconnection. Our final communication was back in the literary realm, but it lead to another conflict.
Robert had published a collection of formal ghazals, based strongly on the ancient Persian tradition, titled My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. I purchased a copy, and was greatly surprised at its severe formality. Robert had wholeheartedly approved of my deconstructive take on ghazals that I published in 1974 in a little chapbook, Black Milk, (Free Books, Inc.) I had continued to use the approach throughout my writing career. Essentially, I had emphasized the free association aspect of the ghazal. I used couplets wherein the two lines had a “leap” with each other, but also another associative leap between the couplets. I also retained the ancient formal “rule” of using no less than five couplets per ghazal.
I wrote to Robert about his collection. I included some new deconstructed ghazals to remind him of them. He had insisted in his introduction that because of the difference in syllables between ancient Persian and modern English, the ghazals now had to be three lines instead of two. He also advocated other formal restrictions. I reminded him that he used to like my approach to form, which I had also applied to haiku, tanka, and sonnets. I also reminded him that his former classmate at Harvard, Adrienne Rich, had used deconstructed ghazals successfully and extensively. A mutual acquaintance, fellow small press editor and Michigan poet Jim Harrison, had also written deconstructed ghazals for years. I chided him for becoming more conservative in his old age.
When he wrote back, he was clearly offended, writing that Adrienne, Jim and I were using ghazals “to say whatever you want to say. It isn’t fair to ghazals.”
I was flabbergasted by his uncharacteristic response. The elderly Robert was rigid in his thinking whereas the younger Robert was quite the opposite, mentally flexible and given to diverse abstract theory. I wrote back and said as much, but he didn’t reply. I never heard from him again, though I kept sending him my latest books. I was pretty sure I’d offended him. A year or so later, a mutual friend, poet Glenna Luschei, told me that Robert had Alzheimer’s disease. I learned through the small press grapevine that he had ceased corresponding with several other long term correspondents. I have wished ever since that my words in that final letter had been different.
I didn’t know him during the final decade of his life. That Robert Bly belongs to his family. We don’t need to know what form his dementia took, though I hope he was lucid and happy on many good days.
It was one of the great privileges of my life to know Robert Bly. Young poets embark on their chosen paths, thinking themselves alone. The fortunate ones can look ahead to see another figure on the same trajectory. When I met Bly I was already convinced that the central issue in poetry is its symbolic nature. It was greatly encouraging that a poet of my parents generation was also on the scent.
The greatest American poets of the post-WWII generation (Maya Angelou, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Reznikoff and Robert Bly) all went beyond themselves, past materialism, ethnicity, gender and cultural differences, to address the universal concerns of humanity. Somewhere along the line, my Robert Bly became our Robert Bly, and we are all better for his having lived and worked among us.