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Robert Bly – Challenging the World


By Zack Lynch


    Robert Elwood Bly is a renowned American poet, author, translator, and activist who was born in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota on December 23, 1926. He grew up in a community filled with Norwegian immigrants and was immersed in the culture. After graduating high school in 1944, he served in the Navy for two years and then later attended Harvard University, where he became associated with many other writers who would go on to be very successful. Bly spent some time in New York City before spending two years at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 1956, Bly traveled to Norway to translate poems into English, while there, he discovered the work of many poets who would influence him greatly, including Neruda, Vallejo, and Gunnar Ekeloef (Zavatsky). Bly won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1968 for his book The Light Around the Body. Robert Bly's displays a dominant impression of challenging the norms of American society and culture.

    Throughout his adult life, he has pushed things and people around, in a style some would call brash, others heroic (Hoagland). His lifelong engagement with American culture at large, and with poetry culture in particular, has been opinionated and often ferocious (Hoagland). Bly reveals his challenging views in a jeremiad he wrote in 1963 called “A Wrong Turn in American Poetry.” In the poem, Bly blatantly reveals what he believes is wrong in American Poetry. He states that a young poet couldn’t possibly take on famous writers like Pound, Eliot, or Moore, because these writers, “Whirl about so far out that anyone who follows/ Them will freeze to death” (3-4). Bly is illustrating how it is impossible for young poets, who have yet to make a name for themselves, to challenge famous writers. While most may agree that young poets should not be able to do this, Bly believes that everyone should be allowed to not only speak their mind but also have people who will listen. As the jeremiad progresses, Bly reveals that it seems as if William Carlos Williams is the center of American poetry and that his, “…poetry however shows a/ Fundamental absence of spiritual intensity” (5-6). Bly uses "Spiritual intensity" as the measuring stick he has insisted upon as an essential poetic value, and it is a quality characteristic of Bly himself (Hoagland). So essentially Bly is saying that the poet who represents the very heart and center of American Poetry lacks essential poetic value. This bold statement clearly reveals Robert Bly’s continuous lifestyle of going against what everyone else accepts and stating what he believes.

    Robert Bly also challenged the commonly used styles of poetry by not focusing on rhyming and using his own, unique prose. Bly revealed the importance of prose in poetry by stating that, “the prose poem appears whenever poetry gets too abstract. The prose poem helps bring the poet back to the physical world” (Zavatsky). His style focuses on qualities of innerness and self. His writings often offer an atmosphere of solitude, privacy and the intimacy of the self rules the book; the poems combine perceptions of nature, statement, and occasional touches of surrealism (Hoagland). “In a Train” illustrates the themes he revealed in his writings during this phase of his life.

It is a cold and snowy night,
the main street is deserted.
The only thing moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the iron door I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.
(poetryfoundation).
Such unadornedness was very fresh at that moment in American poetry; it modeled an unmannered and nonhysterical attention to inner life, to the natural world and the spiritual dimension of the self (Hoagland). The poem begins with a scene of snow and emptiness, which reveals that while Bly is out driving around, most people are inside with other people. This further shows how Bly is unique from other everyone else and continues to follow his own path. And instead of hurrying back to all of the other people who are inside there home, Bly would rather stay out and, “waste more time.” This signifies Bly’s will to not conform to society and instead stay true to his own values and ideas.

    By 1968, and the publication of his second collection, The Light Around the Body, Bly's image-making style had shifted (Hoagland). Bly's political and social focus had intensified: his new poems practiced a more radical and satiric surrealism (Hoagland). The initial stanza in "The Great Society" reveals Bly’s view on American society and the class division that separates people into different worlds.

Dentists continue to water their lawns even in the rain:
Hands developed with terrible labor by apes
Hang from the sleeves of evangelists;
There are murdered kings in the light-bulbs outside movie theaters:
The coffins of the poor are hibernating in piles of new tires
(Hoagland)
This poem reveals that, while Bly’s subject matter has shifted as he has gotten older, he still continues to challenge American society. He starts of the poem by saying how, “Dentists continue to water their lawns even in the rain,” which indicates the excess of wealth they have compared to everyone else because despite it raining they don’t even think about turning off their sprinklers simply due to the fact that they don’t even have to worry about it. He goes on to say how the, “coffins of the poor are hibernating in piles of new tires.” This line is directly calling out the American culture and the values that Americans live by. The culture in America is that we are the best nation in the world without a doubt, so Bly paints this picture of American society that reveals the ugly underbelly in our society that values car tires and other products, more than people’s lives.

    Robert Bly’s style further progressed as the Vietnam War became increasingly more violent. The escalated the anger and bewilderment of politicized American poets and writers, including Bly, who played a central, galvanizing role in organizing readings around the country as part of American Writers Against the Vietnam War (Hoagland). Here is a passage from Bly's "Hatred of Men with Black Hair":

We distrust every person on earth with black hair.
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph's government:
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah's ark ...
(poetryfoundation)
During this time period, the USA was filled with hate against the Vietnamese, communists, and essentially anyone from Asian descent simply because of what they looked like. Nonetheless, Americans not only accepted this culture, but embraced it due to the hardships of the Vietnam War. Bly would not simply stand idly by as this hate became infused into our culture, so he attacked the problem head on and made this poem to blatantly illustrate how delusional it is to be filled with this hate. He begins the poem by saying, “We distrust every person on earth with black hair.” This statement clearly shows how ignorant it is to hate someone simply because of his or her hair color by revealing that despite where they are from or live, the American culture tells Americans to hate anyone who even somewhat resembles a person form Vietnam. His use of repetition by writing, “We,” at the beginning of each line indicates that Bly is grouping all Americans together throughout the poem in order to reveal how everyone has been part of the problem of hate in the United States.

    Throughout his entire life, Robert Bly has fought against the current norms of society and forged his own path of beliefs and values. In many of his writings, Bly discusses ideas that aren’t generally accepted by society, but continues to push forward his thoughts to people who are willing to listen. Bly’s lifestyle reveals that an individual should stay true to what they believe, rather than conforming to society.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert - Poem. "Hatred of Men with Black Hair.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Bly, Robert - Poem. "In a Train.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Hoagland, Tony. "The Village Troublemaker: Robert Bly and American Poetry." Literature Resource Center. World Poetry, Sept.-Oct. 2013. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.
Zavatsky, Bill. "Talking Back: A Response to Robert Bly." Poetry Criticism, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 39, Gale, 2002. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.

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