[Marxism] He’s a Legend of Contemporary Poetry. There’s Finally a Volume of His Collected Work.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 16 12:43:22 MST 2018


NY Times Sunday Book Review, Dec. 16, 2018
He’s a Legend of Contemporary Poetry. There’s Finally a Volume of His 
Collected Work.
By David Biespiel

COLLECTED POEMS
By Robert Bly
505 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $39.95.

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 
505-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 like “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, “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?

[ See the Book Review’s selection of 100 Notable Books and 10 Best Books 
of 2018. ]

By my reading his 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’s memoir, “The Education of a Young Poet,” was published 
last year. His sixth book of poems, “Republic Café,” is due out in January.


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