Robert Bly wasn’t born an activist or poet. As the son of a farmer, he grew up on the prairie of western Minnesota. Not a place of high intellectual musings, but a community of hard-working immigrant Norwegians, firmly tied to the land. His father, however, set a standard for going against the grain.
“I went to the country school,” Bly told me. “At that time they were going to close down the country schools. Everyone was going to be ‘consolidated.’ But they couldn’t do it unless every taxpayer said yes. My father said no. The result was that we had a private education for eight years. Everyone else had said yes. We had a teacher with only two students, my brother and me. It was fantastic.”
When the Second World War came, Bly enlisted in the Navy. “We had a half-section [on the farm] and the rule was that only two adult men could be on a half-section; anyone else had to go into the service. My older brother didn’t want to go, and I said I’d go. That settled that situation. They put me into a program to develop radar. So I was sent to Navy Pier in Chicago.”
There on the pier, during the long days and nights spent on mathematical formulas, poetry crept back into Bly’s head. “We had to walk about half a mile down that pier for lunch and I would walk right down the middle reading. People would have to get out of my way while I had my nose in my Whitman. ‘Here comes this guy with his book.’”
Whitman and the Navy were a dyspeptic mix, and before long Bly was pushing to get out. “I had this friend, Eisy Eisenstein from Connecticut, and we decided we were really poets and too good to be in this group of scientists. We decided to flunk out. Every week we took a multiple-choice test. The next week, we filled it out by the way the cylinders fired on a Model A: fourth cylinder, second cylinder, first, then third. On that test we scored eighty! The next week we got forty. The week after that, we got fifty. So we got called in to talk to the admiral, who brought my friend into his office first, and tells him, ‘You’re not doing very well, Mr. Eisenstein. Why not?’ Then he pulls out his IQ form and says, ‘If you do not pass the test next Thursday, you have my word that you will be on the next boat invading the Japanese islands.’ So the admiral said to me, ‘Your turn.’”
And then fate stepped in, first as scarlet fever, then rheumatic fever. Instead of landing in Iwo Jima, Bly landed in the hospital. When he recovered, he was discharged and he decided to return to Minnesota and enroll at St. Olaf College. Bly had found the world beyond the edge of the pasture, and he was filling himself with ideas and opinions. He also found a voice and, like any young zealot, used it unabashedly. “One of my shirttail relations was the dean of St. Olaf, Dean Bly.” Bly says the name with a scowl. “I had started to write little essays, and he had called me in. He said, ‘I know you are a young intellectual, and you have a right to say whatever you wish to say. But I want to remind you that I am Dean Bly.’ I told him I got the picture. I applied to Harvard and they were glad to take me in.”
At Harvard, Bly found the stomping ground of genius and the proving ground of the next generation of literary leaders. “It was unbelievable. Archibald MacLeish had just come from the Library of Congress. He was our teacher. In that class we had George Plimpton, Don Hall, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch. John Ashbery was in there. I mean, it was endless. There was something like twenty-three in that class, and twenty-two of them became professional writers. There’s been nothing like it since. Don Hall and I decided we’d be poets the rest of our lives whatever else happened.”
Bly became an editor of Harvard’s literary magazine, The Advocate. Acquiring material to publish allowed Bly to begin to develop his own pantheon. The Advocate published Adrienne Rich, John Hawkes, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and innumerable others. His days and nights were filled with the next author, article, poem, essay. “We’d debate all night. That was just like getting in a jet plane—I mean, that was like a rocket.”
But the rocket didn’t have a destination for Bly. “When I was a senior at Harvard I really didn’t thrive. By ‘thriving’ I mean I really didn’t apply for grants or anywhere to go on after that. I just stayed in my room.”
When graduation came, Bly had nowhere to go, and he ended up back in his home state. But after Harvard, he found Minnesota inhospitable. He was dealing with the rejection of a family that did not understand how a farmer’s son could think himself so important as to go off and become a poet. He retreated to a small cabin in northern Minnesota. “I was like an animal that goes into its cave and licks its wounds,” he said. Finally, for lack of direction, he chose an even darker cave: New York.
“New York is The Place. Better to fail in New York than succeed someplace else. There’s a lot of ambition in New York. The trouble with places like Missoula, Montana, is that there isn’t that drive towards ambition, which is very dangerous, but it tells you not to throw away what you have.”
New York proved nearly as inhospitable as the north woods. “I didn’t know anybody. During that time in New York there was no visibility for poetry at all.” Still, the overwhelming anonymity of the New York crowd turned out to be the perfect place to find solitude.
Bly descended more deeply into introversion. “I lived three years by myself. I had a job as a house painter one day a week. I did various things of that sort. For a while I rented a room in Union Square from a woman who was a painter in Brooklyn. She thought I used it as a studio during the day. Naturally that’s where I slept. But when she came home on the weekend I had nowhere to go. I’d sleep in the railway stations. I’d go up to Grand Central. That sort of thing was hard. I almost died there. I remember I was called in once for an exam, because of the rheumatic fever I’d had in the service. I had a checkup with a doctor. He says, ‘You look a little thin. Well, your heart’s okay, but I’m going to put it down that it isn’t so they’ll give you a little money every month.’ You meet human beings like that occasionally.”
Bly was writing almost continuously during that period, but without real creative spark. He completed very few poems. It would take time for the images of poverty and cruelty that he saw on the streets to germinate and bear fruit as several of the poems that would appear in The Light Around the Body, the collection that won him the National Book award in 1967. “When I look at some of those poems, I can’t believe how angry I must have been back then.”
It was a tough life. The safety of the university was anathema to the ascetic romantic, but Bly was finally done in by his traveling companions: Poverty and obscurity were getting the best of him. He went back to the abbey.
“I went up to Cambridge to see my old teacher Archie MacLeish. He said, ‘You look awfully skinny. I know where you can get some money. Iowa has a new grant coming out. Get [Harvard poet Richard] Wilbur to recommend you and I’ll recommend you and you’ll be fine.’”