Robert Bly: The Dude Abides

Around this same time, the woman who would eventually become Bly’s first wife, Carol McLean, was also headed to the Midwest for graduate school at the University of Minnesota. She and Bly had crossed paths at Harvard and in New York. Bly decided to leave New York and pursue the Iowa grant. “But Wilbur forgot to send his letter in until a couple of days beforehand. So I drove all the way out and when I got there they said, ‘Oh, God, Richard Wilbur just sent in a wonderful recommendation, but we just gave it to another poet. Half an hour ago we telegraphed him.’”

Bly lets out a guffaw. “Obviously there was something that didn’t want me to succeed.” So Iowa didn’t have a grant for Bly, but they offered him a job instead, in the legendary program that came to be known as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. “I was teaching freshman English. I did that for a few years. It was fascinating. I loved teaching. But I was too interested in it and I recognized that if I remained a teacher, I wouldn’t really do any writing.”

Although he’d lost out on the workshop grant, Bly, as a teacher, was entitled to participate in it. He hasn’t got a single good word to say about it. “That’s the first time I’d ever received a ditto poem. They take a poem of yours and photocopy it and then it’s offered to the other thirteen members of the group and then they hit you as best they can. That’s not the way to learn poetry. And all the universities are doing it now. It’s a disaster, in my opinion. A couple years ago I brought out a new issue of the magazine I started. It used to be called The Fifties, then The Sixties, and The Seventies. I used to have a lot of insults in there. I put out an issue called The Thousands. So this time I gave out the Domestic Globalization Award.” Bly reads with a chuckle: “‘The Domestic Globalization Award is given to programs that best embody the principle of globalization, that is, the distribution of identical ready-made articles that result in the destruction of native cultures. We give this award this year to the two hundred and fifty-six chartered writing programs in the United States, which are currently working hard to lower the level of published poetry.’”

“There are other ways to study writing. For example, I became friends with Robert Creeley. He said, ‘What you need are two things: First, you need friends your own age that you can sit up and talk with all night. Second, you need an older writer whom you adore but that you would never let it occur to you to go visit.’ I thought that was so interesting. In a way you need to adore an older writer who you consider so great that you would never think of knocking on his or her door. That would be outrageous. For me, that was Rilke.”

After Bly’s teaching stint at Iowa, he and Carol moved to Madison, Minnesota, to a farm a half-mile from Bly’s childhood home. “My father had saved it for me. We got no income from the farm, but the rent was free. I tell poets, ‘If you’re going to be a poet, it’s very important that you have a place where you don’t have to pay rent!’” Robert and Carol Bly stayed in Madison for twenty-five years.

In 1956 Bly received a Fulbright Fellowship to go to Norway and study and translate Norwegian poets. “I didn’t know any Norwegian, but that didn’t bother them. They sent me three months ahead to take a course at the University of Oslo summer school. That’s when I ran into Paul Brekke, who was sort of the scout for international poetry in Norway. And he put out a book called Modernistik Lyrikk (Modernist Poems), with one poem a piece by various poets from Europe and South America. Neruda, Vallejo, all the poets I later translated.”

When Bly returned to Madison, he and his friend Bill Duffy started publishing The Fifties. They printed Gary Snyder and David Ignatow in their first issue. Inside the front cover they wrote: “All the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.” Bly explains, “We didn’t hate everything, but we needed to get some attention. We had to pay for every issue ourselves, but we had a lot of fun. We’d scrounge together whatever we’d need. I’d print it in Ireland. So I’d get an entire issue for four hundred and fifty dollars. We’d have to go to New York and pick them up. The customs people would be there. They could have put a lot of tax on this, but they’d look and say, ‘What have you got there? A poetry magazine? Take it!’”

“The fun with our magazine was that we attacked everybody in it. But eventually we became friends with all kinds of writers. We got over sixty-five letters in response to the first issue. And of course we had people that couldn’t stand us. Charles Olson hated my guts, but that’s okay. You need people who hate you, too. It keeps life interesting.”

Bly and Duffy published the work of a number of major poets who were as yet unheard of in the United States. James Wright, who was teaching at the University of Minnesota, became a friend and fellow translator. They worked with Paul Celan and Juan Ramón Jiménez, Gunnar Ekelof, Georg Trakl and Harry Martinson. Bly is especially proud of producing Twenty Poems of Pablo Neruda. “I think that was the first time he’d been published in the U.S.”

Translating and publishing this international coterie also stimulated Bly in his own work in unexpected ways. He said, “By trying to translate something like that, the poems come deep inside you, the images come deep inside you, and you no longer say, ‘Well, Tranströmer is a wonderful poet’ or ‘This is very fresh.’ You don’t say that. You feel yourself—because of the work you’ve done on the image—invaded by the image. You feel that it has become a part of your house, like someone who’s moved into your house, and your house is changed then.”

He also went literally to the earth for inspiration. “I still hadn’t shed my isolation; the nearness to my parents was difficult, as was the lack of work. I spent whole days sitting out in the fields. But there was peace. I had still had a great love of silence. I collected the poems I wrote there in Silence in the Snowy Fields, which came out in 1962. I like that book, and I never would have written a book that interesting if I had not moved back to the country, where I was a child.”

By the time Silence appeared, Bly, William Stafford, Louis Simpson, and James Wright—Bly’s compatriots in flight from the formalism of Eliot and the imagism of Pound—were given credit for starting a movement, a new American idiom. Bly the troublemaker seemed to have a knack for them. Earning the approval of the critics was never his priority. The poet wasn’t crafting picture upon picture, a tidy chain of ideas. He was trying to get our conscious side out of the way and let the unconscious get loud. He calls it making “psychic leaps.”

Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River
I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses
on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built
right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.

Bly reaches over and opens an old copy of The Light Around the Body. He breathes in deeply and out comes a growl:

The Executive’s Death
Merchants have multiplied more than the stars of heaven. Half the population are like the long grasshoppers
That sleep in the bushes
of the cool day:
The sound of their wings is heard at noon, muffled, near the earth.
The crane handler dies, the taxi driver dies, slumped over
In his taxi. Meanwhile,
high in the air, executives
Walk on cool floors,
and suddenly fall:
Dying, they dream they are lost
in a snowstorm in mountains,
On which they crashed, carried at night by the great machine.
As he lies on the wintry slope,
cut off and dying,
A pine stump talks to him
of Goethe and Jesus.
Commuters arrive in Hartford at dusk like moles
Or hares flying from a fire
behind them,
And the dusk in Hartford
is full of their sighs;
Their trains come through the air
like a dark music,
Like the sound of horns, the sound
of thousands of small wings.

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