Robert Bly obituary | Poetry
In 1986, the New York Times review of Robert Bly’s selected poems was titled “Minnesota Transcendental”. It was insightful to note his connection to 19th century New England poets, which was strong, but in a few years it would seem absolutely prescient. For although he was one of the most remarkable poets of his generation, Bly, who died at the age of 94, is known, as the two most enduring of the original Transcendentals, for facets of his work other than poetry.
Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legacy is as an essayist, the influence of Bly’s essays on poetic theory and his many translations have resonated with readers and his fellow poets. But Bly is more likely to be seen as a 20th century parallel to Henry David Thoreau. Like Thoreau, he was noted for civil disobedience, then for an extremely popular prose work on the denaturing effects of civilization.
Bly’s early poems in the 1960s were his best, though its quality was often subsumed by the controversy surrounding his anti-war stances. In 1966, he co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War. The following year, when he won the National Book Award for The Light Around the Body, he donated the prize money to the Resistance in the Draft. But his entire poetic career was swept away by the remarkable success of Iron John: A Book About Men (1990).
A meditation on his view of American manhood ripped from its natural roots because fathers fail to properly introduce their sons to masculinity, Iron John has spawned a movement combining the sensibility of the dating group with the primal survivalism of the trees. Yet with her colorful, often witty poetry, deep interest in mysticism, rustic attire, and nasal, high-pitched voice, Bly often came across as an unlikely prophet of masculinity.
Bly called his poetic technique “deep image,” and his highly visual and surreal poems, often in rural settings, reflected his upbringing in Minnesota where the Scandinavians were colonized. He was born in Talking Lake County, where his parents, Alice (née Aws) and Jacob Bly, Norwegian immigrants, were farmers. At 18, after graduating from high school in Madison, he enlisted in the United States Navy.
Demobilized in 1946, he enrolled at St Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota, but after a year he transferred to Harvard, where he joined an early group of undergraduate writers, including John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, John hawkes, George Plimpton and, in Radcliffe, Adrienne Rich. It was at Harvard that he read a poem by WB Yeats and decided to “be a poet for the rest of my life.”
After graduating in 1950, he moved to New York City, writing and struggling to support himself with a succession of menial jobs and meager disability pay for the rheumatic fever he contracted in the Navy. .
In 1954 he returned to the Midwest, as a graduate student of the University of Iowa’s writers’ program, teaching to pay for his education. Again he found himself in a writer’s greenhouse; his fellow students included Philip Levine, Donald Justice and WD Snodgrass, with Robert Lowell and John Berryman on faculty. The proliferation of creative writing programs on American campuses today owes much to the collective success of this group, whose level, one might say, has never been reproduced.
He married the writer Carol McLean in 1955, and returned to Minnesota. The following year, he received a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Norway to translate poetry. There he discovered not only Swedish poets such as Tomas Tranströmer, Gunnar Ekelöf and Harry martinson, but also, in translation, other writers relatively unknown in English: Georg Trakl, Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo. His translations of Tranströmer continued throughout both of their careers, and the affinity between their poetry makes them one of the most effective ever.
Upon returning to America, Bly started a magazine to publish such writers. The Fifties, co-edited with William Duffy, would change its name decade by decade and had an immense effect on American poetry, defining the style of the deep image. Thanks to the magazine, Bly became close to a poet with similar tendencies, James Wright, and with him translated Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (1961). He also translated Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger from Norwegian in 1967.
The Deep Image arose from the way the poets Bly admired drew on almost subconscious imagery, but used it very deliberately. He called it “jumping” poetry, once describing it as surrealism with a center that holds everything together. From these influences, in 1962 was born Bly’s first collection of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, whose connection to the campaign would be picked up by future generations of teachers of creative writing in poems on the cut of wood in denim shirts. But in Bly’s hands, the stillness of the Nordic landscape offered a deep and personal beauty. It was an immediate success and led to a Guggenheim scholarship.
These poems made no allusion to the desperation that became evident in The Light Around the Body, which reflected not only his feelings about the Vietnam War, but also his years of struggle in New York City. They took inspiration from the same images as his first book, but used it in a much more fierce way. The study of Jung’s theories on mythical archetypes led Bly to mix them up with his politics in Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), whose long poem, The Teeth Mother Naked at Last ‚is a powerful condemnation of war as an affront to the Great Mother Culture. He placed a long essay, I Came Out of the Mother Naked, at the center of this book, and prose poems would soon become an integral part of his poetics, culminating in This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopher Wood (1977).
After a divorce from Carol in 1979, in 1980, he married Ruth Ray, a Jungian psychologist, and moved to Moose Lake, Minnesota. He began working with groups of men and women, producing books of poetry that reflected the transactional experience, most notably the love poems in Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1985).
After PBS Television’s Bill Moyers produced a documentary, A gathering of men, about these men’s groups, Iron John became an immediate bestseller. It was followed by The Sibling Society (1996), which lamented “the perpetual adolescence of modern American men”, and The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine (with Marion Woodman, 1998). At the same time, his translations broadened to include the 15th-century Sufi mystic Kabir and the Urdu poet Ghalib. Bly summarized her poetic career in the moving Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (1994) and Morning Poems (1997), and published her second collection of “selected poems,” Eating the Honey of Words, in 1999. The American Invasion of Iraq inspired the collection. Madness of the Empire (2004).
In 2013, Airmail, excerpts from Bly’s decades of correspondence with Tranströmer, was released in English. It revealed both a deep friendship and a contrast in the way the poetry of this American mystic and the Swedish psychologist made its “leaps”. Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems was released the same year, and a last Collected Poems was released in 2018.
Bly is survived by Ruth, four children, Mary, Bridget, Micah and Noah from her first marriage, and nine grandchildren.