Yesterday morning Anne called my attention to The Writer’s Almanac poem for Saturday, by Robert Bly. I remember going to a small Robert Bly poetry reading at the local library in Williamsburg, Virginia while I was in college. I was a little mystified as to why this major poet was coming to town, and instead of reading at the college he was reading across the street at the local library. I was one of the only college students in the audience, which was pretty small. But it was a hell of a thing — he was more than just a poet, he was performer, drawing the audience close to him and reciting poems from memory as they seemed appropriate. It all seemed relatively stream-of-consciousness. He sat on the little stage and played some kind of Norse sitar. Sounds strange, I know, but I swear that it was a Norse sitar, with some connection to Vikings and his Northern European heritage. He was a real troubadour, strumming away a bit randomly, telling stories and breaking into song, talking to people in the audience, drawing folks in, reciting poems, and occasionally picking up the book of poems he was ostensibly there to promote.

In general, I’ve found Bly’s poetry hit and miss — sometimes it is stunningly beautiful, absolutely on-target and just perfect clarity, embodying my aesthetic ideal which might be best summed up by William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” mixed in equal measure with D. H. Lauwrence’s poem “Sense of Truth”: “You must fuse mind and wit with all the senses / before you can feel truth. / And if you can’t feel truth you can’t have any other / satisfactory sensual experience.”

But sometimes Bly’s poetry is just not there; it feels too abstract, too tossed off and unrefined, not deliberate enough. A lack of craft. That’s allowed, by the way — I don’t expect every poet and artist to create a perfect work of art every time. But I guess I get annoyed by Bly sometimes, because I feel like sometimes he does not approaching his poems with the intensity they need and deserve — and that he’s capable of. Nothing offends me like work that is deliberately below a known capacity for excellence.

My ranting about Bly aside, yesterday morning’s poem was truly beautiful:

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

One Response to “Bly”

  1. Anne Says:

    I know exactly what you mean, Nicco. I also have Bly’s “The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures.” He translated a lot of the poems in it, and they also are hit and miss.

    On the other hand, I remember reading Iron John after freshman year in college and just being stunned by his masculinity and tenderness and courage. That was the beginning of my fascination with writing about older men, which led me within a year to Eamon Grennan, which was why I had ‘As If It Matters’ to send you when you were commenting on being an old man — this was what, in fall of ’96 or spring of ’97? And then you went apesh*t over Grennan, and then… So, check it out, Robert Bly is the quiet godfather of’s current name.

    But I didn’t mean to go on that discovery tangent, though it was a good one! My point was going to be that I think Robert Bly has a bit of the curse of the passionate generalist, which just might make him vulnerable to the love of the sound of his own voice (which neither you nor I am immune from, so I don’t say that in accusatory way…).

    And, while I know this only as demonstrated, not as substantiated, I have on good authority that ee cummings is another poet who is very hit-and-miss. And also an ecstatic sort of poet, who inspired a bit of a following.

    I guess I’m wondering how being wrapped into a movement has affected Bly’s sense of his poetry. Or, how doing so many different things, including translation (which I think he is amazing at) and cultural force, has modified his own standards for his poems’ entrance to the public stream.

    Ironic, though, because I, at least, am all the more willing to read a Bly poem, because it might not be all that good, so it might not take too much concentration or time out of my day… and because when it *is* good, it’s intuitively and resoundingly so, and hits its mark without my helping it.


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