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About Robert Bly


Wayne Dodd

Go back now twenty years later and you will still find it, lying silently in ditches beside the road, drifting noiselessly in with the snow at nightfall, standing dry and bristly in a field of weeds: the spirit of the American prairie. For that's what Bly discovered for us in Silence in the Snowy Fields: the spirit of the American (prairie) landscape. Nowhere a trace, not one blurring linger, of language or perception from another culture or geography (all influences of Spanish, Chinese, Latin American--and other--poets not withstanding). Just the American land, breathing into and through Bly. And us. I would even go so far as to say, if pressed, that however much else Bly may have contributed to the ferment of American letters, this has been perhaps his most important contribution--aside from the rich offering of the poems themselves. Once we had experienced Silence in the Snowy Fields, the body of America was never again the same to us--never again "merely" there, never again external to our own locus of spirit, no longer obedient to even the most carefully translated commands from "English" poetry. Since Silence, a developing generation of new young poets has been able to take for granted the subtle and important knowledge of our geographical lives these poems provide. It has come to be a given, something which, once gained, one can never go back from. Like self-consciousness. It has become a fundamental fact of not just a way of knowing, but also a what.

But perhaps consciousness would be a more useful comparison, because it is consciousness these poems are concerned with, consciousness of the world of solitude, of darkness, of isolation, of silence: the other world--sleep, the hidden or unseen, the rest of it. That's what the silence is filled with, what it frees us for: the other half, the realm of dark knowledge, night. The fields and rural buildings here open out into this large dimension of (our) being. "We are all asleep in the outward man," Bly quotes Boehme, as an epigraph for the book, then goes on to offer poems which, taken all together, call to us, Wake up! Wake up! in (and through) the inward man. This is the persistent urge one feels in Silence in the Snowy Fields: the urge to spiritual perception. We sense the need to discover the other-dimensionality of being.

From "Back to the Snowy Fields" in Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ed. Joyce Peseroff. Copyright 1984 by the University of Michigan.


George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran

The poems of Silence in the Snowy Fields are very much of a world. They are not posited on moments of urgent circumstance, at least exteriorly. The poet often pictures himself in corn fields or farm houses; the drama of the poem, exteriorly, is nothing more than the approach of darkness or falling asleep or awaking or driving the car from city to city. The force of the poem consequently depends upon the establishment of a sense of intense subjectivity within these contexts of the commonplace. In each case the invasion of the psyche by a sudden moment of insight, almost a revelation, occurs with the poet most often in a state of solitude and in conjunction with some element of the natural world.

The poems are born of whimsy and casual encounter; they aim at definition of mood, which is of itself almost always evanescent. The language is colloquial--sometimes that of short, clipped, almost flat statements ("I am driving; it is dusk"), in other poems much looser and more lyrically effusive ("Shouts rise from the harbor of the blood, / Mist, and masts rising, the knock of wooden tackle in the sunlight"). The poems identify specific towns and states and seasons--most often northern Midwestern states; almost always winter. The participial titles, frequently keys with which to unlock the associative pattern of the images, induce a sense of drifting motion, a suspension of time ("Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter," "After Drinking All Night with a Friend, We Go Out In a Boat at Dawn to See Who Can Write the Best Poem," "Remembering In Oslo the Old Picture of the Magna Carta").

From Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Copyright 1976 by Louisiana State University Press.


Victoria Frenkel harris

In his essay "The Dead World and the Live World" (1966), Robert Bly distinguishes between two kinds of poetic consciousness, that which brings "news of the human mind" (he would include the confessional poets in this category) and that which brings "news of the universe." The second kind of poetry requires that the poet go deeply inward, "far back into the brain," where he is likely to find what, in "The Work of James Wright" (1966), Bly calls "some bad news about himself, some anguish that discursive reasoning had for a long time protected him against" (66-67). But the poet must not stop there. He or she must penetrate "much deeper than the ego . . . at the same time [becoming] aware of many other beings" ("Dead World" 6). Ultimately, the poet achieves those depths where "life inside the brain and the life outside" exist "at the same instant" (7). The incarnation of the poem crystallizes at this point of perception, at this subjective instant of simultaneous interaction between the perceiver and the perceived.

This type of poetic consciousness, which I have called the incorporative consciousness, seeks to integrate self, others, and the cultural and physical worlds. Aesthetically, the incorporative consciousness endorses intuition and subjectivity, psychic integration forming its central goal. Differing from the more conceptual or rhetorically conceived metaphor, which linearly compares vehicle and tenor, the incorporative mode reconciles both, often in paradoxical fashion. Light emanates from darkness, without apparent source; horizontal planes suddenly acquire vertical depth; while within some external structure or house, one's body becomes a house, which one may also enter. Apparent opposites, especially inner and outer, spirit and body, the archetypal male and female, merge into a single, organic whole. Thus the poetry becomes an extension of the incorporative consciousness that creates and interprets it. Never "achieved," always in the process of becoming, the incorporative consciousness constantly expands; deep and leaping imagery incarnate that process without interrupting it.

Before this harmonious mingling with the external landscape can occur, however, an integrated interior landscape is necessary. The achievement of such integration involves a slow and sometimes painful process of individuation. This process is often represented in Bly's poetry by a physical journey. "All poems are journeys," Bly has said. "The best poems take long journeys. I like poetry best that journeys--while remaining in the human scale--to the other world, which may be a place as easily overlooked as a bee's wing" (Selected Poems 88). Significantly, Bly's first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), opens with an automobile trip, as the speaker travels through and internalizes a part of his Midwestern landscape.

[. . . .]

The physical journey is of course a developmental extension of the more important psychic journey recorded in the entirety of Bly's work. Whereas the physical journey is linear and may be completed, the psychic journey has no destination. It is a journey of individuation, continual becoming. As the incorporative consciousness grows, inner and outer energies gradually intermingle, the subjective moment expands, and fixed boundaries give way to energy vibrations in a surrounding, fluctuating world. The identification of separate things is replaced by reciprocal motion whereby the world is internalized, and each centripetal motion enlarges the poet so that his works spring from an increasingly greater psychic reservoir.

From The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Copyright 1992 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.


George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran

The landscape of the poems of the second volume shifts from the snowy cornfields of Madison, Minnesota, to the councils of state in Washington, and the lethargic state of peaceful communion with nature is converted to a melancholy and occasionally petulant exposure of an immoral government. The temperate poem becomes baldly topical; irony issues as a more potent weapon. The specific controversy which underlies The Light Around the Body is America's involvement in the Vietnam War, an issue seen in conjunction with the racism and poverty throughout the society. In this context, even the volume's title assumes a certain irony. The use of personifications also changes from the first to the second volume: from "Tiny birds are singing / In the secluded prairies / And in the deep valleys of the hand" ("'Taking the Hands'") to "Chrysanthemums crying out on the borders of death" ("Smothered by the World").

From Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Copyright 1976 by Louisiana State University Press.


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