Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bly’

Robert Bly’s long epilogue with Alzheimer’s Disease

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012


I met Robert Bly years before Iron John: A Book About Men made him internationally famous, long before he was taken up as the popular bard of the New Age movement.  Well, long before there was a New Age movement.  The Michigan Daily archives undoubtedly has the article I wrote in the huge, yellowed volumes in its dusty library – if the library or the volumes or the dust are still there.

Bly was into “the Great Mothers” then.  When I interviewed the Minnesota poet at the Ann Arbor home where he was staying, he playfully waved some of the masks he had collected and let out mock shrieks.  He had co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War some years before and was a prominent antiwar hero.  By then, however, he was caught up with American involvement in Central and South America – a phase that seems to be largely overlooked in the online biographies of him.  It was a fun interview, though, and the reading that he gave beforehand on campus was one of the most exuberant and confrontational I’ve  ever witnessed.

If we were in Central (or was it South?) America, he told us, we wouldn’t be letting him read from the podium as passive spectators.  We would be pushing him aside to read our own poems.  He challenged the students more during a Q&A period.  The takeaway quote I remember:  “It is better to pick one red pepper from a street market in Chile than to watch an hour-long documentary about the country.”  The favoring of experience over knowledge … evidently, I took that message to heart over the subsequent years.

So I was sorry to hear, via David Sanders“Poetry News” in Prairie Schooner that the poet has Alzheimer’s.  His daughter, Mary Bly, told Minnesota Public Radio:

You know he’s very happy. So… not very happy but he’s happy. So I’m very grateful that he’s not experienced the personality changes that sometimes accompany that sort of loss. But it’s sad, it’s very very hard for someone whose life is made up of looking at a tree and turning it into a poem – so your whole life flows by you in words – to not be able to manipulate words is a terrible thing.

At Minnesota's "Poetry Out Loud" in 2009 (Photo: Creative Commons)

For a good part of my childhood my dad was working on short prose poetry. And he used to make us – the children had to do it along with him! Our dinners were often made up of impromptu poetry readings. So in a way this was my tribute year to him, too, because that’s the kind of writing he did when I was growing up. He worked very hard on very small sets of words.

…My stepmother was talking about watching a video of him – and he sparked with ideas all the time – and he hasn’t lost his sense of humor so he said “I like that guy!” And then he said “I wish I knew him.” So it was very hard for my stepmother in that moment. But he’s both recognizing what’s happening – his sense of humor is not gone at all – and acknowledging that life has different phases.

I met up with Bly again decades later at Stanford in 2008, but by then I was different and older, and he seemed curiously (perhaps deceptively) the same, although his hair was pure silver, and he seemed more a grandfatherly figure to the students.  He turned to the young poet wannabes and cackled conspiratorially, “You can’t tell this to your parents.”  Of course, he was a parent by then, and so was I, so the comment seemed oddly nostalgic.

I spoke to him privately, during a break in the class, and told him of our meeting decades ago.  For a moment our eyes met, and he seemed curiously vulnerable, aware of the mask he was wearing that had somehow grown to him, the name and fame he carried like a heavy backpack, and could no longer put down.

Rebecca West called for “a new and abusive school of criticism.” It’s still needed.

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Saving souls through litcrit

A few months after World War I began, writer Rebecca West wrote:  “Disgust at the daily deathbed which is Europe has made us hunger and thirst for the kindly ways of righteousness, and we want to save our souls.”

The New Republic, almost a year ago, reprinted her 1914 remarks, calling us to “a serious duty … the duty of listening to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner.”

So much for “kindly ways.”  West wrote, “Criticism matters as it never did in the past, because of the present pride of great writers.”

West’s prose is a little febrile, and she hopelessly confuses the mind and the soul, but in an era of anomie, her passionate outcry is refreshing:  “Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art,” she wrote.  “For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”

She continues:

“A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist.

Well, that much has changed at least.  Journalists are feeding out of dumpsters nowadays.

Nor is it due to compulsion from above, for it is not worth an editor’s while to veil the bright rage of an entertaining writer for the sake of publishers’ advertisements. No economic force compels this vice of amiability. It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.

But they do matter. The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance.”

Sleeping with the enemy

Is West’s call to arms dépassé?  We think not.  Dana Gioia wrote nearly two decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?” that in literary journals

the essays and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. If it publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them. … The unspoken editorial rule seems to be, Never surprise or annoy the readers; they are, after all, mainly our friends and colleagues.

By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books. But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments.

Robert Bly wrote in a similar vein about the same time:

We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, “I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself,” . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.”

West concludes:  “Now, when every day the souls of men go up from Finance like smoke, we feel that humanity is the flimsiest thing, easily divided into nothingness and rotting flesh. We must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom. We must give her an unsurprisable mind. And that will never be done while affairs of art and learning are decided without passion, and individual dulnesses allowed to dim the brightness of the collective mind. We must weepingly leave the library if we are stupid, just as in the middle ages we left the home if we were lepers. If we can offer the mind of the world nothing else we can offer it our silence.”

West hammers into George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.  She says nothing about the ethics and politics of sleeping with the authors she reviews.  She was Wells’s lover for a decade and bore his son.