The Influence of Robert Bly
Books by Robert Bly and Thomas R. Smith
In 2009, the eighty-third birthday of poet Robert Bly, the University of Minnesota held a conference celebrating his work and the acquisition of his archives by the Library. Robert Bly in this World records the event with the publication of fifteen conference papers by a number of long-time friends and fans including such poets as Coleman Barks, William Duffy, and Ray Gonzalez; storytellers Daniel Deardorff and Gioia Timpanelli; Bly scholars William Booth, Mark Gustafson, Victoria Frenkel Harris, and Howard Nelson; a Sufi scholar Dr. Leonard Lewisohn; Annie Wright, the widow of James Wright; and a DVD of a 1978 Bly documentary by Mike Hazard. It also includes additional tributes by poets Jane Hirshfield, Donald Hall, and others.
It's impossible to talk about American poetry, the Men's Movement, the renaissance of storytelling, and Jungian psychology and myth in poetry in the second half of the 20th century without talking about Robert Bly. His early poems; his magazines, The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies; his theories about poetry including the coinage of the practice Deep Image in poetry; and his translations from Spanish Surrealism, Asian poetry, Rilke, Scandinavian, and Sufi poets completely transformed his generation and those immediately following. I was in undergraduate school in the early seventies, and Bly was everywhere. His influence cannot be understated, and many of us poets of my generation rebelled against the confessional mode and its opposite—the overly intellectual poetry that repressed feeling—both of which Bly railed against. We wanted synesthesia, and Bly gave it to us. He came to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, numerous times, and his readings were inspired, wild, beautiful, and educational. By time Bly became entrenched in the Men's Movement, and theories about fairy tales and men's liberation, he lost many of his followers, and his poetry came to be seen by many as a cliché. Nevertheless Bly continued writing, and proselytizing.
These essays include literary and historical analysis, the art of translation, the important friendship between James Wright and Bly, the writing of A Little Book on the Human Shadow, the men's movement, and the Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father (which he co-founded). The volume includes several tributes to Bly by other artists as well as a chronology of the artist's life and works.
Bly's recent collection, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, is one of his best in a very long time, harking back to the beautifully self-seeking poetry of The Light around the Body and Sleepers Joining Hands. Bly has never lost his childlike sense of bewilderment and the ability to marvel and conjecture at the interconnectedness of things. And now, although he has always faced Death much more directly than most, his sense of mortality and transitory existence burns even brighter: Even though we know God lays our head / On the block, we thank him for it all, and we / Remember the loving we enjoyed at night. Bly, with all his quirks and faults, cannot be faulted for the richness of his spiritual life and his Bodhisattva charm and care. His poetry remains one of the most unique and stubbornly itself of any American poet.