Review: American Poetry: Wildness & Domesticity by Robert Bly Print E-mail

robert_bly(Poetry Flash Number 214 January 1991)

Riders of the Unconscious

When I studied American literature in graduate school, I took a course in the later novels of Mark Twain, offered by one of the most renowned Twain scholars in the United States, Roy Harvey Pearce. Obviously, since it was our first meeting we had prepared no assignment. And certainly Dr. Pearce would not cancel a three-hour evening class. So, instead, he read us an essay of his own that he had written twenty-five years earlier about the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of course, one of the last lighter-hearted of the Twain works. Because the original essay wasn't long enough for our class, he added a whole second section, based brilliantly I thought at the time, on the final phrase of the previous essay. Something about "lighting out for the territories," a shadow place, whose darkness Twain's subsequent novels about the damned human race explored in depth.

Pearce read. And he read and he read and he read. Until he exhausted us. Since he asked us to hold our "queries" till the end we had no chance to engage him. When he finished, we sat, stymied—intimidated, really—by his persuasive eloquence. And, when he asked, Are there any questions? we were as still as a raft drifting down a moon-lit river. He concluded that some critics saw Mr. Clemens' work in ways different from him, but he mentioned no names. He said we should go discover them for ourselves. Each of us then was assigned to report on some aspect of one of Twain's later novels.

That night with Pearce's reading I was first exposed to the unsavory tact of academic authority. I knew Pearce read to set himself the position of critical master in the class and to exemplify how a critic quotes, finds meaning, backs up his analysis. But he also read to show us that he belonged to a traditional wing of Twain scholars who based their raison d'etre, of course, with ample textual evidence, on one idea: Huck was a good boy in a misfit, mother-hating America. Pearce wanted this interpretation (New Critical and Freudian was how he defined it) to be clear, so that in making our presentations, we would have to accommodate his view. But though his claim was soundly argued and his erudition undoubtedly challenged us, his approach implied something tyrannical. Pearce's fixation on a psychological reading of Huck Finn actually denied other critical approaches we needed to help us better interpret Twain's growing loss of moral purpose.

Those theories—feminist, Marxist, structuralist, Jungian, and others—he ignored and, in effect, discounted. Some group members took Pearce's gospel for the truth and rehased his ideas in their reports. Pearce heartily approved. Eventually it was clear, though, that if we chose to write a seminar paper and have it accepted, we would have to partially stand on (or fall off) his platform. Pearce's authoritarianism quashed any new exploration into the tapestry of Twain's darkness.

My point in relating this experience is that academia has, in the tendentious positions its professors decree and their students must adopt, something misleading and censorial about it, which people never forget and almost always distrust, and which partly accounts for the 50% attrition rate in American graduate programs. As readers, we know literature and its internal authority--the spell of the language, the quality of the emotion, the depth of the self-disclosure. But some imperious academics carve out a meaning that often owes more to a circumscribed critical community and its needs than to either the literary work itself or the cultural imperatives from which the work and its meaning arise.


Some of the Pearceian dominance appears in Robert Bly's American Poetry, a collection of essays about writing poetry, about poetry in America, and about American poets. Though I admire Bly's poetry very much, I feel his criticism of poetry too often strains under the weight of his critical tenets.

When I think of Bly-the-critic I think of something more than the benevolent dictator of verse. I think of a creed that dictates the primacy of the unconscious in poetry, a creed that heralds, with the appearance of this book, an era and an attitude in American verse already fully underway. In a sense, wherever Bly speaks nowadays, he is preaching to the choir. It is hard to find what's new here from a poet-critic of so many past triumphs.

Bly has indisputable critical power. It has to do with his longtime efforts to make poetry more central in our culture and, more recently, to foster in the lives of American men a greater understanding about masculine psychology. He has published over a dozen volumes of verse, edited a journal of criticism in three successive decades (The Fifties, The Sixties, The Seventies), popularized through translation poets foreign to American readers, such as Rilke, Neruda, Machado, Vallejo, Transtromer—all riders of the unconscious. But Bly has arguably done his best critical work as a teacher of many interrelated subjects: Jungian psychology and myth, male consciousness, shame as practiced in the isolative American family and, most importantly, defining poetry as an inner art, whose craft belongs neither in the degree-rewarding hands of the university nor in the self-censoring hands shaped by National Endowment grants. (Which is not to put Bly in Jesse Helm's camp. Bly is against government sponsorship of artists because he feels artists become too dependent on sources of forbearance outside themselves.)

Bly is Emerson and Hawthorne, a preacher and a mystic of the soul. He has the power of the marginalist's independence—which he shares with Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry and others—a battlement from which to attack the institutions of culture. He has come out of the Minnesota woods to help create a better society, albeit within a community of poets and the literarily educated, from the secretive resources he has found in himself.

Bly also practices authority in the way he has chosen, at this time, to collect his critical writing. For this, I have an objection.

It seems Bly is hot literary property right now. Books and articles on or by him appear regularly, (Addison-Wesley has just released his other new book, Iron John), and his men's workshops and poetry readings are sold-out affairs. But this book seems very dated. In terms of current critical thought, too many of its essays are from the distant past, (sixties and early seventies). Only seven of twenty-seven essays are from the 1980s, although some had been added to (revised?) in 1989. The collection strikes me as capitalizing on Bly's current notoriety. Several essays are important, which I will touch on. Many are distant, or too didactic. The essay on Denise Levertov, for example, covers her poetry only up through 1967. On average we have an ancient Bly—essays from his seed-time, not his maturity.

Of course, it is in the nature of the essay collection to group pieces over time: we have here close to 30 years of Bly's writing. But in developing a book of criticism the time covered need not be so vast. An example. The University of Michigan Press regularly issues its "Poets on Poetry Series," marvelous books of interviews with American poets, which often include prose pieces, reviews and critical essays. Bly's Talking All Morning from 1980 was an invigorating book of interviews and poems from the previous decade and a half. The book had a sensibility about the sixties and seventies, about politics and poetry, which, read in the early eighties, was quite vibrant. (Two essays included here—"Leaping Up into Political Poetry" and "Knots of Wild Energy—An Interview with Wayne Dodd"—are both in the UMP book and make better sense in that book's context.) Diffuse and arbitrary, this collection has little of that vibrancy.

In all of Bly's publishing frenzy, the private poet is pumping up his own public persona, with the idea that the culture needs a holy man to guide its poetry. It is his mission, and it comes from the teacherly strain in him, which I am thankful is not usually a part of his poetry. Bly is a very proud and dogged critic, and he wants other cultural workers and poets to be similarly engaged. In one of his polemical pieces, "Where Have All the Critics Gone?" he castigates the little literary magazines of America for not reviewing poetry enough, or, if they do, for rarely going beyond praise.

"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. When the older writers remain silent on what they despise, the young ones get confused. The emphasis on praising everything is part of the sixties, and its odd belief that criticism is an attempt to put down the young or minorities. This is condescending to young poets and no help to anyone. Younger poets are considered tender blooms, whom a harsh word will wither. Everyone becomes a minority."

In this 1978 essay Bly first called on every poet to voluntarily review two books of poetry every six months. The reviews' publication is not the point: doing the critical work is. Bly believes that "we need people with a joy in their own intellect and judgment."

Bly cuts some of the mustard himself in the middle section of this collection. He talks about a dozen of his contemporaries, poets whom "I admire or detest," or whom "I express both feelings about. . . ." Poets he loves include James Wright, John Logan, Etheridge Knight, David Ignatow, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, and Thomas McGrath. Poets he is ambivalent about are Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, and Louis Simpson. And poets he detests are Robert Lowell and James Dickey.

The trait Bly prizes in a poem is the luminous; a poem must give off light. James Wright's poetry achieves such brilliance, and he is represented here by an affecting tribute and remembrance. Luminosity helps Bly judge poetry with a primary idea, that "a poem is something that penetrates for an instant into the unconscious." The important thing about such a dictum (first published in 1963) is that his criticism continues to be controlled by a search for unconscious experience in a poem. He foregrounds the luminous quality in his readings of other poets, looking always for new realms of thought and image.

Here he is on John Logan. "John Logan braids language, making a whip that he hits himself with, or a jungle-vine rope with which he lets himself down dangerous cliffs. In his greatest poems he creates some sort of weaving, living, headed thing—all muscle, weaving about in the air, swaying. Its motions are curiously like the motions emotions make as they rise from the unconscious, and we feel strange because we know these. . . ."

Or here on Galway Kinnell's poem "Daybreak." "In this masterpiece, Kinnell describes the process of sinking with utter clarity. One simply sinks down into matter; there is no apparent effort. When one sinks in the psyche, one does not lose touch with the world above the earth. On the contrary the starfish resemble—in a way the physical eyes cannot see—'the true stars at daybreak.' The aim then is to sink in such a way as to retain contact with the stars."

James Dickey has luminosity but too often smothers it. "Someone said that what is so wonderful about Mr. Dickey's poems is that miracles happen in them; the trouble is that the poem continues to go on after the miracle is over."

Here's the rest of Bly's dictum. "If [a poem] can penetrate in this way, freshly, several times, then it is a poem of several lines. But if it does not do this it is not a poem at all—no matter how long it is."

Bly knows what we wants poems to do, perhaps because having experienced for himself that impure quality that "leaping" poetry can accomplish, he knows this is what poetry should do. Ever vigilant for that unexpected, hair-crawling, pierced, flung sense great poetry achieves means that Bly reads with a Basho-like indifference. He cares not a wit for what doesn't work, spending little time decrying poems for failing and much time quoting and praising poems that glow.

Yes, praising those that glow. Which goes against his insistence I quoted earlier that bad poets be thrashed more often. Bly, in fact, is just as praise-crazy as those he criticizes for writing nothing but accolades. Indeed, his praise is finely tuned and deeply wrought. But when he sets himself such lofty principles and then does not follow them in what he publishes, he appears hypocritical.

For Bly the great sin of American poets is their indulgence on the strictly personal. But in the poets of his generation he discusses, that indulgence is rare. Even though these essays remind us again of what Bly asserts is the inner bankruptcy of Robert Lowell, the overstressed image in William Carlos Williams, and the failed "objectism" of Charles Olson, he more often musters his guns at the idea of bad poetry and not at any particularly bad poet.

Bly offers this warning about personal poetry: "When writers talk hysterically about the human because of failure of imagination and emotional exhaustion; when they can think of nothing else that is exciting, when they are reduced to the human—then what is human is barren. I am not urging a nature poetry either, but rather a poetry that goes deep into the human being, much deeper than the ego, and at the same time is aware of trees and angels. The confessional poets tend to believe that the human being is something extremely important in itself. That is why they are always telling us every fact about their operations. Poets of this sort will accept calmly the extinction of the passenger pigeon or the blue whale. These are the poets to whom Nerval was talking when he suddenly turned and said, 'When you gather to plan, the universe is not there.'"

True, this idea had power as a critique of confessional poets in 1966. But what of today? Where are the guns and at whom are they pointed? Bly doesn't tell us. Perhaps he doesn't know. I'd love to hear Bly pore over a few younger American poets—Mary Oliver, Henry Taylor, Robert Hass, Leslie Scalapino, Sharon Olds, Gary Soto. I am unaware of him criticizing much current poetry. I suspect he is stricken with other matters—new translations or chasing the Wild Man—or else, like Roy Harvey Pearce, he may be quite content to promulgate the critical creed he developed a generation ago. I also suspect that Bly's creed commemorates another era more than it enlivens our own. Critically, Bly is not over the hill—he has become the hill.

With this book we are reliving a culture and a love for poetry whose vibrancy Bly did help engender twenty-five years ago. That shocking 1963 essay "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry," for which he was roundly booed by academia and then roundly vindicated by many poets, has with time lost its energy of attack although its wisdom remains vital. But Bly's poetry (and his work with men and myth) still possesses a healthy terrorism, which keeps his wisdom young. I would have hoped to find consciousness of this gap between contemporary poet and sixties guru here, maybe in an essay about the irrelevance of criticism in a life currently devoted to so much teaching. I believe the critic's development needs to keep up with that of the poet and the teacher, and I am troubled that American Poetry reveals Bly's tardiness on this point, even though the collection reminds us of his historically important depth as a reader.