Distinguished Guests: Robert Bly, wild man of letters | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Distinguished Guests: Robert Bly, wild man of letters 

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"When a person tries to write poetry with depth, he will find himself guided along paths that will heal him; and his presence on those paths is more important actually than any of the poetry he writes," Robert Bly has said in an interview. "If our society were strong and spiritually healthy, it would heal us. But our society is not like that, so each person has to do most of the spiritual work himself."

Bly has been traveling the path of poetry for nearly 30 years now. Since the 1950s, no other poet, with the possible exception of Allen Ginsberg, has exerted such an influence on American letters. Bly is also a tireless critic, translator, editor, and teacher--and it's tempting to add "seer" to the list. It's a role he both accepts and declines, occasionally halting in the middle of a reading to stare at the audience and ask, "What are you listening to me for? You should be listening to yourselves!" He infuriates many who feel his blend of poetry, Jungian psychology, and Eastern and primitive spirituality represents an effort best left unattempted. And his "men only" workshops, in which he prods the participants to become real men again, are also distinctly controversial.

But despite his detractors, Bly has defined--or maybe rediscovered--the poet as someone who not only questions the world, but looks for answers deep within himself or herself, opening rooms buried in the body and in solitude where, as in a fairy tale, treasures may be found. In "Going Out to Check the Ewes," Bly wrote: "This body longs for itself far out at sea, it floats in the black heavens / It is a brilliant being, locked in the prison of human dullness."

The abundance and variety of contemporary poetry make it hard to believe that, in the 50s, American poetry was charged with being just plain dull. Bly's response, in 1958, was to start a poetry magazine, The Fifties, later renamed for succeeding decades. (Although Bly claims it's still in operation, no 80s issue has been published.) It became the platform for his emerging ideas on writing; he was particularly scathing in his attacks on the established poets of that time, academics like Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, pointing out their lack of energy and emotion. At the same time he introduced European and South American writers, such as Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Georg Trakl, and Tomas Transtromer, and contrasted their expressive, sensuous use of language with the frozen metrics then current. In a classic redefinition of the word "image," Bly set the new standard for imagination: "To Pound an image meant 'petals on a wet black bough.' To us it means 'death on the deep roads of the guitar.'"

But if modern poetry was reaching into the depths of the self, this didn't exclude involvement with the world. For Bly, it invited it. During the 60s he turned his energies against the war in Vietnam. Along with poet David Ray, in 1966 he organized American Writers Against the War, going to campuses across the country to bring the issue before students whose only experience of it up to that time was, in Bly's words, "professors talking in modulated tones about burning babies." His leap into political poetry, as extreme as his previous break with the academics, was perhaps an extension of it. When others criticized his social writings, he justified them as a legitimate manifestation of the inner life, identifying the war as a symptom of our troubles and not their source. "It's clear," he said, "that many of the events that create our foreign relations and our domestic relations come from more or less hidden impulses in the American psyche."

Since the early 1970s, Bly's work has been marked by an intense introspection, and he has struggled with the male side of the American psyche. Jung's theory of personality as a combination of impulses that are conscious, unconscious, and derived from the collective unconscious struck a powerful chord in Bly. The conflict of masculine and feminine archetypes made a particularly deep impression. In his prose poem "I Came Out of the Mother Naked," Bly wrote: "The dragon in inner life is man's fear of women, and in public life it is the matriarchy's conservative energy." He identifies the war in Vietnam as a crucial turning point in the male consciousness: "The waste and anguish of the Vietnam War made men question what an adult male really is," he said in a recent interview with New Age magazine. "And the women's movement encouraged men to actually look at women, forcing them to become conscious of certain things that the 50s male tended to avoid. As men began to look at women and at their concerns, some men began to see their own feminine side and pay attention to it. That process continues to this day, and I would say that most young males are now involved in it to some extent."

But Bly believes that men, having gotten involved in their feminine side, are becoming stuck there, weak, "life preserving but not exactly life giving." It is this lack of strength that Bly addresses in his "Wildman" workshops for men ony. By looking at the Wildman of the Grimms' fairy tale, he encourages the participants to explore, to go deeper into themselves. For many, and particularly for women, all this talk of men becoming men again seems like a depressing throwback to earlier, more restrictive sex roles. Bly has been known to state that women should be in the kitchen, doing "women's work." And Bly has taken a lot of heat for his observations on the sexes, sometimes with good reason.

What can't be doubted is the integrity of his search. His readings are never less than fascinating. Ideas flow, people get angry or exasperated or surprised, and his listeners are easily caught up in the masks and voices Bly inhabits for the performance. The uninitiated or the doubtful may want to keep in mind that Bly combines elements from many different worlds in order to push us, sometimes gently, sometimes painfully, toward a new recognition of ourselves. In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "There is no place at all that isn't looking at you--you must change your life."

Robert Bly is giving an evening of poetry and talk tonight, February 12, at the Learning Resource Center of Mundelein College, 6363 N. Sheridan. Admission is $12. Bly is also giving workshops for men, tomorrow and Sunday, February 13 and 14, from 9:30 to 4 at Damen Hall, Loyola University, 6525 N. Sheridan. Admission to either day is $70. For registration call 475-4848.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Roethig.

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