the Buddha on the Road
from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2013
"In 1787, The Bounty sailed for Tahiti. The ship was under command of the brutal Captain Bligh, who made life for those on board a living hell, with his ready use of the cat o' nine tails and his abusive tongue." So says the paperback cover of The Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. But this particular copy has the signature "Robert E. Bly" and the date 1945; its owner was then a landlocked U.S. Navy man, eighteen years old.
We customarily put our teachers, mentors, spiritual guides, therapists, leaders, and other necessary (and unnecessary) authority figures on pedestals. Engaging in psychological transference, we project our needs, longings, and other baggage onto them, fall in love with them, see them as flawless, larger than life, even godlike. But if we wish to thrive, the day necessarily comes when we must question authority, withdraw our projections, and claim our independence and power, finding wisdom inside ourselves. In short, we must grow up.
Generational transitions have followed a similar course. One generation hands over knowledge to the next; the younger ones first are receptive, but then become disillusioned, and finally turn against the older ones. This cultural pattern is clear also in family systems. Think of the regular occurrence of patricide in literature, in myths, folktales, and sacred texts.
Long before Bly became permanently identified as the author of Iron John and a leader of the "mythopoetic" men's movement, in the 1960s and '70s he was a dominant force in the literary life of the United States. Primarily via his own little magazine and small press, he lobbed fire like a mutineer at his predecessors, teachers, and literary fathers, fiercely criticized his peers, and attracted droves of ardent younger followers. Surely Bly knew that one day, inevitably, a mutiny against him would arise.
* * *
In the latter 1940s, Bly was part of a singular array of Harvard students who would be some of the most important writers of their generation (including John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, Robert Creeley, and Harold Brodkey). In the wake of World War II, they possessed more than a little self-assurance. "We were arrogant," Bly says. Archibald MacLeish was one of their teachers. "We veterans treated him like a sergeant." He continues: "MacLeish brought a poem of Ezra Pound and read it to us, making sure we understood that Pound was his friend. One of us asked, 'Do you have any friends that write better poetry?'" As staff member and then editor ("Pegasus") of that most venerable of college literary magazines, the Harvard Advocate, Bly began to write criticism as well as poetry.
Conception of his own literary magazine happened during Bly's Fulbright year in Norway. He wrote Hall, his closest friend, with a palpable sense of urgency: "I am more and more convinced that our generation has a real destiny in the course of American poetry. But I think the destiny lies in an opposite direction to where it has been living so far, namely it lies in revolution. If the writers of the '30s think we are too tame, let them watch: I will take them apart, brick by brick!" (15 June 1957). The Fifties—later the Sixties and the Seventies—first appeared in 1958. Bly resolved not to take an academic position and kept his home base in rural Minnesota, thereby staying unleashed and unmuzzled. He started "doing Daddy in," using the magazine to attack poets of the previous generation who were simply "too old-fashioned." He not only criticized, but also pontifiicated, intending to carry out "a sustained raid on modern life." The world had changed, and it was time for a new poetry, with a "new imagination," and a new emphasis on translation. Although the magazine had only eleven issues during its fourteen-year lifespan, the influence of its editor's perspectives and prescriptions expanded until, by the mid-'60s, it seemed ubiquitous.
Bly's essay, "Five Decades of Modern American Poetry," in the Fifties #1, opens with a condensed literary history of the twentieth century. He notes the remarkable generation that appeared in the 1910s, including Pound, Eliot, Moore, Jeffers, Williams, and, from Europe, Apollinaire, Ungaretti, Benn, Trakl, and others. "These men carried with them, as we know, a new imagination, and with the imagination, a content, and with the content, a style.... The new poetry appeared, and what I am wondering here is what happened to it." Bly wrote to Hall about this piece: "I think on the essay, to the same degree it will be liked by our generation, it will be detested by those older, so you old bulls, the back o' me hand to ye!" (l August 1958). One old bull, Allen Tate, reacted to the first issue by saying he was depressed at the younger generation's embrace of free verse, and added: "You are going to have to do better than this if you are going to convince the Old and the Tough" (12 February 1959). The older generation was thinking in relatively conciliatory terms of persuasion, the younger in belligerent terms of resistance and overthrow.
* * *
James Dickey used the salutation "Dear Captain Bly" as he responded to Bly's rejection of the poems he had submitted for the magazine: "I don't for one second agree with a thing you say, but there is a certain amount of liveliness in the way you say it." The letter was signed: "Yours in 'mutiny.' Fletcher Christian" (22 August 1958). Anthony Hecht praised the audacity of the first issue: "And yet," he said, "for all the vigor and life which is really there in your pages, I detect the shrill and hortatory tone of a man with a bug up his ass, a sort of literary Captain Bly" (n.d. [October 1958]). These appellations were premature, but Dickey and Hecht were on to something.
* * *
In the insulting feature "Wisdom of the Old," first found in the Fifties #2 (1959), Bly usually allowed members of the older generation to do themselves in with their own words. He wrote: "We have grave doubts about the intelligence of most, if not all, the older men in the country...." Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, John Ciardi, Leslie Fiedler, and others were so undone, the implied follow-up being: how can the writers of that generation be relied on as purveyors of wisdom?
Satire was also an effective weapon. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks were awarded "The Order of the Blue Toad" (the magazine's most notorious recurrent satirical feature) for Understanding Poetry. "This book was really written by Joe Friday. When discussing poems, if a poet shows any sign of generous feeling or whimsy, the authors say in a flat voice: 'We just want the facts, ma'am.' ... It is sad to think that this absurd book is used in almost every American university" (the Sixties #5 ). Such comment may have raised a ruckus in some classrooms, for which few teachers were likely to have been grateful.
In his essay "On the Necessary Aestheticism of Modern Poetry;' Bly writes: "Mr. [John Crowe] Ransom characterizes the modern poet as one whose poetry, unlike the poetry of the past, takes no interest in moral questions or in the great issues of public life. This whole view is, to put it frankly, untrue" (the Sixties #6 ). He also chastises Ransom for his apparently willful ignorance of a long list of poets writing in other languages. In the same issue, "Wisdom of the Old" has Tate's praise of Ransom, "the dean of American poetry, whose poetry can scarcely be read by a young, coarse, and ignorant generation." He places him in the formal tradition of Donne and Yeats and adds: " ... it is this tradition which is the permanently experimental tradition. To undertake to write in iambic pentameter is a more difficult experiment than the chopped-up anapests of Mr. Pound because the risks are greater, failure being more easily perceived." He sounds foolish—"permanently experimental tradition" is a mouthful, let alone inconceivable—as he betrays his own insecurity in the face of the inevitable. Needless to say, Tate was outraged by this treatment. The old order rarely likes being told that it is the old order, that it has become passé, that its members are "old fogies" (as Bly often put it).
* * *
Modern theorizing about cultural generations arose in the wake of the economic and social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Young men were now less tied to their fathers' occupations, and thus less beholden to family authority. With the weakening of local and regional ties, their identification with larger social and cultural groups of people close in age grew. One upshot was the phenomenon of youthful rebellion and emancipation.
As the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset points out (in Man and Crisis), members of a generation share certain experiences and ideas, a style of life, an essential destiny. Ortega divides life into five roughly fifteen-year stages, the two most important—in historic terms—being thirty to forty-five, "the period of gestation, or creation and conflict," and forty-five to sixty, "the stage of dominance and command." In art, poetry, science, technology, politics, and other fields, this holds true, generally speaking. (The massive alterations which our world is experiencing in the digital age add a new dimension to this outline but are irrelevant here.) A person in his/her thirties begins to react against the world as it is, tires of apprenticeship, comes up with new ideas, promulgates them, melds them with those of his/her "coevals;' and eventually finds that this work has effected change and "become the world in force. It is now the thing that is accepted, the thing that rules .... At that moment a new stage in life begins. Man upholds a world which he has produced; he directs it, governs it, defends it. He defends it because some new men of thirty begin in their turn to react against this new ruling order." And so the cycle continues, with two generations always fully active, working on the same things but from increasingly different perspectives.
Bly started talking and writing about the necessary conflict between generations of poets before reading this book, but in customary terms of decades (hence the magazine's name). Soon he was in line with Ortega, referring specifically to the generations of 1917, 1932, 1947 (calling them "objectivist;' "metaphysical," and "hysterical"—"three clearly marked psychic steps"), and then to his own of 1962 ("inward"). Bly wrote: "If each generation fails to develop its own ideas, the flow of ideas about poetry will stop; that generation and those following will be weakened."
* * *
Bly had been in thrall to Robert Lowell since his college days; for several years he wrote Lowellish poems—in iambic pentameter, puffed up with rhetoric and grandiosity. But by the time he reached his early thirties, he felt differently. Bly told Hall that the publication of Lord Weary's Castle (1946) had been an "unfortunate event" for him. "It urged me not to become a sensitive man, but to become a tough guy. It still does, whenever I pick it up, but I don't pick it up so much any more" (24 September 1958). At a time when Lowell was arguably the preeminent poet in America, Bly's review of his new book, For the Union Dead, was especially severe, saying that most of the new poems were "bad," "stale and cold," that it was "a counterfeit book of poetry" (Sixties #8 ). The older poet was badly stung; this younger poet, by attacking his most important model of the immediately preceding generation, was showing that he had grown up and moved on.
* * *
The message of growth and independence has been reiterated in a variety of ways. In "Self Reliance" Emerson enjoins: "Insist on yourself; never imitate." Similarly, in "The American Scholar" he writes: "Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself." This is echoed by Whitman, his younger contemporary: "I tramp a perpetual journey .... Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, / You must travel it for yourself." Later in "Song of Myself" he says: "I am the teacher .... He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."
The title character of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha struggles with his need for instruction. "He had begun to suspect that his worthy father and his other teachers ... had already poured the sum total of their knowledge into his waiting vessel, and the vessel was not full .... " Siddhartha decides: "I must judge for myself. I must choose and reject." He senses a new awakening, a rebirth, as a snake sheds its skin, and from then on makes his own way. Despite the fact that Siddhartha loves the Buddha more than any man he has ever met, he finally realizes: "Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom."
"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," a ninth-century Zen koan, is also the title of a 1972 (still in print) self-help book by Sheldon Kopp. He writes: " ... for most of us, at the troubled time at which we set out on the search for the meaning of our lives, it seems wise to turn to a helper, a healer, or a guide who can show us the way...." That spiritual guide, or guru, "may at first appear to be 'the ideal bearer of final truths,'" but in reality he is simply "the most extraordinarily human member of the community." Why must we kill the Buddha? Because he is not the true Buddha but merely an expresssion of our longing, a projection. If we don't kill him he will only stand in our way. The road on which he appears is the same as Whitman's; it is perpetual, leading to self-discovery and fulfillment once the obstacles are overcome.
* * *
Despite such recommendations, teachers, of course, are essential. So, what to do? The answer lies in the timing and the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. We need teachers to convey knowledge and encourage us in further pursuits, but only up to a point; we must drop them as we move toward wisdom. (This is easily done in the cyclical academic setting, but not so in less formal arrangements, one-on-one relationships, when the student, adherent, client, disciple, or child may be tempted to hang on forever to the master.)
In "On English and American Poetry," Bly speaks of the need for teachers—just not the teachers he had been introduced to in college (i.e., poets of the English tradition), and not necessarily living teachers:
If we have vigorous teachers we can write strong, vigorous poetry, but those teachers, those poets, write, as they always do, in other languages—not our own. They write in the Spanish tradition, suddenly reborn in the last fifty years, or in the French tradition through Char, in which so much sensibility is nourished, or in the German tradition of Rilke and Trakl, poetry which is not dying, but growing—poetry which has found a way to include not only more of the mood of modern life than any before, but also more of the joy of the unconscious. (Fifties #2 ()
One handy thing about dead teachers is that they do not require killing.
* * *
It is noteworthy that while Bly—in his gestating, creative, conflictual years—was leading the charge against the old-fashioned teachers of the older generation, he was also teaching. That is, the primary goal of his magazine was instruction; he quite consciously set himself up to be a teacher of his generation and the next. While intergenerational relations comprise the main subject matter here, we should also acknowledge, at least in passing, the intragenerational squabbles that Bly fomented. He was often dogmatic and doctrinaire with poets who were his contemporaries. While this alienated some, others found it bracing. Harsh, honest criticism aimed at peers was an article of faith for Bly. As he put it: "... those who are interested in the same sort of poetry attack each other sharply, and still have respect and affection for each other .... The criticism of my own poetry that has been the most use to me has been criticism that, when I first heard it, utterly dismayed me." So he attacked the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and many others, for kid-glove, clubbish reviewing that helped no one. And he characterized the criticism written by the poets of the Lowell-Shapiro generation as "either sheer gush (out of ignorance or guilt) or a transparent attempt to weaken competitors."
James Wright readily saw Bly's tremendous value as a teacher. He wrote to Hall: "I really do think he is a great man .... It's a fact that he is an innovator—you get one in a generation, if you're fabulously lucky. I really believe it's the duty of anyone who recognizes the original man to believe in him; and this belief consists, I have finally realized, not in discipleship, but in searching and serious questions, in criticism" (19 November 1958). Such a stance was not without its hazards. Bly wrote to Hall a few years later: "Jim's dignity has been somewhat affected, at least temporarily, by statements ... implying that he is my disciple or something.... The value of the magazine lies in its independence from the older generation, and its belief in the significance of what the younger ones are doing …" (n.d. [November 1961]).
Adrienne Rich, a friend from college days, said: " ... the magazine is immensely alive and refreshing and valuable. Perhaps you will really succeed in giving this generation of poets an important part of its education" (28 April 1961). Later that decade, her tentative prediction had been realized. Barent Gjelsness wrote: "It seems to me that your critical positions have been the most sobering and salutary, and effective, on the very youngest of the poets in this country. The youngest and most gifted. They identify with you as they do with Ho Chi Minh, say; a strong Father-image. This generation needs that image, and I think you have helped to give it a conscience too" (22 September 1969). So Bly, having cut a fairly wide swath for several years, had now reached the position of "father."
Lisel Mueller commented: "I become more and more aware of the influence you are having on young poets and poetry-reading students. I see it every time I meet with college students; every time I see an anthology by young poets" (20 January 1969). William Matthews wrote in an essay: "For all his talk of solitude Bly has come to dominate American poetry. Young poets refer to him either with rancor or like Sunday golfers talking about Arnold Palmer." One of those young poets, Gregory Orr, said: " ... his greatest contribution to poetry ... is as critic and mentor to a younger generation of poets." Stephen Kessler said:" ... he played a role for us younger writers not unlike the one Ezra Pound had played for his generation—that of irascible teacher, explainer, provocateur and know-it-all blowhard. Bly livened things up for everyone, and inspired many of us to embrace our vocation with passionate commitment and independence."
* * *
Then came the magazine's stupendous final issue, the Seventies #1 (1972). Said one: "It is the best document I have seen on modern poetry. It should serve as a textbook for young poets, as both theory & practice." Said another: "Should be read by every aspiring or practicing American poet, should be distributed to every elementary and high school, should replace all textbooks in all university seminars. I mean it." A third went further: "I think I need you for a guru. I'm not kidding .... Your mind, your whole self is large, huge—I want you to lead a movement or something. Start a commune and be the guru. Start a school and be the president. Make a movie and put all of us in it." MacLeish also responded:
I like the feel and sense of your metaphor of the leap. "Leaping is the ability to associate fast." Which becomes "... the speed of the association increases the excitement of the poetry." This adds to Baudelaire's "analogie universelle" which I would have said cannot be added to, being the last footstep on the path before the path drops out from under. Thus you are now the teacher and I the learner. (11 December 1972)
This graceful concession of teacher to student, older poet to younger poet, serves as a model for how such turnover ideally could—but rarely did—proceed. The demise of the magazine (with this issue) was indicative of a new phase for Bly; forty-five years old, he was entering "the stage of dominance and command."
* * *
George Hitchcock, editor of kayak (maybe the most important of the many offspring of the Sixties), invited Bly to write an evaluation of the poetry in kayak's first ten issues. He did so, pulling no punches. Of a vast outpouring of responses to his criticism, one began: "Captain Bly has been on a rampage once again, flogging the innocent, seeking the elusive Christian he loves but is bent on destroying, and shouting orders which few of us can understand. As often happens with the good skipper, his trusty astrolabe enables him to find the right direction, but somehow he misses port by several thousand miles." The writer then shifts from one sea tale to another: "Bly has been fighting the battle against this whale of a world for years from the puritanical posture in which we find Ahab: his moral harpoon poised above his head as he thrusts home again and again."
With a distinct awareness of the rising generation, the good captain began regularly to aim some barbs its way. In 1971 Bly said: "The younger culture has to be not only spontaneous and politically alive, and noncommercial, but also to have standards. The problem with the mimeograph revolution is that its idea was to have no standards at all. And that was a disaster." There is much to admire in the young, he allows. "The only problem is that the recent generation does not read enough and does not study enough." In his column in American Poetry Review, Bly suggested that, among the up-and-coming poets, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, James Tate, and others, the base was often too narrow for "will" to develop. There was a lack of isolation, and poetry was seized rather than being allowed to emerge.
* * *
Below deck was another story. There were definite signs of dissatisfaction, signs that a shift was gathering strength. "The FameGreed Father Bare-Assed at Last," a mimeographed diatribe aimed at Bly, accused him of selling out. He wrote in vigorous self-defense: "The whole point of the Sixties Press was to prevent rip-offs in poetry. We printed and distributed thousands of books—my wife and I—at $1.00 and never made a cent on any of them." Then he makes his deeper feelings known: "I think it's possible you found ... just a good excuse for hating someone of the older generation. You have a few token forty-year-olds you like, such as Allen [Ginsberg] and Gary [Snyder], but it's a relief to find excuses to hate the others.... Surely the older and younger generations should love each other, especially the generations of those who already love poetry" (24 March 1971). Is this really Bly talking? Maybe such knee-jerk resistance—much like Allen Tate's—is an all but prescribed initial stage in the handing-over process.
An impressive rejoinder indicates deep familiarity with and gratitude for Bly's work. "You seem to miss entirely the point of our complaint. We indicate ... that poets should take control of their work—an extension of taking control of their lives. You had a splendid opportunity to do this with the Sixties, a journal we much admired." Politics and poetics both informed their stance:
... your recent acts ... seem to be a series of corporate mergers: the move to Beacon [Press], well-paid readings at universities, the appearance of poems ... that look as if they were culled from old notebooks, or else crawled through layers of cerebral fat to lie gasping on the page .... Your fine long poem Teeth Mother [Naked at Last] shows a good understanding of corporate-monopoly capitalism and the commodity spectacle—why then do you submit yourself to it?
They had assumed Bly was theirs, securely affixed to the pedestal they had erected for him:
We loved & admired you .... You were a model for struggle. I particularly admired the courage you displayed in writing poems wildly against the literary status quo of the early 60s when NewCrit still held pernicious sway. Magnificent! Plus, as you note, The Sixties and its cheap publications .... And the wonderful translations of Neruda and Vallejo. Giving your N[ational] B[ ook] A[ward] money to Resist. Splendid. Splendid. Splendid. Like a Big Bill Haywood of poetry. And while I'm running it down, I like your criticism—cranky, readable, often illuminating.
This is a stirring summary of Bly's manifold activities. "In a way you're the victim of your own rhetoric, because we took you seriously about harsh, out-front criticism." They are following Bly's example. "Now, in light of your recent actions, we feel slightly betrayed, and, as it is with all betrayals, foolish and angry." There it is: hurt and humiliation; Daddy had disappointed them. Still, the correspondent insists: " ... much love and grief accompanied the production of ' FameGreed Father.' And I guess a little poison, too, much of it learned, again, from you .... " Finally, one more legitimate question: ''And what has happened to your sense of humor?" (30 March 1971). Humor, always one of Bly's favorite weapons, was now conspicuously jettisoned in the face of mutiny.
Ortega writes: "Man upholds a world which he has produced, he directs it, governs it, defends it. He defends it because some new men of thirty begin in their turn to react against this new ruling order." The tables had turned—Bly had become part of the Establishment. A new generation was flaunting its radicalism and brandishing its cutlasses.
* * *
The pressure from below increased, if unevenly. Diane Wakoski was appreciative of Bly, yet concerned about excessive influence and the cult of personality. She felt he presented his poetry in a "messiah-like" fashion (23 July 1971). Orr wrote: "There is a rather large group of younger poets (age range approximately 25-40) who are grateful to you for having helped them when they were just starting, but who are now deeply alienated from you in large part because you seem to have turned on them" (2 February 1976). William Heyen felt the freedom to tell Bly to "loosen up. You know what I'd suggest: time for Bly to write only poems, his own, especially time for him to stop asking himself what he knows and feels. Time to write" (l May 1972). Apparently Bly lashed back, and Heyen was chastened (at least for the time being): "You must know that a lot of us are looking to you. That bastard who shot [George] Wallace loved him. Wasn't that first letter of mine something of the same?" (6 June 1972).
Cynthia MacDonald's poem "Instruction from Bly" (1972) is a fine example of a younger poet's process of individuation. It begins:
The poet told me if I was serious
I must isolate myself for at least a year—
Not become a hermit, but leave
My family, job, friends—so I did....
Bly was famous for prescribing solitude for every young poet he came into contact with. MacDonald thus had moved to North Dakota and was working as a gas station attendant. After seven months, she felt herself no further along the path. She drank too much, she ate, she read inattentively, she watched TV. She wrote very little, becoming skeptical.
... I wonder if the poet meant
It would all happen after I left, or if he is a sadist
Who wants to send all those stupid enough to sit
At his feet to N.D. or S.D. or West Va.,
Hazing before possible joining....
But suddenly she saw a fly land on the vodka bottle on her coffee table.
... And then it happens: the life
Of that bottle flashes before me. Little by little,
Or quickly, it is used up; empty, as clear as it was
Full, it journeys to the dump; it rests upon the mounds of
Beautiful excess where what we are—
Sunflowers, grass, sand—
Is joined to what we make—
Cans, tires and it itself in every form of bottle.
She carried on as before, although everything had changed:
I put on my s.s. coveralls, a saffron robe, knowing I have found
What I was sent to find. The sky speaks to me; the sound
Of the cars on Highway 2 is a song .... (Amputations, 1972)
The point of Bly's instruction is that solitude and inwardness will lead to the awareness that poetry is not primarily a matter of getting something from a teacher but of using one's own resources. This poet found wisdom without subversion. She remained appreciative of the teacher, but no longer dependent on him.
* * *
In 1971, Bly reviewed Octavio Paz's Configurations for the New York Times Book Review (which he had repeatedly disparaged in earlier days). The Mexican writer (twelve years Bly's senior) "has become the most highly praised poet of the generation immediately after Vallejo and Neruda." At its best, Bly says, Paz's book "drives forward ... into states of anguish the Europeans never managed to describe; at its worst, it leans into soft oceans of romantic mush, where all women are fiery and all roses are sacred and all kisses are eternal." Bly insists: "I am not saying that Paz is a bad writer .... Occasionally a poem of his will have, as his essays have, the weight of a real body." He names a few that he likes. "Yet Paz oddly fails to outgrow his addiction to poetic Disneylands as he gets older: his long poem, 'Blanco,' ... is a disaster."
For those in the know, this tough criticism was merely the Bly brand. Soon after, however, he received the following open letter:
For some time we have been perfectly aware that you are among the most contemptible of swine; an enemy of everything that is important to us in the world—love and freedom, for example; a particularly loathsome reactionary cretin who deserves only to be pushed into the grave, along with those unforgivably shitty exercises in stupidity which your sickening vanity had led you to confuse with the practice of poetry.
However, your scurrilous review of the poetry of Octavio Paz ... exceeds the limits of our endurance.
If we ever run into you in person, we intend to correct this reprehensible outrage which is the measure of your vileness.
Vengeance will be ours, no matter what.
Below were the signatures of the eight members (Franklin Rosemont, et al.) of the Chicago Surrealist Group.
Five and a half years later, as he was about to begin a reading in Chicago, Bly received a pie in the face and was pelted with flour and macaroni. His attackers denounced him as a "counterrevolutionary swine" and a "second-rate false poet." After they were chased out, and Bly had cleaned up, he urged everyone to breathe deeply and calm down. As recounted in "The Surrealist Assassination of Robert Bly" (by an eyewitness, Jeff Poniewaz), Bly explained that "some Trotskyite Surrealists" were enraged by his Paz review. "They also hate me for loving Neruda. They claim that when he was working in Chile's embassy in Mexico City he had a hand in Trotsky's exile to Mexico, and therefore was instrumental in Trotsky's assassination." Despite outcries that he press charges, Bly refused.
Poniewaz suggests: "Though it was only a silly slapstick pie, it was delivered as murderously as a pointblank pistol. . .. Some, too, kill in print." Thus he shrewdly implicates Bly because of his own many sharp words. Speaking of the incident a couple of years later, Bly said, "I must have done something to deserve that—must have done something to stir that up." Not only did he accept at least partial responsibility, he also had begun seeing such overt rebellion as a healthy sign. As he wrote in a poem around that time: "More of the fathers are dying each day. / It is time for the sons."
By the mid-1970s, if not before, Bly was a literary counterculture hero. His mind was teeming with new ideas from his growing interest in mythology, folktales, and Jungian psychology. He would "deliberately set out to make his audiences squirm by probing their fear and guilt and rage as well as their more delicate sensitivities." But there were perils, as Kessler notes: "The fatherly authority with which he speaks of writing and the psyche's inner dynamics seems to be swallowed whole-hog by most of his admirers, who—seeing him rightly as a carrier of life—may fail to note that many of the master's sweeping generalizations are not only inconsistent but unsupportable." Projection was still the problem, and Ortega would have seen such a situation as untenable. Furthermore, the same observer writes, with a concern for Bly's fans: "Unless they get out from under the hypnotic radiance of their master and discover some contradictory truths for themselves, all the poetry in the world won't rescue them from the drone of cultural consumption and the artificial glow of secondhand understanding." If the younger generation fails to rise up, shirking its duty to kill the Buddha at the appropriate time, the whole scheme will be knocked off-kilter.
Hall, meaning well, named libido dominandi, the lust for power (or will to domination), as Bly's "particular devil": "[It] doesn't do you any harm around me, or around your family, because ... we still are critical of you. But it does bother you a great deal when you are on the road, or when under any other circumstances you are surrounded by acolytes. This is where your devil can destroy you. I think you should restrict yourself to friends, and cut your followers off" (24 February 1975). As his influence peaked, it was undoubtedly good to be reminded of some of the attendant hazards. (Around this time another friend advised Bly to be careful with young female poets, the combination of adoration and power being a combustible one.) Gurudom can be intoxicating, and it is difficult to keep shrugging off the mantle of master when admirers only throw it back on. One of the younger, primarily male poets, whose growth Bly was actively fostering, Matthews, said to him: "We talked when you were here about people's need to kill off their literary fathers. Well, you are probably mine, but to hell with killing off people you love" (8 July 1970).
Nevertheless, Bly was mindful of what was at stake. An attendee of the pie-in-the-face reading wrote that Bly "expressed ... the idea of thinking in your own terms and not someone else's." A later journalistic piece spoke of his "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 grew concerned that he wasn't being attacked enough. In a 1978 interview, Bly said: "One of the things that has disappeared in the last twenty years in poetry has been the conflict between the young man and the old one." He speaks of having started the Fifties in order to attack the views of certain older poets:
The reason for that is not because I hated Allen Tate .... In the 50s the shade from Eliot and Pound and Tate and William Carlos Williams was a heavy shade. It was necessary to clear some ground, so there'd be a place for new pine trees to grow.... Perhaps my generation is casting shade now. The younger poets are not attacking [Kinnell] enough, or Merwin, or Wright, or Creeley, or Ginsberg. They're a little slow in attacking me too. But the normal process of human growth from generation to generation involves ... the new generation attacking the older one. And attacking them strongly, wiping them out as far as possible.
Bly wrote to a friend, sharing his admiration for Russell Edson, Gerald Stern, Michael Benedikt, Orr, Bill Knott, and Simic. But, he adds: " ... on the whole Simic and Orr and Knott are following Jim Wright and me and Merwin, etc, too much. They're making the same mistake Lowell did" (27 April 1975). The idea was that Lowell, of the generation of 1947, was under the influence of the previous generation to such an extent that he had failed to distinguish himself. (It goes without saying that all the poets mentioned here succeeded long ago in weaning themselves and having noteworthy poetic careers.)
It was evident that younger poets were in trouble when most of the poems they wrote were undeniably Blyish. David Ray had recognized this danger quite early, saying that the impact of the magazine "will result in so much imitation, even on the part of people who don't want to be derivative in any way" (13 May 1963). Bly says, with a nod to Joseph Campbell: "... there are mythological fathers: Rembrandt is such a father; so is Yeats. Teaching takes place there; the father teaches there without damage because the teaching is coming straight down as a light source or a dark source." It is appropriate to find a master, a poet from the past, or from another place (as mentioned above)—whom one could never meet—and translate his work. But when the young Bly appealed to Lowell or when a student appeals to Bly, he says, both are "looking for a personal father, and so mix up the two planes." This is an easy thing to do. "One gets an affection for, or an anger against, the personal father there, and loses sight of the mythological one.... " ("Father" can also be "mother." Witness Bly's encouraging Jane Kenyon to translate Anna Akhmatova. Her experience doing so, a five-year immersion, as she says, got her unstuck, brought a welcome change of direction, and energized and opened up her own poetry.)
Bly's long career has afforded him opportunities for reflection. In "The Way the Parrot Learns," from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), he seems to rue some of his past harshness and grandiosity: "One teaspoon of envy was enough for me / To attack Robert Lowell ...." But reducing his Lowell problem to a matter of envy alone fails to account adequately for its purposeful and justifiable nature.
* * *
In Gratitude to Old Teachers (1993), Bly gathers his poems on Williams, Stevens, Neruda, Statius, and others. The title poem begins:
When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers? (5)
He also addresses Whitman:
My master, my lover, my teacher! ...
The master sings like a dark rabbi
Among ocean herbs on the shore: "Press close,
Bare-bosomed night." Be blessed, teacher,
By the Torah and the Bible inside the naked seed. (21)
The debt to teachers never diminishes, and the connection to one's mythological fathers can remain alive and strong.
* * *
The most famous mythological father associated with Bly, of course, is the title character of the Grimm brothers' fairy tale, "Iron John." Through the 1970s and '80s, Bly had been delving into mythology and gender issues, soon concentrating on matters pertinent to men. Not coincidentally, this story had deeply personal resonance for Bly as the son of an alcoholic father, and thus it may have been advanced with even more zeal—if that is possible—than some of his earlier literary and political concerns had been. Iron John appeared under the imprint of a textbook publisher, but it quickly and unexpectedly became an international bestseller. With perfect timing, it answered a pressing need among men eager for self-transformation, and vaulted Bly into the realm of celebrity.
Bly undoubtedly meant well. The fairy tale is about a boy's initiaation into manhood. A hairy "Wild Man" is found at the bottom of a forest lake, captured, and caged by the king. He escapes and fulfills his role as the "Wise One," a mentor. The premise of Bly's retelling and explication is that boys cannot become decent, responsible, mature men without an elder's help. From his experiences of leading workshops, of talking and listening to men, and of reading, he had identified a "father-hunger," which kept some men from locating their true masculine identity.
He was no stranger to the spotlight, nor to showmanship, nor to the charge of being a shameless self-promoter (an almost ineluctable by-product of fame and usually born of envy), but the unprecedented flood of media attention, anointing Bly the head of the burgeoning and multifarious men's movement, was almost overwhelming. He became a guru once again—teacher, mentor, and father-substitute extraordinaire. However, for many others, women and men, he struck a nerve, and was seen instead as a dangerous crank, a misogynist, or at least ridiculous. By now the controversy he stirred up may have died down, but measurable anti-Bly sentiment and caricature still linger, casting a shadow—and in some cases a shroud—over both his prior and subsequent literary accomplishments.
Feminist response to the men's movement was swift and strong, and Bly's high visibility made him public enemy number one. The fact that he was his usual provocative, and sometimes bumptious, self in public gatherings only aggravated the situation. Susan Faludi, in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), portrayed him "in his sea captain's pose, hands on hips, scowling at his audience .... " Worse was the apparent (in retrospect, at least) miscalculation or at least poor timing of some of the metaphorical language he used; urging men to be "warriors," not to be "soft," to claim their "Zeus energy," could not help but be inflammatory. Jane Caputi and Gordene O. MacKenzie wrote: ''All power resides with the fraternity of the hard on Captain Bly's Ship of Snools [Mary Daly's word in Pure Lust for 'agents of the atrocities of the sadostate']." This was not a mutiny, but a broadside from a hostile warship. The fact that much of the reaction was marred by rampant distortion and oversimplification is undeniable, yet such is almost foreordained with matters of great volatility and wide publicity, and thus it may be beside the point.
In the early 1990s, Bly decided to withdraw from the public forum for a year, giving no interviews and accepting no speaking engagements. Of course he had grown weary of the incessant attacks. More interesting, perhaps, was the toll that the positive projections had taken. He was happy that his work had, quite evidently, been helpful to some. "But," he said, "I have to be careful not to become a caretaker to everyone who comes along." He found that some in the men's movement "want to make me into a big daddy, the 'Good Daddy' who always says something wonderful. ... I didn't set out to be everyone's daddy." As at other times in the past, Bly was more than willing to be a guide, even of a fairly significant social movement. Once again, he almost succumbed to the enticements and delusions of fame, but he caught himself in time; he was not a personal father-figure. His followers would have to cut the cord and move on.
* * *
Bly has become an elder, while ever the teacher. Kessler, who has paid attention to Bly's career since the 1960s, heard him read again in 2007. "As usual, the great man was charming, obnoxious, funny, overbearing, self-deprecating, grandfatherly and demagogic by turns." Bly "encouraged anyone without [a teacher] to get one...." By evening's end "he was more like a New Age preacher, even cajoling the congregation into a poem-along—and they obediently submitted as to any other charismatic cult leader...." Sure enough, in 2008 another poet, Barbara Goldberg, referring to Bly as "a kind of modern-day troubadour" and a "spirit guide," said, after his reading at the Library of Congress: "We would have followed him anywhere.... Bly held his audience in the palm of his hand, and we were weeping." The adulation continues, if to a lesser degree, but more out of respect. Although his latest books—remarkable in many ways—continue to burnish his reputation, Bly's influence is now more subtle, and he and his generation relinquished their dominance long ago.
* * *
Coda: From a recent poem by Loretta Mestishen, "The Night I Killed Robert Bly" (excerpted):
The night I killed Robert Bly
the trees burned blue.
I asked him for fire
and the question killed him.
He disjointed himself like an orange,
strings of pithy sinew connecting his traveling parts.
His hands left first, breaking and squealing away from his wrists
only to disappear on the backs of crows.
The feet dug in, snapped the legs off at the trunk and began
an hysterical troika of leaves and sugared pug noses.
His head rolled off into the wet grass
like a stampede of silent bison.
A stone lay where his throat had been,
his burnished unspoken answer.
I kept the rock and used it as a red checker
in an ongoing game with my Grandfather's ghost.
(The Night I Killed Robert Bly, 2004)
But that is not the end of our eminent poet:
One day, an intact Bly squeezed himself out
of the kitchen faucet and silently asked for his voice back.
New plums converse in the language of bees.
We three eavesdrop
and tend an old garden rife with cockscomb
and the icy tails of comets.
She seems to kill the Buddha shortly after meeting him and is witness to his dismantling. But he returns, having been rendered harmless and ordinary-an essential, abundant, drinkable substance. Bly (a grandfather himself) converses with the poet and her grandfather. For all his gruffness, he is a figure who has offered others nourishment, through direct guidance as well as through his poetry. Mestishen, too, has drunk from this source. He brings out the best in her, and now her writing can become her own.
This essay took shape during a residency at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota. Thanks to Robert Bly for, among other things, permission to quote from his correspondence. Thanks also to Tenaya Darlington, Loretta Mestishen, and Sarah Campbell.
* * *
About the Author
Mark Gustafson's essays have been in Antioch Review, Rain Taxi, Great River Review, Classical Antiquity, Harvard Theological Review, and elsewhere. Author of The Odin House Harvest and The New Imagination (forthcoming), he is now writing Robert Bly's biography.
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