from Great River Review, Spring/Summer 2010
I don't remember when I first sniffed the scent of something new in The Fifties: A Magazine of'Poetry and General Opinion, edited by Robert Bly and William Duffy, featuring James Wright. Perhaps it was when I was living downwind from the Minnesota prairies as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the late Sixties. I do remember taking a poetry class there from James Merrill, and when he turned us loose from his brilliantly stuffy East Coast poetry pals to investigate current poetry, I immediately hunted down issues of The Fifties and its successor The Sixties in the rare book vault in the university library.
I remember the thrill of reading another kind of poetry, looser yet much more wildly imaginative, from poets around the world and not just the East Coast or San Francisco, plus American poems unafraid of the familiar fragrance of corn stubble and ditch grass, plus delightfully cranky literary and political essays often signed by a columnist named Crunk.
The inside cover of the first issue stated the magazine's credo: "The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published today in America is too old-fashioned." How genteel that "old fashioned" sounds today, how deliciously radical it felt then! The first poem, by Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof, translated by Bly and Duffy, begins:
In the forest of convention,
some men walk there with rough shirts
—a sound of axe blows in morning air!
We readers of The Fifties eagerly resonated to the axe blows delivered by thirty-two year old Bly and twenty-eight year old Duffy to the forests of conventional poetry dominated by stifling no-longer "New Criticism" and the brilliant, deeply alienated Eliot. We basked in the light and heat of a new universe of poets reaching the forest floor. Our experience as readers mirrored Bly's own experience on a Fulbright to Norway in 1956 to translate Norwegian poetry. In that tiny, isolated country he found in an Oslo library an anthology of Norwegian translations of startling modern poets from Europe and Latin America he had never heard of before.
Returning in 1958, Bly and wife Carol settled into an old Bly farmhouse on the prairies of western Minnesota not far from the South Dakota border, where he soon met Bill Duffy, who was teaching English in Clara City at the time. Together, they set out to plan the first issue of The Fifties. Bly breezily told me later, "All you do is find a printer who is down on his luck and will hold his bill, then print and send out the magazine!"
Bly and Duffy modeled the content of The Fifties on that Norwegian anthology of new European and Latin American poets. They would include the best voices they could find in the universe of poetry, published in the original language and translation. The axe-swinging editors, also, it was clear, identified culturally with William Blake. They quoted him in that first issue "of poetry and opinion," while surrounding the poems with articles, interviews and quotations assaulting Chicago crony newspapers, university poets, the New York Times Book Review and nuclear fallout:
"O young men of the New Age! Set your face against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University who would, if they could, forever depress mental and prolong corporeal war."Such sentiments echoed powerfully to a post-World War II generation raised under a military draft using "the club of induction" to socially engineer young men's lives as well as populate the armed services for the growing conflagration in Vietnam. After ten pages of "modern European poems" by Gunnar Ekelöf, Tom Kristensen and Henri Michaux, and Crunk's detailed essay on the poetry of Louis Simpson, there followed ten pages of "modern American poems" by Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, W. D. Snodgrass, Charles Reynolds and, in the next two issues, James Wright.
The Wright story is well known but deserves rehearsing again here. Wright was an untenured English professor at the University of Minnesota, famous for his epic and moving "by heart" recitations of poetry, and for his bouts of drinking and depression. He had published a book of poems in 1957, The Green Wall, picked by W. H. Auden for the important Yale Series of Younger Poets, and had a second collection coming out. But Wright was in poetic despair, unable to touch the feelings that ravished him. He was depressive, alcoholic, and his marriage, a high school romance producing two children, was crumbling.
It is fair to say that The Fifties, and Robert Bly, saved him.
Receiving the first issue in the mail, Wright devoured it cover to cover. He famously responded to the editors with a six-page single-spaced letter full of agreement and self-reproach. Bly responded with a short note inviting him to visit his western Minnesota farm. That visit, and the many long stays that followed (in a renovated chicken coop), inspired several of Wright's most enduring poems, including "Milkweed," "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," [ending "I have wasted my life."], and the breaking-free-of-the-heaviness-of-the-body experience of "A Blessing." In that justly famous poem, the unnamed "friend" who stopped with him "just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota" to admire horses grazing in a field was Robert Bly. These poems star in The Branch Will Not Break, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1963, a year after Wesleyan published Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields, two books still in print that changed forever the landscape of American poetry.
It's worth reprinting in its entirety the contributor's note on Wright published in The Fifties second issue, dated 1959.
JAMES WRIGHT decided this spring to abandon what he calls 'nineteenth century poetry,' and the poems printed here are the first he has written in his new manner. He writes us that his interest in the new poetry began years ago when, wandering by mistake into the wrong classroom in Vienna, he heard an old professor talk with great excitement of George Trakl. Mr. Wright was Yale Series Younger Poet for 1959, with strictly `classical' poems, and has another book of the same type coming out in September from Wesleyan. He was born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, one of the little Ohio River towns near the great steel mills, and he says one of the strangest experiences of his life was his first reading, as a child, of the Blake line, "The Ohio shall wash my stains from me."
Here is one of Wright's poems "in the new manner" published in that issue:
In Fear of Harvests
It has happened
The nostrils of slow horses
And the brown bees drag their high garlands
Toward hives of snow.
Meanwhile, Editor Duffy, needing a new adventure, took a teaching job in Morocco in 1960, ending his direct association with the magazine, but leaving behind his impish spirit and irreverent delight, plus several fine poems. This one was published in the first issue of The Sixties, dated Fall, 1960.
The Horse is on the Loose
Outside, below my windows,
the old bay horse is loose
Twisting the dry snow-grass in his yellow teeth.
It is trying to snow...
And his brown ears are waiting.
A king stands poised, waiting, in an old
Armenian hat, on a rusty ship
Two thousand miles from any
You talked to me last night of blueberries
And warm raisin drinks and songs...
Of the hands of servants bathing someone
In the still inlets of the Mediterranean.
But below my window the ground is hard.
This patch of field has only Indian memories.
And I am waiting alone for that tiny sound
Which brings cold terror to hounds
and the sudden jerks in a sleeping man.
Literary magazines then as now were inundated with submissions. Bly described the editors' unusual response process in the Tennessee Poetry Journal in the Spring, 1971: "When I started my magazine, it was 1958, and my idea was that American poetry simply wasn't good enough. So what we did was just rejected everything that came in. Another decision we made was not to send the printed rejection slip....There are kids in this country who begin to write, and they send out poems for seven years, and they get absolutely nothing back (but pre-printed rejection slips). So what do you learn? Nothing, except they don't like you. Therefore, we decided to send a note with at least a personal statement."
Reading those issues of The Fifties, one learned what the editors believed poems must include: "experience lying behind" poems; a "wry and compassionate view of people which does not exclude humor and tenderness;" poems not of a "spectator, but of a participant;" "meaning conveyed entirely in...'images';" "... form as fresh as ... content." All these quotations are taken from Crunk's essay in the first issue on the poetry of Louis Simpson.
In the second issue of The Fifties, an essay noted the tired effects of the iambic style, concluding, "...in the poetry today we have thousands of ideas vaguely connected with emotions, but no emotion at all." And this from the third issue: "... without ... true images, the water from the unconscious, the language continues to dry up." Bly recalled, when asked about The Fifties in the Tennessee Poetry Journal in 1969, "I imagined the magazine to be, not for the reader, but for the poets; ... therefore, we didn't care about the circulation and we published as high quality criticism as we could get." Or write themselves, under pseudonyms such as Crunk.
All three issues of The Fifties listed Duffy's mailing address, "Briarwood Hill, Pine Island, Minnesota." The first issue of The Sixties, dated "Fall 1960," shifted the address to "Odin House, Madison, Minnesota," the Bly farmhouse. By the third issue, dated "Spring 1962," Duffy was off the masthead, having begun teaching English at Benilde High School in Minneapolis. Bly alone represented The Sixties at the founding meeting in St. Paul of the first trade and advocacy organization for literary magazines, "The Association of Literary Magazines of America," on November 11, 1961.
Bly and Duffy remain friends, though their paths diverged as Duffy pursued his career as a high school teacher of English, seven years at Benilde in Minneapolis, thirty years in Grand Marais (What fun it must have been to be his student!) while Bly traversed the country as poet, Vietnam war protester and teacher, but remained based in rural Madison until after his divorce from Carol in 1979, when he moved to Minneapolis. Bly visited Duffy often, dropping in, speaking to his classes, going to lunch with literary celebrities, and later hiking the trails around Grand Marais where, Duffy jokes today, 'We'd only get a few feet and someone would stop us and say, 'Aren't you Robert Bly?' Then we'd walk on and it would happen again!" Bly and Wright also remained fast friends, and Bly often stayed with Wright when he was in New York where Wright lived and taught at Hunter College and met his second wife, Annie Wright. Bly was able to visit Wright as he lay dying, of throat cancer, in a New York hospital in 1980.
The Anderson Center reunited Bly and Duffy in 1999 as the first recipients of the A. P. Anderson Award for Outstanding Contributions to Literature in Minnesota. They reunited again, to sparkling effect, in the spring of 2009 at a conference, "Robert Bly in This World," organized by University of Minnesota Libraries. Bly was 82, Duffy 78.
As young editors, Robert Bly and William Duffy set out to overthrow their literary elders, behaving in some cases badly to do so, but mostly communicating a great deal of joy at discovering and translating and encouraging poets and the new kind of poetry they loved and sharply critiquing the poets and poetry they didn't. Their work initiated by far the most spirited conversation about poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. Poet William Matthews, writing in the Winter, 1969 issue of Tennessee Poetry Journal, said: "It is nearly impossible to over-emphasize the importance of Bly's criticism (begun in The Fifties). John Haines was the first to say in public that "there has been nothing so interesting or influential since Ezra Pound began sending reviews to Poetry."
Writing in 2000, when the McKnight Foundation conferred on Bly its Distinguished Artist award, poet and prize-winning memoirist Patricia Hampl described the effect on a young writer encountering The Fifties and The Sixties. "I read Bly's magazine, and his good-spirited but deadly attacks on the literary establishment, and I knew I was reading the future... It became known—I can't remember how—that if you sent a batch of poems to Robert Bly, he would reply. And he did—thoughtfully, promptly, generously—and with a fiercely honorable candor that alone can extend true respect to a beginning writer. A response like that can keep a young writer going. There are many of us who will never forget that generosity and the bracing experience of editorial honesty. It may be what's best about literary life here. That spirit certainly began with Robert Bly." And with William Duffy, and the pioneering little magazine they created in the farm fields of western Minnesota called The Fifties.
About the Author
James Lenfestey is a poet, essayist, and teacher living in Minneapolis. A past resident of the Anderson Center, he is the author of numerous books, most recently Affection for Spiders (Red Dragonfly Press) and A Cartload of Scrolls (Holy Cow Press).
The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
Editorial Staff: Robert Hedin, Michael Waters