P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE No.55 May 2022
My Bly, Part 2
This month I continue my reflections on Robert Bly. As mentioned previously (“My Bly, Part 1”. March 2022), I once had the opportunity to spend some time at his side while he travelled around New England on a reading tour. It gave me an extended taste of his character and personality, at least in that period of his long career. This would have been 1977, and thus very early in my poetic life.
How this came about was through the good offices of my old friend and fellow poet, Fran Quinn. Fran may be the single most dedicated person I’ve known in the world of poetry—which is saying something. Dedicated to poetry itself, I mean, not to publication, careerism, fame, money, prizes, or the whole circus of PoBiz. Partly as a result, and unlike Bly, he’s far from famous. As he remarked to me recently, he’s destined to be “a footnote” in the story of contemporary American poetry, remembered chiefly for all the countless, often better known poets he’s befriended, hosted, mentored, promoted, taught, or edited.
But an unforgettable and worthy footnote indeed. Though he mostly flies under the radar of the national poetry establishment, he’s been doing great work for this art for well over half a century. He’s been a professor, an editor, an organizer of readings, and an all-around poetry entrepreneur, not to mention mentor to countless younger poets. Now in his eighties, these days he holds private workshops in several cities. And most importantly for present purposes, he was a friend of Bly’s for decades. When he lived in Worcester, MA, he was a prime mover and shaker in the Worcester Country Poetry Association, a remarkable outfit which sponsored many readings and other poetry events. That’s how I met him. He was doing Poet-in-the-Schools gigs back then, as well as driving a bookmobile and working as a custodian, as I recall. But the center of his life was poetry, and he was (and is) incredibly generous to other poets. So when I arrived in Worcester fresh out of college, I soon ran into Fran at one of the numerous readings happening back then. He perked right up upon learning that I was a fan of Bly’s work. His reaction was the opposite of what I’d encountered during my schooling.
Nostalgic sidebar: I believe our first meeting was at a reading in the Worcester Public Library in I think 1975. Afterward, Fran and I got so engrossed in talking that we got locked in the library when it closed for the day. We hadn’t noticed the time or the lights being switched off till it was too late. After some prowling around in the dark, we finally exited by locating a door in the basement that didn’t seem to be connected to the alarm system. Then we got into his car in the parking lot and talked for a good while more. . . .
Anyway, from that day forward Fran took me under his wing, introduced me to many poets both local and national, got me involved in the WCPA, invited me along on some poet-in-the-school visits, and arranged for some of my earliest public readings. Over several years in the 1970s, often through Fran’s doing, I was able to enjoy encounters with a remarkable number of fine poets, perhaps most notably future Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Tomas Tranströmer; and I had the chance to hang out with quite a few others, including Donald Hall, Russell Edson, Leo Connellan, Jay Wright, Etheridge Knight, and Robert Francis. And it was in those early days he introduced me as well to Mary Fell, not only a fine poet but another lifelong friend. Fran’s energy and generosity seemed boundless: when he learned I was considering graduate writing programs, he took it upon himself to drive me from Worcester to Providence, where he knew some of the Brown University MFA faculty; and later to Amherst MA to meet Joseph Langland, who became one of my professors at the University there. On at least two occasions he took me, along with others, to Fort Juniper in Amherst to meet the inimitable Robert Francis, about whom I wrote in my Poetic License for November 2021
One day Fran asked if I’d like to meet Robert Bly and accompany them both on a small reading tour. Fran was to be Robert’s chauffeur for a generous handful of readings and class visits around New England. I suspect that Fran had arranged the readings as well. Much of that week is a blur to me now—I know we traveled to Maine, and I think Connecticut, possibly Rhode Island; plus several readings in Massachusetts. But I well remember the three of us tooling down the highway in Fran’s huge blue car, the two of them talking poetry and gossiping nonstop when Bly wasn’t taking a nap, and me mostly listening. Many miles on the highway, and any number of classrooms, lecture halls, meals, and nights bunked out in borrowed bedrooms. I’ve forgotten many details, but I’ll never forget the impact of Bly’s readings or his class visits.
One can’t really define or describe charisma, but Bly brimmed over with it, whether onstage or at the dinner table. When he entered a room he was invariably the center of attention—which I eventually suspected could be addictive as well as personally dangerous. It’s easy to mock someone for showmanship, but over and over I witnessed Bly deploying his charm in the service of poetry. Though he could be very funny, and his readings were most entertaining, poetry was obviously no joke to him. Always, beneath the humor and theatricality, he communicated a profound seriousness and clarity of purpose. At least in that respect, he was the same onstage or off, as far as I witnessed. Poetry was soul-work. He obviously believed in its power to change your life, deepen and widen your imagination, improve your relationships, and even blaze a path into the sacred.
So I tagged along on his little tour and watched him in action numerous times. Both readings and class visits were inspiring. They seemed entirely improvisatory, which lent an air of anticipation and excitement, since you never knew what he might say or do next. He had dozens, maybe hundreds of great poems by other poets memorized, and I never saw him deliver the same reading or lesson twice. He was a remarkable if unconventional teacher, able to “read the room” in a way that was uncanny. A key point, for me, was that he usually read more poems by other poets than himself, which sent the right message: poetry is always more important than poets. Once, at Worcester State College, he spotted Joseph Langland in the audience—and immediately cried out, “Joe! Come up here and sing your trout poem!” Joe had a wonderful and funny little lyric about catching a fish which he had set to music, and Bly had apparently heard him perform it before. So Joe gladly rose and sang, which I later witnessed him do many times. (Unlike Bly, he had a beautiful voice.)
I remember another occasion when Bly was addressing a group of school teachers. He insisted that any poem worth teaching should be memorized—which I thought then and think now is a rather tall order—but he certainly practiced what he preached. “If you say ‘this is a great poem,’ why should students believe you,” he challenged them, “if you don’t know it by heart?” Not only should a poem be memorized, he added, but you have to be willing to look corny or goofy in presenting it. He was certainly unafraid to do so, while also letting you know you could laugh at him so long as you took the poetry seriously.
As those who have seen him read know, he would twirl around, waving his hands in the air, sing, or strum his dulcimer, all of which he did with a winning clumsiness and verve. Sometimes he would put on masks to perform, and a couple times I saw him charge out into the audience shouting in a threatening way to emphasize some point. If he were an actor we’d say he chewed the scenery. Nobody fell asleep during one of his readings.
But as I say, it was all in the service of presenting poetry, and especially in reminding audiences of its origins in music and dance. I was a college graduate who had attended many readings by then, but he was the first poet I ever heard actually present some of Blake’s “Songs” as songs. I also remember him crooning, none too tunefully, some Yeats as well in those early readings. After one particularly hammed-up presentation, he commented, “See? If it’s a great poem you need to be ready to read it in a wonderful way!”
His readings went long. Maybe my memory is exaggerating a bit, but I seem to recall a few of them reaching the two hour mark or more, and I don’t think anyone ever walked out. It’s easy to see why he attracted good crowds, and, later, why he was so successful at initiating the annual conferences for which he became most famous in the public eye. The first annual Great Mother conference happened over ten days in 1975. Eventually it morphed into the Great Mother and New Father conferences, which I believe ran into the present century. Though I never attended any of these gatherings, I know folks who did. And by way of their reports from afar, anyway, those conferences always struck me as extensions of the sort of things I’d seen Bly do in his poetry readings—in other words, exploring ideas he had developed in his poems, his critical essays, his editing and translation work. They incorporated music, dance, poetry in studying human consciousness in holistic fashion, with an emphasis on gender issues. Myth, storytelling, song and dance were always on the menu, and Bly shared teaching duties with many others over the years.
Over time it became a sturdy and far-flung community of like-minded artists and spiritual seekers. A passage from the “Great Mother and New Father” website may give a sense of the flavor of these conferences, as well as some insight into Bly’s role:
Those of us lucky enough to ride alongside him have the horror stories as well as the love stories, and that is absolutely proper. He wouldn’t have it any other way. But few lack a moment where he leaned in with characteristic warmth and praised, challenged, and generally provoked our sense of just what we could do in this world. He relentlessly exemplifies the capacity to deepen your life. And without naivety. He never said it would come without consequence.
For most of us at the conference, he was the single greatest human teacher we will encounter.
Absolutely fallible, gutsy, risk-taker in extremis, prone to sustained and positively supernatural bursts of creative fire, his legacy is everywhere. His challenge is everywhere. It is deep evidence of his stamina and generosity that over forty years on, the Great Mother Conference continues to thrive, punch above its weight, and bend its head to the skill of making beauty. The community that formed around the conference is substantial, a little eccentric, artful, political, funny, and filled with pathos. A little like the man himself.
“Horror stories”? “Absolutely fallible”? These words appear to be credited to one Martin Shaw, who is identified as a mythologist, author, and storyteller, and is clearly a Great Mother veteran. He doesn’t go into specifics about what those phrases just quoted refer to, but hinted at in the careful qualifications of otherwise exuberant praise are some of the reasons I decided never to attend one of these events. And why, after my days on the road with Robert, I understood that I needed to look a little more skeptically at this “absolutely fallible” man, lest I turn into some sort of wide-eyed disciple, and, poetically, into a mere imitator. I couldn’t have put it that way at the time, for sure. But I definitely sensed I should keep my distance. I think now that his gravitational pull was so strong that, as a young, fairly unformed poet myself, I was at risk of being pulled into his orbit and never truly developing my own vision and voice.
Consciously or not, all young poets imitate, of course. It’s natural and healthy, and a large part of the way you learn how to craft a poem. But as an avid reader of Bly, I had already produced many poems such as the following little lyric, which has Bly’s stylistic fingerprints all over it:
We see roadsigns in colors
not even thought of, a century ago.
Leaning north, like the long brown grass
at the roadside,
we feel we are at the edges
of something that moves more swiftly.
We see the boys
pent in the backseats of Oldsmobiles,
rocking back and forth slowly,
not listening to the radio.
—published in The Worcester Review 4 (1976)
You’ll note how many of Bly’s early trademark moves appear here: the first-person plural perspective; the title gerund; the primal nature imagery juxtaposed with specific modern touches like those Oldsmobiles; and a rather generalized discontent with modern technological society. Frankly, I think that’s one of the more successful poems in my Snowy Fields period, but I concluded, after spending time with Robert, that it wasn’t fully my own. I put the words on paper, sure, but it was more his voice than mine. So for better or worse, I set out to forge my own way. That involved more schooling, in preparation for my own career in teaching, and it also meant extensive study of as many other poets and forms of poetry as I could find. The theory there, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, was that imitation was a good thing, so long as you cast your net widely. You only risk being derivative if you focus on emulating a single voice or style.
As I’ve said, I never stopped reading Bly, but over time many other poets fascinated me, some briefly, many enduringly. And it’s no coincidence that many of these favorites are as different from Bly as could be. Ultimately, Bly has a lot of company on my personal list of important influences. Including, to his everlasting credit, poets Bly himself introduced me to—Neruda and Tranströmer, among others.
A couple years after our road trip, I even ventured to mock Bly a little. While in graduate school I composed a series of parodies of well known poets, partly as an exercise in using mimicry to study and practice poetic style. I only parodied poets I admired. In the process I discovered that it’s almost too easy to spoof Bly, his style is so distinctive: those exclamation points, “deep images,” leaping metaphors, and blend of serious and silly. In contrast to the solemnity of my lyric quoted above, I had my fun imitating Robert’s prose poetry, as seen in his mid-seventies book The Morning Glory. Looking back now, I think one goal was to exorcise his heavy influence over so many of my earlier poems.
For a subject I grabbed an amusing story I’d seen in the newspaper. You can look it up. In a lighthearted moment in 1975, the Connecticut State legislature was debating which animal to designate as official State Animal. (Why do states need official animals?) I have a hard time imagining a less urgent matter, and apparently some legislators agreed. Someone suggested Homo Sapiens, since taxpayers were an endangered species, ha ha ha. So the vote was called, and Homo Sapiens it was. But the public outcry and ridicule were so immediate and fierce that they had to re-convene the next day and rescind their vote.
(In case you’re wondering, the Connecticut State Animal is now the sperm whale. Someone should write a poem about that, come to think of it—unless it travels up a river, the sperm whale cannot really said to live in Connecticut, can it?)
Anyway, here’s what I came up with:
Longing To Be State Animal
—after Robert Bly, and in honor of the Connecticut State Legislature, which voted homo sapiens Official State Animal for one day in 1975
Foolish desires! of small victories, that slip away like trails of small animals in snow. I see my face on postage stamps, on flags grown limp in still air. I sink my claws into stationary sent from the Chamber of Commerce. A star by my name plaque, every zoo in the state! . . .
Hartford, Connecticut, April 1975—the legislature runs through strange pastures for the afternoon. Then what? In the woods near Middletown, down the scruff grass that lines I-91, on the black rocks of New Haven, I fall like a clam shell from the gull's beak, a tortoise shell, empty, drifting down into a cold dark.
—published in Poultry: A Magazine of Voice 1.1 (Fall 1979).
Honestly, I still rather like that poem, and occasionally bring it out for readings. Mostly it mocks the legislature, not Bly, of course. But I believe it’s a fair imitation of his style in his prose poems. If that last sentence turned up in one of them, few readers would blink. Certainly he’s written similes that resemble “I fall like a clam shell from the gull’s beak. . . .” It’s always risky to analyze one’s own voice, but I also believe that, with this parody, I moved away permanently from simple imitation.
So much for Bly’s poetic influence on me. What about him personally? Well, I can say that during my limited time with Robert I certainly did get glimpses into his fallibility, though I never saw anything actually horrifying. It’s not unusual for celebrities to be overbearing, I suppose, but I’m simply not attracted to that kind of personality. I won’t go into great detail, in part because I no longer remember a lot of the specifics, just the general sense of disillusionment I felt. But I will say that there were moments when I found him being a bit of a bully, in the guise, I imagine, of challenging his listeners. I saw him be needlessly rude and peremptory with any number of people he met. I sensed an arrogance I didn’t like. And in private it turned out he could be quite catty and unfair about fellow poets he disliked. Seeing such behavior up close felt different than reading it in The Fifties, The Sixties, or The Seventies. (Looking back now, having received many cruel if not witty rejection slips myself, I am no longer quite as amused by the young Bly’s high jinks in that line.)
In other words, I finally realized, not just intellectually but in a visceral way, that Robert Bly was human, no shaman or guru or poetry god.
I do recall one particular moment when my change of attitude began to crystallize. I’d been so bedazzled by his public performances that it wasn’t till we were rolling back home to Worcester for his final reading that it occurred to me that, on a personal level, he was not someone I was likely to seek out. And vice-versa, no doubt: I was just a kid fresh from college, a mere tag-along on this trip.
In any case, about the only time he turned his attention my way it was to inquire what my astrological sign was. Uh-oh. One of my personal hot buttons, then as now. Upon being informed I was a Pisces, he launched a brief lecture about my personality that was as generic as such things usually are. I found it presumptuous (I hadn’t asked to be analyzed) and faintly ridiculous. The key takeaway, as I recall, was his announcing that both Robert Lowell and Cesar Vallejo were Pisceans, and that therefore I had an addictive personality and was prone to mental illness. Upon learning that I was between jobs (headed shortly to graduate school) and that my wife was currently the breadwinner, he also mixed some stern marital advice amid the general astrological hooey. (I note in passing that, unlike Bly, one marriage has been enough for me.)
Granted, I never really knew Robert Bly. Having only witnessed one interlude in his long life, decades ago, I shouldn’t generalize beyond what I saw. And I admit I was both green and ornery myself. But in any case, that was about it for any unqualified admiration for the man, as opposed to the poet on the page. Along with astrology, arrogance in any form has always been another of my hot buttons, especially in people who feel it their right or duty to be generous with unsolicited advice. The academic world, of course, is full of such types. Over my decades as student and professor I met more than my share of charismatic teachers who couldn’t turn off their lecture mode outside the classroom. It can be pretty tiresome. Ironically enough, Robert, who spent his whole career criticizing the academic world, actually fit in there quite well. He made a good share of his income, of course, performing his anti-academic routines on various campuses. Even by 1977 I had already noticed that in all of his bashing of MFA programs he rarely mentioned that he himself held the degree.
Once the seeds of doubt were planted, gradually they grew. Turns out I didn’t love all his writings, or share some of his enthusiasms. In time I decided that, as interesting and provocative as Bly’s critical and historical ideas could be, I wasn’t sure they all held water. And he did have a tendency to proclaim rather than prove. Often in his critical writing, his metaphors were so seductive that it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ideas behind them. Or at times I just didn’t understand what he was getting at. Consider this passage, describing Walt Whitman:
Everyone who reads a poem of Whitman falls in love with him, and has a secret friend. All the rest of his life, whenever he thinks of Whitman, he notices a red ray of sunlight hit the ground a few inches from his feet.
That’s quite lyrical, and I’m sure it depicts Bly’s own deep love of the poet, but what does it really say about Whitman? For instance, why is the ray of sunlight red? Why does it hit “a few inches” from your feet, no closer or farther? Why would such a friend be “secret”? We’re given no clues to any of these metaphoric gestures, not even pointed in a clear direction. And as for the claim that “everyone” falls in love with Whitman after reading a single poem, well, that’s just nonsense. In my teaching years I encountered many students who disliked his work, even after I tried to persuade them otherwise. In fact, the closer I look at that passage the less it communicates.
Moreover, I will now confess that one reason it says nothing at all about Whitman is because actually Bly was discussing Federico Garcia Lorca. (Did anyone catch that?) Sorry for that little switcheroo, but my point in pulling it was to note that too many of Bly’s critical writings, however evocative, don’t really say much beyond “I really like this” or “I really hate this.” And would you be surprised if I told you the poet in question wasn’t Lorca, but Rilke? Or Rumi? Or Neruda? Or Vallejo? The fact that one might make a case for each tells us that Bly’s fanciful flourishes sometimes don’t amount to much. Much as I admire his translation work, his introductions and commentaries are full of similar passages.
(If you’re wondering, I’ll say for the record that he was describing Lorca. I swear.)
In his critical writings Bly was and remained an amazing provocateur and generator of theories, and was endlessly memorable in expressing his speculations. But as I was later to conclude, when teaching books like his anthology News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, he was more than occasionally guilty of overgeneralization or oversimplification. I’ll cite just one example of those I’ve noticed. In News of the Universe, Bly’s analysis is provocative but simplistic. He heaps scorn on what he calls “the old position” of Judeo-Christian dualism, which in its firm hierarchy elevating spirit over flesh leads in his view to all manner of terrible consequences, including racism, subjugation of women, environmental disasters, and a generalized blindness to the natural world. There are certainly large kernels of truth in that summary, of course, and the Romantics made much the same argument long before Bly came along, often with more nuance. But as usual it’s a pretty broad brush he’s painting with.
Bly’s snarky swipe at John Milton is particularly bothersome. In glossing a key speech by Adam in Paradise Lost, Bly ham-handedly conflates Adam’s ideas with the author’s, writing at one point that
Milton asks why women were created at all. We were doing so well with only men, he mumbles, and ‘this fair defect of Nature’ [i.e. Eve] has brought ‘innumerable disturbances on Earth.’ This is a standard complaint.
Such a passage would get red-penciled in any college essay as a gross misreading of the text and a misunderstanding of Milton’s intent.
Not only does Bly attribute Adam’s opinions to Milton, but he neglects to mention the dramatic context. Adam and Eve have just eaten the apple, thus learning of Original Sin as well as the punishment their disobedience carries. They’re in shock. Adam’s angry at Eve, lashing out at her for tempting him to sin. It’s a moment of high drama (and hardly mumbling!). Eve replies at length, and, among other things, wishes for death. But the scene continues, and after much high iambic rhetoric from both characters, by the end they are both penitent, no longer blaming each other or the Almighty for their own weakness. The scene concludes with both prostrating themselves and praying humbly to God. One can argue with the theology, and sure, John Milton was far from a modern feminist; but in context the passage Bly quotes simply doesn’t mean anything close to what he claims it does.
Maybe this will surprise you, but I love News of the Universe, and often taught from it in a course I did on nature poetry. Why? Two reasons. First, Bly provides many teachable moments, and is always fun to argue with. He raises big questions that are well worth exploring. He’s perfect for “teaching the controversies,” as we professors say. The fact that his agenda is so obvious and broad-brush actually provides some good hand-holds for deeper discussion.
But second, and more important in my view, I love News of the Universe because it’s simply a great collection of poetry. As an editor Bly had an unerring eye for quality. Which leads me to a further point about Bly’s influence. In fact, all his anthologies are wonderful. I’m not sure he gets enough credit for this—he not only introduced Americans to splendid poets from other languages, but highlighted many great poems in English, often ones that deserve more attention. In News of the Universe his inclusion of Robert Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” for instance, a seldom-anthologized piece, opened my eyes to its beauties. (And I’m a long-time lover of Frost.) Likewise, readers will find in this book a host of fine poems by other 20th Century poets who did not get as much anthology coverage as they should have, including Robert Francis, Robert Sund, Louis Jenkins, Thomas McGrath, David Ignatow, William Everson, and Kenneth Rexroth. (If you are thinking that that list is heavily white and male, you’re right, of course, though I should also note that the book includes poets like Dickinson, Moore, Bishop, Oliver, Levertov, and Akhmatova, who can’t be called rarely anthologized; and as usual he includes many poets from other languages and cultures, not all of them Caucasian. In any event, I would challenge you to find many anthologies from 1980 that weren’t so slanted.)
Bly’s editorial work, start to finish, was by and large exceptional. One way to put it is this: I may not go along with whatever cultural critique or theory he may be pushing at a given moment, but when he says a poem or poet is worth my attention, he’s invariably right. Another way of putting it might be: his anthologies or journals may omit some work I love, but every poem he includes will be a good one. There are no duds. He turned me on to the work of David Ignatow, for instance, who is a very uneven and these days neglected figure. Bly’s 1975 edition of Ignatow’s Selected Poems is well worth hunting up. His selections omitted all the weaker poems and made a convincing case for Ignatow as a strong poet. Likewise with William Stafford: if you don’t own any of his zillion collections, start with Bly’s The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems. You won’t be disappointed. The same goes for Bly’s selection from James Wright and Thoreau. And any of his many thematic anthologies. I’m particularly fond of The Sea and the Honeycomb: a Book of Tiny Poems, which I’ve been re-reading with pleasure for decades.
Eventually I concluded that I loved Bly not because of his ideas, but at times in spite of them. In this he resembles Yeats. I have little interest in Yeats’s spiritualist beliefs, or his complicated theories about historical gyres and the like. Nor am I attracted to what many have complained are his elitist class attitudes. But somehow these to-me-nutty ideas enabled him to write one masterpiece after another.
But before I conclude, let’s return to the 1970s one more time.
Several years after my time on the road with Robert, I attended another of his readings. Not sure of the date, but I think it was during my time in graduate school. His performance was as powerful as ever, and I’m glad I went. But when I arrived at the after-party, which was at someone’s apartment, my change of attitude really snapped into focus. There was Robert in a stuffed chair holding forth, with a ring of dewy-eyed young admirers circled literally at his feet on the floor. What’s more, they were tossing him questions that had little to do with poetry, translation, editing, mythology, or any of the subjects on which he was an expert. Rather, he was fielding queries about election politics, the economy, nuclear power, and more; he was quite readily pronouncing on any subject tossed his way. Here was a sage dispensing wisdom, and it seemed to me his followers were lapping it up. I wanted no part of that sort of adulation.
And I found myself wishing that Robert’s lifelong friend Donald Hall were in the room that night to puncture some of the pretention. I remembered Hall, at a similar party, telling a lovely anecdote about once finding Gary Snyder surrounded by just such a bevy of earnest disciples ready to absorb his teachings. “The atmosphere in the room was oppressively spiritual,” Hall intoned (he was a great storyteller). His solution, he reported gleefully, was immediately to pepper Snyder with questions not about Buddhism or ecology, but about royalties and book contracts and other details of poetry as a business. Snyder, of course, smoothly switched gears and responded in kind, while Hall delighted in the baffled looks on the faces of his acolytes.
So that’s more or less the story of why I never was moved to read Iron John, or to seek out Bly as a mentor. I know that countless others were somehow able to be around Bly without being overcome by his gravitational pull—my old friend Fran Quinn among them. But I realized I couldn’t. Maybe I’m just too skeptical by nature. No doubt I am insufficiently spiritual to go along with a lot of Bly’s pronouncements.
But though I did not in the end love all his books or his modes equally, I was always able to appreciate Bly on the page. Frankly, I remain amazed at his accomplishments. I also appreciate that he never stopped developing and exploring as a poet, either. By the early 1980s, at least, much of my original fiery devotion to Bly’s work had faded considerably, and I was increasingly aware of his weak spots. I read his books, but was not blown away by all of them. But in his final phase, at an age when many renowned poets begin to rest on their laurels, spinning their wheels and repeating themselves, Bly produced a string of quite wonderful books. From Morning Poems in 1997 through his final collection, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey in 2011, I think he really caught fire again. I find the poems generally more musical, more convincing in their leaps, more surprising, and more wise than much of the work of the 1980s and 1990s. Those last four collections are full of amusement, wisdom, and imaginative depth.
In this late flowering, too, he reminds me of Yeats: Bly was a “wild old wicked man” to the end, or until Alzheimer’s finally silenced him.
For Part 3 of my Bly reflections, I plan to zero in on a single favorite poem. Wonder which one it will be? Stay tuned. . . .