Robert Bly wanted to be the Ezra Pound of his generation, the know-it-all impresario to set everyone straight on what poetry is and ought to be, and what it shouldn’t be if poets knew what was good for them. Gertrude Stein dismissed Pound as a “village explainer,” and the same epithet could be attached to Bly. But like Pound, the big man from Minnesota — by way of Harvard and back to Minnesota by way of the Iowa Writers Workshop (in a bygone age when such programs were elite institutions for the seriously talented and ambitious, rather than parts of the Creative Writing Industrial Complex) — actually did have a lot to teach, and when I was coming of age in the 1970s he had an enormous impact on my formation as a poet, translator, critic, and student both of literary culture and culture writ large.
In his magazine The Fifties, later The Sixties and then The Seventies, Bly went on the offensive against the sclerotic formalists, the neurotic confessionalists, the conservative Southern Agrarians, even the equally rebellious Projectivists, and whoever else was not practicing what he was certain were his profound imaginative principles of the Deep Image, “inwardness,” international cosmopolitan eclecticism, “Leaping Poetry,” Great Motherism, and the rest of the conceptual hobbyhorses he rode to prominence as the most aggressively polemical, didactic, and shamelessly entertaining poet of his time. He may have been, as critic Eliot Weinberger once called him, “a slob of the English language,” but his overbearing and seemingly ubiquitous presence as a poet, translator, essayist, editor, satirist, and performer made him arguably the most interesting, exasperating, and at times inspiring force to contend with in the literary landscape. The fearlessness of his attacks, in his campaign to promote his own ideas, on those he considered insufficiently enlightened was exemplary as a model of how to shake things up in the interest of dynamic discourse.
Bly’s distinction between “the network” of poets talking among themselves and a larger “community” of nonspecialists with which, and apart from which, poets also lived was especially useful to me as I broadened my own writing practice from the insular bubble of the little magazines to the pages of community newspapers — at that time the “underground” press, soon to be the “alternative” press — where I honed my chops as an essayist and critic and found a readership that never would have seen my poems. Following Bly’s example, I felt empowered to write as a poet in contexts frequented by a general readership at a time before the internet, when such papers were read avidly, especially in a countercultural community like Santa Cruz, where the University of California had opened a campus in 1965 and began to convert a sleepy beach town largely peopled by retired Republicans into a laboratory of hippie-bohemian artistic, intellectual, and existential experimentation. By working in local newspapers, I was able to subvert a nonliterary medium with imaginative writings that could pass for journalism while testing the limits of that genre at a time when the New Journalists were doing it in the bigger national magazines. It was liberating to feel I had broken out of the poetry ghetto, a marginal cultural space where only other poets cared about what was going on.
Bly himself extended his reach beyond the poetry culture with his 1990 book Iron John, which vaulted him from stardom as a bard who had won the National Book Award for his 1967 collection The Light Around the Body and leading poet-objector to the Vietnam War — among many other poets of the time — to bestsellerdom as a leader of the men’s movement. Despite its popularity, as I learned when I read it several years later, more out of skeptical curiosity than anything else, Iron John is a very good book, a deeply subjective work of cultural anthropology by way of social psychology infused with mythology, exploring the coming-of-age of boys in an era when many fathers had failed as role models and women were on the rise toward their own sexual and social liberation. Bly’s ideas offered men a path to sensitive yet masculine manhood that didn’t apologize for maleness and acknowledged a necessarily “wild” dimension to a fully rounded maturity. The fact that he became a guru to thousands of men yearning to release their deepest repressed feelings was as much a measure of the culture’s failure to nurture that aspect of growing up male as it was of Bly’s own need to cultivate what became a cult following. The ensuing conflict with feminists reflected his failure to recognize that he was working out his own bad-father issues by unfortunately replicating much of the patriarchal aggression he was rebelling against.
From the late 1960s through the 1990s, the big-boned, blond Norwegian-American was a frequent and physically imposing visitor to San Jose and Santa Cruz for readings and later men’s workshops, where adoring audiences lapped up his uniquely provocative performances replete with his Indigenous poncho costumes, his scary facemasks, his dulcimer-strumming, his Campbell’s-Soup-theme-song-mocking, television-condemning, daydream-dismissing rants and ravings, his Rumi-spouting, Rilke-reciting free translations, and poems of his own — spoken from memory — intended to awaken his audiences from the soporific spell cast by so many more-conventional poetry readings. These events were reliably stimulating if also loaded with dubious pronouncements and obnoxious aggressions toward anyone and anything less cognizant than he was.
Among the more memorable scenes I witnessed occurred in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, when he declared from the stage in a packed church that it was just as plausible to consider the universe as a place of many gods as it was to think of it as created by a monotheistic deity. The poet William Everson, a rogue Catholic in the audience who, though he had long abandoned his robes as a celibate monk, still retained a belief in one God, at that point got up from his seat toward the front and walked up the aisle toward the exit. Bly interrupted himself to ask, “Bill, where are you going?” Everson turned and said, “I don’t believe it,” as he left the congregation. Exposing his own performative identity as a big-time bullshitter, Bly said, as if to himself, “I don’t believe it either. But you can’t tell the truth all the time.”
That also applies to his mixed record as a translator and promoter of European, Latin American, and Asian poets. Bly opened doors and windows to a world of poetry to which many Anglophones had previously had no exposure, very usefully widening the notion of what constituted good modern (and ancient) poetry. The major problem with his translations (often from languages he didn’t know, by way of other English versions) was that he made every poet, from García Lorca to Mirabai, sound like Robert Bly. Instead of disappearing into the voice of the original poet, he superimposed his own, frequently prosaic and talky tone onto the very different range of bards. His Bly-ifications of such poets were great examples, if you knew the difference, of what not to do as a translator. While there were some poets whose voices he could plausibly imitate by just being himself — the early surrealist lyrics of Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, for instance — there were others whose original style had little to nothing in common with Bly’s. The redeeming aspect of these distortions is that, like the earlier, even more distorted poeticizations of Ben Belitt (of Neruda and Lorca especially), they cracked open a universe of poetry that the rest of us translators could enter, launching our own efforts to render more faithfully the originals that deserved more reliable representation than they had received from trailblazers like him.
In 1971, when he was already a famous poet but not as yet a household name, I wrote to him at his Minnesota farm enclosing some examples of my poems and translations. I received back, fairly promptly, in an act of postal courtesy typical of him at the time, a reply that offered yet another example of candor rare among teachers: “This is all outward, it doesn’t mean a thing. You’re facing as resolutely outward as a football player. The Lorca poem is accurate, but the language is more mechanical than Lorca’s. It’s better than Belitt, though!” Such a response may read today as rather brutal, but for me at the time it was like an acolyte being whacked with a stick by a Zen master — an admonition to wake up and see reality in a different way. I was 24, and to be taken seriously enough to be so sharply criticized by someone of Bly’s stature was a gift that moved me not to give it up but to stay at it until I got better.
I expect I’m not the only young poet to have benefited from such pedagogical pugilism. Bly’s recent death at 94 has reminded me of his immense contributions, for better and worse, to the creative consciousness of our time.
Stephen Kessler’s 12th book of poems is Last Call, recently published by Black Widow Press in their Modern Poetry Series. His translations from Spanish have received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, the PEN Center USA Translation Award, a Lambda Literary Award, a Northern California Book Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. The Redwood Coast Review, which he founded and edited from 1999 through 2014 for Coast Community Library in Point Arena, was four times recipient of the PR Excellence Award of the California Library Association. He lives in Santa Cruz, where he writes an op-ed column on Saturdays in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. His website is stephenkessler.com.
Photograph by Nic McPhee.