Robert Bly Continues to Be Fascinating (And Reductive)
The new APR has a feature on Robert Bly that I found to be equal measures interesting, amusing, and frustrating. First, there are four new poems. Here's one:
Love of the Wind
We’ve spent a lot of time keeping some old men alive.
I don’t’ think you should criticize us for that.
Even old sailors keep their love of the wind.
We know so little of our neighbor’s sorrow.
He never told us what happened to his son.
What can it mean that Jesus had no sister?
We’ll never know anything better than a dog.
It doesn’t matter how deeply he sleeps.
The sleeping dog leaves all the world for the floor.
It’s all right if the family gathers together at night
And sings like sailors when the wind rises.
The roof of the house will last the night.
I’ve never been an old friend to the wind.
Don’t expect me to be happy about haystacks
Scattered in a storm or blown-down barns.
Don’t expect me to talk about the Spanish armada
Getting into trouble off the Galway coast.
Even old sailors keep their love of the wind.
What I find interesting about Robert Bly’s poetry here is how, if he were a young poet writing like this he would likely be called post-avant. Well, maybe he would maybe he wouldn’t, but what I mean to say by this is that categories of poetry are delicate, imagined things. We make them up as we say them, and then we impose them on each other.
So that’s the interesting part. The amusing part is how much Robert Bly continues to adore Robert Bly’s poetry. He’s so darn pleased with his poems that it makes me grin.
The four new poems are followed by an interview Chard deNiord conducted with him and his wife Ruth. In the interview it becomes clear that deNiord and Bly are in a race to figure out which of them adores Bly’s poetry more. It’s fun to read, and, as I said, amusing.
Along with that, some of Bly’s answers are so cantankerous and enigmatic, they made me almost cheer. When deNiord asks him about the shifting ego underneath his poems, he replies, “Well, maybe we have to go back a hundred years and recite some of Wordsworth’s sonnets back to him.”
Ah, good times. But, at some point it seems these sorts of essays and interviews have to take a turn to bash some poetry I generally like. This has me convinced that there is a war going on, a cultural war of everyone against Language writing and what is coming to be most often called post-avant poetry. It’s fascinating and frustrating to see otherwise interesting and smart people have such universalizing and indefensible exchanges as this:
CD: In talking about the ghazal you remarked in a recent interview that “it often makes a leap to a new subject matter with each new stanza that is, itself, a form of wildness.” But then you go on to say that “the ghazal must have massive forms of discipline to balance that wildness.”
CD: And you practice that discipline. You have always talked about the domestic and the wild. There’s so much poetry being written today that has a kind of wildness to it, or innovation. I was wondering what you think of the lack of what you call discipline in a lot of recent experimental poetry, such modes as L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E and post-avant poetry.
RB: It’s pitiful.
CD: That’s what I thought you’d say.
RB: Yes. There’s nothing evil about discipline, as long as you can keep the wildness going. You know, some people are wild with nothing to be wild about.
RB: And so, that’s one reason for saying that someone writing poetry needs to do a lot of reading, so you have something to be wild about.
First off, there are always going to be poets who don’t write well, in any mode. This short-hand that is cropping up with stunning regularity, mentioning those post-avant poets and how many, some, or sometimes all of them are guilty of all sorts of aesthetic crimes, is creating a nice THEM that the US can heroically pit itself against.
It’s simply wrong and silly to intimate that there’s something in Language writing or post-avant poets in general that is undisciplined (the ghazal, for instance, is quite popular with a lot of poets I’ve heard described as post-avant; and for a more specific example, there’s a lot that Cole Swensen has been accused of in her writing, but there’s no way one could call it undisciplined, in any stretch of the term), and that they have nothing to be wild about, and that, finally, they don’t do a lot of reading.
I suggest that Robert Bly brush up on his reading.
A lot of this, I think comes from is that we have two different things going on. First, Language writing’s been around for 30 or more years now, and it’s become an institutionalized whipping dog for the anti-theory types. OK, that’s not my fight. But there’s this second group, these post-avant poets. The slippery slope here is that it’s a term, a school, a mode of writing, but it doesn’t have any people under its flag. It’s a house no one lives in, so people like deNiord and Bly aren’t’ reacting to examples (which might, depending on the poet, look a lot like Robert Bly’s poems), so much as a tone, a feeling that the kids these days don’t know what they’re doing.
I’m very well acquainted now with the boredom of this argument. But look, here comes another one . . .
In other news, I’m currently reading Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness. It, by and large, does a much, much better job of navigating this ideological minefield, even if he’s a little slippery when it comes to irony. He writes, "Discipline is only good for the dispensing of punishment."