Monday, September 12, 2011

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.”

RB: Yes.

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: Pitiful?

RB: 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.

CD: Right.

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."



At 9/12/2011 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

Now this is just ridiculous--it's a horrid question, akin to "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" There is so much that is so wrong here. Is "wildness" equivalent to "innovation"? What does that have to do with "lack of...discipline"? And has de Niord even read any LangPo? If Lyn Hejinian had applied any more "discipline" to My Life, the project would have imploded into a self-concentrating black hole. And of course, a la the famous wife-beating question, there's no way Bly can really respond to the question without untying the knot of implicit praise (of Bly) in which de Niord has wrapped it.

I'm stunned by the nested spurious (or at least untested) assumptions in de Niord's question (and wish you had unpacked them further, although we've certainly been through this before). It makes me ill that APR published this, esp. on top of the recent Hoagland-fest in the Writers' Chronicle.

At 9/12/2011 4:06 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

You're right, I should have. I'm just tired of this fight that keeps happening, even if they've no real idea who they're fighting.

This bit was pretty funny, as a sentence:

"There’s so much poetry being written today that has a kind of wildness to it, or innovation."

Wildness to it, or innovation. De Niord can't have that. Bly can't have that. You're right. For de Niord to admit that this is wild and/or innovative would mean wildness and innovation can take forms other than those sanctioned by Bly (or whomever in whichever essay, Hoagland, say, etc).

At 9/12/2011 4:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

What I meant to say is that when de Niord writes:

"There’s so much poetry being written today that has a kind of wildness to it, or innovation."

It's the "a kind of" that allows for the denial that Bly will follow with, and that de Niord will endorse with his silence.

It's pitiful because it's without discipline (which is, as you say, just crazy talk, thinking of the formal constraints many Language writers posed for themselves), and by those who don't read or have any reason to be wild.

It's an arrogance that floors me, to make such assumptions of writers.

At 9/12/2011 4:43 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Although I've been a longtime fan of Robert Bly, I have to say that this poem is terrible.

Here's a better one:

Texas Wind

Wind, old friend, who never settles.
So gentle, yet wild, even fierce sometimes.
How I loved you.
I used to write poems to you.
You brought me the scent of the sea,
and the song of the chimes,
the perfume of flowers, but now…
you are but a nuisance;
a petulant child that constantly rages.
No longer a friend.

Once my topsails were filled,
wings pulled to the sky;
you were my heart’s gallant steed,
but now, damn you! You just scatter my pages
when I read,
break down my trees and whip up the hay.
You shatter my roses and
cruelly play
with their orphaned petals.
You are an arrogant annoyance, by and by.

Once kind, now you’re rough;
once soft now contentious.
Have you changed so much
or have I?

Copyright 2005 – Evolving-Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 9/12/2011 5:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gary, I assume you're joking, but the satiric target isn't entirely clear.

At 9/12/2011 5:21 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I'm not surprised to see Bly disparage L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E and post-avant this way; it reminds me of stuff he wrote in Leaping Poetry. I don't have my copy of that to hand, but I think he expressed reservations about Berrigan-era St. Marks poets. Like Vallejo et al. he admired, these poets jumped around a lot; but in Bly's opinion, South American surrealists are leapers, while St. Marks poets are merely hoppers. They just hop from a snatch of overhead conversation to a nutty image, etc. South American leapers have strong feeling, but St. Marks hoppers, like French surrealists and classicists, are unemotional. "Hopping" and Bly's objection to it remind me of "skittery" and Hoagland's objection to skitteriness. In H.'s opinion, these new skittery poets lack strong feeling.

At 9/12/2011 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a pretty terrible poem, Gary. Maybe further evolution is in order, before you share it in such a public venue?

And speaking of the venue: Didn't you abandon this ship a few weeks back, presumably for good?

At 9/12/2011 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to be able to add the hopping / leaping axis to the skittery / solid, the pre- / post-avant and the cooked / uncooked. Maybe we can get someone from USA Today create an info-graphic. It would lend clarity and possibly absolve us from another round of anthology wars.


At 9/12/2011 5:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul, I think you're right. The thing is, the post-avant hops, then skitters, when cooked. Eventually, though, with continued cooking, it ceases to move.

This must be what the phrase "cooking the books" refers to.


At 9/12/2011 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I meant "save" us from another round of anthology wars. Or absolve us of our crimes of tribal bickering.

At 9/12/2011 5:40 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Anonymous, as more than a few here have're an idiot!

Give us your name and we'll talk.


At 9/12/2011 5:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Nice try Paul, but as most anthologists in the anthology wars don't actually read most of the books they're talking about, we can all rest assured that suretly will rest with a muzzle of bees.

David, I'm depressed by this. I want them not to be so obviously self-serving about it. Of course Bly would think that, as the NY poets and their attendant generations were the "other" disjunctive model against the windmills Bly fancied himself tilting.

There were other models of course. It really wasn't DEEP IMAGE or NEW YORK SCHOOL. It's still interesting to place the Leaping Poetry next to the New Sentence.

And there's a lot of emotion in a lot of those poets Bly would have us skip. Just as he was also wrong about the French.

I dont' want to fight with Bly's ghosts about whose lineage could kick whose ass, but, you know, the French have Max Jacob. Just saying. And don't try to play the "lack of emotion" card on him . . .

At 9/12/2011 5:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the graphic artist costs too much, we can do it like the Meyers-Briggs test. Your esthetic alliance could be printed right on your name tag at Important Conferences. Everyone would know at a glance that you're a SSLHOCPALP (Semi-Skittery Long-Hopping Over-Cooked Post-Avant Low-Hybrid). For example.


At 9/12/2011 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul, you're a genius. Invent this test right now, and we'll market it at AWP. Semi-Skittery Long-Hopping Over-Cooked Post-Avant Low-Hybrid, here we come.


At 9/12/2011 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gary, which anonymous are you addressing?

(I'm the one who questioned the motive of your poem, not the one who came right out and insulted it. I don't think that's good manners, and I trust people here to come to their own opinions without the meager help of mine)

At 9/12/2011 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll confirm that there are at least two, and possibly three, anonymouses here, Gary. Or maybe legion. I was serious, though--didn't you stalk off in a huff a few threads ago, and delete dozens of your posts in the process? It was very dramatic.

At 9/12/2011 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eli, maybe we can work out the test together. I only pretend to know anything about poetry.

It would be easy to create it and put online at Bored poets could find their literary tribe and their mate in one easy step.


At 9/12/2011 6:20 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

"After all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than breaded frog legs."--Frank O'Heron

At 9/12/2011 6:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Maybe some color coordination as part of it? I've always wanted to be part of Team Puce.

At 9/12/2011 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to wear whatever Table X is wearing.

At 9/12/2011 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, that's a good idea. Getting the color wheel involved could lead to arguements that are terrible in entirely new ways.

It also seems that we haven't (thankfully) seen poets divided as shirts vs. skins.


At 9/13/2011 4:01 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I thought that was a great poem.

Also, I think the way the reviewer framed that question had a lot to do with Bly's answer. It's like being accosted by those canvassers who ask some asinine question like, "Do you care about starving children?"

My usual answer: not even a little bit.

At 9/13/2011 4:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I think you're being a bit too generous to Bly's answer. Even as the questioned is framed in the "beating your wife" way, as anon says, Bly didn't have to play along. He's perfectly capable of redirecting when he feels like it.

He could have easily said something along the lines of "I never said there was a lack of discipline in these modes, that's you talking, not me."

"Pitiful" is a pretty strong answer. And he follows it up with further, non de Niord supplied, sticks and stones.

At 9/13/2011 5:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Bly doesn't have to like this poetry, of course. There are types of poetry I generally don't care for as well. But if he doesn't like it, he should at least say somethgin sensible about what he sees as wrong with it, or at least just say he doesn't care for it, rather than diagnose the poets in this absurd fashion.

At 9/13/2011 6:13 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Oh I agree, but I think the framing of the question invites a more hostile answer than one might normally give (I've no real knowledge of Bly's demeanor, so I'm speaking generally here).

At 9/13/2011 6:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

True. And I agree. De Niord seems to be a member of the red meat school of interviewing.

At 9/13/2011 7:08 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Re: Bly's demeanor. My impression of Bly is that he tries to give people their due. He's conceded that Ashbery is a genius (with limitations), that Tate is immensely talented (but stunted and disappointing). He seems like a reasonable, okay guy, but if he thinks something's wrong, he tends to slap his cards down on the table with aplomb. "Diffident" isn't a good word to describe Robert Bly in conversation about poetry.

At 9/13/2011 7:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think Bly’s a useful and interesting poet and positive critic. When he’s defending “deep image,” especially when it’s in specific poets, I think there’s a lot of value there. Likewise, I think Bly was greatly over attacked by some in the language writing community (I forget who wrote the big Bly take-down essay I read once, but I think it was someone associated with langpo?). He deserves his due, but he’s also his worst enemy at times. First, when he’s trying to do his Joseph Campbell-type men’s movement thing (which he still does quite a bit of), and second, when he’s going negative, and then, third, when he’s doing the cringe worthy, over-the-top, self-love thing.

At 9/13/2011 11:12 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

'Anonymous' said:

"I'll confirm that there are at least two, and possibly three, anonymouses here, Gary. Or maybe legion. I was serious, though--didn't you stalk off in a huff a few threads ago, and delete dozens of your posts in the process? It was very dramatic."

To all ‘Anon’s:

There is at least one ‘Anon’ here who has, behind the veil of his/her non-identity, insulted a number of people who have commented here: Franz Wright, Kent Johnson, Henry Gould and myself. This is basic troll behavior, which, I thought, finally went away back in the Silliman days. I, for one, don’t think it’s fair to insult anybody if you are unwilling to even say who you are.

I “stalk[ed] off in a huff” because it came to my attention that I had offended a number of people because of my unkind words about John Ashbery’s poetry. I thought I was innocently expressing my opinion about poetry on a poetry blog. It was not my intention to make people angry so I deleted my comments. I also deleted the ones wherein I responded angrily to (yet another) personal insult by the anonymous troll. Unfortunately, if you had read them, then you would know that they were also funny as hell. Oh, well!


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