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I’m still combing the beach of Bly’s small book, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. In some ways this is a sequel to my earlier posting, The Thatness.

Bly is so open about his woundedness, in person and in his poetry. I don’t think I know of another poet who is so unabashedly brought to tears by the intention and influence of poetry and poetry making. Going to a Bly reading is like watching the street fill with water from a high pressure hydrant that has burst open. So no better voice to dig into this issue of shadow than his.

The last chapter of Bly’s book focuses on Wallace Stevens. Sigh. In many ways Bly comes down hard on Stevens’ later work, insisting that the later poems are as “weak as is possible for a genius to write.” His claim is that Stevens, for whatever reason, could not integrate his shadow into his proper, insurance executive, buttoned down self.

Here is Bly’s case:

There are some good poems, but somehow there are no further marriages in his work. Yeats’s work picked up more and more detail as it went on, the sensual shadow began to rise, the instinctual energy throws off its own clown clothes and fills more and more of the consciousness..

Why that did not happen to Stevens I don’t know for sure, but I think we have to look at his life for an explanation…We have the sense that Wallace Stevens’s relation to the shadow followed a pattern that has since become familiar among American artists: he brings the shadow into his art, but makes no changes in the way he lives. The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as : “quail/Whistle about s their spontaneous cries” he must from then on live differently…

Wallace Stevens was not willing to change his way of life…He kept the house fanatically neat, evidently slept in a separate bedroom for thirty or forty years, made his living through the statistical mentality, and kept his business and poetry life separate—all of which amounted to keeping his dominant personality and his shadow personality separate in his daily life.

This willingness to allow life to follow where the art making goes speaks to the two quotes in the post just below as well. There is something undeniably irrevocable about descent, about the willingness to step into the forbidden territory that is the shadow. Bly makes reference to the 17th century theologian and philosopher Jakob Böhme who started one of his books by advising the reader to not go further unless he or she is willing to make real changes in his/her every day life. Otherwise, says Böhme, this book will be bad for you. In fact, dangerous.

Bly as the crotchety old guy he can be, claims that a whole generation of artists have come into being and have never faced this very personal and very particular dilemma. Is it the absence of some serious skin in the game? I see a lot of visual art that has made no demands on the artist’s interior life whatsoever. For this approach to visual expression (and one that is becoming the de rigeur approach of contemporary art pedagogy), the approved loci for work is the detached and depersonalized arena of politics and/or social commentary. My poet friends may have a similar map of how contemporary poetry migrated from where Yeats and others were heading.

No answers here. But the provocations are hefty.

From a distance

Closer still

I’ve been in a silent streak these last few days. Is it because the fall is so exceptionally beautiful this year that I am feeling even more speechless than usual? Perhaps. But also I think it is because I’m deep in a dig. This time it is a new curiosity about shadow. You know, that incorrigibly vague term that can mean anything from our darker impulses to that which we cannot see or accept. What I’m looking for is vague but it has something to do with art making, creativity, sourcing, the interior archaeology. That’s about all I know so far.

Robert Bly’s slight volume, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, is a brisk short walk with Bly’s poetic sense on the topic. As is my usual response to Bly, there are times when his take on a thing grabs hold of me with its authenticity and won’t let go, and other times when his flailing just floats out of earshot. The chapter on Wallace Stevens has attached itself to me for several days. He has strong opinions about how my favorite (and extremely complex) poet navigated (or failed to navigate) the shadow in mining his poetic gifts. I’m still sorting through what I’ll keep and what I’ll give away on that subject. But here’s a passage that has resonated with me since I read it:

William James warned his students that a certain kind of mind-set was approaching the West—it could hardly be called a way of thought—in which no physical details are noticed. Fingernails are not noticed, trees in the plural are mentioned, but no particular tree is ever loved, nor where it stands; the air in the ear it not noticed…Since the immense range of color belongs to physical detail—the thatness—of the universe, it is the inability to see color. People with this mind-set have minds that resemble white nightgowns. For people with this mind-set, there’s not much difference between 3 and 742; the count of something is a detail. In fact the number they are most interested in, as James noted, is one. That’s a number without physical detail.

Bly turns to Steven’s poem, “Metaphors of a Magnifico” as a way of freeing one’s self from this mind set and avoid being “murdered” by it:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

Trees. Tree. Leaves. Leaf. All. Nothing. Everything.

Increasingly granular

I have shared the poetry of Juan Ramon Jiménez here before (most recently on September 3), and recently I have been even more compelled by his work. Poet Robert Bly’s volume, Lorca & Jiménez, brings together the works of these two extraordinary Spanish poets and offers a window into the creative context of Jiménez’ view of poetry.

With his usual poetic license and metaphysical intensity, Bly compares Jiménez’ work with that of Nerudo and the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (who, though extremely gifted, suffered from depression and ended his life in 1914):

Neruda and Trakl take all their weight as men, and put that into their poems. Their love goes out as a form of occult energy into boulders, river barges, crumbling walls, dining rooms, women’s clothes. When they step back, they leave the energy there. Their poems lie there separate from them, massive, full of grief. To Jiménez writing a poem means something entirely different. For him a poem has ecstasy: that is the difference between poetry and prose. Living as a poet means feeling that ecstasy every day of your life, every hour if possible. A poem flies out of the poet like a spark. Whatever the poet writes down will be touched with ecstasy—the poem will therefore be light, not light in a sense of light verse that avoids seriousness, but light as a spark or as an angel is light. With one or two fewer words the poem would leap straight up into the sky.

The heavy poems of Trakl lie brooding in alleys or on mountain tops, and when the reader walks up to them they hardly notice him: they feel too great a sorrow. Jiménez’s poems on the other hand are nervous and alert, and when we come near, they see us, they are more interested in us than in themselves—they try to show us the road back to the original ecstasy. The poems are signposts pointing the reader back to the poet, that is, back to the life from which the ecstasy came.

And regarding Jiménez’ subject matter, Bly makes this observation:

We can understand the subject matter of Jiménez’ poems if we understand that it is in solitude a man’s emotions become very clear to him. Jiménez does not write of politics or religious doctrines, of the mistakes of others, not of his own troubles or even his own opinions, but only of solitude, and the strange experiences and the strange joy that come to a man in solitude.

I found this passage deeply moving. This is, after all, what I have wanted to achieve with my visual work. It is a strange joy, indeed.

I’ll also share one last passage from Bly’s short essay about Jiménez, partly because it is just about the most romantic thing I can imagine. I never used to be schmaltzy, but aging has its own way of juking our personality traits and leaving us to wonder, just what kind of person am I really? So I’ll own up if you do, too: Ladies, just ask yourselves honestly if this account doesn’t break your heart:

His love for his wife was one of the greatest devotions of his life and he wrote many of his poems for her. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1958, his wife was on her deathbed; he told reporters to go away, that he would not go to Stockholm, that his wife should have had the Nobel Prize, and that he was no longer interested. After his wife died, he did not write another poem and died a few months later, in the spring of 1958.


Here are two examples of his poetry:

I Took Off Petal After Petal

I took off petal after petal, as if you were a rose,
in order to see your soul,
and I didn’t see it.

However, everything around—
horizons of fields and oceans—
everything, even what was infinite,
was filled with a perfume,
immense and living.

I Am Not I

I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see.
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing. And nothing happens!
Nothing . . . Silence . . . Waves . . .
-Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and am now standing quietly, in my new life?

–Juan Ramon Jimenez (translated by Robert Bly)

I memorized this poem twenty years ago. Even with all of the recitations I have made, outward and inward, its message has never fallen flat for me.