Robert Bly (1926-2021): Translator and Prose Poet

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

I saw a notice that Robert Bly died and wondered how many poets under the age of forty would be able to talk about a single one of his poems that are not found in anthologies published since 1980. I’ve only read one of the obituaries so far, so it’s hardly a large sample, but it’s my guess that very few if any of them will mention that he was one of the first poets in the early 1970s to write a significant number of prose poems. It’s easy to forget how little prose poetry was being written in this country fifty years ago. I’ll grant the limitations of the persona that often was piloting the narrative of the prose poems, but it must be conceded nevertheless that Bly’s work in that area helped acclimate a line-bound ecology in American poetry to the possible condensations available to a paragraph impacted by a poetic scouring.

His translations, too, will probably not get enough mention. It was thanks to Bly that I became aware of the work of Juan Ramon Jimenez, for instance. While obviously other poets, such as Clayton Eshleman, worked exceptionally hard to call attention to C├ęsar Vallejo, very few translators were working on both Jimenez and Vallejo. Bly had a stronger ability to disown his own tendencies than most other translators of poetry back in the 1970s. I suspect that the growth of translation as a field will make Bly’s work recede into the discarded, but the influence of his translations on a generation of baby boomer poets will still be visible to those who read carefully enough.

Not enough can be said about his willingness to be public in his poetry about his opposition to the Vietnam War. Together with poets such as Allen Ginsberg (“Wichita Vortex Sutra”),the anti-war movement allowed poetry to demonstrate once again its cultural power at a moment of national crisis. Young poets may only be vaguely familiar with how poets ignited the opposition to the war in Iraq after the invasion had taken place and it seemed pointless to protest. We older poets saw that convergence of protest by poets and actual social consequences as simply a continuation of poetic efficacy upheld by figures such as Bly.

It’s possible that someone posted a tweet citing this article in which Bly’s “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” was mentioned as a contextual political poem. I thought about it when I first read the article, but I tweet far less often than I write in my blog, so it didn’t happen. Now, however, it does seem appropriate to link that poem and this recent report of yet another atrocity by American imperialism.

Finally, let us not forget that Bly’s issues of “The Fifties” and “The Sixties,” though few and often far between as little magazine production goes, were immensely inspiring to many young poets just beginning to work as editors and publishers themselves.

I confess that I haven’t read a new poem by Bly in many years, or at least I’ve haven’t read a new poem that was a memorable experience, but several of the ones I read years ago still remain fresh in my memory: the one about the dried up corn cob, for instance, with its scathing rebuke of Christian belief in an afterlife. If you don’t know that piece, look it up, and then search for your equivalent.

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