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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Robert Bly
(b. 1926)

Few American poets have explored so many facets of the creative—and the human—experience as Robert Bly. After graduating from Harvard, he returned to the Minnesota of his childhood and became one of the leading midcentury poets. Along with James Wright and William Stafford, Bly was the pre-eminent poet of nature, simplicity, and the reality of human experience. In a line of descent from William Carlos Williams, with overtones of the exact language drawn from Wallace Stevens, these poets forced readers back to an encounter with the truly human that had sometimes been obscured in the highly formalist poetry of Richard Eberhart, Richard Wilbur, and even Robert Lowell. Despite his geographically remote location, Bly influenced what was happening in United States poetry through his editing of a series of respected (if idiosyncratic) little magazines—first The Fifties, then The Sixties. His reviews, signed “Crunk,” were read avidly.

Like Williams before him, Bly assumed a posture of stability: his address didn’t change, his keen appreciation for the poetry of others was a given, and he was open to friendships with people who might have been seen as his competitors—such as his relationship with James Wright. Also, like the best of the world’s poets, Bly was immensely influential in bringing readers, as well as other poets, to appreciate the work of non-English writers. From early in his career through the present, Bly has translated, published, and proselytized about the writings of Vallejo, Neruda, Machado, Jimánez, Rilke, Ponge, Tranströmer, Lagerlöf, Kabir, and (since his translations in 1981) Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian poet.

Bly’s poetry became one of search. Not only was he poised to become a leading poet for ecological preservation—given his immersion in the beauties and violence of the natural world—but he was intent on finding the richest poetic traditions from which to draw. His skill with translating was enhanced by his willingness to work with native speakers, or scholars, of the languages of the poems: Bly’s contributions to what the art of translation could become have yet to be appreciated. But what gave Bly’s career its most public visibility was U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Two of his best-known poems, “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” (which stresses the macho superiority of U.S. physical size dominating the stature of the Vietnamese soldiers) and “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” (which presents his Jungian understanding of the divided female principle—welcoming mother set against destructive female), were published as anti-war works. (With Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, and many other writers, Bly was an active proponent of Writers and Artists Against the Vietnam War.)

Bly’s later publishing history continues to promote the psychological exploration of the human consciousness. Not only his poetry, but his series of popular books that began with Iron John in 1990, insists on the ways men (in this stridently gendered world) must come to terms with their conflicted—or, perhaps, richly ambivalent—psyches. As a spokesperson for the archetypal, the Jungian, and the mystical, Bly travels and speaks widely: he may well be America’s most visible poet. Such visibility draws mixed responses, but at heart, Robert Bly continues to be the poet we welcomed so heartily at the time of the publication of his first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields.

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Counting Small-Boned Bodies (1967)
The Teeth Mother Naked at Last (1970)

Other Works

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Interview: Robert Bly
Transcript of a PBS interview with Bly on the subject of violence against women.

Leaping Into the Unknown: The Poetics of Robert Bly's Deep Image
An academic essay on Bly by Kevin Bushell.

Modern American Poetry
Offers a biography, criticism, a speech, links, and more.

Robert Bly
A biography, photograph, and a list of works.

The Robert Bly Interview on His Poetry
Transcript of an interview conducted by Kevin Power.

Secondary Sources