An Interview with Robert Bly

Part 2. Time in New York

Interviewer: Did you go to Oxford or some such place as well?

Robert Bly: No. I think I had spent up my available capital for extroversion in college, and I had to be by myself. I intended to take one year, but ended up taking four. At the start I lived in a small cabin in northern Minnesota through fall and winter. I lived by shooting partridge illegally; I wanted to write like Milton. The next year, the summer of '51, I moved to New York, where I lived for three more years, excessively alone. "Altarwise by owl light in the halfway house," as Dylan Thomas put it.

I lived in tiny rooms–the better ones had a hot plate–and was determined to write twelve hours a day at least six days a week. And did. To support myself I worked one day a week, as a file clerk, or a typist, and for a while, a painter, carrying around my painter's bag with the coveralls. When one is living what the French call the garret life, it's surprising how often one meets someone with the odd instinct to help. I'd go to a certain employment agency for painting jobs, and would usually get fired by noon. Jack, at the Agency, was never upset. He'd send me back out. "Getting fired is nothing." He guessed I wanted solitude. Finally he assigned me as the only painter of the inside of a huge warehouse in Brooklyn. Every Thursday I'd get one patch of some enormous wall painted blue, and then I'd come back next Thursday and so on. I don't know what he told the owners. "Why isn't that job done?" "I don't know, some of the guys have been sick. It's hard to get good help," etc. A doctor even tried to help me during a V.A. checkup around a heart murmur I'd taken on after rheumatic fever in the Navy. As a disability, it provided a small check. He said, "Well, I don't hear a thing. But the murmur might come back, and I'll say you still have one so your check will keep coming. You look as if you need one."

Interviewer: Did you try to make money through your writing?

Robert Bly: The only money I earned by writing during those years was from two poems printed in the very first issue of the Paris Review. The other day I found a letter to my mother from that time that shows I kept close track of how many copies sold in New York.

Interviewer: Did you try fiction?

Robert Bly: I wanted to be a playwright, and wrote a play called Martin Luther. The trouble was that no one in my family talked. Eugene O'Neill's family suffered, but they talked. That effort was hopeless from the start.

If you work one day a week, you can't afford a good room. At one point I sublet a studio in a building on the east side of University Square from a woman who taught art in Brooklyn College; she used the studio on the weekends. She rented her studio to me for day use, not realizing I slept there, and had no other home. I had to evade the guards at night when I went to the bathroom, which was on the floor below; and I slept Saturday nights in Grand Central Station. I spent most of my days writing ten-line iambic poems.

Interviewer: Were they nature poems, of the sort Richard Wilbur, whom you admired, wrote?

Robert Bly: No. And I didn't want to write private poems. Because of Yeats, I wanted to bring history in. So I would choose some incident from Greek or Roman history, say, the murder of Archimedes by an inattentive soldier, and try to make it stand for something much bigger. My work couldn't be accused of being timely. I also worked on translating Pindar, another hopeless cause.

Interviewer: Did you meet any other poets during this time?

Robert Bly: New York was lonely then. Poets were reading only at the Y. I had one or two friends from college, but met no new poets. For a while I lived in a room I rented from an old portrait painter from the South on West 67th Street. He painted faithfully there everyday and was disappointed because they wouldn't hang his paintings anymore in the front room of the Salmagundi Club. He was 65 or 70 years old; I was 26. And together we'd walk five or six blocks west and buy three-day-old bread from the bakery and then walk home again. We were on both sides of success–too young or too old.

Interviewer: How long did you live this way?

Robert Bly: In New York?

Interviewer: Yes.

Robert Bly: Three years. I can't tell you how odd it was. I sometimes didn't talk for a month. I was a home-made monk, but with no one to serve me food. No, I wasn't a monk. I was stuck.

The solitude was a big pause after years of activity. But I lost something too. The poems I wrote at Harvard were not great, but they enjoyed some language that we inhabit together surreptitiously; people could hear what I was saying. Last month I read some of the journals I kept during those three years. I grew alarmed, because I could see myself losing the common language that we, as humans, have. Word after word had disappeared into some huge hole. Later, a dear friend, a Korean writer, Kim Yong Ik, said, "You use ‘tears' several times in this poem, but you don't mean by that word what the rest of us mean, so the poem doesn't work." He was right.

I have spent many years since trying to recover a common language, one that can cross the distance between people.

So those solitary years had a dark side. Yet there was something deliberate in it. After all, why shouldn't we lose that common language with which we often say so little? Sometimes it offers only social chatter. Balzac in Louis Lambert mentions certain ideas that are "antagonistic to the social stream." When his character meets Louis Lambert, he feels "a desire to plunge into the infinite." So those three years of solitude didn't offer much living, but it was an experience of the vertical, contrasted to the horizontal mode of everyday social life.

Interviewer: How did this time in New York end?

Robert Bly: It ended when MacLeish, whom I visited in Cambridge, sent me on a wild goose chase to Iowa to pick up some money the Rockefeller Foundation had put up for writers. He noticed that I was a little gaunt, and he said, "I'll put you up for this grant. Just find another older writer to recommend you and it's done." I bought a car for $65 and drove west, stopping in Bloomington to hear John Crowe Ransom lecture. He was fantastic. I sent him some poems, and found his reply the other day:

Dear Mr. Bly,

Thank you for sending these poems to me. Some of them I like very much. I think you could publish them almost anywhere. Many of them are fine.

Yours sincerely,
John Crowe Ransom

It's remarkable that he would write to me at all.

Meanwhile, the other writer had forgotten to send his recommendation; and so, when I got to Iowa City, the grant was gone. I remember driving into Iowa City for the first time, seeing those low, nondescript buildings, and saying, "What kind of country is this when a great poet like Robert Lowell has to teach in a place that looks like this?" I must have expected buildings like the British Parliament Houses, or the Louvre.

I asked for a job teaching, and they said if I joined the Writer's Workshop I could have a job, though I had no qualifications. I taught one course of Freshman English and one called "Greeks and the Bible." Teaching was a sudden immersion in the hot water of sociability! I was so afraid, it took me two weeks to be able to stand up behind my desk. I loved teaching, but got too involved in the student's lives. I wrote very few poems that year. I was able to recover enough received language to teach, but the language for poetry was still gone.

Interviewer: Wasn't John Berryman teaching there that year?

Robert Bly: Yes, he was. There was always a little drinking trouble around him. I was buying toothpaste one morning, and the drugstore radio said that the police had picked up John trying to break into his own apartment the night before. This was a wholesome State University. I said, "There goes John." He remarked that there was only one man in the country who would understand what had happened without asking a single question; and he called Allen Tate in Minneapolis. Allen said, "Come to Minneapolis, John." So John taught for years in the Humanities Department at the University of Minnesota, and was marvelous. Phil Levine wrote an essay called "Mine Own John Berryman" in his book called The Bread of Time, about Berryman's teaching at Iowa, making clear the high voltage of his seminars. It's the best essay ever written on a teacher-poet.

Interviewer: How long were you at Iowa?

Robert Bly: I was there a year. In 1955 I married Carol Bly, whom I had known at Harvard and in New York. We moved to an old farm my father had saved for me. We stayed there 25 years. It was a half-mile from the one I grew up on. I still hadn't shed my isolation; the nearness to my parents was difficult, as was the lack of work. I spent whole days sitting out in the fields. But there was peace. I had still had a great love of silence. I collected the poems I wrote there in Silence in the Snowy Fields, which came out in 1962. I like that book, and I never would have written a book that interesting if I had not moved back to the country where I was a child.