An Interview with Robert Bly

Part 3. Snowy Fields

Interviewer: What was the mood of poetry in the late Fifties?

Robert Bly: I started a poem the other day that goes this way:

There was a moment in '58
In which we thought–
And we were right–that poetry
Our poetry–would bless everyone

It's hard to explain. Something fresh could be felt all over the country. Don't believe what you read that the Fifties was a dull time; it wasn't, certainly not in literature. Robert Creeley was publishing the poems later collected in For Love, amazing things! Roethke was laying out his high-spirited poems, and Gary Snyder was publishing the poems later collected in Rip Rap. Robert Payne had brought out his great anthology, The White Pony. Li Po said:

If you ask me why I dwell among green mountains,
I should laugh silently; my soul is serene.
The peach blossom follows the moving water.
There is another heaven and earth beyond the world of men.

Hong's book of Tu Fu poems was out–that beautiful green book I still have with me. Some kind of longing was in the air. James Wright felt it:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body, I would break
Into blossom.

The Chinese poems and James Wright's lines are linguistic expressions of the longing that there is "another heaven and earth beyond the world of men." All over the country young poets went expectantly to the mailbox, to find some wild thing like Kayak, or some little essay by a Buddhist meditator. There wasn't a flood of mail–just one or two delicious pieces, or nothing.

I don't know why that mood of longing appeared in the late Fifties. Perhaps it came because we had won the war. Thousands and thousands of men my age had died. There was a lot of gratitude for that enormous sacrifice. Awe and gratitude was in the air. Maybe we felt–as Creeley suggested–that despite the disintegration, it would be possible for us to put culture back together again. During the war, for example, Poetry had about six subscribers. Everything was starting over again.

Or perhaps that wasn't it at all. Maybe the simple delight people felt in air, wind and poems when there was no war was normal. Perhaps everyone felt that way before television held people indoors and fed them bad psychic food. For a few years, we felt, like Yeats in his poem, that

For twenty minutes, more or less,
It seemed so great my happiness
That I was blessed and could bless.

In 1956, I had received a Fulbright Fellowship to do the job of translating some old and new Norwegian poetry into English. Writers my age were aware of good poetry in English, but not the powerful poetry of Chile, Peru, Sweden, Germany, Italy. In the Oslo library I found Pablo Neruda. The moment is still clear to me. The lines were,

Young girls with their hands on their hearts,
Dreaming of pirates.

It has an exaggeration there that's so beautiful. It's alive in the heart and flamboyant–so different from T. S. Eliot. I had spent three years at Harvard without ever hearing the name Neruda. One problem with the New Critics–whom I otherwise admire greatly–is that they were blind to material outside the English language.

A new kind of image had appeared, which was the engine, or the angel, or the body of a wholly fresh poetry. Cesar Vallejo said,

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day . . .
It will be a Thursday, because, Thursday, setting down
These lines, I have put my upper armbones on
Wrong . . .

He didn't say, "I have put my suit on wrong." No, I have put my upper armbones on wrong!

And never so much as today have I found myself
With all the road ahead of me, alone.

And there was Neruda's great poem on death:

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound . . .
And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones
like a barking where there are no dogs. . . .

Astounding! "A barking where there are no dogs."

I had a relatively good literary education, and I felt astonished by these poems, so I thought that other poets my age would be moved also. In 1958, when I got back, Bill Duffy and I started a magazine called The Fifties. On the inside front cover, we announced that "Most of the poetry published in America today is too old fashioned." We developed various ways to infuriate people who had submitted old-fashioned poems. One was a card that read:

This entitles you to buy the new book of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as soon as it is published.

In each issue we awarded the Order of the Blue Toad to an obnoxious literary personage of the day; and we made up a "Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum." In it were lines of John Crowe Ransom, or Allen Ginsberg, and Longfellow, and so on. The whole thing was a little adolescent, but it had some spirit.


Each copy of the beginning issue cost us a dollar, and we sold it for fifty cents, so we weren't doing so well on money. But we sent a copy to everyone who had been included in New Poets of England and America, relatively traditional poets–I was one–edited by Donald Hall, Louis Simpson, and Robert Pack. We also listed in the back cover the Europeans we intended to translate and publish.

Interviewer: What responses did you get from the "establishment"?

Robert Bly: One man wrote me, saying, "You know who you are?" You're nothing but a Captain Bly pissing up a drainpipe!" That was a strange metaphor. Allen Tate said something like: "So people can write poems that are not in iambic? A cat can walk on its front legs too. So what?" That was another strange metaphor.

James Wright, then at the University of Minnesota, also got a copy of that issue. He noticed Georg Trakl listed among the Europeans to be translated, and he replied with a long letter describing his despair at attempting to interest English Department members in Georg Trakl, whose work he happened upon during a Fulbright to Austria. He came out to the farm for a visit the next week; we embarked then on a translation of Trakl, and on a close friendship that continued for 22 years until he died in 1980. If I had gotten only one gift from the whole labor of the magazine, that would have been enough.

Interviewer: How did you get submissions for The Fifties?

Robert Bly: We put a tiny ad in Poetry Magazine, for $25 or so, and received poems of Gary Snyder and David Ignatow immediately, which we printed.

We found ourselves to be as well part of the small community of writers outside the United States. One day we got a letter from Boris Pasternak written in purple ink. He thanked us for mentioning him among the poets we wished to translate, praised my translations of Gottfried Benn, and then said something like: "But I must tell you, don't save any space for me. Don't bother yourself with that. I have deviated from my former path and become out of date. Yours sincerely, Boris Pasternak."

Interviewer: What did he mean by "deviated from my former path"?

Robert Bly: He intuited, and rightly so, that we were interested in the same sort of poetry he was devoted to when he was our age, namely the allusive, elegant, inward poetry associated with the French symbolists, whose language longed to intermingle with the spiritual. He and Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva wanted to join Russian poetry to that international stream. However, the suffering of Russia pulled him later to issues more particular to Russia, as one can see in Dr. Zhivago. That was a more nationalistic, prosaic world. He thought his poems would no longer be interesting to us. Very humbly, he was warning us of that turn.

Interviewer: So now it's no longer just you and Duffy.

Robert Bly: Well, Carol Bly always took a strong part in the magazine, and made up ads saying, "Strontium 90 Builds Bones." We were all figuring out various ways to try to bother the political and nuclear establishment. James Wright did much editing. The first book we published was The Lion's Tail and Eyes, with ten poems each of Bill Duffy's and Jim Wright's and mine, and then we published Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl.

We had a lot of fun editing. Sometimes Bill and I would get a bottle of Jim Beam, go up north to a cabin and send back all the poems we'd received in one night. He was a genius at rejection slips. "Dear Mr. Smith: These poems remind me of false teeth. Yours sincerely, William Duffy." Or, "These poems are like ice cream that has melted when the refrigerator got turned off." "These poems are like three-day-old lettuce." Then they would write insulting letters back and we'd print the letters.

We published many wonderful poems of Paul Celan and Juan Ramón Jiménez. After a few years, we were ready with Twenty Poems of Pablo Neruda, which James and I had translated, and I wrote to him for permission to print the Spanish and the translations. We had paid the Trakl estate $75. I said to Carol, "What do you think? Neruda's so great, let's offer him $150." She said, "Good idea." So I mentioned to him that we didn't have much money, but we could promise that many of the young poets in the US would read the book. He wrote back something like: "I know your Press very well. You were the first ones who printed my brother, Cesar Vallejo. Certainly you may publish my poems. I only have one request: that you send the $150 directly to a bookseller [he mentioned] in Barcelona. I owe him a lot of money. Yours, Pablo Neruda."

Interviewer: That's a good story. The poems collected in Snowy Fields. . . How did they come about?

Robert Bly: I often walked out somewhere and sat down. Usually a poem didn't begin until something happened:

I rise and walk out in the summery night.
A dark thing hopped near me in the grass.

The poems didn't move according to something I wanted to say. Usually the second stanza didn't begin until something else had happened. Maybe a leaf fell, or the sunset darkened the tree.

The gratitude we've spoken of was present at the start of the Sixties and at Woodstock. People began to feel that there was something that could satisfy the longing, maybe music or drugs. But it's the nature of longing that it cannot be satisfied. However the longing by that move got attached to pop culture.

Interviewer: I remember Joe Langland saying about Silence in the Snowy Fields that he felt that both you and Jim Wright had done for American poetry what the Impressionists did for painting, which was to bring the poet outside and allow her or him to record what was going on exactly at the moment the person was out there. . . . So that the poems say: "This is going on right in front of me right now." And in that sense, it felt as if some sort of canvas was outside and you were painting exactly what was happening.

Robert Bly: Well, that's a very great compliment that Joe Langland said. I don't know if we lived up to that. We did what we could. When I wrote poems in those years, I was not someone like Neruda trying to feel my way back through centuries of human suffering and human grief. I'm sitting beneath a tree and realizing that I'm happy doing that.

I'm happy in this ancient place,
A spot easily caught sight of above the corn
If I were a young animal ready to turn home at dusk.

That sense of gratitude and longing only lasted four or five years. I don't feel much gratitude in the country now.

Occasionally during those years we'd go to New York and stay a couple of months in the village, in West 11th Street. I remember a funny afternoon from that time. Don Hall had come back from England to conduct the Paris Review interview with T. S. Eliot. Louis Simpson and I wanted him to take us along to the interview. He wouldn't agree. "Come on, Don, we'll die! This is our only chance to meet him!" "No. Robert won't behave himself." So that was that. But on the morning of the interview, Don came over and said, "The tape recorder hasn't worked out. Could I borrow yours?" "Aha!" So we had him. Louis and I went up to Mrs. Cohen's apartment, where Eliot and his wife were staying. She asked us inside to wait a bit, and I realized that in a few minutes T. S. Eliot would walk through the door. What an incredible thing. He did! Don greeted him, and we were introduced, without names, as two tape recorder technicians. Eliot was kind to us. "Would you like Scotch or Bourbon?" "Bourbon." "With ice or without?" "With." "I never have ice with Bourbon myself." Don then put the recorder down. Eliot sat on the sofa, his wife was off to the right nearby. He threw warm glances toward her whenever a joke came up. So Don and Eliot went through their interview. Eliot answered questions he had avoided, such as, "Is ‘The Waste Land' a Christian poem?" "Not at all." He said that no American poet had ever interviewed him before. Louis and I stayed over at the far end of the room near the ice, getting drunk on the Bourbon. When the interview was over, I went up to Eliot, and said, "You are a wonderful man!" I remember handing him his hat–I think he was going out. I resisted putting it on his head. I knew he would say, "If I had wanted the hat on, I would have put it on myself." But it was a grand day.