Essays by Robert Bly

Introduction, The Best American Poetry 1999

Scribner, 1999


After reading several hundred literary magazines offering both poetry and fiction this year, it became clear to me that American poetry now is much more lively than American fiction. Seventy-five recent poems appear in this book. Many different kinds of heat show in the poetry collected here: heat of friendship (Robert Creeley), heat of wit (Carolyn Kizer), heat of the blues (Sonia Sanchez), heat of form (Richard Wilbur), heat from the subterranean caves (Russell Edson), heat of the hopeless brave fight against political hypocrisies (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Hayden Carruth, John Haines), the heated defense of a great writer (Tony Hoagland on D. H. Lawrence), heat of the furious daughter (Molly Peacock), heat of the meadows and the hawks (Mary Oliver).


Heat in itself has been disappearing for some years from our English. It is said that in a single day in the United States more words appear on computer screens than are secreted in all the books in the Library of Congress. But as these words stream across our screens, freed from doubt or elegance, we can see that computer verbiage has become the model of cool and empty language. I'm not making an original claim here; we all agree that the language of the chat rooms is empty. It's as if some worldwide force were trying to free us all from literary style, and is succeeding. Many contemporary writers persuade themselves it is good not to have inwardness, not to have intensity, not to engage layers of meaning, not to have pungent phrasings, not to allow the heat of that sort of language that springs from the fight between God and the donkey. It's possible that the particular heat which we call style amounts to recognizing and remembering the flavor of the decade in which one became an adult. We more and more have English now no longer stung by the mood of an Oklahoma afternoon in the Thirties, or the flavor of an Illinois dusk in the Forties. Hardy's language we recognize to be blessedly imprisoned in the language mood of Sussex in 1880. When the irreplaceable flavor of a given decade disappears, our language loses its vigor and becomes merely useful. Sven Birkerts, in his new book of essays Readings, points directly to the decline of intensity that results from the shift from the page to the screen. "We are losing our grip, collectively, on the logic of complex utterance, on syntax; we are abandoning the rhythmic, poetic undercurrents of expression." He suggests that "Postmodern" merely means the destruction of all style. Postmodern novelists have fallen head first into this release from period style, producing novels that contain only the melancholy emptiness that follows from the longing to become universal. When language cools, it becomes a corpse.

American poets are fighting against this cooling in several ingenious ways. Not all poets, of course. One group of poets who call themselves "Language" poets work very hard to drain all the meaning out of the words they use, and in this way resemble those eighteenth century doctors who treated all problems by bleeding, occasionally failing to notice that the patient had died from loss of blood. All of us, poets, essayists and fiction writers alike, are being pressured by example to remove flavor from our work, along with our idiosyncrasies. We are fighting a front line action against the cooling of language, and that struggle is a theme of the remarks I'll make in this essay.


I'll try to discuss some of the poems that appear in this book in relation to the mysterious quality of heat. One sort of heat we might call the heat of arrival, which we can contrast with the coolness of mediocre poetry that wanders among pages of reminiscences. Here is a fifteen-line poem by Ruth Stone:

Across the highway a heron stands
in the flooded field. It stands
as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
as if the field belongs to herons.
The air is clear and quiet.
Snow melts on this second fair day.
Mother and daughter,
we sit in the parking lot
with doughnuts and coffee.
We are silent.
For a moment the wall between us
opens to the universe;
then closes.
And you go on saying
you do not want to repeat my life.

We can tell when a poem has arrived by a certain feeling in the gut, as if a dismaying thought had slipped past our defenses. We feel that something has been taken seriously enough that it has hurt the poet.

Hayden Carruth remembers one night in Chicago when the great jazz musician Sidney Bechet, having become disgusted with the white band, sat in front of them drinking ponies of brandy, then throwing the empty glasses at the trumpet player. Now that Carruth himself is older,

I see sparkling glass ponies come sailing at me
out of the reaches of the impermeable night.

Billy Collins wants to love his dog as a kind of Gandhi-like being free of attachment, but it doesn't work.

If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

Robert Creeley, thinking of Mitch Goodman's death, says:

. . . Hold my hand, dear.
I should have hugged him,
taken him up, held him,
in my arms. I should
have let him know I was here.

Jane Hirshfield's poem begins by recalling a small rat and a snake she once saw living together in her room. Her words travel well together, but the poem really arrives when she is able to acknowledge that she too has the snake and the rat inside her, as well as larger beasts:

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

Ernest Hemingway had several gardeners toward the end of his life, and David Ray, by a feat of marvelous storytelling in his poem, lets us feel the heat of the shotgun approaching closer and closer. David Ignatow's poem in this collection, written shortly before he died last year, we could call a masterpiece of arrival.

The apple I held and bit into was for me. The friend who spoke to me was for me. My mother and father were for me. . . . The bed I slept in was for me. The clothes I wore were for me. The kindness I showed a dead bird one winter by placing it in my warm pocket was for me . . . . The music on the radio, the books I was beginning to read, were all for me.

I had hold of a good thing, me, and I was going to give of my contentment to others, for me. . . . I had found that for me was everybody's way. . . . And so when I looked up at the night stars, for me remained silent, and when my grandmother died, for me became a little boy sent on an errand of candles to place at the foot and head of her coffin.

Ignatow puts an amazing amount of backward-looking heat into this little phrase "for me." Thomas Smith has been dreaming of the dead in his family:

On Christmas Eve, I prepared a warm
place for my mother and father, sister
and brothers, grandparents, all my relatives,
none dead, none missing, none angry
with another, all coming through the woods.

Peggy Steele's father finally arrives to her when she imagines him as a ne'er-do-well who walks all night in a small town:

My father walked the night.
My father walked the night.
It seemed deeper than all Shakespeare.

Philip Levine wants to find his father as he drives along the old roads, but instead he arrives at "the stubbornness of things":

I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence
of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here:
nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.


Richard Wilbur's brilliant new poem "This Pleasing Anxious Being" will make a good text to discuss another sort of heat: a heat that comes from making demands on language in such a way that the language fits into a pre-chosen form. Whitman achieved a heat by apparently abandoning the stanza form, though he is not abandoning that form so much as accepting a still older form which requires the rhythms of Biblical and operatic recitation. Richard Wilbur, like Frost, uses his strength to bend language, as if two wrestlers were fighting, and he refuses to release the wrestler until he feels the sinews under his fingers "like chords of deep music." In writing so, he remains faithful to the sting of the late Nineteen-Forties and the pentameter line which was a part of the flavor of those days. He chooses a few hours when his family are driving on the black roads of 1928, in a snowstorm, and he drives English into one of its possible animal gaits:

Wild, lashing snow, which thumps against the windshield
Like earth tossed down upon a coffin lid,
Half clogs the wipers, and our Buick yaws
On the black roads of 1928.
Father is driving; mother, leaning out,
Tracks with her flashlight beam the pavement's edge,
And we must weather hours more of storm
To be in Baltimore for Christmastime.

With his firmly disciplined stanzas, as in the beautifully modeled stanzas of Carolyn Kizer as well, we arrive at some place far from us and yet holding inside itself the treasures of wit and human foolishness. In some poems the arrival takes the form of a feeling that some spiritual treasure, long hidden in the soul, has been found, as when a walker in the woods finds an old cup near an abandoned spring. Frost said: "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."


T. S. Eliot said:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Two things strike me in this little passage. The first is the suggestion that twentieth century mental life has cooled to the point that if a human voice should penetrate our verbal world, we would be so shocked that we would drown. That fear touches on the present coolness of language, which is increasingly psychic but not of the soul. The second word that moves me is "chambers." We are lingering "in the chambers of the sea." I'd like to relate these rooms not so much to the sea as to rooms inside our heads that more and more interfere with our taking in the power of what we see.

We could dip first into the speculations of those experts who study the processes of perception. What happens when we see snow on the windshield or a black road? The falling snow–inverted, we are told–is not passed along directly to the soul, but first is sent through five mental chambers. In the first chamber, the dark and light of it is verified, the thickness or thinness of the snowfall is verified. Next we could say that the image of the snow is sent on to the chamber of memory, where our representatives compare it to all the other snowfalls we have seen. The compared image is then sent on to the chamber of intellect, which relates ideas to the image, and decides if it is a symbolic snowfall or a real snowfall. Our representatives in this chamber classify the incoming image as "Western" or "Eastern," "imperialistic" or "democratic," "hegemonic" or "okay." Perhaps for some, the image then moves out of the chamber of practical intellect to the chamber of spiritual intellect, that chamber "at the top of the stair" where St. Teresa and St. John spent "the whole fiery night." At any rate, the image finally approaches the chamber of the "I," a jealous chamber which may or may not pass the image on to the soul.

This visualization of chambers may be arbitrary, even incorrect. Perhaps it is. My main thought is that we, in 1999, being so worldly, so informed, so flooded with motifs from the past, find it more and more difficult to allow any object, whether a snowstorm or a toad or a painting, to pass through our subtle chambers to reach the soul. Students in graduate school, even some poets, are taught to linger in these chambers of the mind until they decide to remain there, as "in some mid kingdom dark."

The job of the writer who knows about these chambers is to give us a frog or a giant or a snowstorm and to protect it from all the invisible forces that want to delay it, elaborate it, relate it to correct opinions, prevent it from arriving at the soul. We recognize that Rilke achieved in "The Panther" some protection like that for the panther he was watching in a zoo, so that it arrived at our soul still wild:

The lithe swinging of that rhythmical easy stride
which circles down to the tiniest hub
is like a dance of energy around a point
in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

Wallace Stevens wrote:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

This poem is a triumph in its capturing and retaining the heat of the jar. Twisting away from all philosophies, Stevens gives the jar to the soul. A painter's task is very different, but we recognize that Rembrandt is often able to protect a human face until he can give it to us.

We have to ask: these pesty chambers, these rooms of verification, of classification, of comparison, of judgment, are these chambers noxious? Not at all. We could not be human without them. In fact, the ultimate purpose of our going to grade school, high school, and university is to elaborate and refine those chambers. Anyone who doesn't know the difference between the practical intellect's house and the spiritual intellect's house is doomed to be dragged over fields of sharp stones by idiots. Even the chamber of the "I," of which the Buddhists are rightfully suspicious, is a marvelous chamber, full of energy and sarcasm. So he or she who loves art and culture will honor all these Chambers of the Mind. But at the moment an artist is about to set down his or her poem, the wise artist will let them all go, bless them with gratitude and rejection, until nothing is left but the snowfall touching the soul. The greatest heat in a poem appears when the poet is able, by his or her awareness of complicated mental perceptions, to bypass those perceptions and bring the object just seen so near the soul that the soul feels a shock, as if it had just touched snow or hot water.

R. H. Blyth said that to experience a true haiku is akin to putting your hand into boiling water. He means that the haiku poet is sometimes able to remove all the intervening material so that the reader experiences the wind or the snow brushing directly on his or her own soul. The haiku is limited in length, of course, because no one wants to keep his or her hand in boiling water very long. It's perhaps foolish to present a haiku in translation, but we can get a little feeling of a Basho haiku from his description of the winds around the old walking station on Mount Asama:

Storm on Mount Asama!
Wind blowing
Out of the stones.

One of the poets in our collection who is not very well known, Franco Pagnucci, wrote this lovely poem about toads:

Yesterday toads
no bigger than houseflies
took small hops
across our path.

It would have been easy
to miss them –
under the tall trees and the charm
of the wind in their tops –
those perfectly shaped
little black toads
along the black path.

Sharon Olds's poem in this book, a poem whose mood is so new for her, achieves a comparable shock of perception.

. . . This morning, when I looked
at a lily, just beginning to open,
its long, slender pouch tipped
with soft, curling-back lips, and I could peek just
slightly in, and see the clasping
interior, the cache of pollen,
and smell the extreme sweetness, I thought they were
shyly saying Mary's body,
he came from the blossom of a woman, he was born
in the beauty of her lily.

David Wagoner's poem "Thoreau and the Crickets" also labors in this Basho field. His poem describes field crickets lying embedded in the ice of a marsh. Wagoner's poem goes far past the length of a haiku, but he doesn't lose the crickets.

The genius of William Stafford lies in his ability to pass swiftly, magically through the chambers–which in his thought he honored so well–and so to bring the soul close up to the thing he is looking at. A month or so before he died, he wrote this poem:

At night outside it all moves or
almost moves–trees, grass,
touches of wind. The room you have
in the world is ready to change.
Clouds parade by, and stars in their
configurations. Birds from far
touch the fabric around them–you can
feel their wings move. Somewhere under
the earth it waits, that emanation
of all things. It breathes. It pulls you
slowly out through doors or windows
and you spread in the thin halo of night mist.


This introduction is just about finished. I have used it to admire a number of poets in this book, and I have praised the heat in current American poetry, some of the heat given by arrival, some given by a stubborn devotion to form, some by allowing the night mist to brush up against the soul. It might be good to mention–as a kind of complaint–another sort of heat which, though present in some European poetry, I find missing in much American poetry now.

There's a sort of poem that can be imagined as a series of tiny explosions. I miss that sort of poem these days. At one time just after World War II, we considered ourselves to be students of the great European culture, French, German, Italian. As a consequence, we translated Ungaretti, Rilke, Montale, Vallejo, Neruda, Jiménez, Lorca, Akhmatova as one translates one's betters. American poets at that time admired especially the way European poets like Montale or Rilke would hide, without weakening it by explanation, a secret inside a poem, so that when we begin to investigate the secret, we feel it as an explosion. That explosiveness is distinct from, though not necessarily better than, a more slow-burning poetry. An Ungaretti poem, in its entirety, says:


His poem is either two words or four words, depending on how you count them. Let's try to translate it:

Immensity fills
Me with light.


My sun inside
Rises from space.


I pull in immense
Space and am in glory.


I light up my soul
With the hugeness of space.

But it's clear that the two "o's" of illumino and immenso are part of the explosion. How can we do that in the translation? Impossible. All we know is that when light and space are brought close to each other, they explode. Cesar Vallejo wrote:

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don't step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

Neruda provides one mysterious explosion after another, which we cannot participate in unless we are willing to create the wild image:

Death is inside the bones
like a barking where there are no dogs.

* * *

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The South American poets learned all that from Lorca, who had learned it from the Arabs.

It's possible that –as our pop culture dominates the globe–a certain national smugness affects us all, and that, as a result, the poets, subtly, without intending to do so, not noticing it, have stopped drawing their models from the great Europeans. This lack of tutoring has been a mistake, but one that we can correct. Jane Kenyon, with the help of Vera Dunham, apprenticed herself to Anna Akhmatova, and some classically deep American poetry came from that union.

I mention this "poetry of explosions" because I would like to urge some of our younger poets to try this way of writing. It is not an efficient way of writing. It uses up a lot of energy; a single line might absorb the energy which could have created a whole stanza. It takes tremendous stamina to write a page-long poem by the explosive method, so many poets prefer bulk achieved in a less exciting way.

The three poets in our book who best know how to do this are Russell Edson, Louis Jenkins and Charles Simic. Russell Edson has a genius for this kind of little explosion:

She had fallen in love with her doctor's stethoscope, the way it listened to her heart.

Louis Jenkins studies the wide-eyed gaze that cannot understand what it is looking at–the deer in the forest puzzled at what she sees, a pike examining a fishing lure.

There isn't a way in the world I'd bite on that thing. But I might swim in just a little closer.

Charles Simic is always the European among us–he, too, tries to figure out what he sees:

What the hell is going on here, I said?
At which the barber rushed over
And threw a hot towel over my eyes.

Something interesting happens when you place Jenkins' fishing lure next to Carolyn Kizer's poem. To St. Augustine and Kierkegaard, women were as mysterious as a fishing lure. She, too, participates in the European poem with her wonderful brooding on the zany Europeans Kierkegaard and Augustine who couldn't understand what they were seeing either.


Having an opportunity to admire the different sorts of heat in contemporary American poetry has made me feel still more grateful to David Lehman, both for his inviting me to edit this selection, and for his persistent, driving support of the whole project. His book on deconstruction, Signs of the Times, first alerted me to his love of genuine literature; and he has been unfailingly generous and helpful in finding obscure magazines and recommending strange tomes one might never find on one's own.

In some cultures, the German for one, poetry has really never moved out of the university. However much we deplore our own excesses, we have a right to be proud of the hundred and hundreds of poetry events, raucous poetry slams and quiet poetry readings that happen all over the US. The intensity of the US poetry scene is often astonishing; and the Best American Poetry series of collections, going back to 1988, is a strong part of that scene.

When James Laughlin, who was then just out of college, visited Ezra Pound and showed him some poems, Pound said, "Well, you won't get far with your poetry. Do you belong to the Laughlin steel mills family? My advice is to go home and start a publishing house." So Laughlin did. We'll end these notes with Laughlin's poem written when he notices, as he has grown older, how much he has not set down:

Little time now
and so much hasn't
been put down as I
should have done it.
But does it matter?
It's all been written
so well by my betters,
and what they wrote
has been my joy.

This love of good poetry, no matter who has written it, is the real mood of literature.