Poetry and Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s
‘What color are the plums on the slot machines in Paradise? Bring answer Tuesday.’ I sent Ginsberg and Corso this goof telegram a few days before they hit Chicago in January 1959 to give a great marathon reading to help raise money and get Big Table on its legs. ‘The color of the eyes of the thief who makes ‘m, Paul,’ was the first thing Corso, dark mop of Harpo Marx curls, tiny, grinning, said as he jumped out of the car. ‘Purple. Same as plums here’ – Ginsberg, hunching around from the trunk with that hiphop step of his, a weird sad look breaking into a tight grin. (Paul Carroll, Big Table 4, 136)
The appearance of Big Table, a magazine that ran only five issues between 1959 and 1961, marked a historic change in modern American writing. The magazine may have been short-lived itself, but the people and style to it consolidated a new literary generation. Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Mailer were given a common forum for work new and old, work which has had a cumulative effect from the Sixties into the Seventies. In its flamboyant way Big Table allowed their radicalism to hit home through the mass media for the first time. It seemed no more than a symbolic gesture at the time – in those late Eisenhower days. In retrospect it might be said to be a first confrontation between the Establishment and the forces of Dissent. The humor in the above exchange between Ginsberg, Corso and the editor Paul Carroll might suggest that the style of their work has an alienated, esoteric quality to it. Perhaps it has. I use it, however, as the best way of pointing to such common ground as there is among the poets of the Sixties, and of suggesting that in all the radicalism of recent writing in the United States there is a classic continuity between past and present in American culture. The big question about human destiny is being asked precisely because the old metaphysical style in which it was once put can now be parodied and sent up. The answers that Ginsberg and Corso provide, for all their buffoonery, point to the same contradiction that once plagued American writers of the nineteenth century, which has now come to be accepted by recent writers as the content of their culture. In selecting four poets for discussion – Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, James Dickey and Robert Bly – I wish to give some sense of the opposing aspects of being American in the 1960s, and of how as poets they have accepted the difficulties of their material and made it into art of a liberating and affirmative kind.
When the Beats hit Chicago in 1959, the town laughed. Ginsberg read ‘Howl’, Corso read ‘Fried Shoes’ and the gossip columnists lapped it up. America, they said, had some court jesters at last. But when the Hippies hit Chicago in 1968, the rest of the world had to wince. America nearly had a revolution on its hands. Dissent had come a long way in ten years. It was like the drunk who in Huckleberry Finn climbs on to the circus horse and gallops round the ring, taking off clothes as he goes until he stands up triumphantly on the horse’s back as one of the circus’ own clowns – now jeering at the crowd that had been jeering at him. In the form of the Beats, the Hippies and the Underground, Dissent had by now and in country after country frightened the wits out of the Establishment and populace, and let us see that Emperor State, Emperor Church and Emperor University have few clothes save for the trappings of authority, and certainly no right to laugh at the clowns of this world. It has been Vietnam that has given substance to the forms of Dissent. Yet the causes of Dissent lie deeper. In man’s spirit. It has been here that the mind and the will to ‘make it new’ was kept alive by the poets and thinkers in all those years of, as Robert Lowell calls them, ‘the tranquilised Fifties’.
The New Yorker ran a profile on Allen Ginsberg in two August issues of 1968, and these might stand along with the Mailer prose throughout the 60s as classics of the time. Here, for example, is Ginsberg in a Berkeley cafeteria defending the Hippies to some unbelieving students:
‘Goddam right’, the boy with the orange said, but a boy at a nearby table leaned over and muttered that Hippies were in ‘a totalitarian bag’. He said that in his opinion Hippies were good for nothing but drooling and stringing beads.
‘Listen’, Ginsberg said, laughing. ‘Don’t be so defensive. Sure, they’re a little fuzzy, but they’re not putting you down by making beads.’
‘Yeah, but they’re putting us down for doing anything else,’ the boy said. ‘Like we have a peace march, and they turn up, all upset, saying that marching’s not dropping out, marching’s a bad bag, marching’s not pure.’
Ginsberg shrugged, and told the boy that he was probably right. ‘But they’re still on to something,’ he continued. ‘They’re committed to a community of awareness, to control of anger, to all mammals.’ Ginsberg chuckled, said ‘I like the word “mammals”, ‘ and went on, ‘…. to the preservation of the planet, to art, to tolerance, to sexuality as a mode of social communication, to the entire body rather than to just that part called the cerebral cortex’ – he rapped the boy in the sarape gently on the head – ‘to the clarification of the earth’s atmosphere, to a new realisation of human experience without fear, to an end to cant.’ He threw up his hands. ‘So you’re going to write them off because they like to make beads?’
The boy with the orange tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Allen, I don’t want to interrupt, or anything,’ he said, ‘but what did you mean a while ago about Hippies having a new kind of human experience?’
‘I was talking about a mutation of the race,’ Ginsberg replied, tipping back his blue patio chair.
‘I know that, but I still don’t know what you meant,’ the boy said.
‘What I meant is that the past is bunk for people now,’ Ginsberg said. ‘All past consciousness is bunk. History is bunk. Like Henry Ford said about technology – there’s nothing to be learned from history any more. We’re in science fiction now. All the revolutions and the old methods and techniques for changing consciousness are bankrupt. We’re back to magic, to psychic life. Like the civil-rights movement hasn’t succeeded in altering the fear consciousness of the white Southern middle class, but the Hippies might.’
‘But the civil-rights movement’s got power,’ the boy with the orange said. ‘The Hippies, they haven’t got any power.’
Ginsberg groaned. ‘Don’t you know that power’s a hallucination?’ he said. ‘The civil-rights movement, Sheriff Rainey, Time magazine, McNamara, Mao – it’s all a hallucination. No-one can get away with saying that’s real. All public reality’s a script, and anybody can write the script the way he wants. The warfare’s psychic now. Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race. Power all boils down to whether McNamara gets up on the right side of the bed. And who’s McNamara anyway? He’s a lot of TV dots. That’s public reality. Like imagine what would happen if McNamara got on television and started saying “Some of the fellows, some of the human beings we’ve been fighting with,” instead of “Some of the Communists.” Words like Communist, Capitalist – they’re comic strip reality. They ought to be printed in the papers in those little balloons.’
‘Yeah, man, but that’s life, that’s where it’s at,’ the drama major remarked, helping himself to the remainder of Orlovsky’s cornflakes.’
Now the humour and buffoonery in all this has to be seen as one way of projecting and placing a moral and religious stance in today’s world. People have been recognising Ginsberg as a prophet, a crazy Jewish rabbi, for a long time now. Fifteen years ago, at the time he was writing his famous poem ‘Howl’, he was down as low as a modern American man can be. Here are some lines from ‘In the Baggage Room at Greyhound’:
In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal / sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky waiting for/ the Los Angeles Express to depart / worrying about eternity over the Post Office roof in the night-time / red downtown heaven, / staring through my eyeglasses I realised shuddering these thoughts / were not eternity, nor the poverty of our lives, irritable baggage clerks /
Or, as in ‘A Supermarket in California,’ when he opens up another world of emotions from a very common experience:
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for / I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache / self-conscious under the full moon. // In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went / into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! // What peaches and what penumbras! Wives in the / avocados, babies in the tomatoes! – and you, Garcia Lorca, / what were you doing down by the watermelons? // I see you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, / poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the / grocery boys. // I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel? // I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans / following you, and followed in my imagination by the store / detective.// We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier. // Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in / an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight? // I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the / supermarket and feel absurd.
Ginsberg has had to find a place for his imagination and voice in and through this prose literalism. Yet even from these depths his humour tells us he is accepting life. Like Louis Simpson, who in another celebrated act of homage to his patron saint uses as the epigraph to his poem ‘Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain’ the lines of Ortega y Gasset,…’life which does not give the preference to any other life, of any previous period, which therefore prefers its own existence…’, Ginsberg prefers this life of Greyhound terminals and supermarkets to any other life.
Modern American poetry may have found its spiritual ambiance within Zen Buddhism and bohemianism, yet it remains basically an open situation in which numerous traditions find amiable access to human experience and experience. One thinks for example of Gregory Corso, a classic outsider on the American scene, walking in, for all his scruffy jeans, off the streets into a museum or gallery, and coming out later with this kind of poem in mind, ‘Rembrandt – Self Portrait’:
When I draw the magnificent Dutch girl / When I unshackle the peachwolf from browngold air / When I have the shepherd foxglove the chin of an angel / It’ll make no difference whether I believe in God or not — //How do I paint the sorrows of men / – a group of singers lamenting the death of a friend? / Who stands so detached from life / and study if there be sadness in men? //
Get me the saddest man! / Each brush stroke to break all systems / the feeding circumference / the spectric void—Devourer!/ Paint! To compel hypocrisy / the face of the human / become the face of the inhuman / get me gold linen! Cold jewels! Let me lightdrench the saddest of men –
Poetry, then, has its sense of humour, and it has its soul. It also has a social reference that needs to be noted.
Paul Carroll, the editor of Big Table, touches on the several contexts of modern poetry in the following sequence of questions and answers:
What would you say was the reason for the current renaissance in the American arts – if there is one?
Some of the reason might be psychological in a very profound cultural sense. I’m guessing here – ask me in ten years. We have just fought and suffered through the Second World War, which germinates a terrible kind of nihilism. Since we have no values in this country, as you know, the new American writing is an attempt among the writers to find again: Who am I? It’s a very powerful literature that’s being written now.
What do you think the effect of this will be?
Nothing but good. There are no answers among these writers, at least as far as I am able to discern: no cultural statements like in the 30s or even the 20s when you get a great poet like Eliot chanting the doom of the West. In the 30s you get hard-bitten, social, proletariat, political facts kind of literature. None of that exists in the 50s or the early 60s. Instead, there is a terrible search and an attempt at brute honesty, the artist confronting himself, asking: Who am I? Out of these personal statements something very positive can come. These are men establishing themselves as being alive. There’s nothing very grandiose or religious in their work. It’s something very concrete, very American.
What do you think the range of this new poetry is?
All the way from a very domestic, close-to-the-bone poetry (like Robert Creeley, John Logan, W.D. Snodgrass) to a social poetry (like some of Ginsberg’s best or Corso or Ferlinghetti). It ranges all the way from a very personal document to an attempt at a commentary on the American cultural and political scene.
What about the audience?
They’re fairly young, primarily University-educated, out in the professions in one or another, without any value, looking for some, searching for their own lives: I think they learn from these writers who talk very directly and very powerfully to them.
What is your poetic aesthetic?
I don’t know any more. I was born and raised a Roman Catholic and it gets into your imagination. I used to think that poems were kinds of telegrams from angels – like from another world. I really felt that very deeply. Now I don’t believe that. My own poems are attempts, the only way I have to make sense out of my own existence and the world around me and to understand who I am and what my friends are involved in.
Poetry is a way of knowing, really; the only way accessible to me. It is an articulation of what I think is basically chaos; a cat goes by, a dog dies, a woman screams, there’s an airplane overhead – that’s life and to me it’s chaos. I think of a poem as chaos being made concrete, for a moment, in time. Poems are signposts for poets and I hope for other people, too. If a poet speaks the truth of what he is and what his experience has been – good, bad or indifferent – I think his poem will have meaning for other people. A poem is a tongue for the mute parts of people.
Why was the magazine called Big Table?
Jack Kerouac suggested it. We were having trouble thinking of a title – we didn’t want a square, place-name title like Kenyon or Hudson – we wanted something different. But we didn’t want a chi-chi title like Neurotica. I wanted something very mid-western in feeling. Jack knew about this trouble and sent us a telegram saying: ‘Call it Big Table.’ I wrote to him later and asked how he got that title. He said that he had a note on his writing desk: ‘Get a bigger table.’
Granted that American poetry since 1960 calls for an even bigger table than Carroll has in mind, the phenomenon of Dissent remains one of the poles of the new kind of poetry. Nor should it be thought of as something uniquely original in literature and culture. Two classic instances from centuries ago come to mind. The medieval church in its wisdom set aside a day for the Festival of Fools when extreme licence was permitted in the churches. ‘They eat black pudding at the altar’ as a way of enacting the Magnificat’s ‘he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of lowly degree.’ Shakespeare, too, in giving us almost a parallel of our situation, has King Lear wandering bereft of power in his own land accompanied by a Fool who mocks him for remembering his old authority: ‘O me my heart! My rising heart! But down!’ Lear cries. The Fool cruelly parodies his master’s pathos: “Cry to it nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels, when she put ‘ emi’ in th’ paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ th’ coxcombs with a stick, and cried, down wantons, down. “’Twas her brother that in pure kindness to his horse buttered his hay.” The point to all this is that whether it is a matter of buttering the hay, black pudding at the altar, or having a bigger table, there is a freedom to modern poetry, and a resourcefulness, that has to be recognised and admired. The fate of Cordelia, who preferred to say ‘nothing’ and to wait for a fifth act reunion while her father was left in the hands of Cordelia and Regan, her wicked sisters, ought to be kept in mind. Dissent, from a long term point of view, is a sign of health and strength.
Alongside the insight of the Fool in Shakespeare there is the anguish of the King, and it seemed a not inappropriate way of introducing the role of Robert Lowell in contemporary American poetry to note the likeness between him and King Lear. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” exclaims Lear, and the same question rises up out of Lowell’s work with compelling authority. Life Studies, which appeared just over 10 years ago, has radically changed the possibilities of poetry and modern sensibility. For, here, instead of projecting ironically a persona of himself upon the screen of poetry, as did the early great writers of our century, Lowell has projected himself there instead. He has done it with such a feeling of intimacy, openness and honesty as to transform himself from object into subject and allow a new generation of readers to identify with him in his state of being contemporary man. He raised the question of his own identity to a unique pitch. As in Memories of West Street and Lepke:
These are the tranquillized Fifties,/ and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seed time?/ I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,/ and made my manic statement,/ telling off the State and President, and then/ sat waiting sentence in the bull pen/ beside a Negro boy with curlicues/ of marijuana in his hair.
So much living has gone into these lines. Born into a distinguished New England family, Lowell lost his first inherited identity in his conversion to Catholicism and in his stance as a conscientious objector in World War 2. Since that time he has undergone other conversions and taken new stances. The only way to characterize him now is possibly the way that Normal Mailer does in Armies in the Night: it is like Sancho Panza giving an image of Don Quixote.
The cool, unforced, apparently casual manner of Lowell’s writing is itself the distillation of his intelligence. His stance as a poet seems to be flat on his back, overwhelmed by the comedy of his own existence, letting the images of his errors filter through his powers to come to terms with them. His poetry has been called a ‘confessional’ poetry, but this term must be carefully used here lest it seem to elevate what is essentially a condition of his writing into a cause. Without ‘confessing’ Lowell would not have written what he has, but it is not in order to ‘confess’ that he writes. He is an immensely strong, learned and reserved man: a patrician of the spirit for all his unbalanced spirits. Yet unlike Coriolanus he is prepared to share his scars with the people and in this he honours the community which he and all men share. The confessional quality of his verse is actually the reason why his poetry is so outgoing, offering almost incidentally the most satiric survey of contemporary America to be found today. By ‘placing’ himself his poetry becomes free to ‘place’ the world round about him. Skunk Hour provides a classic illustration:
The season’s ill –/ we’ve lost our summer millionaire, / who seemed to leap from an L.L.Bean / catalogue. His nine-knot-nine yawl / was auctioned off to lobster men. / A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.// And now our fairy / decorator brightens his shop for fall; / His fishnet’s filled with orange cork, / orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl; / there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry. // One dark night, / my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull; / I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, / they lay together hold to hold, / where the graveyard shelves on the town …. / my mind’s not right. // A car radio bleats, / ‘Love, O careless love …. ‘ I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat…. / I myself am hell; / nobody’s here — // only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
Along with other American poets such as W.D.Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Lowell has made the confessional mode the point of access to a new openness of feeling and observation. It happens to be the reader who is the father confessor for this poetry, the one who is drawn into another man’s intimate experience and the one whose ultimate understanding of this experience is what matters. A religious justification occurs in a secular mode, through one man but on behalf of all. To create this state of awareness Lowell has often had to be cruel and force the facts of his life to speak. As in “For Sale”, an intense family portrait:
Poor sheepish plaything, / organised with prodigal animosity, / lived in just a year – / My Father’s cottage at Beverly Farms / was on the market the month he died. / Empty, open, intimate,/ its town-house furniture / had an on tiptoe air / of waiting for the mover / on the heels of the undertaker. / Ready, afraid / of living alone till eighty, / Mother mooned in a window, / as if she had stayed on a train / one stop past her destination.
To follow up all the feelings in the writing here is to find oneself in the presence of the child who has not found love in his parents. His lovelessness has deep roots in the past, in the lives of his mother and his father. Lowell objectifies his family world, and this includes himself and his present attitudes. Only the poem is larger than its parts here, the poetry being the transformation of the experience. The enactment of himself in this poem is like a sacrifice on our behalf.
But to emphasize Lowell’s achievement at this level of his private experience is not to give the whole picture. He has been moving throughout the 60s into a more public and social role. He is fascinated by translations and “imitations”, accepting a play or poem from tradition and writing his own equivalent of it. This points to his realism as an artist in that he does not make his own uniqueness the necessary condition of his actions. The same sort of realism underlies his attitudes to things in society. Facts seem to stand as facts in his poetry until they disclose their significance to the reader of themselves. The relaxed and casual manner of Lowell’s approach to his subjects leaves them open and palpable to his reader. Possibly his most famous poem is “For the Union Dead”. Here we are eased into a mundane sense of Boston that suddenly erupts with a stunning encounter of past and present in the significance of Colonel Shaw’s statue:
…One morning last March, / I pressed against the new barbed and galvanised / fence of the Boston Common. Behind their cage, / yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting / as they cropped up tons of mush and grass / to gouge their underworld garage. / Parking spaces luxuriate like civic / sandpiles in the heart of Boston. / A girdle of orange, Puritan – pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, // shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw // and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief, / propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake. // Two months after marching through Boston, / half the regiment was dead; / at the dedication, / William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe. // Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat. / Its Colonel is as lean as a compass-needle. // He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, / a greyhound’s gentle tautness; / he seems to wince at pleasure, / and suffocate for privacy. // He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die — / when he leads his black soldiers to death, / he cannot bend his back. // On a thousand small town New England greens, / the old white churches hold their air / of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags / quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic. //
The sheer amount of what Lowell knows about his society underlies the strength of the poetry here. It is not, however, forced into some pattern of argument, or turned rhetorically to express some merely personal attitude. It is jagged like its subject, banal as a morning last March, and unable to extricate its feelings any more than the city is able to escape its ongoing upheavals. It is almost the age of the dinosaur again. In this savage exercise in ‘patriotism’, Lowell has a strength commensurate with his subject. ‘Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat.’ The hurt that lay in Lowell’s early question of his own identity is now the hurt that lies in his question of community. He has found a unique way in the axis of his poetry of making what is personal into something general and necessary.
The recent publication of James Dickey’ Poems 1957-1967 compels us to consider yet another distinctive American talent. Here, we have neither a voice of dissent nor a voice of drama. Dickey is essentially a chronicler, a life-hardened troubadour who seems to have an inexhaustible story to tell about living in America, especially in the South. He came to publication fairly late, and sophisticated himself by a most original kind of reviewing of his fellow poets. In this way he expunged for himself the need to imitate and to compete. He has become that striking phenomenon – the simple, separate self on which much of American literature and life depends. It is the authentic autonomy of Dickey’s voice that is the great strength of his achievement.
War service brought Dickey out of the poor Appalachian South. Now, twenty years later, he is part of the literary establishment. His roots, however, still remain where they were as a boy and his tones those of a “gentleman-outsider” in the tradition of Faulkner. Something of a lapsed Southerner’s quality that has found a new maturity for itself is caught in these lines from “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek”:
As he moves the mine detector / A few inches above the ground, / Making it vitally float / Among the ferns and weeds, / I come into this war / Slowly, with my one brother, / Watching as his face grows deep / Between the earphones, / For I can tell / If we enter the buried battle / Of Nimblewill / Only by his expression. // Softly he wanders, parting / The grass with a dreaming hand // We climb the bank ; / A faint light glows / On my brother’s mouth./ I listen, as two birds fight / For a single voice, bur he / Must be hearing the grave, / In pieces, all singing / To his clamped head / For he smiles as if / He rose from the dead within / Green Nimblewill / And stood in his grandson’s shape.
The poem continues with one brother deep in the past, the other alert to both past and present. Dickey, the poet, finds a climax: “Like a man who renounces war, / Or one who shall lift up the past,/ Not breathing “Father”,/ At Nimblewill,/ But saying, “Fathers! Fathers!” It is a profound climax, penetrating in its insight yet absorbed into a narrative experience.
There is a strangely gentle, muffled and passive tone in Dickey’s writing that carries much of the poem’s meaning. It is a kind of buffer between him and his subjects. It gives him breathing space to assess his feelings on the one side while saluting, in respect and at a distance on the other side, the world he is speaking about.
Dickey uses a typographical-cum-psychological technique of spacing out his phrases in a line of verse with increasingly sure effect. On recent and striking example is the epic-like narration of an airline hostess falling from a plane in flight, and followed down moment by moment by the poem. It is horrifying in itself; yet the poem is not horrifying to read. An experience is opened up to us, but what attitudes we have to it are our own affair. The poem provides a vantage point that lets us see something no other kind of writing in verse has before achieved. Sensationalism and empathy suggest a kind of sleep walking ambiance where certain dreams, even nightmares, can happen to everyone.
Here is one such reverie where a pulsating anguish at his mother’s dying tightens up the tones and gives a sharp emotional edging to the verse. It is a poem called “Buckdancer’s Choice”:
So I would hear out those lungs,/ The air split into nine levels,/ Some gift of tongues of the whistler // In the invalid’s bed; my mother,/ Warbling all day to herself / the thousand variations of one song; // It is called Buckdancer’s Choice. / For years, they have all been dying / Out, the classic buck-and-wing men //Of travelling minstrel shows;/ With them also an old woman / Was dying of breathless angina,//Yet still found breath enough / To whistle up in my head / A sight like a one-man band,// Freed black, with cymbals at heel,/ An ex-slave who thrivingly dance / To the ring of his own clashing light / To the thousand variations of one song / All day to my mother’s prone music,/ The invalid’s warbler’s note,//While I crept close to the wall / Sock-footed, to hear the sounds alter,/ Her tongue like a mockingbird’s break//Through stratum after stratum of a tone / Proclaiming what choices there are / For the last dancer of their kind,//For ill women and for all slaves / O death, and children enchanted at walls//With a brass-beating glow underfoot, //Not dancing but nearly risen / Through barnlike, theatrelike houses / On the wings of the buck and wing.
It is a moving poem, lyrical and dark; the experience carries the poetry. It points to the poet’s character, an ever-present innocent but knowing perceiver-experiencer-utterer. It is a personal world of truth. Dickey works at the simplest possible levels of poetic strategy and craftsmanship, having rejected any number of superior choices and possibilities for his writing. Yet one underestimates the sophistication of this simplicity at one’s own risk.
In the Spring 1966 issue of his magazine, The Sixties, Robert Bly has an essay on “The Dead World and the Live World” in which he points to a tradition of religious and poetic sensibility that has had a hard time making itself felt in all the drama of the modern secular world. He quotes from Georg Groddeck who finds in the short poems of Goethe a source of energy that is distinct from the traditional faculties of feeling, will and intellect: this energy Groddeck calls the “Gott-natur”, (the holy-nature). Of Goethe’s short poems Groddeck says, “….you could say of them that they are not created by a person but by nature. In them a person is not seen as an ‘I’ but as part of something else.” Bly concludes, “The Gott-natur senses the interdependence of all things alive, and longs to bring them all inside a work of art. The work of these poets is an elaborate expression of the Gott-natur. What results is a calmness.” For Bly, then, an alternative exists to the modish line of ego-art in modern times, an alternative which happens to have deep roots in the general American artistic sensibility and which has found its voice in such figures as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke. Qualities such as luminosity, calmness, love of nature, delight in small things, a positive and resilient morality – all are present in the stance that Bly is rediscovering for poetry.
In his two volumes, Silence in the Snowy Fields, and The Light around the Body, Bly has created a world of two apparently opposed poles, of intense passivity and intense activity respectively. One is a world of discovered prayer, of openness, and benediction in our natural lives:
Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge, / and water kneeling in the moonlight. / In small towns the houses are built right on the ground; / the lamplight falls on all fours on the grass. / When I reach the river, the full moon covers it; / a few people are talking low in a boat.
The other is a world of direct confrontation, of statement and political fact:
Last night we argued about the marines invading Guatemala in 1947, / the United Fruit Company had one water spigot for 200 families, / and the ideals of America, our freedom to criticise, / the slave systems of Rome and Greece, and no one agreed.
What has to be seen is that the one world implies the other, and that Bly has taken up as central a stance as any poet on the American scene today. A tradition of awareness is flowing through him. Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond to find himself in the midst of all the hurly burly of mid nineteenth century; but from there he came out fighting with his tract on Civil Disobedience that has since inspired such men as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Robert Bly is in the Thoreau tradition. His retreat to his Minnesota farm (‘How strange to think of giving up all ambition!’), underlies his intense involvement over Vietnam, while his poetry has that prophetic sense of Gott-natur where ‘the words reach at the same instant to the life inside the brain and the life outside.’ A new religious sensibility is coming to life in a poem such as ‘Awakening’:
We are approaching sleep: the chestnut blossoms in the mind / Mingle with thoughts of pain / And the long roots of barley bitterness / As of the oak roots staining the waters dark / In Louisiana, the wet streets soaked with rain / And sodden blossoms, out of this / We have come, a tunnel softly hurtling into darkness // The storm is coming. The small farmhouse in Minnesota / is hardly strong enough for the storm. / Darkness, darkness in grass, darkness in trees. / Even the water in wells trembles. / Bodies give off darkness and chrysanthemums / Are dark and horses, who are bearing great loads of hay / To the deep barns where the dark air is moving from corners. // Lincoln’s statue, and the traffic. From the long past / Into the long present / A bird, forgotten in these pressures, warbling, / As the great wheel turns around, grinding / The living in water. / Washing, continual washing in water now stained / With blossoms and rotting logs, / Cries, half-muffled, from beneath the earth, the living awakened at last like the dead.
Bly has at his fingertips, and finely just out of grasp, the elements of poetry, politics, nature and humanity. His poetry is but part of a larger thing, which I would call his vision. And this, finally, is what we may understand as his moral stance, a stance that surprises us in the way it is both old and new.
Word count: 6, 184