The skipper of the good ship ‘Bestselling Poetry.’
Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By ELI LEHRER
In order to possess literary merit, poetry must do at least one of three things adequately: condense emotion, embody truths about the human condition, or enrapture readers with the poet’s ability to put words together in a beautiful way. Great poems can do all of these things. Adequate poetry manages at least one; bad poetry does none. And Robert Bly, a selection of whose works are collected here, is a bad poet.
But lack of poetic talent doesn’t make Bly unsuccessful, or even untalented, in all respects. Indeed, Bly is a fine translator and promoter of non-English-language poets, and he is a clear, if self-indulgent, prose writer. On stage and television, even at 86, he projects a charismatic presence. His career as a known figure in American letters, likewise, ranks among the longest of people still producing new work: He first rose to prominence in 1965, when he cofounded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and has remained a literary figure ever since.
But Bly’s modern public fame stems from his Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). The book, a New York Times bestseller for over a year, likely makes Bly the bestselling living author identified as a “poet.” And Iron John, written entirely in prose, served as a founding document for his “mythopoetic men’s movement,” which argued that a white-collar, buttoned-down society needs myths and fairy tales in order to confront the problems that men face. Although the book is a sometimes flakey, if highly readable, synthesis of Carl Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, and others, it struck a chord with readers. By all accounts, it makes some legitimate points that conservatives might easily embrace in addressing the problems of “fatherless families” and a feminized culture.
But his sometimes old-fashioned sensibilities about masculinity aside, Bly’s sympathies in the political realm, where he first built his reputation, clearly lean towards the academic left. In interviews (of which he gives many), he comes across as a mildly eccentric humanities department liberal who is happy to repeat canards about how Republicans are the party of greed and to regurgitate (almost verbatim) half-knowledgeable arguments from the likes of Thomas Frank.
Indeed, throughout his career, Bly’s politics have been so uninteresting and typical of what one might hear in a faculty lounge that it’s almost pointless to criticize them. For example, his well-known, long-form 1968 poem “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” (written the same year he won the National Book Award) recounts how the Vietnam war involved the United States in mustering its massive financial resources to do violent things in Southeast Asia for purposes that may have been dubious.
Seriously, that’s it. But Bly sees himself as more than a simple antiwar bard; he wants to be a transcendentalist, and, in his admiration for nature and his belief in a fundamental “goodness in people,” he technically fits the bill. But if he’s philosophically the comrade of the likes of Walt Whitman or even William Channing, Bly’s actual verse can’t hold a candle to theirs. Take Bly’s 1968 prose poem “Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand”: Here, Bly observes a dead bird, apologizes for his own faults, and concludes, your bill is brown, with the sorrow of a rabbi whose daughter has married an athlete. The black spot on your head is your own mourning cap.
After just a second of reflection, it’s easy to see that this doesn’t make sense even as a natural observation. Birds’ bills do not generally change color when they die, and a rabbi’s sorrow at his daughter marrying a (Jewish) athlete would not necessarily be all that great. The final metaphor—“your own mourning cap”—is simply Bly’s opinion: There’s nothing in the setting or Bly’s description that suggests it’s anything other than a passing fancy of the speaker. Maybe Whitman could get away with something like this; Bly’s writing isn’t nearly good enough to do so.
In dealing with emotions, Bly likewise shows all the insight of a middle schooler: In “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat” (2011), he reflects on the fallibility of humanity and concludes that Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm. This is not exactly deep.
By sheer volume of production, Bly can sometimes turn out a decent poem, mostly when he turns to psychological topics. For example, Dealing with Parents (2011) discusses the fact that many famous children have done questionable, even terrible, things at least in part because of parental influences. It concludes: Another man tied his parents all one day / And night in a rocking chair. And they / Died all right. . . . But by the end, they /Knew for certain that they’d had children. That’s pretty chilling, memorable—and at least halfway decent.
Robert Bly may have a germ of poetic talent somewhere in his body. As a political agitator, self-promoter, translator, and prose author, he can even point to some real successes. But all in all, Robert Bly just isn’t much of a poet.
Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute.