Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems, 1950–2013

by Robert Bly
reviewed by William Doreski
March 25, 2014

The publication of a new selection of poems by Robert Bly invites one to reconsider the impact of his poetics and personality on American literature over the past half-century. Bly’s first poetry collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), received some attention, but it was his political and anti-war poetry, first collected in The Light Around the Body (1967), and his aggressive reviewing of poets like Robert Lowell and James Dickey in his journal The Sixties (later The Seventies), that made him famous—perhaps notorious. Bly’s anthologies, like Leaping Poetry and The Sea and the Honeycomb, broke some new ground, and his excellent translations of Pablo Neruda, Tomas Tranströmer, and other major poets are of lasting value.

In his introduction to The Half-Finished Heaven: the Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, Bly characterizes his own aspirational poetics as well as the Swedish poet’s:

Tomas Tranströmer has a strange genius for the image; images rise seemingly without effort on his part. The wide space we feel in his poems perhaps occurs because the four or five main images in each poem come from widely separated sources in the psyche.

This “deep image” poetics isn’t so different from Eliot’s characterization of the poet’s mind in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921):

When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

What Bly locates in the psyche, Eliot locates in the imagination; perhaps this is a confluence of synonyms. Bly’s “deep image” is not, after all, dredged from the bottom of the subconscious; most often it is a simple perception from the natural world. Bly, like Eliot, is a romantic in his faith in the powers of individual perception and cognition. The difference is not so much in their poetics as in their sense of the poet’s place in the larger culture. Eliot sees poetry as an expression of culture and tradition through the poet’s individual sensibility; Bly posits the expression of that sensibility more as a cultural and social end in itself.

While Bly’s strength as a poet is his abiding faith in the efficacy of the image, much of his work suffers from static construction, and sometimes falters in passive voice and weak verbs, often over-relying on the copula. His heavily noun-centered poetics tend to neglect the strong verbs that can energize a poem. When his early poems are effective, they create a stately pictorial effect, as in “Winter Privacy Poems at the Shack” (from Silence in the Snowy Fields):

About four; a few flakes.
I empty the teapot out in the snow,
Feeling shoots of joy in the new cold.
By nightfall, wind;
The curtains on the south sway softly.

A few years later, writing his well-known anti-war poems, Bly reached into the ether for imagery from a war world he imagined rather than directly perceived, and the effect was sometimes startling, as in “Counting the Small-Boned Bodies,” from The Light Around the Body:

If only we could make the bodies smaller,
The size of skulls,
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight.

Close to Surrealism, this imagery not only opens the landscape of the poem but the mind of the reader as well. The depth of the imagery obviates the need for active verbs.

And yet, some of Bly’s best work is in his prose poems, which are usually more actively dramatic and more narrative than his verse poems. A few years ago he published a separate selection of these (Reaching Out to the World), but many of them appear in this collection. The prose poems frequently display Bly’s sensibility at its strongest. His grasp of the possibilities of this hybrid form—both in terms of what can be accomplished in a paragraph or two and of the poetics most useful to the form—is impressive. “The Starfish,” “The Hockey Poem,” and “Wings Folded Up” grasp the mystery of the world and place the speaker squarely in the center of the puzzle, not to solve but to experience it.

Although Bly deprecates “prose intelligence,” he seems to benefit by loosening his rather tense grip on the line and relaxing into the sentence. He maintains his faith in the image and his focus on the mystery of the world, but framing his poetics in a looser and more syntactically flexible form renders his vision all the more compelling.

The later verse poems are a mixed bag. They generally lack the energy of the prose poems, but some, like “The Neurons Who Watch Birds,” display a dramatic verve and spirit that evoke the great Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty. Others, still more recent, like “The Way the Parrot Learns,” look back on Bly’s life and career with some rue and regret: “One teaspoon of envy was enough for me / To attack Robert Lowell; with a tablespoon / I could have taken on Henry James and Abelard.” Of course most poets envied Robert Lowell, so Bly’s sin is a venial one. More than an act of penitence, this long series of six-triplet poems (a kind of pseudo-ghazal) from 2001 seems to be an exercise in poetic discipline. But while vivid and engaging, only a few of them feature the psychologically demanding imagery for which the earlier Bly strove.

The most recent poems, written in the past year or two, show Bly, now deep into his eighties, still searching out the mysterious features of the world and trying to find their resonance in the psyche, as in “Tomas Tranströmer and the Human Ear”:

Somewhere there’s a rock pile in a field.
Some trees grow between the rocks.
Farmers learn to plow around it.
It’s a power generator for silence.

When this man lifts his sly, amused eyes
Some new sort of speech appears on the paper.
One equation makes the Pacific trenches
Equal to the porches of the human ear.

Sometimes a spy passes a blank paper
Alone in his room through the Solution.
His poems resemble the way Euclid
Found the solution to the Third Theorem.

Even late in life, Bly reaches back to what he and Tranströmer hold in common: a sense of the mystery of the world and of the need for a poetics capable of plumbing it.

Many years ago when the world was young, I submitted some poems to Bly’s journal, The Seventies. The rejection note I received is much to the point, and I quote it here in full:

These don’t have the interior space that the short poem needs. They are written more with the prose intelligence—not enough senses in the language—than with the intuitive or animal intelligence. Don’t know if this makes sense to you or not. Yours Robert Bly.

Yet when Bly employs a little more prose intelligence—a stronger sense of narrative, a more complex and engaging syntax—his own work seems enlivened. Why has he been so suspicious of prose elements—narrative, complex syntax—when at least occasionally they have benefitted his work? Perhaps, inflamed by that aforementioned envy, he resented Lowell’s remark in his Paris Review interview of 1961 that “on the whole prose is less cut off from life than poetry is.”

Still, Bly’s critique did, and does, make sense to me. Poetry does draw upon animal intuition in a way that prose less commonly does. I took Bly’s remarks as a challenge, and while I may never have fully embraced that desired animal intelligence, I learned something important by trying to grasp it. Bly himself has only now and then written with the deep intuition he admires, but an ideal of poetry can be empowering, and the search for that ultimate intuition has meant for him a lifetime of dedication and service to the art he loves.