Robert Bly’s Poetry Was Nearly Ruined by A College Education

Robert Bly first became interested in poetry while in high school, but it wasn’t until after he’d graduated and joined the Navy that this interest really took hold of him. After two years of service, Bly left the Navy and eventually ended up at Harvard, where he studied and published alongside several soon-to-be giants in the literary world, including John Ashbery, George Plimpton and Adrienne Rich.

In the fifty years since he graduated, Bly has published more than 30 poetry collections, and equally importantly, worked as a translator and editor helping works from poets like Pablo Neruda gain attention in America. Among his many honors, Bly received a Guggenheim fellowship and won the National Book Award for his poetry book, The Light Around the Body.

Earlier this month, The Paris Review opened up its extensive online collection of interviews with writers and poets, including a fantastic exchange with Bly from 2000.

Here are a few gems from that interview which shed some light on the birth of a great poet:

On how he became interested in writing:

“A beautiful high-school teacher interested me in poetry. I think I wrote a poem for her saying that Tojo was a bad person. In the navy I met the first person I’d known who actually wrote poetry, a man named Eisy Eisenstein. We conspired to flunk out of the radar program on the grounds that we were poets who couldn’t be bothered with science. We didn’t succeed. Once out of the navy, I entered St. Olaf College, which is an old Norwegian Lutheran hangout—a Bly was a dean there. My freshman English teacher, to my amazement, excused me from freshman English when I turned in my first piece. That was a generous move; I joined an upperclassmen creative-writing group. A woman my age wrote poetry; I fell in love with her, and I wrote a poem to her. I had the strangest sensation. I felt something in the poem I hadn’t intended to put there. It was as if “someone else was with me.”

On meeting William Carlos Williams, his literary idol, while in college:

“William Carlos Williams was the one who meant the most to me, so I hitchhiked to see him, from Cambridge to Paterson, wearing my chino pants, and I called him from a bar nearby: Could I come to see you?—Sure, come on, kid. So he let me in and said, Sit down over there. Do you write poetry?—Well, yeah, I guess so . . . I suppose. He went about his business, planning his deliveries and typing something. He glanced at me from time to time. After fifteen minutes or so, he said, OK, kid, you can go now. He understood that I just wanted to look at him. I drifted out, floating along the street. It was heavenly.”

On the need to unlearn what he learned in college:

“The poems I wrote at Harvard were not great, but they enjoyed some language that we inhabit together surreptitiously; people could hear what I was saying. Last month I read some of the journals I kept during those three years. I grew alarmed because I could see myself losing the common language that we, as humans, have. Word after word had disappeared into some huge hole.”

On struggling to get by while trying to write full-time after college:

“I lived in tiny rooms—the better ones had a hot plate—and was determined to write twelve hours a day at least six days a week. And did. To support myself I worked one day a week, as a file clerk or a typist and, for a while, a painter, carrying around my painter’s bag with the coveralls… I’d go to a certain employment agency for painting jobs, and would usually get fired by noon.”

Check out the full interview on The Paris Review’s website.

Also, here is an excerpt from an early poem Bly published in his college paper in 1949 under the name Robert E. Bly. Even at this early stage, Bly showed clear signs of his potential to become an incredible poet.

“Letters From A Wedding Trip”

Travelling south, leaves overflow the farms.
Day by day we watched the leaves increase
And the trees lie tangled in each other’s arms.
Still generation, and calls that never cease
And rustlings in the brush; yesterday
She asked how long we have been on the way.

Read the rest of the poem here.

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