Some poets call from on high. Too high for most of us: the thin air of mind leaves us dizzy — what are they saying?
Robert Bly takes us down to the valley, and gets down with us in the dirt, and shows us this is where it starts —here in flesh, here in grief, here in memories we deny. His arms wave like big branches, as he tells us to face the dark in ourselves. His language runs like water over the dry bed, whether he’s talking about what it means to be a man or a woman, or acknowledging the pain of childhood, or warning against the siren call of Eastern mysticism. Full of eloquence and extraordinary energy, Bly is one of the most respected and widely read poets of the age, as fully human as anyone I’ve met.
Born fifty-seven years ago in Minnesota — not far from where he still lives with his wife and three children (three older children are in college) — Bly has written nine books of poems, including The Light Around The Body, which won the National Book Award, and is the author of eleven translations. His magazine, The Sixties, brought into English the work of many previously unknown writers from other countries.
I interviewed Bly last February, when he was in Chapel Hill to give a poetry reading at the University of North Carolina. The reading was rousing, Bly’s voice an instrument he has fully mastered, ranging through subtleties of volume and pitch from roar to whisper. His poetry readings are works of art. He threads together the arrangement of poems, the jokes, the asides, the curiously light movements of his big body, the seeming lack of self-consciousness, as he reaches out with his poems, known by heart, to touch other hearts.
We talked the next morning. He asked for the chance to revise and expand his answers. I’m glad he did, although he ended up omitting some of the spontaneity, such as him scolding me for asking him how peaceful he was, saying that was a “Barbara Walters question.” Other times, too, he drew the line around “the private.” I was disappointed at first, then I thought of him shuffling around his writing shack in Minnesota, alone for days on end, giving away, with each line, what is most private.
Safransky: In one of the poems you read last night, you talk about longing for “the cheerful noises to end.” You said, “When I’m too public, I’m a wind chime ringing to cheer up the black angel.” What do you do to get away from other people’s noises and your own?
Bly: Well, I can’t get away from them when I’m giving poetry readings, but when I’m home I spend time by myself. Every once in a while a short time completely alone . . . three or four days in a woods cabin I have.
Safransky: Do you do any meditation?
Bly: Yes, I’ve done meditation for ten or twelve years.
Safransky: What do you do?
Bly: That’s something that belongs in the private (laughs).
Safransky: You talked last night about the difference between doing and talking. What do you do besides write? What are your days made of?
Bly: I consider writing to be an intense form of doing, especially when one is writing on a blank page. I usually spend six or seven hours a day at my desk, in the morning and early afternoon, and that concentration includes an hour working with a new stringed instrument I have, a kind of old European lute, called in Greek a bouzouki. I’ll sometimes compose to that. I want to learn music. For the past few years I’ve been struggling with the help of music to find out how to measure time in language.
I have three boys still in school, and when they come home about four, we may do some physical labor together, or, occasionally, hunt. Matthew, who is a sophomore, and I have been remodelling the sauna this month; after school we’ll work on that an hour or two. I believe a lot in what Scott and Helen Nearing say about everyone doing two hours of physical work a day, just to thank the planet for being on it. It’s a good idea, though often we’re too lazy to carry it through.
Safransky: Do you watch television?
Bly: An hour a week. Television is the most disgusting form of not doing that we have. How can we have art if entertainment is everywhere?
Safransky: How long have you been married?
Bly: I married in 1955, and that ended in 1980. Then, two years ago, I married once more.
Safransky: How much at peace are you?
Bly: That’s a new age phrase, at peace. What does it mean? I’m not sure it should be thought of as a goal. If I were at peace, I wouldn’t be in this room.
Safransky: Last night, you referred to Jack Kerouac as a wonderful writer and an idiot. Why was he an idiot? What was idiotic — and what wasn’t — about the beats and the hippies?
Bly: What was very strong was their desire and knowledge of how to escape from the conventional opinions and the collective stiffness that dominated the Fifties. Ginsberg and Kerouac and Kenneth Rexroth before them — they were all children of Rexroth — understood that by going into the more spontaneous parts of the personality, parts that Blake, Wilheim Reich and Jung had already described, a certain freshness would come, a certain joy would come, feeling would return. That happened, but looking back one would say that the error of ignorance lay in falsifying the nature of Dionysus.
The ancient Greeks portrayed Dionysus as a being with his head slightly turned to the side and down, a lot of grief in the face, and a thin line of silence all the way down his body. When one centered “person” is present, others, they found, can be spontaneous without damaging themselves. But in America we often use Dionysus without his permission as a saintly cover for our childish, chaotic and destructive behavior. Kerouac participated in that deception.
Moreover, a compulsive cheerfulness accompanied the whole movement. When I went to Russia this last year, I experienced each day the perception that the door to feeling is grief. Russia accepts grief and is still grieving over the Second World War. The lack of grief in the whole American Sixties movement may be one reason why it petered out. It’s as if grief is an adult emotion, and limitless good cheer and longing for chaos are childish emotions.
I don’t believe people have thought enough about what it means that Kerouac lived so long in his mother’s house. Long after On The Road, a writer went to see him and said, “Let’s have a drink.” He said, “Well, my mother doesn’t like to have beer in the house.” So they had to go out in the garage and drink. What I’m implying is that below the pose of independence many of the cultural radicals were mama’s boys. Some sort of failure in male initiation was going on.
I have the sense that the writers in this movement did not answer the question: what is true masculine behavior? Is leaving people and rushing about the country masculine? Is drug-taking masculine? The result of the confusion the movement had about this matter is that many men left over from the Sixties are being dominated now by women. How often one meets a spontaneous new age man living with a fierce angry woman, whom he can’t stand up to.
There’s a longing in the culture now for that imbalance to end. I don’t know if it will happen. Does that answer your question?
Bly: That doesn’t mean that Kerouac isn’t a good writer. There’s something marvelous in his use of language, and his wit and love of living things is tremendous. But his work lacks that quality that someone like Rexroth had, which was adult grief, and we miss entirely the mood of the great Russian poetry of the last forty or fifty years, in which you have deep form and deep grief together. Other people’s sufferings is the issue, not one’s own light-heartedness. Do you agree with that view of the Sixties?
Safransky: It sounds right to me. Yet I wonder if the cheerfulness and the childishness isn’t the edge of something else.
Safransky: Something that went along with a spiritual renaissance, nine-tenths of which is crap, but one-tenth of which is valuable.
Bly: I agree there was a spiritual awakening.
Safransky: Cheerfulness may just be misdirected faith.
Bly: Or true faith may be a redirection of energy that once went into cheerfulness. The so-called new age can be thought of as a rerun of the 1860s. As you know, Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman accepted Eastern ideas, and those ideas helped them to blossom. Thoreau in Walden mentions Kabir. America has always had part of its head open towards the East. Gary Snyder ends Myths and Texts with a sentence from Thoreau: “The sun is but a morning star.”
Yet that spirituality you mention fed itself, and still feeds itself, primarily on Asian food. We need the food, because teachers in our own tradition don’t cook. I mean by that not one of the major Christian groups teaches meditation any longer, in a way that makes the discipline available. The Americans had to go to Asians to learn it. I am an example. I took instruction from Trungpa while he was still in Scotland, and later did meditation with Ananda Marga teachers. And yet that food is not quite right for us. The Asian emphasis on skipping over pain and suffering, such as one finds in Rajneesh or the Maharishi, seems to me dangerous for our psyches, and a violation of our deepest traditions. So I feel that if we have projected our interior spiritual guide onto Asian teachers, we should take it back now.
Many Eastern gurus suggest that our suffering and grief can be dismissed as Western neuroticism, and the student can go directly to bliss, or the heart, or the spirit. The idea is not helpful. Let me tell you a story.
Gioia Timpanelli from New York and I sometimes work together when teaching or telling mythical material. That happened recently when we both taught at the Summer session of the Rudolf Steiner people in California, at San Rafael. Steiner is a genius, but his disciples tend to avoid all negative emotions, and emphasize the spiritual nature right away. We found ourselves in hot water there.
When it came time for Gioia’s performance, she decided to go ahead and present the other point of view. She told the audience that she would center her performance around the chakra system, and would begin with a story from the lowest chakra and move upward. To my astonishment, she told a dragon story for the anal chakra, which brought a lot of dragon-fierceness into the room, dragon greed and dragon brutality, and followed that with a dragon story for the sexual chakra and a dragon story for the stomach chakra. By now the audience was well off their feet, and they felt to me kind of desperate, longing for their usual nourishment provided by spiritual nature and the prospect of spiritual victory. She wouldn’t give it to them. They canned both of us shortly after.
Let’s talk about dragons a little. I have the sense that Asia went through its dragon-fighting stage hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago. Krishna, who represents ancient Shaivite traditions, strangled dragons and giants when he was only one or two days old. He didn’t have much trouble with them.
But we are still in the dragon-fighting stage; our dragons have not been defeated by any means. Do you remember that Beowulf’s first battle was with Grendel, a giant, and Grendel’s mother? And his last, from which he died, was with a dragon. That means we are not always victorious with dragons. Dragons come up again in the King Arthur cycle. Giants really won the Second World War in the sense that the Nazis got possessed by giant-energy and a tremendous cultural destruction followed.
I take all of this to mean that the giants and dragons are very much alive inside us. The light tone of the new age often implies that all you need to do is to meditate twenty minutes a day and if something negative appears “bring it up and bathe it in the heart radiance.” I hear revolting statements like that every day delivered with full confidence.
It’s very dangerous — this heart radiance attitude — because if the dragon material is not dealt with, a man or woman can suffer a breakdown, and the longer the dealing is put off, the deeper the breakdown will be.
Safransky: What does it mean to you to deal with it?
Bly: First of all, we stop talking about enlightenment for a while. The soul is not born ready for light. Joseph Campbell declares that the human infant, to judge by his inability to function well apart from his parents, is born twelve years too soon. A kind of marsupial pouch called the home is necessary; if it is not present, the body’s development can arrest, suffer distortion, or end. But the human soul too needs a marsupial pouch. This is called mythology; if that is not present, the psyche’s development can arrest, suffer distortion, or even end in suicide. The soul then is not born ready for light. Mythology in ancient times acted so as to guide the young soul through regions of darkness; one can still feel “Hansel and Gretel” doing that guiding for children.
So, for us, mythology is more helpful than enlightenment or to put it chronologically, years of mythology need to come, accustoming the soul to darkness, before the soul is ready for enlightenment.
Some storytellers deal with dragon energy by memorizing stories and telling them: that is active, not passive, and so belongs to dealing. To take rage, anger, jealousy, envy seriously, while watching them, is a way of dealing with dragons. Rather than getting a massage in order to remove tensions from your body, you could say, “What’s the matter with tensions in the body?” Rather than slandering your parents by taking an Asian name, you refuse to do that, and ask the Asian to take an American name. See if he’ll do it. That will bring up a little dragon energy. Going back to your parents and trying to understand the grief in them, and in your relationship to them, is a good way. Dealing with dragons seems to involve moving backward or downward.
For the work with one’s parents, and early childhood, Alice Miller has produced a superb book, called in cloth, Prisoners of Childhood, and in paper, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I think it’s marvelous. It threw me into a depression for several weeks when I read it recently, but it was a good fall.
The “drama” is this: we receive a deep wound from our parents before we can speak and we spend the rest of our lives pretending we had a happy childhood. When people can’t remember their childhood, or when they say, “Oh, it was very happy! I had wonderful parents,” that is, Alice Miller says, the mark of a really deep wound. I always answered things like that if someone asked me about my childhood.
That our mothers and fathers gave us a wound does not stem from their being evil — that’s not it at all. It stems from their being narcissistic. For our purposes here, that would mean that they needed us for something, or they needed us to be something, or they needed something from us. They weren’t standing on all four legs in the world, they weren’t complete in themselves, they were needy. But who isn’t? Our parents too were born twelve years too early. What do they need us for? Well, my parents were second and third generation Norwegian immigrants, and felt, as many immigrants do, insecure, inferior, perhaps a little savage, and they needed my brother and me to be nice.
The nature we brought with us from the far reaches of the universe, and worked on in the womb, using the threads of dna, and the genetic cross threads, was our nature, and our gift. But our parents didn’t want it.
Alice Miller believes that we each live with this tremendous wound, which amounts to a rejection that is, because it is pre-verbal, not accessible to encounter group tellings nor to confession. And what do we do then, if we can’t express it? We can respond to this wound, acting it out and hiding it at the same time, in two possible ways: we can work things out as we reject someone deeply — that would keep us in unconscious touch with it — or we can work things out so that someone else rejects us deeply. Both ways are good. I’ve done both.
Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, on my way to a men’s conference, I rode with a man also attending, who was in his early thirties. He was boiling with anger. It turned out that some months before, after six years or so of marriage, his wife told him she didn’t want to be with him anymore and she left. His anger eventually led him to a gymnasium, where he worked with body-building, and he actually put on about thirty pounds doing that. But his anger was still with him, and as he drove it poured off his shoulders. During one of the sessions later, I brought up the thought of Alice Miller, and a moment later when I happened to glance at him, I saw that he was starting to melt. He realized all at once that he had set up the marriage with great care and finesse so as to get the maximum rejection, and he had gotten it. His is one way of living that out.
So one can live through post-verbally a rejection that one received pre-verbally. I suppose the important thing would be gaining consciousness of the procedure, so that one wouldn’t go on being angry and offering blame for the rest of one’s life. As the Buddhists say, when the pre-verbal is entered, blame disappears. But grief comes.
The work of realizing what one has done is an example of what is described in the fairy tales as cutting off the head of the dragon in the solar plexus.
Safransky: Once you’ve acknowledged the deep grief, isn’t there a way to bring it up to the heart, not superficially, but more profoundly?
Bly: I suppose. But some dragons don’t want to be lifted up into the heart area. That’s their place down where they are. You go down and meet them on their ground. “I’m going to lift you up and bathe you in the violet light of the heart.” What do they care about that?
Safransky: You said last night that going to a Jungian analyst was money well-spent. . . .
Bly: Yes, I said that learning to think intuitively is something our ancestors knew how to do. Fairy tales move intuitively from one point to another; so do myths. We’ve lost our ability to do that, so we have to hire someone to teach us to think intuitively, which teaching we mistakenly call therapy.
Safransky: Is that something you’ve done, or do?
Bly: Well, no, my therapy, or my instruction, came through reading Jung, alone, in a field, while also trying to write poems. The intuitive intelligence and language appears in all dreams, in true fairy tales, and in great poems. We have to struggle so much now to write poetry. I didn’t publish my first book until I was thirty-six, and I would say that the ten to fifteen years before that were spent trying to understand intuitive language and sound. Frost says, “A man is a writer if all his words are strung on definite recognizable sentence sounds. The voice of the imagination, the speaking voice, must know certainly how to behave, how to posture in every sentence he offers.” I didn’t have an older male that I could apprentice to, physically, in this world, but I did have one in the other world —Yeats. And he is a superb intuitive thinker; he is still my master, and I read him every day. I mentioned last night that I think the male needs to be initiated into the world of male intuition, but the initiator needn’t be your father. He doesn’t need to be alive. And I suspect women need and long for a similar initiation. Many women poets have been initiated by Emily Dickinson or by Anna Akhmatova.
Safransky: Another thing you said last night is that it takes a lot of energy for a man and woman to have a relationship; you have to get it back from your parents. I’d like you to talk about what that energy is, how you get it back, how you’ve gotten it back.
Bly: Let’s say the dragons ate it. We’re going to suppose that an energy, invisible but potent, a sort of liquid fire, appears in us and with us at birth. Our body produces it naturally, even while in the womb. When we are tiny, we keep some for ourselves, but most of it we give to feed our mother’s thirst for it. We exchange it for a similar substance our mother gives us. We also, after we are two or three, give some, exchange some, with our father, but much less. Around twelve we begin to give more to the father.
What am I saying? Most of a boy’s liquid fire, because his mother’s sexuality has tremendous magnetism, becomes pulled toward and committed to his mother. Another way of saying it is the dragons eat it. They become fat on it. Dragons are not idealistic or religious; they are usually guarding some materialistic treasure they can’t use themselves. So when the dragons eat the liquid fire, the stomach becomes home for a complicated interweaving family of energies: self-preservation, love of food, possessiveness of the mother, and beyond her, all women, the impulse for sexual union now confused with maternal receiving, fierce longing for comfort, for home, for not leaving home. The main image is that the dragons eat it, and we can’t get it back, because, fed by that fire, they get too fierce for us.
If we talk of early marriage, the young male doesn’t have enough of that invisible fire energy available to sustain and feed a relationship. He has twenty percent or so at the most. And the girl? What she has not fed to the mother, she has fed to the father. The father dragon in her stomach guards his useless treasure, and fights her off if she wants to get the fire back. So she too has no more than twenty percent to give to a man her own age.
That’s a gloomy prospect. I remember in my first years of marriage a terrific loneliness. I think the loneliness appears because neither the man nor woman can give; what each is thirsty for the other has already committed somewhere else. The committing took place unconsciously, that is, without the conscious mind being utterly clear about it, and so the conscious mind feels helpless. It’s like a lawyer who can’t find the papers for a certain case — what can he do without them? Nothing.
So reversing that means making things conscious. Writing is very helpful, Jung and Marie Louise von Frony are very helpful, imagining witches and dragons is very helpful, moving toward the non-maternal is very helpful. Using food stamps means participating in the state-maternal so that is not helpful. Drifting is not helpful. Joining a spiritual group usually means joining a reconstituted family, so that is usually not helpful. For a man in this situation, adopting feminine values is dangerous. I’ve tried all of these. I know that all my remarks need qualification, but each person can do that for himself or herself. In our culture now, the young male, being parted from positive masculine values by the collapse of mythology, and separated physically from his father by the Industrial Revolution, is often, in this new age, full of feminine values. Many of these values are marvelous, but their presence in his psyche are not well balanced by positive male values. It is the male, in both the man and in the woman, who fights the dragon — the dragon-fighter is not “a man” but the yang, whether that appears in a woman or in a man.
The young man in this decade, unable to get his fire energy away from the dragons, will find it difficult to support a relationship by the time he’s thirty-five. To some extent, the young man, each time he leaves a woman, feels it is a victory, because he has escaped from his mother. But the woman feels it is a defeat. I notice that men, when around thirty-five, begin to feel the whole sequence as a defeat too. Then the time has come to fight dragons, or as Iron John or Iron Hans (a Grimm Brothers’ story) says, “Get the key to the cage from under your mother’s pillow.”
I can’t speak for women, but I suspect they have some work to do in getting the key from under their father’s pillow. I think they do better on that in some ways than men do.
With men I understand the struggle a little better. During the struggle I think it’s important to stop imagining yourself as spiritual. Spiritual people don’t steal keys. You know that (laughs). I think the whole imagery of going down in the lower chakras and fighting the dragons has a certain quality in it that involves forgetting oneself as someone destined for higher consciousness. One doesn’t consider oneself as someone spiritual, or someone nice, but one just does what men and women have done for hundreds of thousands of years, which is to deal with that material. It’s good also to stop imagining oneself as part of the new age.