Escaping the Dark Forest: Robert Bly on Deep Image Poetry.

Robert Bly and Ekbert Faas

Robert Bly and Ekbert Faas

While spending my Friday Night on JSTOR, I came across the following interview and decided to share it as, I think, it sheds light on the the “deep image” style of Minnesota’s most-famous living poet.

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In 1976, winner of the National Book Award and co-founder of Writers Against the Vietnam War, Robert Bly, sat down for an interview with the novelist and literary critic Ekbert Faas. Published in the magazine boundary 2, the pair discuss everything from D.H. Lawrence to Bly’s criticism of Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhism. (Of the latter, beneath the surface one can feel reverberations from the Merwin-Trungpa “Incident” – or, more accurately, The Great Naropa Poetry Wars). What is particularly interesting, though, is the discussion of Bly’s aesthetic.

Bly imagines a poetry “in which a great ‘flowing’ consciousness is present” that is also “aware of [the outer world] all the time.” While he abhors the term “Deep Image,” this is what he’s suggesting and it’s become the traditional label of his work. By going deep into the dark woods of one’s psyche, coming out the other side aware of oneself and the world, only then can one create art that transcends both. Things like Pop Art fail to find this “adult energy of the unconscious” and as a form makes sense only as artistic “infantilization.” Surrealism and open form can be a launching point to discover this energy, but still

[t]here is a powerful magnet over there, not far away, near the wall. It is the magnet of the crib … or “the primitive man.” It is too strong in America; it’s too strong! It pulls art down into the crib, it pulls it backward (679).

Bly then goes on to target the New York School as being especially victim to this. Holding up the Chinese artists who “moved for a thousand years into adult minglings of Yin and Yang, of mist and discipline. We go a little way away from the patriarchal and start to curve down.” To resist this pull, defeat the “lethargy in the colleges,” one must (switch metaphors and) go deep into their own “forest” – their psyche, the deep unconscious. Unfortunately, what many artists do

is we find a gingerbread house in the forest and stay there. We never bother to put the witch into her own oven. We just ask for more cookies (680).

To kill the witch and find where the forest opens to wide fields and open sky, the soul must go into the part of our being that suffers “and into the body, into a deep sexual life.” In other words, we must embrace our humanity. As Americans, he argues, we have yet to do this – and don’t want to. We would prefer to stay in the gingerbread house, getting fat, instead of growing up. As has been made clear, Bly’s aesthetic is also a psychology, and it’s one he uses to diagnose his fellow-countrymen:

We went into the Vietnam War and did all that … killing and we now refuse to go through the … grief (680).

In that war – and the many others that followed – we carried on without resolution. Sure there were agreements written on paper, rallies on carriers, a few second-page articles in The New York Times, but before we could understand what had happened the silence was only a pause and the drums beat on. A little drummer boy marches us in circles through the forest and nobody’s got the courage to tell him to stop. So around and around we go.

Sources/Further Reading:
Faas, Ekbert and Robert Bly. “An Interview with Robert Bly.” boundary 2 4 (1976): 677-700.
Faas, Ekbert. “Robert Bly.” boundary 2 4 (1976): 707-726.

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