While going through the Robert Bly Papers at the University of Minnesota, I came across two letters I wanted to share. In the past I’ve posted pieces from young writers like Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, and Hunter S. Thompson, but the following come from two of the state’s most-famous contemporaries. The first excerpt is from Garrison Keillor (age 27) and the other from Bill Holm (age 26).
Both letters are dated 1969 and written after Bly gained fame for his literary magazine The Fifties (then The Sixties) and first book of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1963). In 1966, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and through it staged readings on college campuses across the country, which introduced him to many young poets. This kind of literary activism culminated in his winning the National Book Award for his politically-charged The Light Around the Body (1967). It is hard to overstate the influence Bly had on his contemporaries during the decade. Although both Keillor and and Holm later found their own fame for A Prairie Home Companion and The Music of Failure (1985), respectively, these were still decades away. In fact the two would become good friends with Keillor calling Holm, “The sage … a colleague of Whitman born one hundred years too late.”
Dated April 9, 1969, on UMN Department of Radio and Television letterhead, Keillor complimented Bly on a recent reading, noting the recording was to be aired on the college radio station. He went on to add that they had a mutual friend, prompting a curious anecdote about his travel habits. Cleverly, Keillor ties this to his appreciation of Bly’s work.
… I was in New York looking for a job. … Whenever I sleep in somebody else’s house, I wake up at five in the morning. I woke up early at Roland’s and sat in his garden for a couple hours, having to piss desperately and afraid if I did I’d wake up the babies with a flood. It slowly dawned on me that nobody would hire me because I don’t want to work, and I put together laboriously some pieces of that morning into a poem which I’ve been afraid to read anyplace lest somebody accuse me of imitating you. I mention this by way of saying a few poets can re-order our consciousness so that from time to time we live inside their poems, and that you are one of them.
Anyway, thank you for the generous compliment at the reading.
Around that same time (March 25, 1969), Bly also received a letter from Holm who was then working on his PhD at the University of Kansas. Their relationship is more intimate with both growing up in western Minnesota. As Holm writes, school was stressful, but it was nothing Whitman couldn’t help.
Have been meaning to send a letter for some time, but I got bogged down in the process of studying for PhD exams for 2 months. In the course of I developed insomnia, a tic in my right eye, and a bad stomach. … But they are done at last, my facial tic is gone, and after reading the Song of Myself a couple of times, I am beginning to feel human again. …
As a treat, he included a poem called “Dog,” which as far as I know has never been published. I’ll leave its literary merit to your judgment.
In the moonlight
To rummage through
with my nose!
Perhaps, tonight –
from my lover.
What I enjoy about these excerpts is their insight into the relationships Bly maintained with young writers. Though under no obligation to be responsive to anyone, his papers are filled with hundreds of letters from well-wishers, many of which end the same way: “Thank you.” Never teaching at an institution, his engagement with students was limited to readings and letters, in which he was always encouraging and supportive. I know this firsthand through my own (limited) correspondence with him. If the generations of writers he’s inspired shows anything: such responsiveness means something, it works.
Source: Robert Bly Correspondence series (Mss 81s01), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis. Box 14, Folder 1.