Back in October 2014 I went through the Robert Bly Papers at the University of Minnesota’s archives. Although I’ve done archival work elsewhere (at Morris and online), this was the first time I’d gone through the papers of a writer — and the experience filled me with such a range of emotion that, walking the leaf-covered sidewalk home, I couldn’t understand why I was weeping. Overcome with feelings of inspiration and grief, I blamed the fall air for being harsh on eyes too-familiar with the Houston heat.
Going through Bly’s diaries and correspondence spanning his entire life, I felt empowered watching this writer grow, discovering that the youthful doubts I harbor are doubts he harbored, too. It felt validating. (I don’t expect anyone but the writers in the audience to understand what I mean by this). Sometimes I’d even stumble across lines that, in variation, have appeared in my own diary:
Dec. 6 : Today […] the thought came: why not keep a diary for posterity – one that would record exactly how life is lived today, not for my use, nor anyone’s but those who will not be born for five hundred years yet. Such a thing will keep one’s name alive forever, if it can only be broad, with much observed, much compared, significant experiences related. Perhaps half an hour a day would be enough. [Box 68, Folder 1]
Some diaries are read “five hundred years yet” for that reason (like Samuel Pepys‘), but when given the scholarly attention he deserves, Bly’s will be read for the influences that shaped him and, thus, all of American poetry. Reading his diaries before the publication of his literary magazine The Fifties, one is struck by his seriousness — for every page of daily observation there are dozens more filled with notes on mythology, what he’s reading, and so on. Among the many diaries I’ve read, the only other that is comparable, stylistically, are Kerouac’s when he was writing The Town and the City.
To be able to hold his diary with my own hands and relate to it in such a personal way is something I wish every writer could experience. Doing so bridges the historical distance. While there, I also held personal letters from Ginsberg, Snyder, Bukowski, Sexton, and others — all people who, for the most part, I’ve only read about (the exception being Snyder). To reach out and make these people real rather than names on book-covers or black-and-white figures on a film reel is powerful.