Lessons on the Environment: Revisiting Robert Bly
by Brian Fanelli
Robert Bly and James Wright edited the first issue of The Fifties in 1958; a passage on the inside cover reads: “All of the poetry written in America today is too old-fashioned.” As a way to make a name for themselves and the magazine, the poets were responding to the Modernists, especially T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound’s idea of taking personal narrative and emotion out of poetry. By the 1960s and 1970s, Bly’s poetry showcased his environmental concerns and protest against the Vietnam War. During a period of greater political engagement and more attention drawn to environmental issues, due to the Paris Climate Agreement, now is a good time to revisit Bly’s work, especially his environmental and neo-Romantic poetry. Bly can teach creative writers not only how to be more attuned to nature but how to be an active citizen.
Diving into Bly can be overwhelming. His career spans decades and includes dozens of poetry collections and countless translations and essays. There is much to mine in Bly’s work; however, Bly’s work from the 1960s and 1970s feels most resonant at this present moment. In a sense, Bly is a descendent of Whitman and not only because he loosely quotes and references his work, but also because he believes human beings will find joy by acknowledging that there is a holiness and independence in nature. Furthermore, Bly shows the relationship between the modern world and nature, including our detrimental impact on it. He even links humankind’s desire to own land with negative aspects of masculinity.
At the beginning of his career, Bly made a name for himself like other writers sometimes do, by criticizing the dominant literary movement that preceded him, the Modernists. More specifically, he took issue with the Modernists’ focus on the concrete image and Eliot’s phrase the objective correlative. Eliot and his mentor Pound argued for taking the personal “I” and emotion out of poetry. In his essay “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” Bly labels Eliot’s phrase objective correlative as “passionless.”
Bly can be viewed as a descendent of Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, and the American Romantics and Transcendentalists, namely for his belief that there exists a consciousness in other living things, and we, as humans, need to acknowledge that and realize our place in a greater universe. In other words, take a moment, slow down, and be aware of your surroundings. In the preface to his 1979 collection of poems, This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years, Bly presents the idea that there exists two separate consciousnesses, ours and that of other living things. He also encourages us to go out and encounter nature, instead of writing about it from office spaces. In other words, know and study your subject to write it well. He states, “I’ve come to believe, however, that it is important for everyone that the second consciousness appear somehow in the poem, merged or not….It’s helpful if you’re writing about a pine to go to the pine, or about a tunnel to go to the tunnel, and I’ve noticed how difficult it is to write poems in this genre at a desk.”
On the one hand, this can be problematic. Not everyone has access to a forest on a daily basis, and it should be noted that Bly spent about 35 years working and writing on a farm. That said, Bly is not necessarily encouraging writers to imitate Thoreau and live on a plot of land for two years. Rather, understand and know your material before you write about it.
The poems throughout This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years are Bly’s attempts to merge these two different consciousnesses, often mixing nature with the city or the human condition. A good example is the opening poem, “October Frost.”
Last night the first heavy frost.
Now the brave alfalfa has sobered.
It has folded, as if from great heat,
and turned away from north.
The horse’s winter coat has come
through the bark of trees.
Our ears hear tinier sounds,
reaching far away east in the early darkness.
Much of the poem focuses on the connectedness evident in nature, specifically the effect that autumn has on everything, be it the folded alfalfa or the horse’s winter coat. Consciousness is given to the alfalfa when the speaker shows the impact the frost has on it. The poem shifts in the last two lines when the speaker introduces the pronoun “our,” meaning human consciousness, which is connected to the natural world and exists within it, though human ears are drawn to “tinier sounds,” which could be human sounds, such as the city in the distance, or perhaps other sounds of nature, such as insects. Another way to read the last two lines is that the human ears hear sounds far east, meaning everything living, no matter the distance, is connected. Regardless, Bly merges both worlds and adheres to the theory he presents in the preface of the book.
In his 1975 collection, The Morning Glory, Bly presents the idea that nature has its own consciousness, writing in the preface, “If we examine a pine carefully, we see how independent it is of us. When we first sense that a pine tree doesn’t really need us, that it has a physical life and moral life and a spiritual life that is complete without us, we feel alienated and depressed. The second time we feel it, we feel joyful.”
Even today, this is a radical philosophy. If applied on a broader, societal scale, it would certainly lead to greater environmental protections and greater respect for nature because it would instill the belief that there is something divine in nature, an idea that harkens back to the American Transcendentalists and Romantics. Furthermore, Bly quotes sections from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in The Morning Glory, specifically in the poem “November Day at McClure’s.”
Many of the poems in the collection show the impact that humankind has had on nature. In “The Turtle,” Bly blends the natural world with the city, showing the negative impact humans can have on nature, which, in the case of this poem, stands in for emotion and passion. It is the city that erases the emotion and passion of nature. The short prose poem reads:
The orange stripes on his head shoot forward into
the future. The slim head stretches forward, the turtle
is pushing with all his might, caught now on the edge
of my palm. The claws—five on the front, four on the
back—are curiously long and elegant, cold and curved,
pale, like a lieutenant’s sword. The yellow stripes on
the neck and head remind you of racing cars.
The bottom plate is a pale, washed out rose color
from being dragged over the world—the imagination
is simplified there, without too much passion, business-
like, being the underside of a space-ship.
In the very detailed description of a turtle, Bly uses several human images to describe the reptile, including a sword, race cars, a space-ship, and even business-like. Here, Bly’s poetic theories come into play. The turtle’s bottom plate is pale because it has been “dragged over the world.” This passionless, business-like world has erased the beauty and color from the turtle.
The poem calls to mind Charles Simic’s “The Fork,” a short, two-stanza poem that compares a material object, a fork, to a creature of the natural world, a bird. Like some of Simic’s other earlier work, the poem is punctuated with violence, especially in the last stanza, where the comparison of the fork to a bird expands
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.
Having lived through World War II, in Yugoslavia, in the late 1930s, prior to moving to the U.S. in the 1950s, Simic is no stranger to the destruction that human beings can cause to the natural world and to each other. In that regard, his early work has some parallels to Bly’s. “The Turtle” and “The Fork” blend the material world with the natural world and show the violence that humans can cause. Bly’s poem contains the image of a turtle whose beauty and color have been snuffed out by a capitalist world, while Simic’s poem concludes with an image of a bird compared to a blind fist.
A more complicated and controversial aspect of Bly’s storied career is his leadership of the Men’s Movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Launched after third wave feminism, The Men’s Movement formed due to concerns that young men were lacking male role models. Bly always said that he supported the need for the feminist movement, but today, the notion of a Men’s Movement would draw more scorn than praise from the left, due to the rise of the alt-right, white nationalist male figures and the Women’s March and #MeToo Movements. The very idea of a Men’s Movement would face justified blowback, especially following the number of women who have come forward to share their stories of sexual assault at the hands of powerful men in Hollywood and politics. With all of that said, some of the poet’s theories on gender and masculinity can be applied to his environmental poems. In a 1988 interview with Alfred Meyer for Mother Earth News, Bly linked environmental destruction to negative aspects of masculinity, colonialism, and dominance. Bly states:
One connects a man's desire for power with owning land. It is said that in the old matriarchies women were less interested in the surrounding land than they were in the land between the houses. Of course, they were primarily interested in what went on inside the house, for that was where their power lay. Men, on the other hand, tended to go outdoors and act on the surrounding land.
Take my generation, for example. I grew up at a time here in Minnesota that saw the advent of the huge tractors, a point at which we farmers moved into a power relationship with the land. As a boy I would go out with my brother and our two little mules. They pulled a small cultivator, on which we sometimes rode. It was slow going, often tedious. But, in its own way, it was also unforgettably charming. Such deep, endless days.
However, by the time I left the farm and my brother turned 40, he was driving an enormous machine, one complete with tape deck and air conditioning. He was almost totally sealed off—from the land, the air, everything. Indeed, his tractor cab resembled an executive's study. Not only that, but the tractor itself was huge and heavy; it packed down the soil so that even earthworms couldn't move through it. And water just puddled, unable to percolate down. That machine struck me as a manifestation of the male mode of domination, exerting power over the earth. It contrasts, I should add, with another male mode, that of feeling with the earth, or into it or along with it. Consider the difference between what Buddha says and what is written in Genesis. Buddha says we are all brothers to the animals, whereas Genesis exhorts us to take dominion over the beasts and every living thing.
Bly’s theories about male domination in the context of the planet feel more relevant than ever, considering all of the lobbying efforts that have been made in the U.S. to thwart climate change initiatives. In one of Bly’s most haunting poems, “The Dead Seal Near McClure’s Beach,” from The Morning Glory, this idea comes into play forcefully. Much of the poem describes a dying seal the speaker encounters. The speaker observes, “He is dying. This is the oil. Here on its back is the oil that heats our house so efficiently.” By the concluding lines, the only relief the speaker sees for the seal is death, “Be comfortable in death then, where the sand will be out/of your nostrils, and you can swim in long loops/through the pure death, ducking as assassinations/break above you. You don’t want to be touched/by me. I climb the cliff and go home the other way.” Here, Bly illuminates the impact man has on nature when we allow greed to dictate our actions.
In an interview from 2000 with The Paris Review, Bly comments on his first book of poems, 1963’s The Silence in the Snowy Fields. He says, “When I wrote poems in those years, I was not someone like Neruda trying to feel my way back through centuries of human suffering and human grief. I'm sitting beneath a tree and realizing that I'm happy doing that.” That idea of getting back to nature, or at least being more conscious of our natural surroundings, be it in a big city or in rural America, is desperately needed now, due to the severe threat of climate change. While it can be easy to dismiss Bly because of his views and public persona, his environmental poems speak to the urgency of this moment. He teaches us not only how to be active citizens, but how to be aware of our surroundings and our impact.
American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Wendell Berry: The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture
Robert Bly: Morning Glory
Robert Bly: This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years
Robert Bly: Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer
Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate
Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac
Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture
Bill McKibben: The End of Nature
Henry David Thoreau: Walden and Civil Disobedience
Alan Weisman: The World Without Us
Walt Whitman: “Democratic Vistas”
Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass
A Note About the Author:
Brian Fanelli’s most recent book of poems is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the 2017 Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. He is also the author of the collection All That Remains (Unbound Content) and the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing). His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, Main Street Rag, The Paterson Literary Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. He has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.