Robert Bly

5 posts

Leaping Poetry, or When Poems Make Like Frogs


The sedentary reader is often moved by his discoveries. Recently I learned about a style of writing Robert Bly referred to as “leaping poetry.” In 1975, he defined it as “a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

This sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who went there and back again, but Bly took his inspiration from the works of such French poets as Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Antonio Machado. Bly also cited ancient Chinese poets who spoke of “riding on dragons,” a term defining moments of “inspiration,” of leaps between planes of thought.

If you read Bly poems that demonstrate “leaping poetry” nowadays, you might not even notice the leaping. Our modern sense of metaphoric leaps seems to fill the bill quite nicely, thank you, but here’s an example anyway. Can you guess which stanza makes like Mark Twain’s Calaveras County frog and leaps?


Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River by Robert Bly

I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.


If you chose stanza #3, you are correct. The turn comes with the word “suddenly,” and although some imagery anticipates it in the first two stanzas, in stanza #3 Bly leaps to a more emotional, subjective lens to describe sights seen on this drive.

As I said, leaping is less exercise than you thought, so you need not worry about training so much as freeing your mind to the possibilities.

Here is another Bly poem that leaps. Like the last line of haiku, a leaping poem might first focus on a concrete image (in this case, some lovely description of a humble mushroom) and then finish on an imaginative metaphor, such as the trip our migratory souls prepare for near the end of life. By the end of the poem, you might wonder what “A” has to do with “B” but, skillfully done, leaping poetry makes the transition not only reasonable but seemingly obvious.

Leap well done, in other words!


The Mushroom by Robert Bly

This white mushroom comes up through the duffy
lith on a granite cliff, in a crack that ice has widened.
The most delicate light tan, it has the texture of a rubber
ball left in the sun too long. To the fingers it feels a
little like the tough heel of a foot.

One split has gone deep into it, dividing it into two
half-spheres, and through the cut one can peek inside,
where the flesh is white and gently naive.

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.
There must be travellers all around us supporting us whom
we do not recognize. This granite cliff also travels. Do we
know more about our wife’s journey or our dearest friends’
than the journey of this rock? Can we be sure which
traveller will arrive first, or when the wedding will be?
Everything is passing away except the day of this wedding.

Both God & the Devil Are in the Details

kooser book

Years ago, when I decided to dip a toe in the poetry waters, I purchased a book that has since become a favorite due to its practicality: Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. I occasionally go back and flip through it anew, amazed how the old appears new again and the read appears unread again thanks to time. That’s part of the book’s practicality, I think, and why it has a picture of well-used tools in a toolbox on its cover.

One of my favorite chapters is #9: “Working with Detail.” It may come ninth in the book, but its message is central not only to poets but to writers in general: Be specific. Kooser doesn’t leave it at that, however. Being specific alone isn’t good enough.

Instead of discussing the value of detail alone, Kooser promotes the unexpected detail. After excerpting Thea S. Kuticka’s poem, “Newcastle Bar & Grill,” as an exemplar, Kooser goes into teacher mode:

“Notice the value of unexpected, unpredictable detail, how it lends authenticity to the poem.

“If I were to ask each of you in turn to provide, from your imaginations, one or two details from a scene like this one, I’d expect you to come up with the obvious ones: cigarette butts in the ashtrays, a clock over the counter, the smell of grease, the clink of dishes, and so on, and soon, as we added detail upon detail, we would have assembled a kind of Norman Rockwell bar and grill. But it wouldn’t feel quite real because we would have built it from the predictable details, from our imaginations. There would be little about our imaginary scene to convince the viewer that any of us had ever been in this specific bar and grill. But if one of us dropped in just one unpredictable detail, say a cardboard box covered with Christmas paper, sitting on the end of the counter and filled with carburetor parts, the whole scene would gain in authenticity because somebody viewing our assembled scene would think, ‘Well, those poets must have been there, all right, to have seen that box on the counter.'”

Kooser goes on to share an anecdote about feedback he once received on an early poem. It came from the poet Robert Bly (note to self: How do these beginners get such established poets to read, much less critique, their drafts? Must find out!). Bly responded to Kooser’s poem by writing, quite bluntly, “You’re just making this up.”

Kooser elaborates: “He meant that I’d created the scene and experience from my imagination, sitting in my comfortable chair under my floor lamp. What I’d put there were the predictable things, the kinds of details the imagination finds easily. The imagination makes a lousy realist; it places in its scenes only those things that it prefers to see there. Bly was encouraging me to write from life, to go out and actually experience something and then write about that while its particular and unique detail was fresh in the mind.”

From here, Kooser goes on to the importance of naming things by their actual names (think of architecture around you, for instance, and how the carpenter who builds houses can name each one while we, as poets, can probably name only a fifth of them), and this is good advice.

Still, I like the unpredictable detail advice best. Why? Because it’s a good reminder about a bad habit. Because my imagination often tries to hijack my poems, written from a chair under a light as well, and just paint the canvas in hues of “expected” and “predictable,” too. It’s easier, after all, and the first draft of least resistance.

The moral of a story? Sometimes your imagination, usually considered the hero in writing lore, can work against you. Consider it guilty until proven innocent, then. And keep your eye peeled for details that set scenes and people apart from their counterparts.

The Slender Sadness and Other Truths


In 1907 the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck wrote an essay called “Charakter and Typus” where he said, “Goethe’s short poems have a strange ring to them. They are entirely impersonal; in fact, you could say of them that they are not created by a person, but by nature. In them a person is not seen as an ‘I,’ but as a part of something else.”

Groddeck was distinguishing between poets who bring “news of the human mind” and poets who bring “news of the universe,” which is the title Robert Bly would adopt for his anthology of poets who write not so much like Narcissus, but like poets aware of their inconsequential place in the universe.

And talk about going against the tide! Groddeck even dares criticize Shakespeare. Why? For the Bard’s strength is his incisive commentary on the human animal, one that seemingly acts and lives and dies among other humans with little regard or mention of the natural world around him.

“Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible, at least not in the way Shakespeare and Beethoven go about it…. The only poet who could make anything out of it is a man who sees in human beings a part of the universe, for whom human nature is interesting not because it is human, but because it is nature.”

Bly quotes a short Goethe poem here, one where a man gets “the news” that counts:


Wanderers Nachtlied II
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

There is a stillness
On the tops of the hills.
In the tree tops
You feel
Hardly a breath of air.
The small birds fall silent in the trees.
Simply wait: soon
You too will be silent


Bly goes on to write in greater depth about nature and writers / poets who make it their muse:

“The psychic tone of nature strikes many people as having some melancholy in it. The tone of nature is related to what human beings call ‘grief,’ what Lucretius called ‘the tears of things,’ what in Japanese poetry is called mono no aware, the slender sadness with the incessant wheel of of reproduction, going on without pause.”

As an example of a poet understanding nature’s predominant role in human life, Bly cites Yeats:


W. B. Yeats


Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died.
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.


Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth,
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Ninevah.


As Bly explains, “When Yeats says, ‘Locke sank into a swoon,’ he is summing up sixty years of experience during the Industrial Revolution, in which the inventiveness of human beings seemed a prophecy finally come true.”

As a metaphor for human mastery over nature, Bly goes to William Irwin Thompson, who pointed out the Crystal Palace built in 1851: “… in this palace, for the first time in history, steel beams were used, with glass, to enclose living trees. That was a great triumph for the Old Position, because it said that human consciousness, now intensified and narrowed into ‘technology,’ had succeeded in its ancient war with the consciousness of nature, and won.”

And this is where we are today, Bly says. A land that brought us Augustine, the railroad and airplanes, the Nuremberg rallies, doctors’ “war on death.” Bly calls it “Locke’s dizzy spell.”

“To feel the contrast between our contemporary experience when we look at an object or a hillside, and the experience that is possible when an ‘opened’ human being does that, we have to go far back into the past of the human race.”

For Bly, Yeats’ second stanza in “Fragments” does just that, in the name of truth.

news of the univers


Simplify to a Few Poetic Ingredients


Simplicity. It was Henry David Thoreau’s word to live by, but it sure wouldn’t hurt a few poets to borrow, too.

Sometimes would-be poets make something simple overly complicated when all they need are a few basic ingredients. Then let these stew so the flavors can take hold.

Description, our old friend, is simplicity’s right-hand man. What does it look like, for starters? Choose the most prominent details and become the artist’s brush. A few specific nouns, a splash of color. Simile. Metaphor. But lightly. Lightly.

Just be sure your last piece of description is the most important. And waste no time ushering your reader into the poem in line one. Too often the opening lines of our early drafts are dispensable. Throat clearing before the speech.

Take care of that off stage.  Then boldly step forward to the mic and deliver, getting to the point. Making your point. Simply, but powerfully.

Exhibit A today is Robert Bly’s description of a dead wren in his hand. Imagery. Metaphor. There’s no reason to make it more complicated than that, is there?


Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand
Robert Bly

Forgive the hours spent listening to radios, and the words of
gratitude I did not say to teachers. I love your tiny rice-like legs, that
are bars of music played in an empty church, and the feminine tail,
where no worms of Empire have ever slept, and the intense yellow
chest that makes tears come. Your tail feathers open like a picket
fence, and your bill is brown, with the sorrow of a rabbi whose
daughter has married an athlete. The black spot on your head is
your own mourning cap.

Joyfully Ambushed


One theme touched on in Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry is “associative movement,” a term he rather dislikes as being too “clinical sounding,” but uses anyway because its meaning is so vast that it’s hard to label and shelf as something else. What can it mean? Lots of things, but for my purposes, I’ll call it the feeling readers of poetry get when they are “joyfully ambushed.”

That term itself is associative. When I preach poetry in the classroom, I praise the value of “unexpected word pairings” — words we seldom (or, better yet, never) see together. Our first reaction, when we read them, is, “Wha–?” And our second reaction is, “But, you know what? I kind of get that, now that I think about it!”

The ambush is part one: the jolt, the surprise, the unexpected idea. The joy is part two: the caboose connection, as if the train of the poet’s thought has latched onto you at the last possible moment, and now you feel the pleasure of being pulled along by this new association.

On a larger scale, Zapruder goes beyond words and discusses how many poems “leap” from one thought to another, similar to the “monkey mind” practitioners of meditation warn us about. In this sense, poets are like hydroelectric plants on a river, harnessing the turbulent white water of their minds to create poetic energy.

A microcosm of the “leap” theory is seen in haiku. Never mind the syllable-counting so beloved by schoolchildren’s fingers, the essence of good haiku is line 3, which takes a tiny leap from lines 1 and 2–different, yet the same. A new trajectory, but in the spirit of the set-up. Zapruder uses a Basho as a for-instance:

The cicada.
Nothing in its song reveals
that tomorrow it must die.

And then a Sora:

The coastal wind
disorders above the sea
the seagulls’ wise drawings

Robert Bly even wrote a book called Leaping Poetry. Zapruder shares a quote from that book which discusses leaps from image to image:

In “Nothing but Death,” [Pablo] Neruda leaps from death to the whiteness of flour, then to notary publics, and he continues to make leap after leap. We often feel elation reading Neruda because he follows some arc of association which corresponds to the inner life of the objects; so that anyone sensitive to the inner life of objects can ride with him.

Most people think of daydreaming as the enemy, but in associative parlance it is above all an ally. You need only order these Dionysian delights with a dash of Apollonian “structured mayhem” to find “the inner life of objects,” as Bly puts it.

Metaphor itself provides such associative treats. A is like B? Readers delight in C-ing such novel connections. It’s as if they have been allowed to clamber upon the back of the poet so they can cross a river for the first time and get to the other side–a new place affording a new view and offering a new reckoning on life.

Zapruder’s book is rich with researched gems, quotes that reinforce his lines of thought. I particularly like this one by Roger Shattuck, taken from the introduction to his book The Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire:

I spoke at the start of a criterion applicable to all art: that it should present both clarity and mystery. These terms and the evaluations they permit can now by elucidated. The clarity of a literary work of art lies in its reference to experiences already familiar and available to the reader, which allow him to orient himself within this territory called art. The mystery points toward experience not yet known, to an extension of the consciousness.

Ah, yes. The old “extension of the consciousness” bit. It’s not just our bodies that need exercise, it’s our brains, too, and there is no better fitness coach than a talented poet taking us on associative leaps we’ve never experienced before. Aerobic food for thought. Eating and breathing poetry. Me, I’ll walk knowing I might be “joyfully ambushed” by such clear mysteries (or mysterious clarities) any day of the week.

That’s why I read–and write–poetry.