Come with Me
Come with Me
Robert Bly 1967
“Come with Me” appeared in Robert Bly’s collection of poems titled The Light around the Body, which was published in 1967 and received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1968. Many of the poems are expressions of protest—against the U.S. government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, for example—and underscore the often destructive ways in which public events influence private lives and the ways that human beings seek, but do not always achieve, connection with one another and the natural world. The first poem in the book’s section titled “The Various Arts of Poverty and Cruelty,” “Come with Me” compares the emotional world of disillusioned and disappointed men to abandoned car parts. Bly’s focus on the relationship between the external nonhuman world and the internal emotional human world would continue to inform all of his writing, and his description of the emotional complexion of men, in particular, foreshadows his later interest in men’s issues.
The speaker of “Come with Me” acts as a guide, imploring the reader to follow him into the depths of things containing secret knowledge about human existence. He shows the reader how inanimate objects, such as abandoned car wheels, can evoke feelings of grief by describing them as if they had human properties. Bly relies on what has come to be labeled “deep imagery” to carry the emotional weight of the poem. This is a kind of imagery that makes intuitive, associative connections between disparate things—connections readers frequently have to take on faith. The speaker-guide piles up
these comparisons to evoke the feelings of desperation and futility men often feel about their lives. Bly intends the poem to be a description of the American unconscious, and it is his role as poet to provide that description.
Like the Greek shape-shifting god, Proteus, Robert Bly has consistently managed to change his own identity, making a career out of his own spiritual and political preoccupations. Born on December 23, 1926 to farmer Jacob Thomas and his wife, Alice Bly, Robert Bly attended a one-room school-house in Lac Qui Parle county, Minnesota. Upon graduating from Madison High School in 1944, Bly enlisted in the navy, where he met Marcus Eisenstein and Warren Ramshaw, who encouraged Bly’s budding literary interests. Bly studied writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, before transfering to Harvard, where he met many people who would be influential to his career and life, including poet Donald Hall and Bly’s future wife, Carolyn McLean. In 1954 Bly enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he studied literature and writing. Before returning to Minnesota, he traveled to Norway on a Fulbright grant to translate Norwegian poetry. Though he has eschewed making a career out of university teaching, Bly has continued to translate literature, earning a good part of his income from this activity. In addition to translating, Bly has been a prolific editor and publisher. In 1958 he published the first issue of his literary magazine, The Fifties (later to be renamed The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, and The Nineties). Bly has been largely responsible for reinvigorating interest in Latin American and Eastern European poets such as Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Antonio Machado, Georg Trakl, and Tomas Transtroemer—writers who were influential in the development of Bly’s own aesthetic and attitudes towards poetry.
In 1966 Bly began organizing anti-Vietnam war poetry readings at various campuses. With David Ray, he founded the organization American Writers Against the Vietnam War. This was the time to be a poet in America, when so much of one’s own political convictions could be expressed in work and action. Not only did Bly win the National Book Award in 1968 for The Light around the Body, but he also took the opportunity during his acceptance speech to attack American publishers for not actively opposing the war. During that speech at Lincoln Center, he presented his check for the award to a draft resister on the stage. It was also during this time that Bly’s obsession with Jungian psychology and myth burgeoned, as he began to vigorously delve into the ways that certain images expressed largely unconscious and frequently irrational human desires. This kind of image, which he wrote about extensively in his book of poetics, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, Robert Kelly had named the “deep image,” for it made connections between the human mind/brain and the external world that could be intuited but not explained. Exploring the ways in which imagery, both verbal and iconic, forms a bridge between these two worlds has remained a thematic constant in Bly’s work as a writer. Sixteenth-century German mystic Jakob Boehme’s writing heavily influenced Bly and appears frequently in the poet’s work as both epigraph and inspiration. The following Boehme quotation, which appears in The Light around the Body, can serve as a central idea from which much of Bly’s poetry is generated: “For according to the outward man, we are in this world, and according to the inward man, we are in the inward world…. Since then we are generated out of both worlds, we speak in two languages, and we must be understood also by two languages.”
Bly’s latest incarnation has been as unofficial spokesman for the Men’s movement, which he helped popularize first with his seminars, then with his 1990 book, Iron John: A Book about Men. In Iron John Bly explores relationships between myth and society’s definitions of and expectations for masculine behavior. As is the case with his poetry, critics and admirers abound. Never one to follow either popular or academic currents of thinking, Robert Bly remains an iconoclast, a poet of human consciousness, thinking and tinkering in the human imagination in Moose Lake, Minnesota, where he lives with his second wife, Ruth Counsell.
Come with me into those things that have felt his
despair for so long—
Those removed Chevrolet wheels that howl with a
Lying on their backs in the cindery dirt, like men
drunk, and naked,
Staggering off down a hill at night to drown at last
in the pond.
Those shredded inner tubes abandoned on the 5
shoulders of thruways,
Black and collapsed bodies, that tried and burst,
And were left behind;
And the curly steel shavings, scattered about on
Sometimes still warm, gritty when we hold them,
Who have given up, and blame everything on the 10
And those roads in South Dakota that feel around
in the darkness ...
The title of this poem immediately programs our expectations as to its processes and positions the reader as a follower. We expect to be led somewhere, to be given secret knowledge. The narrator implores the reader to follow him, positioning himself as a guide of sorts—like Virgil is in Dante’s Inferno—to the uninitiated. We are intrigued because he wants us to come with him “into those things” rather than into a place, and we want to know what he means by this statement. “This despair” is also cryptic, but we infer that the speaker has somehow experienced it as well, or else he would not urge us to follow and trust him.
“One of those things” is named. The speaker wants us to enter the world of discarded car wheels. He compares these wheels to drunken naked men who “howl with a terrible loneliness.” This makes sense if you have ever heard the noise of wind whistling through a freestanding tire. But these tires/men are also suicidal, or at least prone to accidents, as they “stagger” to their death. The words “at last” underscore the sheer exhaustion of these things, the hopelessness they feel about their existence. By personifying the tires, Bly is stating that some men lament their existence and are like the discarded wheels of Chevrolets. Their writhing about on the ground, drunk and naked, suggests a kind of bacchanalian ritual—yet this ritual seems more akin to a last meal, with their drunkenness being a confession of their pain and suffering. We can see the emergence of Bly’s ultimate philosophy in these lines, as his focus on the deterioration of the inner man foreshadows his assertions that late-twentieth-century males have lost touch with what it means to be a man.
The speaker continues his description of the tires and the implicit comparison to the men named earlier. The inner tubes of the tires suggest the inner lives of the men, which have been battered by their travel through life. That the tubes “tried and burst” makes them tragic. Like the tires, these men have been “abandoned” even though they made effort. The images Bly uses to evoke the emptiness and feeling of waste that human beings sometimes feel is appropriate if we think of these things as commodities—as human-made objects that are bought and sold. Increasingly, Western societies have made the dollar the criteria for human value. No longer are we valued for our ability to create and develop communities based on mutual interest, but, rather, we are judged by our capacity to compete and win in the marketplace. Human beings have become just one more item in that marketplace, Bly seems to suggest. And what better commodity to compare our inner lives to than the automobile, the symbol of mobility, prosperity, and progress in twentieth-century America? The automobile is also a central image of maleness. Men have long been characterized as being obsessed with machines, and in America, getting one’s driver’s license, especially for males, marks an initiation of sorts—an entry into adulthood.
This last image appears out of place. Bly seems to have given up on the worn tire as symbol of human desperation and now uses “curly steel shavings” to evoke the once vital inner lives of the men
- An audio cassette of Bly reading his poems has been produced by Everett/Edwards. It is titled Contemporary American Poets Read Their Work: Robert Bly.
- Bly appears on the recordings Today’s Poets 5, by Folkways, and For the Stomach: Selected Poems, by Watershed.
- Bly’s positions on the men’s movement can be found on the videos A Gathering of Men (1990) and Bly and Woodman on Men and Women (1992).
- Brockport Writers Forum and the State University of New York at Brockport’s English Department produced a videotape titled Robert Bly: Interviews and Readings
- A Man Writes to a Part of Himself, a videotape of Bly reading and lecturing, is available from University Community Video of Minneapolis.
to whom he initially compared the Chevrolet wheels. The image fits because it too is related to automobiles—or at least the setting in which we often think of automobiles, the garage. The shavings are “sometimes still warm, gritty,” because the men, though exhausted, remain alive though resigned to the used-up bodies that they inhabit. We are thrown off once more by the penultimate line of the poem because of its ungrammaticality. The only antecedent for “Who” is the steel shavings. But then we understand that the speaker must be writing about the men by association when he says they “have given up, and blame everything on the government.” To what have these men succumbed? The poet never tells us specifically. We can only infer—from the landscape of discarded things that Bly describes—that the men feel depleted and useless, and instead of attempting to renew themselves, they have chosen to blame the government for the failures in their lives. The last image leaves us with both a sense of the mystery of these men’s lives—their inscrutability—and the puzzle of the poem’s associations. Now it is not the tires or the men who embody loneliness but the “roads in South Dakota.” At the end of the poem, we are left with an unresolved mystery. The speaker (as guide) has not explained the meaning of these things or their interior lives; rather, he has shown us their exhaustion, their inability to revitalize themselves.
Alienation and Loneliness
In “Come with Me,” Bly attempts to describe the relationship between human beings’ inner and outer lives by exploring the connections between them. The inner life of a human being is instinct and feeling, while the outer life is, or should be,
Topics for Further Study
- Keep a diary of images from your dreams for one week, then attempt to find the sources of those images. How many of them can you trace to public events (e.g., news stories)? How many to private events? Write an essay exploring what these images tell you about your own identity.
- Many scientists today claim that despair is a result of genetic disposition. Conduct a survey asking people what makes them sad and why, then create a chart categorizing their answers. Compose a microtheme, explaining what the chart tells you. Provide examples.
- Bly contended that human beings have at least two selves—the spiritual, internal self, and the political, external self. Make a list of features describing your two selves, then write a short dialogue exploring how they would converse with each other.
connected to the natural world. Modern man, however, has lost touch with both worlds. People have become detached from the outer world because human consciousness has compromised it; we have become aware of ourselves as separate from nature and, hence, different. In the poem, such isolation is signified by the wheels that have been removed from their larger body, the car. To offset the resulting sense of detachment, we look elsewhere— to our inner lives—for a connection, and when that is also found lacking, alienation evolves into despair. Though we are still human, as suggested by the “warm, gritty” steel shavings, we are exhausted and bewildered about how to find our way back to our original selves. That we give up and blame our predicament on a manmade institution, “the government,” serves to underscore the cyclical nature of the human condition.
Bly’s images of defeat, despair, and resignation describe the consciousness of American society by evoking its purported unconscious. It is a consciousness of self-disgust, as suggested by the images of “cindery dirt” and drunken men. In the poems following “Come with Me” in The Light around the Body, Bly suggests reasons—historical and embedded in the national psyche—for that self-disgust. Bly implies that Americans are aware of their country’s past use of slaves, its continuing poverty, and its capitalist exploitation of labor. However, Americans have been unable or unwilling to deal with such an awareness and the responsibility that comes with it; they feel powerless. As a result, the quality of their lives has diminished.
“Come with Me” is a descriptive free-verse poem meant to induce feelings of despair through its use of surreal or “deep” imagery. Surrealism juxtaposes disparate objects in the same space in order to highlight a connection between them. That connection, however, is often intuitive and associative and not necessarily accessible to all readers. The “deep image,” of which Bly has been a leading practitioner, is also meant to evoke a reality beyond that which we see, and it too relies on association and intuition to elicit meaning and emotion. The term “deep image” itself was coined by poet-critic Robert Kelley in 1961 to name the type of image that could fuse the experience of the poet’s inner self and his outer world. Its predecessor was the image of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, which attempted to cleanly describe the empirical world. Bly’s image extends the kind of image used by early-twentieth-century writers such as French surrealists André Breton and Robert Desnos as well as Chilean writer Pablo Neruda. Bly uses the image in “Come with Me” to explore the region of the mind that could not be accessed by conventionally ratiocinative verse. The succession of images implies the movement from inner to outer reality and must carry the weight of the poem. Other well-known contemporary poets of the deep image include James Wright, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, and Diane Wakowski.
“Come with Me” appeared in The Light around the Body, an award-winning collection of poems that attempted to dramatically illustrate the connections
Compare & Contrast
- 1967: More than 100,000 people demonstrate against the Vietnam War at the Lincoln Memorial, and Martin Luther King Jr. leads an antiwar march in New York.
1992: The National Organization for Women (NOW) sponsored a march in Washington, D.C., that was attended by 750,000 people.
1995: The Million Man March, organized by controversial National of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, saw hundreds of thousands of black men demonstrate in Washington, D.C.
- 1967: Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refuses to be inducted into the U.S. Army, claiming conscientious objector status due his religion of Islam. He is indicted by a federal grand jury in Houston, Texas, for draft evasion and is convicted. For the next three years, until the ruling is overturned, Ali is unable to fight in the United States.
1999: Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson is sentenced to a one-year jail term for assault. Tyson, who at age 20 became the youngest heavyweight champion in history, had previously had his boxing license revoked for a year after he bit Evander Holyfield during a bout in June of 1997.
between the personal and the political self. The Vietnam War was at its height in 1967, when the collection appeared. Demonstrations against the U.S. government swept the country. Hundreds of thousands of protestors descended upon the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and in New York City, Martin Luther King led an anti-Vietnam War march. As President Lyndon Johnson’s administration stepped up its attempts to garner domestic support for its Vietnam policy, protests increased. The privacy of people associated with Leftist organizations was violated by government intelligence organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which had been charged with compiling files on those peoples’ activities. Historians claim that by 1968 more than 100,000 dossiers had been put together on antiwar activists.
Many celebrities were influential in antiwar demonstrations. Actress Jane Fonda, dubbed “Hanoi Jane” and characterized as a traitor for her support of North Vietnam, spoke out against U.S. involvement in the war, while singers such as Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan led antiwar rallies. Norman Mailer’s novel Armies of the Night chronicled the arrest and detention of more than 600 antiwar protestors (including Mailer himself), and poets such as Bly and Ted Berrigan organized readings to express public opposition. Expression of dissent did not always take the form of condemnation, however. In addition to his more explicit criticisms of the American government, Bly also attempted to detail the ways in which the chaos in America affected the emotional and moral landscape of the country. “The poet’s main job is to penetrate the husk around the American psyche, and since that husk is inside him too, the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward,” Bly said. Bly’s own drive inward mirrored America’s, as the country continued to wrestle with its legacy of racial and ethnic oppression. Not only did numerous Americans increasingly voice their dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy, but many also began to more strongly denounce its domestic policies as well. Inspired by Malcolm X, who had been assassinated in 1965, black leaders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party, which actively resisted what it viewed as white occupation of black communities. Racial conflict came to a head in 1968 when rioting engulfed many of America’s major cities. The 1960s also witnessed a reinvigorated interest in feminism. In 1964 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act banned gender discrimination in employment, and in 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded with the help of author and activist Betty Friedan. NOW pushed for maternity leaves, legalized abortion, and an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The rapidness and intensity of these social changes left their mark on the American consciousness, as the impossibility of maintaining a coherent national identity also affected the possibility for keeping or cultivating a stable personal identity.
The Light around the Body, the collection of poems in which “Come with Me” appears, has been widely reviewed. Most of those reviews have been favorable. Paul Zweig wrote that “the sadness in The Light around the Body is a sadness for America. The book quietly, but firmly, translates the inward mystery and melancholy … into an expansive public language.” Louis Simpson, another practitioner of the “deep image” and a friend of Bly’s, deemed that “Bly is one of the few poets in America from whom greatness can be expected. He has original talent, and what is more rare, integrity.” William Taylor summed up the opinions of those who reviewed the book unfavorably: “The Light around the Body is, at its worst, a document in the triumph of a kind of psuedo-poetry which Robert Bly has been importantly instrumental in fostering since the 1950s: a Cult of Goodness. This is a poetry in which the poet sounds rather like a hairy All-American Pen Woman. I believe someone should say something against it, and what needs saying is that it leads to just another kind of sentimentality, another kind of shrill melodramatic posturing, and worse, another kind of arrogance.” One of the few people to write explicitly about “Come with Me” was critic Howard Nelson, who claimed that Bly succeeded in the poem by using images rather than circumstances to get at the emotional lives of human beings. Nelson noted that “‘Come with Me’ expresses grief through objects—images of metal shavings on work benches, shredded tires along thruways …. There is a marvelous depth and poignancy to these images.”
A widely published poet and fiction writer, Chris Semansky teaches literature at Portland Community College. In the following essay Semansky
What Do I Read Next?
- Irwin Unger’s 1974 study, The Movement: A History of the American New Left, provides a useful, if sketchy, outline of the protest movement against the Vietnam War. Bly was instrumental in the crusade, and “Come with Me” grew directly out of his frustration with the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam.
- Bly’s national bestseller, Iron John: A Book about Men, details the poet’s thoughts about and experiences with the emotional lives of men.
- For those interested in Bly’s poetic theories— many based on evolutionary psychology, physical anthropology, and the structure of the human brain—read Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, published in 1975 by Beacon Press.
- James Mersmann’s 1974 anthology, Out of the Vietnam Vortex, provides a sustained examination of the diverse group of poets who wrote about their opposition to the Vietnam War.
- Paul Zweig’s 1968 essay for The Nation, “A Sadness for America,” attempts to describe the loneliness and confusion Americans felt during the late 1960s and notes how well Bly’s collection of poems The Light around the Body illustrates that sadness.
argues that “Come with Me” fails as a statement about the human condition because it universalizes personal experience.
Robert Bly’s “Come with Me” is part of his award-winning collection titled The Light around the Body. While many critics have praised the poem, I believe it exemplifies some of the poorest poetry that Bly has to offer. Critic Howard Nelson has written that “Come with Me” is “symptomatically, one of the most moving poems” in the book. To be moved by this poem, however, means to be moved by a cheap and stereotypical rendering of human experience. “Come with Me” resorts to cliched imagery and does not fulfill the promise—
“Bly is … a poet of the upper midwest, well-versed in the emotional landscape and physical details of that part of the country.”
implicit in the opening line—that readers will be provided with new insight.
The opening line of the poem asks readers to trust the speaker as someone who will, and can, show them something they have not seen before, but what we are shown is “removed Chevrolet wheels that howl with a terrible loneliness.” By attributing human characteristics to an inanimate thing, Bly is personifying the wheels. Personification can be effective when it provides a way of seeing that is fresh and novel—when it allows us insight into an idea or emotion. Using car wheels to evoke human despair, rather than providing a distinctive way of understanding or feeling that despair, trivializes it. That trivialization turns to sheer silliness in the next lines when the speaker describes the removed wheels as “Lying on their backs in the cindery dirt, like men drunk, and naked.” Because Bly uses the progression of the images themselves to elicit feeling in his readers, rather than, for instance, storytelling, readers must buy into his descriptions as apt. But the only readers who might actually feel the despair that Bly attempts to evoke are drivers who have recently experienced a blowout on the interstate.
Bly’s personification of the wheels comes close to what critic John Ruskin, in 1856, named the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin coined the term to designate the way that poets and writers frequently assign human attributes to inanimate nature. Ruskin used the lines from William Coleridge’s poem, “Christabel,” as an example:
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can.
Human beings dance, not leaves. Pathetic fallacies work only in the rarest of instances, Ruskin claimed, when no other means of description are available to reveal the truth. Though Bly makes automobile wheels—synthetic, not natural things—into agents of human emotion, he is still guilty of falsification. This falsification is more apparent and more egregious for two reasons: the first is because as human beings we have little real rapport with automobile wheels (as opposed to the sun, for example, which we experience every day); the second is because we cannot visualize the way that Bly’s speaker describes the wheels. He says that they lie on their backs. But wheels have no part that corresponds to a “back” per se, unless we think of the hubcapped side as the front, which would indeed be a stretch of the imagination. And though we can (if we picture the tires that litter so many of this country’s lakes and rivers), envision the way that wheels might “stagger off down a hill at night to drown at last in the pond,” the image progresses no further. What we are offered next is “shredded inner tubes abandoned on the shoulder of thruways,” and after that, “curly steel shavings, scattered about on garage benches.” Instead of a progression of images, we are presented with an array of seemingly arbitrary images. As readers, we are expected to emotionally respond to these images as though they touch an unconscious place inside of us, our collective, or species, memory. But these twentieth-century manufactured items do not resonate at that level. The only archetypal resonance they have is their shape. The circle has long been a symbol of eternity and wholeness across cultures and time; the Chevrolet wheel, on the other hand, is a twentieth-century Western object. It cannot and does not have the heft, symbolically speaking, to signify human despair.
Because the speaker relies solely on the poem’s images to deliver his promised knowledge, and because those images are not poetically up to snuff, readers may feel disappointed and duped. This, in large part, is because the authority that Bly invests his speaker with is the authority of wisdom gained through experience. The poet’s role, according to Bly, is to pierce the unconscious to root around in the depths of ancestral memory, the storehouse of meaning and symbol, and bring images from that place to the surface—to show what has been found. Before we can accept what is presented to us, though, we must believe the speaker. The speaker of “Come With Me” is unbelievable because he does not show us anything we have not seen before. Simply naming oneself a poet, or having others name you a poet, is not reason enough for readers to trust you. Bly’s own public persona as a performer, self-anointed shaman, and, more recently, as a New-Age guru for the men’s movement does not add to our inclination to trust him. His poetics, the theory out of which he generates much of his writing, forms such a large umbrella that just about anything can fit under it. Here is a passage on “poethood” from one of his most cited essays, “On Political Poetry”:
In order for the poet to write a true political poem, he has to be able to have such a grasp of his own concerns that he can leave them for awhile, and then leap up, like a grasshopper, into this other psyche. In that sphere he finds strange plants and curious many-eyed creatures which he brings back with him. This half-visible psychic life he entangles with his language.
Some poets try to write political poems impelled upward by hatred or fear. But those emotions are stiff-jointed, rock-like, and are seldom able to escape from the gravity of the body. What the poet needs to get up that far and bring back something are great leaps of the imagination.
Reading his poem (written at around the same time as the essay) in the context of these remarks, we can glean a better understanding of his methods. Focus on the imagination is the stuff of Romantic theories about art and literature, and poets from John Keats to André Breton have trumpeted the powers of the imagination to tap the unconscious. The problem, of course, is that these “things” are both conceptual and highly personal. Even “this other psyche” that Bly speaks of, the psyche of the outward man, is personal. Hence, the “many-eyed creatures” that he brings back from that world and makes poems out of might not have any significance to other people at all. This is where “Come with Me” fails. Rather than resonating in the readers’ psyche, images of the wheels, the inner tubes, the drunken men, and the South Dakota roads fall flat. They seem more like images a writer of local color would use to describe a place with which he was intimately familiar. Maybe that’s what, finally, Bly is: a poet of the upper midwest, well-versed in the emotional landscape and physical details of that part of the country.
Lastly, “Come with Me” fails because, in critic William Taylor’s words, it participates in a kind of poetry that can only be described as belonging to a “Cult of Goodness.” That is, in simplified terms, Bly uses poems to make pronouncements about how bad things are because we do not know ourselves and about how “we” (sometimes Americans, sometimes men, sometimes humanity in general) need to get in touch with a part of ourselves that has been buried or ignored. The only person who can make these pronouncements, of course, is someone who has done that reconnecting himself, someone who has “been there, done that.” But such a person would not speak from that place, because he would be aware of the arrogance of such a gesture. Bly, apparently, is not aware of that. He continues to speak and write because there are those who listen to him. Shame on you, I say; get a life.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Cliff Saunders teaches writing and literature in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area and has published six chapbooks of verse. In the following essay, Saunders maintains that even though “Come with Me” is a political poem connected very much with the time and social conditions of the late 1960s, its message about the destructive nature of despair is as relevant now as it was then.
When The Light around the Body, the book in which “Come with Me” appears, first came out, much of the critical response to it was decidedly negative. Writing in the New Statesman, Alan Brownjohn complained that Bly’s “generalized despair about the brutalities of politics gets lost in a haze of vague, over-reaching fantasy.” Michael Goldman remarked in the New York Times Book Review that many of the volume’s “poems are being superficial in the name of inwardness” and that “many of the images in these poems are surprisingly banal.” Even Louis Simpson, who praised Bly for his “original talent” and “rare integrity” in his review of the book in Harper’s, recommended that Bly “forget about images for a while and concentrate on music, the way things move together.” Despite the harsh tone of these criticisms, The Light around the Body won the prestigious National Book Award for Poetry for 1967, and the book remains impressive for its passion and urgency. As Richard P. Sugg noted in his critical study titled Robert Bly, “Of all the literature to come out of the Vietnam War, Bly’s award-winning book of poetry stands as the best example of the dangers and possibilities inherent in the artist’s attempt to create political art.”
One of the dangers of political poetry surely is its tendency to become trapped in a particular era, to be timely rather than timeless. Indeed, some of the poems in the volume that deal directly with the Vietnam War seem quite dated now, such as “Asian Peace Offers Rejected without Publication,” which mentions a man named Rusk (i.e., Dean Rusk, U.S. secretary of state from 1961 to 1969), a reference few young readers encountering Bly’s poetry for
“In a political sense, ‘Come with Me’ describes a nation (the United States) whose spirit is collapsing under the weight of an immense despair….”
the first time would be likely to catch. Shortly after the release of The Light around the Body, the book’s Vietnam War poems became its most notorious and—for those standing in opposition to the war—most important poems. By that time, Bly had already become, as cofounder of American Writers against the Vietnam War, a key national figure in the war resistance movement. As poet David Ignatow noted in his essay “Reflections upon the Past with Robert Bly,” Bly caused quite a stir when, during his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, he denounced the war, as well as those poets in the audience sitting idly by without a word of protest, and handed over his prize-money check on the spot to a representative of the War Resister’s League. Even more shocking, Bly urged the representative to refuse to register for the draft, even though openly encouraging such a refusal was tantamount to a violation of a law that Congress had recently passed. With Bly gaining a national reputation as an antiwar leader, his poems against the war became ideological rites of passage for many young people. Unfortunately, a number of these poems no longer convey the power they once did, simply because their context was a war that has long since ended. Fortunately, though, “Come with Me” does not fall into this category. It is as relevant today as it was in 1968, and it will likely always be relevant.
In a political sense, “Come with Me” describes a nation (the United States) whose spirit is collapsing under the weight of an immense despair, a despair so enormous that even manufactured material objects (e.g., “removed Chevrolet wheels” and “shredded inner tubes”) are being crushed by it. Bly is describing a nation whose political system is causing great suffering and helplessness. Presumably, the Vietnam War—which was in full swing in 1967, when The Light around the Body was published—is the cause of much of this despair. The sense of despondency is so vast that it encompasses empty roads in South Dakota, a place geographically far removed from the jungles of Vietman but psychically as war-torn as that country in southeast Asia. To Bly’s credit, he makes this despair so palpable that a reader can’t help but see it, feel it, and be consumed by it. Making the reader aware of this all-consuming feeling is the poem’s primary mission, and it clearly succeeds. As Sugg points out, Bly’s poetry at this time “sought to establish a basis for universality it its analysis of social problems as emanating from ‘inward,’ psychic problems whose only cure could be increased awareness.”
The important thing to understand, however, is that while this despair was tied into the social and political conditions of the 1960s, the poem is not locked into that time frame in the way that “Asian Peace Offers” is. The dismay that Bly describes in “Come with Me” knows no such restrictions. We can see this same despair today in places such as Kosovo, Somalia, Honduras—places where the disenfranchised and those discarded along the road of “progress” (like so many pieces of blown-apart truck tires) suffer in vulnerability and helplessness. Bly feels deeply for these people, the poor and exploited who “tried and burst / And were left behind,” and passion for their cause transmits powerfully to the reader.
“Come with Me” is a fine example not only of political poetry but also of what Bly termed “leaping” poetry. According to Bly, leaping poetry is that which makes a jump from the conscious to the unconscious mind and back again; it connotes an ability to make associations quickly, and the presumption is that the quicker the associations are made, the more exciting the poetry. Often, the leaps are made back and forth between an external world of objects (the conscious) and the internal world of psychic energy (the unconscious). Writing about Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet whom Bly translated and who had such a monumental impact on his poetry, Bly noted in his essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” that readers frequently feel elation when encountering Neruda’s poems “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.”
This same arc of association is clearly at play in “Come with Me,” where all of the objects under consideration—Chevrolet wheels, inner tubes, steel shavings, and roads in South Dakota—are endowed with an internal life that is decidedly human in nature. Through the power of figurative language (e.g., simile, metaphor, and personification), Bly brings these objects to life. The Chevrolet wheels “howl with a terrible loneliness” and lie on their backs “like men drunk, and naked”; the inner tubes are “Black and collapsed bodies, that tried and burst”; the steel shavings “have given up, and blame everything on the government”; and the roads in South Dakota “feel around in the darkness …” Commenting on “Come with Me” in his book Robert Bly, Richard P. Sugg astutely points out that the poem delves “not only into the wreckage of cars that have tried and failed, but into the despair of the very road itself,” or the political direction America was taking during the mid-1960s. Thus, the road’s failure “symbolizes modern man’s psychic failure to have a destination, or even to “connect one thing to another.” Sensing this failure deeply, Bly took it upon himself to “connect one thing to another,” to graphically associate the pain, despair, and sense of abandonment that many people were feeling with the icons of wreckage around them, to image that despair all around them.
In his critique of The Light around the Body in the New Statesman, Alan Brownjohn argued that Bly’s “groups of ironical metaphors don’t always seem to apply very effectively to the things he intends them to comment upon,” that the details in the poems seem “too often arbitrary.” While this may be true of some poems in the volume, Brown-john’s criticism has no merit when applied to “Come with Me,” because that poem’s group of metaphors is carefully chosen to convey wasteful expenditure; is organically of a piece (i.e., all are connected in some way with automotive travel); and is perfectly suited to Bly’s theme in the poem: America’s despair at the time and the destruction it was causing. Today, as it was in the 1960s, the automobile is a powerful symbol of materialism, and one point Bly seems to be making in “Come with Me” is that America’s fascination with material objects has led the country astray, pulling it in a direction away from spiritual growth and moral awareness and into the darkness of despair. Given that America has grown even more materialistic since the late 1960s, the poem’s implications have as much relevance now (if not more) as they did in 1968.
Brownjohn and several other critics who have written on The Light around the Body have made a point of addressing the book’s ironic tone. Indeed, in Robert Bly, Sugg calls “Come with Me” “a poem of ironic invitation.” And so it is, inviting us, as it does, to take an unfortunate tour of America’s wounded psyche circa 1968, with all of its visible signs of wreckage and abandonment. The poem is ironic because invitations are normally given to people to experience something entertaining or enjoyable, whereas this one coaxes the reader right into the dark side of Vietnam-era America. This ironic tone—sometimes scathing, sometimes subtle—was very prevalent in the American poetry of the mid-to-late 1960s, a revolutionary time for poetry as well as for so many other aspects of American life, from fashion to sexuality. At that time (and perhaps for the first time in U.S. history), just as many poets were composing in free verse as were writing in form. Bly, who himself began as a formalist poets of sorts in the 1950s, had, by 1967, made the leap fully into free verse, and “Come with Me” is a good example of his stylistic considerations at the time: easy, conversational tone; surrealistic imagery; and prose-like rhythm. As Louis Simpson and other critics have noted, there wasn’t much music in Bly’s verse during the 1960s. But with the daily body counts mounting in Vietnam, with a growing number of U.S. cities aflame in violent protest, and with a crushing despair spreading across the land, who felt like singing?
Source: Cliff Saunders, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
William V. Davis
In the following essay, Davis provides an overview of Bly’s career and work.
No poet of his generation has been more influential or more controversial than Robert Bly. No poet has ranged more widely in his interests or had a greater reciprocal relationship with writers and thinkers in other disciplines than has Bly. No other poet has written more important poetry in the lyrical, political, social, psychological, or philosophical modes or covered more critical ground in his essays and reviews. Because Bly’s work has been so wide-ranging, his activity so exhaustive, and his presence so pervasive, he has become, in less than twenty-five years, the most conspicuous poet of his generation. To follow his career closely is to trace the major tendencies of much of the most significant poetry written during the past several decades.
Because Bly goes in so many different directions and because he is so prolific and, often, so unsystematic, even seemingly self-contradictory, he is difficult to categorize. No one, not even Bly himself in his extensive, self-analytic criticism, has succeeded in arriving at a convincingly systematic position with respect to his thinking in total. The task is complicated, in part, because Bly has worked his poetry into the larger context of his other activities. Therefore, the individual books of poems tend to be yoked with the philosophic speculations of the same periods, and the philosophic apparatus both complements and in large measure defines the poetry contemporary with it. Thus, Bly is best understood in his various individual phases and each phase is best dealt with as a cluster of thematically and stylistically similar materials, separated from other clusters of a rather different sort which precede and follow them. Bly himself is sensitive to this approach to his poetry and to his work in general, and he often tends to group together like poems from different periods—many of his books are mini-anthologies. He also has the habit of returning to a few favorite thematic and stylistic modes again and again.
In 1980 Bly edited an anthology called News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness in which he traced the progress of poetry from the eighteenth century, “the peak of human arrogance,” to the present, poems of “twofold consciousness,” and on into the suggestion of a “unity of consciousness that we haven’t arrived at yet.” In the poetry of the “Old Position” a “serious gap” exists between man and nature: “The body is exiled, the soul evaporated, the mind given executive power.” The first significant attack on the Old Position was the Romanticism of Friedrich Hölderlin, Gérard de Nerval, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Novalis, and, in England, William Blake. “Insane for the light,” like Goethe’s butterfly, these writers wished “to die and so to grow” on the dark earth as the “troubled guests” they knew they were. Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century, in a poet like Rilke, Bly finds “an area of psychic abundance” nourished by the German Romantics. This, he thinks, is the true source of major modern poetry and is quite separate from the Jules LaForgue, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound tradition. It is a tradition not of irony but of “swift association.”
Bly has always been able to find corroboration for his literary theories in other disciplines. In News of the Universe he adopts Robert Ornstein’s speculations in The Psychology of Consciousness (1972) to the history of recent poetry. Since “the two halves of the body respond to and embody the modes of the opposite brain lobe,” the left side, which “favors feeling, music, motion, touch … the qualities in us that enable us to unite with objects and creatures,” have been trapped by the “bent over” body and crushed. The poetry of the last hundred years, then, “is an effort to unfold the left side of the body.” But, since “war crushes the unfolding left side all over again,” recent history has not been without throwbacks toward elements of the Old Position. Still, the poetry since 1945 has gradually increased the “unfolding of the left side” through several new “developments”: the concept of the poet as shaman; the “transparent poem,” similar to the poems of the ancient Chinese poets; the “massive movement of poetry toward recitation, toward words that float in the air”; finally, “the emergence of the prose poem,” which is “the final stage of the unpretentious style” and of “the object poem, or thing poem,” associated with the “seeing” poems of Rilke or the “object” poems of Francis Ponge.
There are two reasons for detailing Bly’s survey of the poetry of the last several centuries. First, it is useful to know these stages of poetic development as Bly understands them in order to appreciate and evaluate his critical and poetic perspectives. More importantly, this survey is important to an understanding of Bly’s own poetry because he here rather clearly defines the stages of his own poetic development and ends his survey of the history of poetry at precisely the point where his own published poetry begins.
Bly began to publish at about the same time as the movement known as the New Left, which Paul Breslin [in an article in The American Scholar] rightly calls “psycho -political,” appeared. Both the psychological and the political sides of this dichotomy had direct and profound influences on Bly’s early work and the psychological side, maintained with the fervor of its original impetus, has remained important throughout his career.
Donald Hall was one of the first to see how different from the other poetry of the time Bly’s early poetry was. In 1962, the same year that Bly published Silence in the Snowy Fields, Hall edited the anthology Contemporary American Poetry. In his introduction Hall said:
“One thing is happening in American poetry … which is genuinely new. In lines like Robert Bly’s:
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground; The lamplight falls on all fours in the grass.
… there is a kind of imagination new to American poetry.…
The movement which seems to me new is subjective but not autobiographical. It reveals through images not particular pain, but general subjective life.… To read a poem of this sort, you must not try to translate the images into abstractions.… You must try to be open to them, to let them take you over and speak in their own language of feeling.”
Hall is quite right in identifying Bly with a new kind of imagination and in suggesting that his poetry is not “autobiographical” but reveals “general subjective life.” Indeed, Bly has always attempted to speak with a “profound subjectivity” and to make that subjectivity objective in his poems. As Bly says in an important early essay [titled “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry”], “A poem is something that penetrates for an instant into the unconsious.” Later he added [in “Leaping up into Political Poetry”], “What is needed to write good poems about the outward world is inwardness.”
This obsession with inwardness has been present in Bly from the beginning, and it has taken various forms—some of them quite “outward.” First there was the personalized private mysticism of his poetic beginnings in Silence in the Snowy Fields. Then there was the outward, public protest poems of his middle period, best seen in The Light Around the Body. Next, there was the attempt to plumb universal mythic consciousness in Sleepers Joining Hands. And, most recently, in The Man in the Black Coat Turns and Loving a Woman in Two Worlds, Bly searches out the “ancestors,” both literal and psychological, which haunt his past, inhabit his memories, and continue to people his present world.
Bly’s notions of “leaps” in poetry and of “leaping poetry” are important both as creative principles and as critical tools. He describes “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part” as one of the necessities of leaping poems, which give off “constantly flashing light” as they shift from “light psyche to dark psyche.” Until recently such poems have come from Europe and the South Americans. American poets, Bly believes, need to relearn the poetic traditions which have come down from the “ancient times,” the “‘time of inspiration,’” and from other cultures, even in our own time. This notion of the necessity for a “leap” in strong or authentic poetry is the basic tenet of Bly’s poetic philosophy and the crucial test he applies to his own poems and to the poems of other poets.
Bly began his poetic career in the early 1950s when, in New York, he began to read seriously and in depth the poems of Virgil and Horace, Pindar and Rilke, the Tao Te Ching, Rudolf Steiner and, especially, the seventeenth-century German mystic, Jacob Boehme. Boehme, an obscure, difficult writer, borrowed his terminology from a wide variety of diverse sources and lived his life in a state of religious exaltation bordering on frenzy. His insight flashed back and forth between divine text and human contexts, and he saw himself as a vehicle for divine illumination in the common life of man on earth. In Boehme there are immediate parallels to the life and intellectual interests of Robert Bly. One need only think of Bly’s essay, “Being a Lutheran Boy-God in Minnesota” [in Chester G. Anderson’s Growing up in Minnesota] or remember his historical analyses of poetic tradition, his criticism of his own contemporaries, or his unique literary theories to find obvious associations between the dichotomies of inner and outer, body and spirit, conscious and unconscious, light and dark, life and death, male and female which are also in Boehme. Indeed, it is surely the case that Boehme, Bly’s first major influence (quotations from Boehme serve as epigraphs to Silence in the Snowy Fields and to the four of five sections of The Light Around the Body which have epigraphs) has remained one of the most abiding influences on his work and thought.
It is this Boehmean influence, along with Bly’s interest in surrealism and South American poets, which causes him to be associated with the tradition of the “deep image” or “inwardness.” These influences, Bly himself acknowledges, make his “a poetry that goes deep into the human being, much deeper than the ego and at the same time is aware of many other beings.”
But Bly never seems to stop to take any stand for a very long time. Instead, he has constantly moved out into new territory to find new buttresses and new models for his philosophy and his poetry. In poets as diverse as Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Federico Garcia Lorca, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer, Kabir, Mirabai, Rolf Jacobsen, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georg Trakl, Bly finds themes and voices which echo his own, or which he echoes. But it is in the work of the psychologist C. G. Jung that Bly finds perhaps his most useful and abiding sounding board. Jung had already defined and focused, from the psychological side, some of the issues and concerns Bly was interested in exploring in his poetry and thought and, as he had with Boehme, and as he would with other thinkers later, Bly was quick to make use of Jung’s work for his own purposes. Indeed, Jung has been the most significant buttress for much of Bly’s work in the last fifteen years, even though the clearest example of Jung’s influence on Bly remains Sleepers Joining Hands.
The most overt use of Jungian sources can be seen in Bly’s treatment of Jung’s notion of the “shadow.” For Jung, the shadow is the negative side of the psyche, containing “the contents of the personal unconscious.” It is this “dark side of the human personality” that is “the door into the unconscious and … from which those two twilight figures, the shadow and the anima, step” out into dreams and waking awareness. According to Bly “all literature can be thought of as creations by the ‘dark side,’” and “literature describes efforts the shadow makes to rise.” These are notions which permeate Bly’s work.
In recent years, Bly has circled back upon himself with an even greater intensity. He continues to give readings and make public appearances and continually finds ways to make his work and the work of others relevant both to the literary and the non-literary world through, for example, the organization of Great Mother and New Father conferences and seminars (which in some ways parallel the poems of The Man in the Black Coat Turns and Loving a Woman in Two Worlds respectively). He has also further deepened and refined the forms and themes of his poems. In addition to his continuing interest in Blake, Jung, Boehme, and Freud, Bly has, more recently, been attracted to the work of Joseph Campbell, the “three brain” theories of Paul MacLean and the work of the psychologist James Hillman. As Bly has said, “I learned to trust my obsessions.” Robert Bly is, if nothing else, a poet of obsessions, and any attempt to understand him and his work must account for these obsessions.
Bly’s penchant for constantly revising his poems, and even his critical positions, suggests several things: first, he wants to remain open to a new, or more complete, vision of either poem or precept; second, and more importantly, he seems to be interested in documenting the final or more definitive versions of his visions, critical or poetic. Therefore Bly is exceedingly difficult to fix at any specific point in his career or with respect to any final vision, version, or revision because he is only seen fully in his final versions. In this respect, since he is still writing, and thus revising, one can never be certain that any critical comment will not need to be amended, or even contradicted, later on, just as Bly amends and even contradicts his earlier positions and poems. What this finally means is that Bly is interested in the developmental process itself and he recognizes that his work will not be finished until his life is. Although this philosophy and procedure may present problems for readers and critics along the way, it makes for reading and writing that seems constantly to be living and growing—the way readers are, the way Robert Bly is.
Source: William V. Davis, “Overview,” Understanding Robert Bly, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 6–15.
Bly, Robert, “On Political Poetry,” The Nation, April 24, 1967.
Brownjohn, Alan, New Statesman, August 2, 1968.
Davis, William Virgil, Robert Bly: The Poet and His Critics, Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994.
Davis, William V., Understanding Robert Bly, Clemson, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Goldman, Michael, New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1968.
Malkoff, Karl, Escape from the Self: A Study in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
Mersmann, James F., Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1974.
Mills, Ralph J., Contemporary American Poetry, New York: Random House, 1965.
Molesworth, Charles, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1979.
Roberson, William H., Robert Bly: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, Lanhau, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1986.
Simpson, Louis, in a review of The Light around the Body, Harper’s, August 1968.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey, New York: Harper, 1965.
Sugg, Richard P., Robert Bly, Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Daniels, Kate, and Richard Jones, eds., On Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly, Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.
A generous selection of essays from both poets and critics seeking to articulate the often inexpressible experience of reading Bly’s poetry.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, New York: Atheneum, 1969, revised edition, 1980.
A collection of essays on post-World War II American poetry by one of the preeminent poetry critics in the United States. This volume is useful for those who want to locate Bly’s work among his contemporaries.
Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
These authors define the term “emotive imagination” and attempt to provide an explanation of this poetic tradition. They examine Bly’s career historically and in relation to three other American poets of the emotive imagination.
Nelson, Howard, Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
A straightforward and solid sourcebook for information on Bly’s life and career.