For as long as I can remember I’ve been hearing the story: that James Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, had nearly given up writing early in his career. What saved him? An unexpected copy of a new magazine called The Fifties and the ensuing correspondence with its young poet-editor Robert Bly. The correspondence bloomed into a friendship, and Wright’s best and most famous poems were written at Bly’s farm in Madison, Minnesota. As I say, I’ve been hearing this for as long as I can remember. But without a biography or a volume of Wright’s letters to confirm the story, it always remained in the realm of rumor.
So it is with great pleasure that VQR presents those famed letters—both Wright’s and Bly’s—for the first time ever. They are everything their legend has promised. Those looking for grand pronouncements and fist-pounding urgency will not be disappointed. But what strikes me about these letters is exactly what would soon emerge in Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields and Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break: the longing of that period, the shared yearning for a deeper, more direct poetry. These two men, still strangers, yet camerados, were feeling their way toward something bigger together. In this peak moment of Wright’s crisis and Bly’s righteous indignation, it is a blessing that they found each other. Their lives were changed—and so was American poetry.
I had heard of these letters for so long, I half-expected they would let me down. They wouldn’t be as heartfelt as advertised, as passionate, or as searching. They are all of these, but they are also beautifully humane. These lumbering giants of American poetry were still in shortpants when they began these letters, shackled by a sense of duty and responsibility to a former generation’s idea of poetry. They wrote their way out of those strict meters with these passionate letters. At last, we get not only to glimpse, but—in their usual generous way—share that moment with these two great men. Special thanks to Robert Bly, not only for providing his side of the correspondence, but for his preface, which follows.
Not long after Carol Bly and I moved to a farm near Madison, Minnesota, in 1957, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and Robert Pack published their anthology of New Poets of England and America. Almost all of the poems in it were dressed in the mantle of iambic pentameter, and the poems tended to be polite and well spoken. Louis Simpson, a month or two later, said to me, “That book shocked me when I saw it all together.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “When I finished the book, I realized that the deepest experiences we had had were not in the book.”
In Germany, all but two of his company got blown to pieces because a lieutenant made a mistake on where the company should set down for the night. The Germans had them zeroed right in. He said there was very little evidence of anguish in the book. During most poems the poet is visiting Italy on a grant, admiring paintings, trying to get into the poems stuff about the Netherlands or Greek history that he had learned in graduate school, trying to decide whether the infants just born were noble savages or not—that sort of thing. Louis felt something was off.
My friend Bill Duffy and I decided to start a magazine to disturb that politeness, and The Fifties #1 was published in July 1958 from Briarwood Hill, Pine Island, Minnesota. We printed 500 copies of our first issue at a press in Connecticut for $500, but since we were selling the magazine for 50 cents, we lost 50 cents on each issue sold. On the opening page we had the editors’ credo, which read:
The editors of this magazine think that
most of the poetry published in America
today is too old-fashioned.
We sent a copy to every poet who had a poem in New Poets of England and America. Some responded angrily. Anthony Hecht wrote me back and said, “You know who you are? You’re nothing but a Captain Bly pissing up a drainpipe!” That was a strange metaphor. Allen Tate said something like: “So people can write poems that are not in iambic? A cat can walk on its front legs too. So what?” Stuff like that. For reasons unjustified or justified, they were holding on to iambic poetry. And they didn’t want me to say one word.
James Wright was also among the people in that anthology, so he got a copy of The Fifties in his mailbox at the University of Minnesota, where he taught at that time. Jim didn’t quite fit in at the university for several reasons. First of all he didn’t think of himself as a creative writing teacher, and didn’t want to teach it. He loved Sterne, Dickens, the English novel. He wrote his dissertation on Dickens, and he wanted to be a good teacher of the English novel. He was in that sense at home in the university. On the book jacket to St. Judas he said, “I am a bookish man.” He was uneasy about the relationship of universities to living writers, and to the practice of poetry. The Fifties struck a nerve with him. He wrote back a long single-spaced letter talking about his life and his hopes for a more lively American poetry, and we began a brief, fierce correspondence, and finally he began coming out to the farm on weekends.
It is thrilling to see these letters again—both Jim’s and mine—which I hadn’t read for a long time. They make clear—in an amazingly direct way—how different the mood was in 1958 as compared with today. Today it feels as if “everything has been written, everything has been said.” But the mood in 1958 was of tremendous new possibilities. I don’t know why that mood of longing appeared in the late fifties. Perhaps it came because we had won the war. Thousands and thousands of men my age had died. There was a lot of gratitude for that enormous sacrifice. Awe and gratitude were in the air. We all had a feeling that we were capable of great things. In college at Harvard in 1947–50, the creative writing class we had, which Archibald MacLeish directed, included a number of fiercely talented writers, among them Ashbery, Koch, Hall, Rich, Plimpton, and many others, almost every one of whom became a writer for the rest of his life. So there was a sense of enormous riches on all sides that one only needed to reach for.
One can feel the joy of that in Jim’s letters as well as mine. What I call the contrast between the Old Style and the New Style is a bit corny, and yet it does suggest that we have a lot to catch up with—with the European poets far ahead of us—and many new griefs and possibilities of the 20th century that had not yet filtered into rather staid American poetry. Some of the things I say so emphatically, such as “We construct, but the great poets are merely sensitive,” are nonsense. The great poets are sensitive and they construct as well. But I felt as if I were making generalizations while riding on a fast-moving horse, so I suppose that explains a few excesses. At least we were aiming for greatness and not trying to fit into some literary structure, and we were not buttering up the old poets and critics.
Jim began to come out from Minneapolis by train to visit us at Madison, and we all made trips together down to visit Bill and Christina Duffy in Pine Island. At this time, the university took care to give Jim five or six courses so that he wouldn’t have too much time on his hands. He wrote almost nothing during the week, but then at five o’clock in the afternoon on Friday he would catch a train to Montevideo, in western Minnesota, and we would pick him up there; Jim would sleep in my study, which was an outbuilding, an earlier chicken house from which I had evicted the chickens, heated by an old oil stove. Jim would come in for breakfast on Saturday morning, go back out for an hour or two, and come in with an absolutely brilliant poem. One weekend he wrote “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” a poem that ends, as you recall, “I have wasted my life.” He was still brooding about the value of the poetry he had written.
One Sunday afternoon, as we were driving from Pine Island to Minneapolis, we passed a couple of horses standing in a small pasture. We got out and walked over to them. Back in the car, Jim started writing in his small spiral notebook lines for the poem he later called “A Blessing,” which concludes:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body, I would break
Those years were a moment of genuine longing for a fresh and subtle poetry, and Jim’s lines stand as linguistic expressions of that longing. I can still remember the amazement I felt when I saw in Jim’s poetry phrases such as “the tall ashes of loneliness.” Such a phrase felt like some new kind of animal, one with fur and ears, maybe capable of covering a lot of distance. I still feel that way about Jim’s poetry, and I still love Trakl and Neruda and Vallejo and all of those amazing, intelligent animals.
July 22, 1958
Dear Mr. Bly;
This afternoon I walked over to the University for something or other—I forget just what—and picked up from my mailbox the copy of The Fifties which you were kind enough to send me. I am writing you now to thank you.
But the phrase “thank you” is too conventionally cold.
Let me start again: I looked at the line on the inside of the front cover, and was absolutely fixed with concentration for more than an hour, reading and reading the magazine, wondering at the weirdness of it all.
I don’t mean in the previous sentence that the magazine is weird (as a matter of fact, the magazine is weird, but not in the previous sentence). The weirdness I mean grows out of the fact that I had just about decided to stop publishing any verses—to force myself to stop publishing, really—for at least a year or two, and maybe even to stop writing altogether. The reasons for this decision are hard to state—that is why the issue of your magazine meant so much to me. Recent reviews and discussions of American poetry have been filled with a niggling and carping despair. It was the niggling and the carping that depressed me—I already had plenty of despair of my own, without being reminded that, at a time when—as sometimes unpredictably and inexplicably happens—the very atmosphere seems shaking with poetic imagination and, more than that, poetic possibility, almost every young American poet known to me was just tired. Of course, I refer to others only in order transparently to cover up the fact that I am referring to myself.
I will now offer what will sound like the most idiotic compliment-fishing since Uriah Heep announced “Me and my mother is very ‘umble.” But I really was in despair because, in spite of several reviews that were filled—some of them dripped, I should say—with well-intended courtesy (and I was grateful for the courtesy, which is a great human virtue—I am not trying to be heavily ironic), my book of verses, except for about three experiments that practically no one paid any attention to whatever, stank.
It’s true that my stuff contains ‘umble, “sincere” displays of all the current cute tricks in meter and rhyme. But what I am trying to say is that—still with the exception of two or three breaths of vision, just breaths and not poems—The Green Wall might very easily have been written by any normally educated Englishman of, say, the eighteenth century, if he ever took time off from his work as Master of the Fox Hounds in order to play around with a little polite versifying. If it is nothing else, my book may well be the most insipidly polite book of verses in the past twenty years. If you will consider the record for a moment, you will see that this is not a light statement. My book was dead. It could have been written by a dead man, if they have Corona-Corona [sic] typewriters in the grave. For all I know, it was written by a dead man.
It is conceivable that you might wonder why the fact should matter enough to me to make me decide to quit—just quit, cut the God damned cackle, stop committing the blasphemy of pretending—or of letting others think, in their good will and their courtesy—that there was any essential relation between myself and any genuine poet at all, other than the fact that we both belong to the erstwhile human race.
Well, maybe I can explain by saying that, when I was young, I wanted to be a poet like Walt Whitman, and I hated the God damned place where I was born (Ohio) enough to try it at least. To be like Whitman meant to try to be original. I had no illusion that this was not difficult, but I had nothing to lose, and I didn’t give a damn about that unspeakable rat-hole where I grew up. I went to the army when I was 18, and wrote wild things, all of them bad. But after college I got a Fulbright to the University of Vienna. My whole so-called project as a scholar was a laughingly complete failure; but I blundered (I actually blundered, I stumbled in by mistake, and I didn’t even know where I was for about three lectures) into a classroom at Vienna where a little Italian scholar named Susini was softly lecturing. The audience consisted of five very small and withered old men—anyone would have taken them for hoboes in America, but everybody’s a hobo in Austria—and myself. And every afternoon at 3 o’clock, I think it was four days a week, I walked through that terrible cold and unheated winter city, to hear Susini whisper in his beautiful, gentle, liquid voice the poems of an Austrian of whom I had never even heard, but who had the grasp and shape of what you in your article called the new imagination. I tried to catch it. I didn’t understand how to do it. I wrote four hundred pages that year, and saved three of them.
But back in America I have had an impossible time even trying to get anyone to admit that Whitman existed, to find anyone at all—anyone at all—who has even heard Trakl’s name.
So I used to get hideously drunk at parties of academic intellectuals, and after the point of no return I would stand and bellow Trakl, and Carossa, and Rilke, and Hölderlin, because nobody knew what the hell I was saying, and because I only slightly felt, rather than understood, what in the name of God was crying in the miracles of those images that were sane to the depths of their being and which yet followed no rules that anyone else had ever dreamed of, and in the tide-suck of that music that sounded like the sea burying its birds or a jellyfish crying out in pain.
But my friends made fun of me, and I can’t stand it, so I quit drinking so much.
And in the face of mockery I deserted Whitman, whose book was a holy book to me so long. I deserted him in order to learn to write little tetrameter couplets.
What I mean in the above rant (I apologize, by the way, for my wordiness—I can’t seem to help it) is that I have simply quit. I deserted poetry a good while ago, and there’s little sense in plugging couplets into the socket and shooting General Electricity into the dry-cell battery of a stiff.
This caused me a difficult struggle, as I am sure you can easily imagine. I was really and truly in one hell of a shape—I had made up my mind not even to write anything that did not dig coldly and murderously into what I knew (how nothing’s that!) and then fling it out, by God even if The New Yorker couldn’t understand it. I had just this morning, in the first pain of the old bitching snarling of muscles in the head for about five years—done the honorable thing, the thing that Robert Herrick tried to do (Herrick failed, because by some accident he couldn’t possibly succeed—in other words, he actually was a poet, and it was a wonderful joke on him, I think): that is, I wrote my own “Farewell to Poetry.” Plodding through the images of the slag heaps and the black trees and the stool-washed river and the chemicals from the factories of Wheeling Steel, Blaw Knox, the Hanna Coal Co. which—God damn fate, this is too much, it’s comic when you come to think of it—are the only images of childhood I can ever have, I begged pardon (I really did, I mean it, and I meant it) of the Mother of Roots or whoever the hell she is who gets into Whitman, Trakl, Neruda, Lorca, Char, Michaux—into almost everybody, in fact, except me. And I said—as obscurely and gibberingly as I felt like saying—that the hell with it, I was getting out. And I got out.
And that is really why your magazine meant so much to me. It’s really extremely strange that I should receive it today, just after I quit. For it confirms everything that I feared, and yet the facing of the fear—that is, about my own third-rate identity—a facing really made possible by your arguments—is a relief so deep that I’m beginning to think, this evening, that I must have been really suffering with this sense of failure, of betraying what within me I genuinely knew, though I denied it on the surface, what poetry was.
Mr. Bly, I’ve looked over the previous two pages, and I see how hysterical and profane I’ve been—and of course I have absolutely no right to send you this letter. However, I am going to risk it, in the hope that perhaps its very tone of nervous instability might convey to you the gratitude with which I read the first issue of your magazine. There is surely nothing objectionable about writing you a completely unsolicited letter. But you would be justified if you felt that such a letter, filled with profanity and personal hysteria, constituted a rudeness, perhaps even an outright insult, to you, especially in view of your graciousness in sending me a copy of The Fifties, of which I had not heard. Let me, therefore, try to state, with an attempt at normal human decency of tone, what I think about the magazine:
It is, to my mind, the finest little magazine to be started during this whole decade. It is funny, honest, deeply compassionate and intelligent, and intolerant of the second- and third-rate which some American poets of genuine gifts are letting themselves be tricked into regarding as the real poetry of our time. Moreover, you state with unmistakable clarity the fact—so oddly compounded of painful shock and painful joy—that our own age, the brief time we have on the earth, is all we’ve got, and that the imaginative men in other countries today, as well as the unborn, are not going to have time to care anything in particular about the fact that, during the fifties in America, there were a great many competent punks and, unfortunately, two or three real poets who comforted themselves by scratching one another’s tweedy backs while poetry in America went gurgling, once more and yet once more, down the drain without even the benefit of the ease provided by the liberal use of Old Dutch Cleanser. In the part of this letter which preceded the present paragraph, I spoke again and again and again of despair, and I hope you will excuse me for the self-indulgence. Actually, your magazine’s editorial policy offers the only kind of hope there is for poetry, in my belief (which, after all these years, I have dared to state to myself, in the hope that, as usual, I am either drunk or inattentive). I sincerely thank you for sending it to me. To be included on the mailing list of the first issue was a great human honor. As for my own depression, I am sure it will pass (well, reasonably sure, anyway). I remember, long ago when I was young and fiery and stupid, I read in the lovely book Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that one ought first to journey into himself, and determine whether or not he is a poet. It sounds like a cruel thing to suggest, said Rilke in his very great sympathy and tenderness to Kappus and to all men as young as I myself was young, and yet, even if one finds that he is not a poet, he has discovered something which is miraculously worth living for—that is, a true vision of his true self and what he might be able to do with it. Well, perhaps Rilke was a little naive, for it is harder to journey into one’s self in youth. I had to wait till now in order to bear the journey. Now I have made it. It gives me a kind of odd happiness to have looked into the face of the Gorgon, and yet to find that I have not turned utterly to stone. Now I can paraphrase that fine author James Baldwin, and say that I would like to be a good teacher and an honest man.
I will have to wait till about the end of the month—perhaps a bit longer—before I can afford to subscribe to The Fifties. I apologize. I will certainly subscribe at the earliest possible moment. All the poems were genuine, and the one by Donald Hall was, by God, an absolute knockout. He has come a thousand miles beyond his first book.
Please accept my very highest personal regards, if I may offer them, and also my deepest and best wishes for the continuance of your splendid magazine. As I brought it deliriously home to my wife this evening, and read practically all of it to her (I swear this is not an exaggeration), a bell rang in my skull, and I looked up Bernard Shaw’s 1907 Preface to his booklet The Sanity of Art. Maybe this salutary quotation will interest you, even thrill you as it thrilled me:
“The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages; whilst Plato and Aristophanes trying to knock some sense into the Athens of their day, Shakespeare peopling that same Athens with Elizabethan mechanics and Warwickshire hunts, Ibsen photographing the local doctors and vestrymen of a Norwegian parish, Carpaccio painting the life of St. Ursula exactly as if she were a lady living in the next street to him, are still alive and at home everywhere among the dust and ashes of many thousands of academic, punctilious, most archaeologically correct men of letters and art who spent their lives haughtily avoiding the journalist’s vulgar obsession with the ephemeral.”
Thank you again, very much. The magazine was a personal kindness to me.
P.S. This is the morning after (July 23). I’ve just looked over the magazine again; and, since I’ve run on so long about nothing really except myself, I thought it would be all right to make a couple of other comments:
W. D. Snodgrass: I have long thought of him as probably the most gifted of all American young poets now alive; and these two poems of his, especially “The Men’s Room in the College Chapel,” absolutely prove, as far as I am concerned, that I was right. No one else could have written that poem. It follows nobody’s imagery and nobody’s rhythm but its own. Do you know what I mean when I say that there is something deeply restoring about such a poem—that the exposure of the cyst or the cancer is more lovely, more reviving, more human, because more alive, than all the cosmetic devices of Helena Rubenstein?
Gary Snyder: Kenneth Rexroth is a personal friend of mine (another of my dirty little secrets—I swear to God that if I even mention this fact among my academic friends, a really dreadful and powerfully oppressive hush suffocates the whole room—it is exactly as though I had grinned, slapped somebody’s grandmother on the back, and shouted, “Well, Granny, I buggered another stray dog last night! Haugh! Haugh! Haugh! Haaaaaargh!”)
I mention Rexroth, because of the two poems by Gary Snyder (guilt by association?). Now, I never met Mr. Snyder, but in Seattle two or three years ago, before Time magazine discovered the fact that in San Francisco (and perhaps elsewhere, even on the campuses of our colleges where these men are being paid good money to defile Our Children?) a few obvious lunatics announced that, no thank you, they would just as soon stay alive, if it’s all the same to you Mr. Luce,—before, in short, the advertising wave buried Ginsberg, Ginsberg and Snyder gave a poetry reading at the Univ. of Washington. Ginsberg said bad words (!), and no one ever heard of Snyder again. Now, all I wish to say is that “Milton by Firelight” is a very beautiful poem—the real thing.
And Snyder reminds me of a friend, a good friend of mine, named Richard F. Hugo. He lives in Seattle. He works in Boeing Aircraft Co. His address is:
Richard F. Hugo
6809 8th Avenue N. E.
Seattle 15, Washington
The point of mentioning Hugo is that his stuff has a good deal in common with Snyder’s—that is (and excuse me for appropriating the phrase, which I like, I think it is really a liberating phrase), Hugo’s poems have the new imagination. Now, for several years, he has labored truly and deeply on words—imagery, the new imagery, is his devotion. Unless I am really a complete imbecile after all, as my wife tells me in fights, then his poem “A Troubadour Removed,” which is about 1 pages single-spaced and which is unpublished and which is magnificent, would convince you completely—or almost completely, anyway. Since I’ve gone this far, and since—if you haven’t passed out from exhaustion in reading my letter already—you might feel too numb to mind my further verbosity, I want to quote a bit of Hugo in a moment. First I want to say that he has been pretty depressed sometimes; but the difference between his depression and mine is that he has a right to his—that is, he can’t get decently published because he is a real poet, and I get published everywhere because I’m not. Please, I don’t mean to imply that he has any jealousy whatever, because he doesn’t. He’s had stuff in little mags in the west, and in Botteghe Oscure through the good offices of Jack Mathews (incidentally, Mathews is the one who edited, and partly translated, Hypnos Waking, Random House, 1957, selected poetry and prose by René Char—Jack is in the states again after working in Paris on the edition of Valery’s translated complete works, and I know very well that he would be deeply interested in The Fifties. Far be it from me to try to influence your editorial policy—but Mathews knows an enormous amount about exactly the great new poetry that you celebrate, and he is also a personal friend of both Char and Michaux—if you care to, you can reach him at: Mr. Jackson Mathews, The Bollingen Series, 140 East 62nd Street, NY 21). But Hugo’s book ought to be published by now, and he does not have the chance of a snowball in an incinerator. I myself have submitted his ms. to Univ. of Minn. Press, but they’ve had it forever, and no word yet. Why have I tried to help him? Personal friendship and admiration, of course; but the main reason—it should be obvious—is guilt, old-fashioned GUILT (my God! even my sins are old-fashioned) that a tremendous poet, who is doing something to catch his time and place alive, nevertheless perishes because the magazines, the books, and heaven knows what else are in control, not of people who hate poetry (there’s no point in being sentimental), but of something far more destructive and suffocating—that is, of people who, like myself, are afraid of it.
Now for quotation. Please don’t mind. The following stanzas are from “A Troubadour Removed” by Richard F. Hugo. It describes a man journeying alone into an exotic jungle, where he witnesses and participates in some mysterious ceremony (it is really the Jungian night-journey, though Hugo didn’t theorize, he just wrote), but then, attempting to return, takes one wrong trail after another till he is lost in the growth. What is really nutty and beautiful is Hugo’s vague remark (when, like the usual paraphraser—i.e., killer, of poetry, I asked him what the poem “meant”) that he was thinking of the poets like Lorca and Thomas, who came to America and discovered the jungle.
Here are a couple of quotations from his poem:
He planned his course on Orinoco charts.
Past Barrancas snoring, odors of the journey
Named the flowers native in his bones
And fed by ivory mandolins and wine
Copper wives were peeling by the shore.
He had been here like a bird before.
At night, he navigated by the toucan’s blare.
Day was blinding but a dragonfly
Hung steady in his octant like a star
And riprap nudged his boat around the turns.
Where waterfalls denied a water course
A wild brown girl was waiting with a horse …
He climbed above the fading of his guide
And castles came with a golden roar through clouds …
Against the walls a lemon wing was beating
And then the walls were gone. Above the steam
Of primitive meat he strung on poles to dry
A dead bird turned black wings
To silver in the sun and flew away
And had no lime or luck for pilot aid… .
… He took wrong trails
To waterfalls and horses, tame and tan.
A drum defined the rolling of his eyes.
(Sing with effort what he sang was easy,
Spinning songs to rock the seagulls dizzy.) …
Rice and idols foxtrot in the distant towns
And monster flies are chanting on their knees …
And so on. I’ve quoted you these lines without his permission, but I know he won’t mind, and I hope you like them. He is a good, decent friend of mine; but I have the additional pleasure of knowing a real poet personally.
Vassar Miller: she lives in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in The New Orleans Poetry Journal, Box 12038, New Orleans 24, La. Of all the formalists whom you recognize as gifted but who, in your view, are injuring themselves by writing in the old way, I think she is one of the best. Do you know her book? If not, you can get it for one dollar from the New Orleans Poetry Journal. [marginal note: This sentence is rude. I wish I could afford to send you Vassar Miller’s book myself. I’m certain that Richard Ashman, editor of the NOPJ, would send it to you free, if you’re editorially interested. I’m reviewing Vassar Miller in the coming Fall issue of Sewanee Review. If it isn’t too presumptuous, I’d be very happy to write a CRUNK essay on Miller, subject to any editorial approval or disapproval you wish to apply to it. Shall I try?] It is certainly worth looking at. A fair sample of her style is in the anthology by Pack, Simpson, and Hall. Her work is richly dense with imagery, almost all of it originally and powerfully imagined. I again apologize for presumptuousness, but having gone this far, will suggest that she deserves study by the estimable CRUNK. (My God! Why hasn’t somebody created CRUNK before this? This essay on Simpson was one of the most profoundly searching works of literary criticism—of really living literary criticism, the kind that Simpson himself called for in his essay-review “Poets in Isolation,” Hudson Review, Autumn, 1957, an essay highly worth looking up—that I have read or even heard of. It reminded me—humor and all—of Sainte-Beuve’s review of Taine’s History of English Literature: a passionate devotion to the living and gifted author, and the honorable compliment of true and sympathetic description of that author’s problems—it is a kind of loyalty to the human imagination that is either present or not, with no possibility for compromise in between: it simply cannot be faked.)
I must turn myself off. But your magazine, and your vision of poetry, and your dream of hope and life in the human imagination—these things I can summarize by saying that they were all of them as far distant from being “fake” as, in my mind, it is possible for anything whatever to be.
Please pardon the volcano of bad prose and the embarrassing, unsolicited confessions of my assorted self-betrayals. And thank you.
July 23, 1958
Dear Mr. Bly;
Please don’t be annoyed. I promise not to flail you with another 6-page crank note.
But, looking again through your essay “Five Decades of Modern American Poetry,” I am troubled by something; and, though my previous letter was obviously one of those unavoidable perils of editorship that you will probably be receiving from nuts all over the country, I would appreciate it very much if you would clarify a point for me:
Now, as I understand it, the new imagination is “modern in the profound sense, in which ugliness is grasped as ugliness, and the terror the ugliness inspires is left in the work, and not explained away,” and that what this “content” requires—and there can be no doubt whatever that this quotation from your essay irrefutably does describe the truth of modern American life—[is] a “new style.” Then, at the bottom of page 37 and over almost through page 38, you describe—again excellently—the “new style” in terms of imagery. So far, I’m sure I understand, and of course I think you are right again. Then you face the immediate and practical problem of what to do in order to get rid of the old style: you face, and I think solve, the problem by saying that
- poets do not write today about the only truth available to them (things like “business experience, despair, or the Second World War,” or—in the case of W. D. Snodgrass, the academic world—my God! how magnificently he reveals a terrible and profound poetry even there, in “The Men’s Room in the College Chapel”—talk about proving that absolutely all reality of experience is legitimate material for a first-rate poetic imagination!) That there are a few exceptions does not weaken your general position, a position which is true.
- Poets do not write about the only available truth of experience, because they need an imagery that can only be created in that experience itself, and that therefore cannot possibly be created in terms of a style which was forged long ago in order to deal with the experience of an age which is dead. (Am I paraphrasing you correctly? As I say, I’m not only paraphrasing, but also agreeing.) Now old style is—what? This is the point at which I get befuddled, and the befuddlement is the occasion of my present note. My confusion is based on what you say on page 37 about iambic meters. Is the use of iambic rhythm as such necessarily a sign that American poetry is “moving backward”?
Consider, please, your statement: “some poets, such as Robert Lowell, even going so far as to go back to the iambic couplet, and the iamb came back into poetry and settled itself with a vengeance, like an occupying army returning on a people that had temporarily evicted it.” Then you say (rightly) that Karl Shapiro’s poems, though contemporary, are not modern in the profound sense, because—
Now, look, are Shapiro’s poems written in the old style because he uses iambs, or because of his imagery? In the fine Wax Museum, you, or your associate Mr. Duffy, say that the most real, the deepest threat to the “new imagination” is what you call “dying language—that is, totally without images.” Now, I am certain that I know what you mean by imagery, and I am completely convinced that your definition of dying language is clear and true. Would it be possible, in your opinion, to say that Shapiro’s poems fail to be “modern in the profound sense” for the following reasons?
- His language is dying, in your sense—for imagery is not simply the prosaic photographing of the surfaces of things, but the verbal complexity created by the passionately committed imagination—a complexity which thus contains both the “imagination and terror” and also the poet’s creative revelation of what this terror means. Please note that I don’t say the poet’s statement or gloss on the terror, but his revelation of its meaning: like Lorca’s lines at the end of the “Ode to Walt Whitman,” where he cries that he wants to call down all the large warm air to announce the arrival of a black boy who will reveal to the gold-worshipping whites the arrival of the reign of an ear of corn (I’ve screwed it up, I haven’t got the poem handy—excuse me).
- But is it is Shapiro’s use ofiambic per se, or his failure to build a genuine personal rhythm out of iambic, that makes his poetry weak, a poetry in which “the imagination and terror are dimmed by theconventional iambic line”? Is it your word “conventional” (which I have underlined) or your wordiambic which explains the failure of the “old style”?
I didn’t mean to carry on so long again. I have this strange compulsion to discover the truth about my failure—ever since I received your magazine yesterday.
Every rhythm must be new and original, if it is to contain genuine imagery. Right? Or am I missing the point? But if this is the point about rhythm, then I want to ask if you do or do not think it is possible to build a new and original rhythm on the basis of the iambic measure.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to go into the question, it’s perfectly understandable. If you regard my two letters to you as merely obsessive things, profitless to your discussion and interest and therefore merely annoying to you, I promise not to bother you again. But I really care about what you are doing. You’ve blasted open in me an abandoned cavern where the sacred mysteries used to be clumsily but reverently celebrated, before I found it was, upon the whole, somewhat more comfortable to be dead.
Here is Crane in a passage which I have always thought magnificent in its imagery (that is, when I used to read Crane—I just dug out the book, the first time I’ve opened it in about six years, really):
The phonographs of hades in the brain
Are tunnels that re-wind themselves, and love
A burnt match skating in a urinal …
But the passage is iambic—isn’t it? Somehow the great image helps to build a new rhythm on the iambic measure? Or doesn’t it? I don’t know. If you would care to answer, I would be grateful.
Friday, 1 Aug. 
Dear Mr. Wright,
I was away when your letter came, otherwise I would have answered instantly, and I am sorry I have taken so long. Thank you immensely for the praise; your concern is the greatest compliment this magazine will ever receive. Your letter was interesting throughout, with the unforgettable scene in Austria, like the note of a flute; I am overjoyed that you feel the phrase “new imagination” conveys something. We must have some sort of phrase to describe these dark waters of Neruda, Lorca, Trakl, and the poems made of a new substance I have never seen before. I think we agree on the new style—it comes in your own phrase from The Mother of Roots, The Father of Sand.
But then you say, what is the Old Style? I think there are only two ages of humanity—that before the Industrial Revolution, and that after. The first age begins 15,000 bc or long before, and goes all through Mesopotamia and Europe, and the second begins about a hundred years ago.
What we call the old literature is an attempt, which was really successful absolutely, to describe that old life, which was largely agricultural, with girls, fields of rye, occasional castles, and a strange sense of helpfulness. Homer describes that life; images and forms were found which conveyed the emotions and experiences of that life: and did it well.—Now the situation is the reverse: we have a new life, and many forms and situations well equipped to describe the old life.
We have a strange reluctance to describe the new life, which is, perhaps, a reluctance to admit that there is a new life, that this life is a different one. In the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent there is something new—and people become more and more mad about the past. Keats even denies there is any truth at all to be gotten from looking at the ugliness of factories—”Truth is beauty, and beauty, truth / That is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
The form continually becomes more intellectual—that is, fixed, independent, with little responsive connection to what is being said—it is the form at all costs!
And, in my opinion, there is a real connection between this continuance of old form and old content, and inflexible intellectualism—in that the intellect is the only thing we have which can be blinded. What we are talking of is purposeful blindness—and the intellect will gladly blind itself. As La Forgue said, if our whole intention is to reduce the number of suggestions the instincts make to us, then we must learn not to raise our eyes—because things the eyes see the instinct always uses as an excuse for presenting its demands and complaints—the only effective solution, then, is to lower our perceptions—to see less. All through the nineteenth century the poetry sees less and less—and we’re still in it.
The old form is perfectly good in itself, for its own life—but when it slyly continues to exist in a time of totally new life, it serves only to dim our perception of that new life.
You asked me, for instance, what I felt about Shapiro or Crane—in Shapiro’s case, is it the iambic per se, or his failure to make a personal rhythm out of the iamb? My answer is this—I think everything in life is a “vicious circle” either down or up.
Every meter, iambic among them, carries with it subconsciously an entire group of attitudes, emotions, perceptions, even subject matter. If then a poet adopts the iambic, he is directed by that itself to certain attitudes and subjects, and his range becomes narrower; as that happens, he sees less and less of the actual life that surrounds him, and consequently, sees less and less reason for not using the iamb; as he uses the iamb more and more, he becomes more and more absorbed in experiences natural to the iamb, most of which have been beautifully expressed in the past, and so more and more absorbed in the past, until finally he becomes incapable of any experience whatever in the present. I think so because I went through that myself, and breaking myself of it was like rising from the dead. At any rate, I think something like that happened to Shapiro, and was always happening—an iamb line, now, is bound to be conventional—because, as the perception lessens under pressure of the iamb and its 17th century mind, perception of oneself also lessens; we know less and less who we are; but any personal rhythm comes directly out of ourself, like a river from dark rocks, so that it is impossible any longer to build a personal rhythm on top of an iamb. Imagery, iamb, rhythm are all part of one thing: for as the perception lessens under impact of these old forms, of course, Shapiro, for instance, can no longer sense any of these images we associate with Neruda or Benn or modern life—he goes on creating pictures, as in an old scene, but not images.
In Crane, for the first time after the explosion of the 10’s, you see this tendency to revert to old form, and I think his adoption of optimism and the iamb are the same thing: when he realized he had invested his entire burden of poetry on both, it was too late. Crane is a great poet, I think: and his resources of imagination are so magnificent—they pour in such floods from the sea—it almost overpowers this terrorless form—but in the end, the optimism, or the intellect, or the iamb, or whatever you want to call it, cuts him off, like a flower, above the root—
But what you see in Crane, a battle, in which there is still a magnificence of imagination—this battle becomes more and more perfunctory in the poets after him, as the imagination lessens, until in Shapiro, the defeat of imagination takes place before he starts writing.
Forgive me for running on at such length—you see, I can write as long letters as you!—but you are right, these things were not in the article.
But I also believe in a vicious circle upward—with each struggle for new form, each independent victory, we also perceive something new, and with each glimpse, we become aware of a new experience, and the new experience will not allow itself to be set in the old form, and we must make a new form, and now the experience deepens—
We construct, but the great poets are merely sensitive—
I hope this explains some of the unclear points; I must stop now, it is too late; but please write again; Thank you for the reference to Mathews and Hugo. Must write about all that later.
August 6, 1958
Dear Mr. Bly;
I’m sure you understand me when I say that I could regard your letter as a good deal more than mere courteous editorial clarification. On my side, let me say what should be obvious—that the long, groping letter which I wrote you was one which I had to write—your own phrase about “rising from the dead” connotes some of the shock of self-recognition which has got to take place among us, not only among people who are trying to write poetry, but who, simply as human beings, are sane. The relation between poetry and human experience is one which has got to be urgently established among us. It is, of course, always a matter of life and death—it always has been—but in our own time this becomes a literal matter.
Do you know Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and “Looking Back on the Spanish War”? The bit in the latter about his being utterly unable to shoot an enemy simply because the man was running along the top of a trench as the dawn broke, and the man was holding up his trousers with one hand. Such a man in such a position is not a “Fascist,” but a fellow-creature. Taken with the essay on politics and the language, I’m sure that what Orwell says is related to your own concern with imagery and rhythm.
Anyway, let me say that I’m sure I’ve got your point now. We could argue on and on forever, of course, about the theoretical possibility of “building a personal rhythm” on iambic. The real point is that such a rhythm is preventing many American poets right now from fully realizing their gifts in the material which is actually, but not stylistically, available to them. To come down to cases, I wrote you this long lamenting harangue about “quitting,” etc.; but I know that you recognized my lament as inevitable. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I have been playing it as safe as my first book does—and the really powerful essay in The Fifties on Louis Simpson, whom I have never met but whom I admire, ought to note—or, rather, CRUNK ought to note—the fact that Simpson (with many others) had been feeling disturbed and restless already, and that therefore The Fifties itself will survive and prevail for a long time—it answers a genuine need for the voice of and urgent and instinctive recognition of the necessity of breaking through the old style, a style in which nearly all of the American poets in the Pack, Simpson, Hall anthology had achieved a certain competence. I think that this competence will hurt no one—it can even be an advantage, for to attain it means that one has succeeded at least in identifying the very thing that has to be breached and surpassed. Now, what is happening—something which The Fifties instinctively recognized and rose to discuss—is that each poet in the Meridian anthology must effect a whole revolution in himself, and take upon himself a terrifying burden of accomplishing a task which society itself is not yet capable of accomplishing: the revolution of style from the old to the new. This is one implication I derive from your writings so far, and unless I am mistaken in my interpretation of your words, then you can see what I mean when I call the competence—competence in the old style (iambic)—which characterized “most of the poets being published in America today” need not be an insurmountable obstacle, but, on the contrary, can be for those who have or can develop the spiritual strength, a distinct advantage. Why? Well, there are some enlightening remarks—at least I find them so at this point—in Valery. Maybe he was a formalist, but there is, as you bloody well know, far more to Valery sentence by sentence than one would guess from the way he is regularly and tritely characterized in the little magazines. In his essay “Problems of Poetry,” he speaks of “the amazing richness of lyric invention” which appeared in France in the last quarter of the nineteenth century—and he was referring, in part anyway, to the explosion of the “new imagination” which you justly locate as a world-wide phenomenon in the 10’s (of course, exact dating of the thing is not to the point). Let me quote this whole absorbing passage of Valery:
But, in this very nation which sings so little, an amazing richness of lyric invention appeared during the last quarter of the past century. Around 1875, when Victor Hugo was still living, and Leconte de Lisle and his followers were reaching fame, the names of Verlaine, Stephane (I’m going to leave out the accents for convenience—I want to get this letter off to you—Jim) Mallarme, and Arthur Rimbaud arose, those three Magi of modern poetics, bearers of such costly gifts and such rare spices that even the time that has elapsed since then has altered neither the glory nor the power of these extraordinary gifts (by the way, Valery is writing this in 1936).
The extreme diversity of their works, added to the variety of models offered by the poets of the preceding generation, has conduced, and conduces, to the conception, understanding, and practice of poetry in an admirable number of very different ways. There are some today, no doubt, who still follow Lamartine (N. B. just as “some today” write the iambic—okay?); others continue the work of Rimbaud.” (Note again, Mr. Bly: I’m going to continue with Valery’s very next sentence, but I wanted to emphasize the fact that the subsequent passage is the one that clarifies my point about the advantageof gainingcompetencein the old style first.) Valery continues: “the same man may change his tastes and his style, burn at twenty what he adored at sixteensome kind of inner transmutation(my italics) shifts the power of seduction from one master to another. The lover of Musset becomes morematureand leaves him for Verlaine. Another, after being first nourished by Hugo, devotes himself completely to Mallarme.
“These spiritual changes generally operate in one particular direction(Valery’s italics) rather than in the other, which is much less probable: it must be extremely rare for Le Bateau ivreto lead eventually toLe Lac. On the other hand, by loving the pure and hard Herodiadeone does not lose one’s taste for thePriere d’Esther.”
(He starts to lose me in works I haven’t read, but, if I follow him, I would paraphrase the idea by saying that it is generally more profitable to move from a love of Bridges to a love of Lorca, than the other way around, because the first strategy (1) clearly definesthe old style which exists to be broken and (2) dramatizesone’s liberation from it.)
Then Valery concludes the passage: “These defections, these sudden accesses of love or of grace, these conversions and substitutions, this possibility of being successivelysensitized to the work of incompatible poets, are literary phenomena of the first importance.Therefore no one ever mentions them.” (My italics.)
I find it interesting that Valery should have used the word sensitized, because the word also occurred to you in your intense and, I might add, entirely convincing argument (in your recent letter to me) about the ascending vicious circles: “We construct, but the great poets are merely sensitive—.” Nothing could be finer than that formulation of yours. But let me get on.
Louis Simpson provides a good example of the master of the old style who feels from within himself (see Valery’s phrase above—”some kind of inner transmutation”) the stirring of need for the new style to deal with the new imagination. (By the way, that is a magnificent phrase—I wonder if you were conscious of the profoundly vital parody through which it rebukes things like the new criticism, etc.) In the Hudson Review (Autumn, 1957, in an essay called “Poets in Isolation,” p. 463), Simpson is discussing Amis’ anti-romanticism: “The anti-Romantic vision too often sounds like a Holiday at the East Peebles Latin Grammar School. The trouble with Amis’ verse, as with so much verse nowadays, is that while it is in good taste, intelligent, humorous, sensitive, et cetera, it lacks the right kind of disorder. Intelligence can be dull. A little of the conviction held by Socrates and by Coleridge and his peers, that poetry is a kind of insanity, wouldn’t harm our boys at all. Of course, the Romantics wrote a lot of windy stuff, but they also wrote the “Ancient Mariner,” “The Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “The Triumph of Life.” I’m afraid that with our virtues of good taste we throw out the Mariner as well as the Idiot Boy.”
Now, Mr. Bly, Simpson is not here taking the same tack that you have taken (though I suspect he must inevitably do so), but the point is that his passage reflects a profound and unconscious dissatisfaction—and you are perfectly aware, as only James Dickey has been aware, that the dissatisfaction results from the terrible and windy gap between Simpson’s mastery of the old style and his need for the new style. Speaking of Dickey, did I mention him in my last letter? His essay “In the Presence of Anthologies,” Sewanee Review (Spring, 1958), is a brilliant and appallingly fierce reductio of the American section of The New Poets of England and America to its essential absurdum, though he does not, as you do (in your essay “Five Decades of American Poetry”), trace the reason for his dissatisfaction. He lashed me into the earth with a single brilliant satirical phrase. I wrote him an angry letter. He answered with anger. He is now, I suppose, one of the best friends I have ever made in my life—honest, brilliant, outraged, deeply passionate and original, and absolutely incorruptible.
(Speaking of Dickey, I’m enclosing two bucks: could you do me a favor? Please send a copy of the first issue of The Fifties to:
Mr. James L. Dickey
2930 Westminster Circle, N. W.
And would you be so kind as to write on the first page of the magazine something like “with the compliments of James Wright” or something of the sort. Then, for the other $1.50, would you send me the next three issues of The Fifties as they appear? I admit that this is a hell of an irresponsible way to subscribe to a magazine, and I swear to heaven that as soon as I get my mitts on some ready coin I’ll ask you to send copies to some other people who ought to read The Fifties. They would support it.)
Perhaps this would be the place to say something really important: Mr. Bly, whenever I make some suggestion or other, please accept my assurance that I am not trying to butt in on your magazine, which you and Mr. Duffy, I am sure, are brilliantly capable of handling on your own. I want you to understand that I am personally involved very deeply in your poetic concerns, and that, for such reasons, you should know that my assistance is immediately available to you if you should ever happen to need it or want it.
I spoke in my letter to you of having quit. What I meant, let me repeat, is that I was responding to the shock of getting my bumps. I described earlier ineptitude, and the hopelessness of writing anything at all that didn’t just squidgle off the sheet like a sick jellyfish. Then I sought the classical discipline. Writing to you, I was afraid that I had got it so well that it had got me. Whether it did or not I don’t know. I do know that I’m not quitting.
I certainly don’t expect you to answer my letters at great length. My leisure, such as it is, is explained by the ironic fact of my living right now, with my wife and 2 kids (the new boy came last Wed. morning) on the Kenyon Review Poetry fellowship. Writing to you this way is in part a matter of sheer interest and involvement; but it is also more instructive—that’s the wrong word, I mean illuminating—to read your letters than I can easily describe.
I’m going to ask if you will be kind enough to look at the enclosed poem. I mentioned having written a FAREWELL TO POETRY even before I saw The Fifties. It grew out of my shock at having attacked Jim Dickey for having written the painful (and yet, really, magnificent) truth about all of us. The difference between what Dickey saw and said in Sewanee (Spring, 1958) and what you saw and said, and what Simpson saw and said, and what Hall and Snodgrass have seen and done, is superficial. It is that we have learned the tricks too well, and that having arrived at a point of beginning, we have assumed that we were completed. All that happened to me is that I was stung awake, by Dickey who was cold and furious, and by you who were friendly and polite but equally uncompromising. Now, it may turn out that I do indeed have nothing in the way of vision and imagination. But I am stuck now; if I have nothing, I am convinced that I can face the fact without bitterness; the new imagination is so important, to all living human beings and not just to literati, that I am going to continue to search for it—and if I cannot find it in myself (though I believe I can), then I will identify and fight for it in others. And this is not mock-humility—I see blood in this matter, I really do. The enclosed poem is the revision of what began as HIS FAREWELL TO POETRY. I honest to God don’t know whether it is worth a penny or not. It might be. It more probably isn’t. But I have got to learn how to open myself more and more to the imagery which is ours and only ours, and to crack the iambic shell which used to be—and usefully, I believe—a mold. It is as though a man who had broken his neck had asked a doctor to prop his head with a plaster cast, and had strengthened the muscles of his throat till he was sure he could hold his head up and look at the world in front of him, and then had discovered that his doctor, whether mistakenly or not, had made the cast out of cement. I could have cracked the plaster with a blow of the hand; but now I must chip and claw the cement away with the few fingernails I have left. Maybe I’ll die first. All I say is that I’m not going to die in the act of writing the poems of Robert Bridges over again (since he already wrote them so beautifully, in a world that is gone, with a style that is, alas, still here). But no matter how bad my enclosed poem is, it is at least not written in the old style. Mr. Bly, please understand that I’m not trying to burden you with a poem for detailed criticism. However, if you care to bother, I would attend very closely to whatever comment, general or other, which you might make about it.
Now, before I spare you, I want to conclude by asking some questions and making some points:
- In p. 39 of yr. mag., you say: “There is an imagination which assembles the three kingdoms within one poem: the dark figures of politics, the world of streetcars, and the ocean world.” a. Will you please explain, however generally, what you mean by “the ocean world”? b. I don’t know Jung at all. I know Freud too little. Will you please tell me what to read and study from the works of these two writers?
- You probably know this already, but if not it will be useful and interesting: Ben Belitt’s translation of Lorca’sThe Poet in New York(An Evergreen Press Book. New York: Grove Press, 1955. $1.45), a really thrilling translation by a poet who doesknow what the new imagination is, contains Lorca’s lecture-essay, “The Poetic Image in Don Luis de Gongora,” and I wonder if Lorca’s words seem to you (I mean it, I am really groping in things I never dug out before) a fair indication of your own notions ofimagery as conceived by the new imagination.
- Do you mind if I write as often and as long as the spirit moves me? I am conscious that this is ahellof an imposition.
- What do you think of the two British (Scotch, in the latter’s case) Jon Silkin and W. S. Graham. Have you read Graham’sThe Nightfishing. It seems to me a great book, a truly great one.
- Hardy is not a victim of iambic—it does not come natural to him. What do you think of him as a modern?
- Please note: Do you own, or have you access to, Random House publicationHypnos Waking: Poetry and Prose of Rene Char? Edited by Jackson Mathews. If not, please look at it. I wish I could afford to send you a copy, but it
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