Robert Bly’s selection for the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal is well-deserved and long-overdue. Bly’s influence on contemporary poetry, with his translations, anthologies, and his spiritual and archetypal aesthetic, culminating in the Deep Image School of poetry, has been so pervasive and prolific as to actually become somewhat invisible. Publishing the historic journals the Fifties, the Sixties, and the Seventies, to pick just one arena, was in itself an amazing feat–and he wrote a lot of the articles in those journals himself, under pseudonyms.
I have some other reasons to be annoyed with Bly, which I will write about at a later time, but they in no way diminish my joy at seeing his powerful and devoted contributions to the world of poetry recognized in this way. It’s only right. And, since I am venturing into writing on spiritual and cultural topics myself, as Bly did before me, I find it personally encouraging that the poetry world has not forgotten him while he has been out working in other fields.
My support of the PSA’s decision on Facebook drew me into a conversation with some of the poets who will be at the West Chester Poetry Conference this June on the topic of Deep Image Poetry. Here are the thoughts I shared with them:
I would say that Deep Image school served its purpose, during its time, well; in the 70s it pointed back to the more archetypal and universal roots of poetry, at a time when the habit of confessing the individual life in “accessible” free verse had put poetry in danger of becoming atomized, scattered, and superficial.
Like any and every other school of poetry, Deep Image had its great successes (I greatly appreciate Bly’s book Silence in the Snowy Fields, for one, and can think of poems by Merwin, Kinnell, and Stafford (see below) that I find marvellous)—and also its failures. But the moment for debate on its aesthetic merits has passed.
I find as much kinetic power in the best of the Deep Image poetry (I’ve included my favorites from this school in A Poet’s Craft) as in the best free verse. To the poet who told me he felt Deep Image poetry doesn’t engage enough with English language metrical tradition, I replied that it was difficult for poetry to engage aurally with the rhythms of the English tradition during the 70s and 80s when Deep Image had its strongest impact, not only because the politics of the time were necessarily so much about reaching into poetic traditions beyond the borders of English, but also because the legacy of iambic pentameter was still so fresh and strong and recent that the metrical diversity that seems to me an essential component of contemporary formalism was not only unattainable, but inconceivable.
This week I have had the great verses from Ecclesiastes, and the Byrds version of them, running through my head frequently, and this discussion reminds me that the wisdom that “to everything there is a season” applies to literary history as much as to anything else.