Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Robert Bly and James Wright: A Correspondence

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Robert Bly and James Wright: A Correspondence

Article excerpt

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 BIy. 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 BIy, not only for providing his side of the correspondence, but for his preface, which follows.

-Ted Cenoways


Not long after Carol BIy 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.

I wrote an editorial on "Five Decades of Modern American Poetry," saying that America had produced but one great poet-Hart Crane-since the 19105, while Europe and South America had made great advances: "Pablo Neruda, a great poet ten times over, as well as Garcia Lorca and Cesar Vallejo; in the Swedish tradition, Ekelof, in the French Char and Michaux, in the German Trakl and Benn-all of them writing in what we have called, for want of a better word, the new imagination. …

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