The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly


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Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

He or she must penetrate "much deeper than the ego.

Robert Bly Lecture: Passion and Purpose in Men and Women (1988)

Ultimately, the poet achieves those depths where "life inside the brain and the life outside" exist "at the same instant" 7. The incarnation of the poem crystallizes at this point of perception, at this subjective instant of simultaneous interaction between the perceiver and the perceived. This type of poetic consciousness, which I have called the incorporative consciousness, seeks to integrate self, others, and the cultural and physical worlds. Aesthetically, the incorporative consciousness endorses intuition and subjectivity, psychic integration forming its central goal.

Differing from the more conceptual or rhetorically conceived metaphor, which linearly compares vehicle and tenor, the incorporative mode reconciles both, often in paradoxical fashion. Light emanates from darkness, without apparent source; horizontal planes suddenly acquire vertical depth; while within some external structure or house, one's body becomes a house, which one may also enter. Apparent opposites, especially inner and outer, spirit and body, the archetypal male and female, merge into a single, organic whole.

Thus the poetry becomes an extension of the incorporative consciousness that creates and interprets it. Never "achieved," always in the process of becoming, the incorporative consciousness constantly expands; deep and leaping imagery incarnate that process without interrupting it. Before this harmonious mingling with the external landscape can occur, however, an integrated interior landscape is necessary.

The incorporative consciousness of Robert Bly - Lenoir Rhyne University

The achievement of such integration involves a slow and sometimes painful process of individuation. This process is often represented in Bly's poetry by a physical journey.

I like poetry best that journeys--while remaining in the human scale--to the other world, which may be a place as easily overlooked as a bee's wing" Selected Poems Davis in Understanding Robert Bly contends that Bly's voice is most "authentic" in this collection and for that reason it is his "most important book. Sugg, in his introduction to Bly's prose and poetry Robert Bly , claims that the book contains what he calls "the enduring basis of Bly's work[:]…. Lensing, in their study of Bly and his peers, Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford , conclude, "The poems of Silence in the Snowy Fields are very much of a world" in their treatment of landscape and the small moments in a person's life.

Noting the "bare statements" of "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter," and poems like it in the collection, Howard Nelson, in Robert Bly: An Introduction , speculates that a first reading of the book is "likely to be a mysterious or mystifying experience" for readers. Nelson points out some of the reservations critics have with the poems, most notably their lack of sophistication and "intellectual density.

While it is the simplicity and quiet of Silence in the Snowy Fields that first strike the reader, the book was a key contribution to that period of great restlessness, energy, and originality in American poetry that began in the s and continued through the s.

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Silence in the Snowy Fields remains one of the best-selling poetry titles in Wesleyan University Press's catalogue, forty years after its publication. Semansky is an instructor of literature and composition.

In this essay, Semansky considers the image of driving in Bly's poem. The image of driving permeates much American literature of the twentieth century. In these works and countless others, driving is symbolic of the quest for meaning. The act of putting hands to wheel is a metaphor for life's journey. Driving is both a means and an end in itself, signifying the relentless passing of time. Given the country's wide-open spaces and Americans' love of freedom and travel, America's infatuation with the automobile makes sense, especially for writers of prose. Driving often appears as image and theme in poetry, most surprisingly in the work of Bly, a poet most often associated with the natural world.

Although Bly has developed the reputation as a poet whose material is grounded in myth and psychology, it should not be surprising that cars show up so frequently in his writing.

Bly's Call to Duty

For someone who has made his living writing and giving readings, workshops, and lectures, it is only natural that he would drive so much and that so much of his remembered experience would be of events that occurred while he was in a car, usually alone. Driving is often a solitary activity, with drivers given to reflection, fantasizing, bouts of nostalgia and regret.

Driving long distances in the Midwest, as Bly does, would give one the opportunity to engage in these meditative activities more than most. Bly does not fetishize the car, however; most of the time, he does not detail its make or model or, indeed, provide any specifics other than the fact that he is in transit, being in one place and going another. In this way, then, driving becomes a metaphor for journeying, though Bly's journeys in these poems, at least on the surface, are usually fairly prosaic: mailing a letter, for example.

Literal journeys are integral to myth, symbolic of the process of self-exploration and discovery. Odysseus, for example, endured trials and tribulations through his journeys on Earth and in the underworld before he won the right to come home. Bly's speakers are not nearly as adventurous as Odysseus.


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They do not fend off monsters or speak with the dead or have themselves strapped to the masts of ships to resist the temptations of sirens. They are modern men who go about their daily business unheroically and whose "adventures" more often than not consist of sudden bursts of awareness of their own emotions, their own mortality. Life, like driving and like the mail, involves movement and destination, travel.

Cars, like mailboxes, are metal containers that shield their contents from the weather and provide them with a degree of anonymity. The "cold iron" of the mailbox door, however, also evokes the coldness of the coffin, another container, this one for goods that have reached their destination. Bly's speaker makes a trip into town to mail a letter, which itself expresses a desire to communicate with another human being. But, in taking in his surroundings, in paying them attention, he is also communicating with a deeper part of himself, a part that cannot be expressed in any rational way but that takes joy in its singleness, its "privacy.

The physical journey is of course a developmental extension of the more important psychic journey recorded in the entirety of Bly's work. Whereas the physical journey is linear and may be completed, the psychic journey has no destination. It is a journey of individuation, continual becoming. As the incorporative consciousness grows, inner and outer energies gradually intermingle, the subjective moment expands, and fixed boundaries give way to energy vibrations in a surrounding, fluctuating world.

The identification of separate things is replaced by reciprocal motion whereby the world is internalized, and each centripetal motion enlarges the poet so that his works spring from an increasingly greater psychic reservoir. Bly's epiphany while mailing his letter, then, adds to that reservoir, while simultaneously springing from it.

His is a transcendent poem in the tradition of other driving poems such as Emily Dickinson 's "Because I could not stop for Death. The speaker in Bly's poem, however, although recognizing that the grave awaits, chooses to "waste" his time "driving around. The speaker's response to the sudden awareness of his mortality is also a response to his awareness of eternity, itself paradoxically embodied in the feeling of emptiness that he evokes in his images of the winter landscape.

Victoria Frenkel Harris: On Robert Bly

Rather than becoming anxious that life is short and he should spend what time he has left pursuing worldly gains or "intense" experience, Bly's speaker opts to stay in the moment as long as he can. That Bly's poems inevitably employ the present tense indicates his desire to embrace the now of living. Driving, especially driving long distances, is an act that often feels automatic and outside time. By using an image such as driving, Bly can employ other poetic techniques such as a speaker who catalogues what he sees as he drives by.

In this poem, he also leaps between the outer and inner worlds, drawing attention to "This solitude covered with iron" that "Plunges through the deep fields of the night. Howard Nelson claims that the organizational strategy of this poem is similar to the strategy Bly uses throughout Silence in the Snowy Fields : "The poem … expresses movements that are fundamental to Snowy Fields : movements towards the earth and into what lies beyond the rational, well-lit parts of the mind.

The movement "towards the earth" is also a movement deeper into the brain for Bly, who links the associative leaps in his poems to the leaps human thinking takes among the three parts of the brain: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the human. In his book, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations , Bly writes, "We do not spend the whole day inside one brain, but we flip perhaps a thousand times a day from one brain to the other.

Blevins has published essays and poems in many magazines, journals, and anthologies and teaches writing at Roanoke College. In this essay, Blevins considers the risks of the lack of music, rhythm, and metaphor in Bly's poem. Bly's "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter" is like most classic lyric poems in that it manipulates the private meditations of a single speaker to explore a single theme or motif.

But, Bly's poem is unlike the classic lyric in that it avoids overt lyricism. The lack of musical devices in "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter" is an example of the tendency of many poets of the contemporary American period to privilege clarity and accessibility over sound-play.

Linguists and other students of language have generally held that lyricism obscures meaning. Ross Winterowd states. As poets have always known, it is possible to increase the difficulty of a text—i. Insofar as attention is diverted from meaning to sound, reading is more difficult. Poets interested in subverting the elitism of the complicated language systems of the modernists often work in the plain-style, relying on the strategy of speech rather than the lyricism of song to produce and emulate human thought and feeling.


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  8. In general, plain-style poems avoid musical flourish by using the common, everyday diction of a conversational speaker. Although some plainstyle poems may replace the musicality achieved by sound-play with images and in this way become image-driven, some plain-style poems avoid image to emphasize conversational or speech-like diction to articulate emotion.

    Films About Robert Bly

    In this age in which free verse has proven itself to be a more-than-valid means of writing memorable poems, it is important to ask what the risks of a lack of rhythm and music might be. Bly's poem fails to move not because it is a free verse poem, but because it does not counteract its lack of music with metaphor or the use of original images. Poets generally agree that the musicality of traditional lyrics helped bards in antiquity remember the verses they were required to recite without the aid of printed text. The rise of the plain-style is attributed in some ways to the invention of the printing press.

    Books About Robert Bly

    The more poetry was written down, the less it needed to rhyme sounds and words. Yet other, more archetypally-inclined critics have suggested that the rhyming of sounds and words served psychological as well as technical purposes, suggesting, for example, that life patterns such as the death of the harvest season each winter giving away to its own re-birth each spring can be mimicked or emulated in the forms language takes. That is, a poem that produces a sound in its first line will remind people of the comforts of a returning season by repeating that sound in later lines. Bly's "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter" explores the relationship between self and nature and the pleasures of privacy and peace by presenting a speaker who wants to "waste more time" by driving around in a snowstorm.

    In other words, although Bly's speaker attempts to articulate pleasure in the landscape the poem describes, and thus attempts to surprise by suggesting that all of nature is wondrous on some level, the fact that the speaker is in a car, rather than inside the snowstorm itself, undercuts the poem's message. The form Bly has chosen for this observation also undercuts the poem's power.

    The marriage of plain-style diction with statement or assertion produces a matter-of-fact tone. That is, the declarative sentences "It is a cold and snowy night" and "The main street is deserted" both describe nothing more or less than the bare facts of the speaker's situation. These lines are notably about the exterior world, rather than the interior world of the speaker. The poem's second line reinforces its first line's plainly-spoken claim with one of the poem's few images: the speaker states that "The only things moving are swirls of snow.

    The poem's last two lines articulate a shift from a description of landscape and activity to a statement about the speaker's feelings—he tells readers that because "there is a privacy [he loves] in this snowy night," he will "[drive] around [and] waste more time. Although Bly's speaker seeks to immerse a reader inside the natural world and make a statement about the possibility of even coldness and darkness producing pleasure by allowing for "privacy" or solitude, the poem's technique undercuts the poem's ability to move readers because it does not rise above its plain approach.

    That is, although a simple description of plainness could potentially articulate the kind of peacefulness and solitude Bly seeks to describe, the poem fails because its technical plainness is far too plain. Although it is possible to say that the repetition of the pronoun "I" in the poem is a kind of rhyme, the sound of the word is not its purpose.

    This fact is made clear by the fact that the word is not emphasized by its placement. Although the word "snowy" is repeated in the poem twice, the telling nature of the adjective undercuts lyricality, and may even seem lazyily inarticulate. Images, in comparison, are not often explicit or overtly obvious in meaning.

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