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A Little Book on the Human Shadow

PDF If this were instead "a Medium-sized Book on the Human shadow," things may have been more clear but, then, they'd probably be more annoying, too.

Bly is not a gentle (note the space) man. He is a bull. In a way, he's the perfect person to talk about the Human Shadow, because he's living proof of its existence. But I suspect he doesn't even have a clear idea how he's managed to "eat his [own] shadow" and so who is he really to advise us? Well, again, he's a bull - that's who.He's got a resonant, self-assured voice and that helps people relate to concepts like the shadow. But he forces too much. Let me explain that . . .

A near mirror image of Bly is William Stafford. Where Bly is muted black, Stafford is off-white. In a sit-down chat, Stafford once explained to Bly the concept of Blake's "Golden Thread" and how it relates to writing poetry. The Blake lines are:

"I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball
It will let you in at Heaven's Gate
Built in Jerusalem's Wall."

Stafford said that any thread in writing is golden if you don't pull it too hard."Masterful people," he said, "break that thread" and then he tells Bly, "watch out, Robert." He claims he's not suggesting that Bly breaks the threads, so I'll say it for him.

Bly eschews definition. One of the problems with him is that he uses metaphorical, poetical language throughout his prose with little to no clarification on what he means other than by sketching outward from the vague image and sort of smudge-shading it. For example, he refers to the "white nightgown mentality" and keeps on going as if that image should to make sense to everyone.One can never even be sure if the image is his own or if he's borrowing from another poet. In the case of the white nightgown, the sketch later turns out to be signed by Wallace Stevens, but still with no reference to its original usage.Sometimes Bly will interrupt himself to ask, "is the image clear?"Well, if it's not, how're we meant to answer? If my image of smudge-shading isn't clear, it's in keeping.

A college professor of mine was all but obsessed with Robert Bly and while I enjoy a lot of what Bly has to say, I am cautious.I remember telling my professor that Bly was too powerful a force in the poetry/literary community - that his ideas carry too much weight and that they run the risk of capsizing the whole ordeal (at least for certain writers). See, Bly likes to go on as if he knows what he's talking about, but about 40-50% of the time, he's talking shit. He's liable to contradict himself from year to year, poem to poem, and talk to talk and think nothing of it.That's all fine and dandy for him, but there's a danger in his mode of expression, too (and here I'm well aware that I'm using Bly's diction).

When Bly engages in equivocation, it's tempting to accuse him of obfuscation.The problem is that there's no direct way to address this idea of the Human Shadow. But one thing I think I can say is that his stark gender roles are the product of a free-for-all era in psychology. Like horoscopes, Jungian archetypes are fun to think about, but they're not terribly instructive and if you take them too seriously, they can be quite limiting. Bly hurts his arguments by putting the sexes into clearly labeled boxes.

It occurs to me, though, that Bly's success is probably largely due to his flexability. Just when you catch him in a contradiction (as William Booth does toward the end of the book), he merely retracts his statement and agrees to pursue another path. That bastard.Nothing phases him and he goes on to lead another round-circle meeting of repressed men trying to invoke the animus.

But despite all of this, he'll then say something charming like, "Critics usually accept the world the poet creates. If he says east is north, they say: Why didn't I think of that before!" and you love him again for his willingness to admit that we're all probably full of shit.

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