Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on poet Robert Bly December 1, 2021

Books by Minnesota poet Robert Bly. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

AS A PUBLISHED POET, you might expect me to read a lot of poetry. I confess that I don’t. I should, because through reading and studying others who practice our crafts, we learn.

So I determined, upon hearing of the death of renowned Minnesota poet Robert Bly on November 21, that I would read more of his poetry. I’ve checked out every Bly book available at my local library: What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey and Stealing Sugar from the Castle.

Interesting titles reveal likewise interesting poems crafted by an especially gifted writer.

Robert Bly also translated poetry, here “The Voices” by Rainer Maria Rilke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

As I began to read Bly’s poems, I noticed the brevity. As any poet understands, each word in a poem must count. Bly seems especially adept at that. Poetry is perhaps the most difficult of writing genres.

I also see the influence of his upbringing on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. His roots are in Madison, near the South Dakota border. This small farming community is the self-proclaimed Lutefisk Capital of the US and home to a 25-foot-long fiberglass cod fish statue. Lutefisk is cod soaked in lye and a food of Norwegian heritage.

My copy of “The Voices,” translated by Robert Bly. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

In Bly’s poetic voice, I hear rural reflected. From land to sky. Heritage strong. Faith interwoven. Solid work ethic. Agriculture defining small towns and occupations, threading through daily life. Bly writes with an awareness of his rural-ness, with a deep sense of place. I understand that given my roots on a southwestern Minnesota farm.

Yet, Bly’s writing isn’t defined solely by place. His world expanded when he joined the Navy after high school graduation, then attended St. Olaf College in Northfield for a year before transferring to Harvard. He pursued additional degrees. He was a prolific writer. A poet. An essayist. An activist.

While watching a public television documentary on Bly last week, I learned more about his activism. During the Vietnam War. In writing about men. He authored Iron John: A Book About Men, which remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for 62 weeks. Sixty-two weeks. That’s saying something about Bly’s influence.

Robert Bly’s autograph in my first edition copy of “The Voices.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

He also translated the works of others, including Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Voices. It’s a slim volume of nine poems with a title poem. And I have a copy of that beautiful hardcover book, purchased several years back at a used book sale in Faribault. Mine is number 14 of 50 limited first edition copies published in 1977 by The Ally Press and autographed by Robert Bly. Now, upon the poet’s death, this collection holds even more significance. More value.

The final three lines in Bly’s poem, “Ravens Hiding in a Shoe,” summarize his passion for penning poetry. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

Though Bly has passed at the age of 94, his legacy as a writer will endure. He scored many awards and accolades throughout his writing career. But I sense, even with that success, it was the craft of writing, the ability to pursue his passion for the written word, which he valued the most. That, too, I understand. For to write is to breathe.

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FYI: To read another take on Bly, I direct you to gifted writer and poet Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, who blogs at One Minnesota Writer. She reflected on Bly in a post titled “Remembering Robert Bly.”

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling