Shadow Dancing


I’m still combing the beach of Bly’s small book, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. In some ways this is a sequel to my earlier posting, The Thatness.

Bly is so open about his woundedness, in person and in his poetry. I don’t think I know of another poet who is so unabashedly brought to tears by the intention and influence of poetry and poetry making. Going to a Bly reading is like watching the street fill with water from a high pressure hydrant that has burst open. So no better voice to dig into this issue of shadow than his.

The last chapter of Bly’s book focuses on Wallace Stevens. Sigh. In many ways Bly comes down hard on Stevens’ later work, insisting that the later poems are as “weak as is possible for a genius to write.” His claim is that Stevens, for whatever reason, could not integrate his shadow into his proper, insurance executive, buttoned down self.

Here is Bly’s case:

There are some good poems, but somehow there are no further marriages in his work. Yeats’s work picked up more and more detail as it went on, the sensual shadow began to rise, the instinctual energy throws off its own clown clothes and fills more and more of the consciousness..

Why that did not happen to Stevens I don’t know for sure, but I think we have to look at his life for an explanation…We have the sense that Wallace Stevens’s relation to the shadow followed a pattern that has since become familiar among American artists: he brings the shadow into his art, but makes no changes in the way he lives. The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as : “quail/Whistle about s their spontaneous cries” he must from then on live differently…

Wallace Stevens was not willing to change his way of life…He kept the house fanatically neat, evidently slept in a separate bedroom for thirty or forty years, made his living through the statistical mentality, and kept his business and poetry life separate—all of which amounted to keeping his dominant personality and his shadow personality separate in his daily life.

This willingness to allow life to follow where the art making goes speaks to the two quotes in the post just below as well. There is something undeniably irrevocable about descent, about the willingness to step into the forbidden territory that is the shadow. Bly makes reference to the 17th century theologian and philosopher Jakob Böhme who started one of his books by advising the reader to not go further unless he or she is willing to make real changes in his/her every day life. Otherwise, says Böhme, this book will be bad for you. In fact, dangerous.

Bly as the crotchety old guy he can be, claims that a whole generation of artists have come into being and have never faced this very personal and very particular dilemma. Is it the absence of some serious skin in the game? I see a lot of visual art that has made no demands on the artist’s interior life whatsoever. For this approach to visual expression (and one that is becoming the de rigeur approach of contemporary art pedagogy), the approved loci for work is the detached and depersonalized arena of politics and/or social commentary. My poet friends may have a similar map of how contemporary poetry migrated from where Yeats and others were heading.

No answers here. But the provocations are hefty.

4 Replies to “Shadow Dancing”

  1. dmarshall58 says:

    Is Bly denigrating Stevens for not fulfilling Bly’s sense of what he should be? Skepticism rises in me when people start talking about artist’s responsibility to darkness. Order seems the strongest element of Stevens’ self, and to criticize him for being ordered seems to ask him–well after the fact–to be someone other than himself.

    Stevens sought to express his distinctive vision. If his late work is weak–for the record, I’m not sure it’s anything more than his having already covered so much ground–we ought to come up with a better reason than his failure to reach standards other than his own.

  2. D, Hello hello. I have thought about you so many times and hope you are doing well.

    I don’t necessarily agree with Bly’s assessment of Stevens, but I do feel that Bly is touching onto something–perhaps at the unfair expense of my beloved Wallace–that seems very important to me in my life right now. Stevens is an enigma, no question. All those stories about graduate students trying so hard to get him to talk about his work and his stubborn refusal to do so leaves you wondering if that was just a function of his privacy and disinterest in dissecting his work or if it was, as Bly suggests, his lack of integration of his overlord/ego personality with the poet/underlord side.

    Bly comments about how rule-breaking this approach to Stevens’s work is by all New Criticism criteria of acceptable commentary. I just keep coming back to the fact that these issues are so poignant for me right now that I am deeply grateful for the discussion. Its accuracy is less an issue than its provocation. I mean, what the hell is really going on here? That’s the question I ask myself in the studio more and more. I think I thought I would be wiser about the process than I am. After all, I’ve been about this for a long, long time. But I am no wiser. And if anything, I feel naked and exposed, without the protection of strong opinions. Raw, open, curious, perplexed, in the don’t know mind. At this age. All I can say is, wow.

  3. A fascinating post, as are the comments. I will be adding Bly’s book to my ever-rising stack. A poet, I am intrigued. Without words, I don’t think I could work through and out of my shadows and into the light. It’s the words I pull out of the shadows that seem to carry the most weight.

    Interestingly, I am reading now two books by Gerald May, The Wisdom of Wilderness and The Dark Night of the Soul. The latter in particular offers a different kind of perspective on what it means to experience a “dark night of the soul.”

  4. M, Thanks for the recommendations re the books by Gerald May. I’ve seen those titles but never read them myself. I’ll check both of those titles out.

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