In the very early seventies, when the world was younger, I was living in the center of the United States and of one strain at least of American poetry in Iowa City. Robert Bly came to town to read, not at the world-renowned writers’ workshop but off-campus for Lamp in the Spine, a little magazine produced if I remember rightly, by Lew Hyde, who has since gone on to a Harvard professorship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and books at once best-selling and intelligent.
Bly did not at the time care to read for the university; despite his Harvard degree his anti-academic bias had been pronounced from the start. In the second issue of his journal The Fifties, he quotes Jules Laforgue: “The only remedy is to break everything.” I admired his rebellious stance and his clean, hard-edged images and found his Midwestern identity a salutary contrast to America’s usual bicoastal interests. I appreciated his partisanship against the war in Vietnam and managed to attend his first anti-war reading in Minneapolis. In spite of the regional loyalty that brought him back from New York to live in rural Minnesota, he published important translations of poets whose work had been unknown in the United States, much of the work animated by a sort of well-digested Surrealism.
Bly having not cared to come to the university, the university came to him. In the audience at Bly’s reading that night the Workshop professors were seated in a group. Bly had only just begun his presentation when he suddenly addressed them.
“Such greed and waste! It’s ridiculous! How much money do they pay you, Donald.” He pointed to Donald Justice, poetry chair of the Workshop. “Twenty-four thousand maybe? What sense does that make? They could get four poets who could live well on six thousand each. How about you, Marvin? [speaking to Marvin Bell] What do you need that big money for?”
The professors said nothing, then muttered a bit among themselves, rose and exited as a body. Bly had purged the hall. I wondered in later years, as his poetry became steadily worse and his popularity grew, as he emerged as a mythological code-breaker and a busy advocate of something called the Men’s Movement, as Iron John lingered for months on the bestseller list and the royalties rolled in, as his literary work was in my view compromised by his fans, whether Bly ever found it necessary to recalibrate his relation to money.