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January 31, 2011

Blessed by Bly and Bly

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 3:13 pm

Carol and Robert Bly

Minnesota was doubly blessed having two smart, simple, honest writers like Robert and Carol Bly who could poetically describe Mother Nature and prosaically [although not in the sense of “ordinary”] describe human nature better than all but a handful of writers. Let’s add two of their books to our growing list of 150 Best Minnesota Books.

Carol Bly. Letters From the Country. NY: Harper and Row, 1981.

Robert Bly. Silence in the Snowy Fields. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1962.

Robert Bly is not a difficult choice for this list. He is a giant in American letters; destined for great things, if not by his birth in Lac qui Parle County, then by his famous graduating class of writers at Harvard in 1950. For a long while in the middle of the last century Carol and Robert turned their Madison, Minnesota farmstead into an epicenter for American writers. Many famous poets spent nights freezing in the converted chicken coop guesthouse. I chose his first book of poems not for the uncountable mentions of snow or poems titled “Poem Against the Rich” and “Poem Against the British” but because of the beautiful simplicity of their descriptions of Minnesota. Bill Holm [another of our “Best” Minnesota authors] called this book “one of the great formative books of American literature” and goes on to say: “It brings into consciousness parts of our lives and places we had never seen clearly before. My own western Minnesota that I simultaneously hated and loved proved more full of metaphor and mystery than I (or anyone else) imagined.” Bly himself must have recognized the significance of these poems to the state as he presented the former head of the Minnesota Historical Society, Russell Fridley, with a copy for the MHS library.

Driving To Town Late To Mail A Letter

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, it feels cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

No less a force in Minnesota culture was Robert’s first wife, Carol.

Born in Duluth, Carol McLean married Robert Bly in 1955. She was an equal partner in the anti-war movement that brought Robert to national attention and she never wavered in her fight for social justice. To quote Bill Holm again: “She never backed down from tackling large issues and large ideas in culture.” Perhaps I should have chosen her collection of fiction, Backbone, for two reasons: backbone is a word that defined her, and her characters covered the entire spectrum of Minnesotans – the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, it was Letters that first brought Carol to my attention and I have used her ever since to describe the peoples and places of Minnesota to my coast locked friends. Another reason Carol belongs on this list is that she had an unusual influence on Minnesota writers, especially on women writers, by teaching, mentoring, and befriending so many.

From “Great Snows” in Letters From The Country

It is sometimes mistakenly thought by city people that grownups don’t love snow…The fact is that most country or small-town Minnesotans love snow…

Before a storm, Madison is full of people excitedly laying in food stocks for the three-day blow. People lay in rather celebratory food, too. Organic-food parents get chocolate for the children; weight watchers lay in macaroni and Sara Lee cakes; recently converted vegetarians backslide to T-bones.

So on our list so far we have had a father and son combination [the Lindbergh’s] and now the Bly’s who, I believe, will be our only authors that were husband and wife. Don’t go looking, however, for other relatives to round out our list of the 150 Best Minnesota books. As always I’m looking forward to your comments.

Snowy FieldsLetters from the Country

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5 Responses to “Blessed by Bly and Bly”

  1. Deirdre Maeve Says:

    Nice picks, love the quote from Robert especially since we missed the big snow that the rest of the country is now adorned with!!

  2. Ulster Says:

    Great choices Mr. Coleman! Do you know anything about the fabulous photo of the young Blys? and I noticed you said nothing about “Iron John” for which Robert may be better known than either his poetry or his anti-war activities.

  3. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Thanks for your vote of confidence Ulster man. What I will say about Iron John is that a glorious version of it is Wanda Gag’s translation in either her “Tales from Grimm” or her “More Tales from Grimm”. By the way is Wanda on our list yet? As far as the photo goes I am looking for any information that anyone might have. Who took it? When? Where? Am I violating copyright? Little help please.

  4. ulster Says:

    I’ll check out wandaks iron john and ask around about the photo.

  5. Haydn Reiss Says:

    Greetings, Just came across this because of photo and happy to see…I, too, would love to track down the photo’s source for use in my upcoming film on Robert Bly. Any suggestions welcomed. Best, Haydn Reiss



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