Before we move into Valentine’s Day poems, one final post on the dead poets of 2021. Robert Bly, perhaps the most famous of the seven poets featured in this series, died this past November.
He Wanted to Live His Life Over
by Robert Bly
What? You want to live your life over again?
“Well, I suppose, yes . . . that time in Grand Rapids. . .
My life—as I lived it—was a series of shynesses.”
Being bolder? What would that do?
I’d open my door again. I’ve felt abashed,
You see. Now I’d go out and say, ‘All right
I’ll go with you to Alaska.’ Just opening the door
From inside would have altered me—a little
I’m too shy . . . “ And so a bolder life,
Is that what you want? “We could begin now,
Just walk with me—down to the river.
I’ll pretend this boat is my life . . . I’ll climb in.”
If there were an Ancestry.com for poems, tracing poetic themes as if they were genes, Robert Bly’s “He Wanted to Live His Life Over” would find relatives the world over, centuries and centuries back. Regret for a life unlived is part and parcel of the human experience, and so for art as well. But when I read this poem, two others came to mind so quickly that they might as well be extended family: T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the embittered grandpa; and Ray Carver’s “Late Fragment,” the fortunate nephew.
Like the man answering the questions in Bly’s poem, Prufrock has big regrets for living timidly. A man who wonders if he dares eat a peach is not one to haul off to Alaska. But Bly’s man, perhaps delusionally, holds out hope for change in a way Eliot’s does not.
Carver’s “Late Fragment” shares the question-and-answer format of Bly’s. In both poems people at the end of life are asked if they lived the life they wanted. The nameless speaker in “Late Fragment” answers yes, he has. But he wanted something very different than Bly’s speaker, and perhaps that’s why he’s so zen:
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The man in “He Wanted to Live His Life Over” is not so fortunate, as the title indicates. He wanted a bigger life, but there was no seizing of the day, no going boldly where no man has gone before, no following of dreams. He had a chance to go to Alaska; he chose to stay in Grand Rapids. The place names are well-chosen. Alaska calls up visions of wilderness and he-men; Grand Rapids of a pleasant midwestern town with an ironic name insofar as this poem, with a river trip at the center, is concerned.
It’s such an evocative poem. Who is the questioner? A therapist? A voice in the speaker’s head at the end of life? Or Charon, the Greek figure who ferries the dead across the river Styx?
Either way, it’s too late. No one gets to live their life over again. The past tense of the title is a warning for all the Prufrocks afraid to disturb the universe.
Robert Bly was born in 1926 in Minnesota. After high school he served two years in the Navy, then went to college for one year at St. Olaf’s College before transferring to Harvard. There his classmates formed an all-star list of poets and writers: Frank O’Hara, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, and George Plimpton among them. Bly got his masters from Iowa Writers Workshop. He founded a poetry magazine The Fifties that continued for decades until its final iteration as The Eighties.
He went to Norway on a Fulbright scholarship where he was introduced translated Norwegian poets. He went on to translate many international poets, including Pablo Neruda, Lorca, and Vallejo.
He was an activist against the Vietnam War. When he won the National Book Award in 1968 he gave his prize money to draft resistance groups. He also co-founded Writers Against the Vietnam War.
He is known as the founder of the “expressive men’s movement.” He conducted weekend retreats for men to rediscover their masculinity, where men beat drums in the woods and danced around campfires. Most famously he wrote the international bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men.
Bly had four children with his first wife. They lived on a farm in Minnesota. After they divorced he married his second wife Ruth.
He had a big, important life and I’m doing a lousy job on his bio because I’m trying to whip this out before the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day. For a better look at his legacy, link here.
He was 94 when he died. He had suffered from Alzheimers for year.