By Jennifer Shaw-Spence
Project Archivist, Upper Midwest Literary Archives
From the archivist for the ‘Prairie Poets and Press’ project
Bly and Hall met in college and wrote constantly to each other through the years. Their letters are sarcastic and funny and include charming nicknames for each other. When compared to the other letters of Bly’s other regular correspondents and many of the letters from fans, the letters from Don Hall are sometimes irreverent or biting.
One gets the impression that Hall is the only person who would dream of speaking or writing to Bly in the tone he does. In 1985 Hall says of one of Bly’s poems “When your imagination fails you you would use abstract stuff like ‘mysterious and elemental rhythms returning,” which of course anybody could say about anything. One could say it about the telephone book, and how could anybody prove it wrong?”
The two men call each other by nicknames and poke fun at each other. Hall also offers the most severe criticism of Bly’s work. Bly offers his own opinions on Hall’s poetry “So let’s talk more about “blood and ashes.” You say it is melodramatic. Now…what can I do? I’ve got to get something there that is an image of death and suffering. Or don’t I?” (Donald Hall to Robert Bly January, 1983)
He scolds Bly for not writing more often — even though they wrote to each other almost weekly. These letters are also tender and personal. Donald Hall wrote to Bly about his wife’s (Jane Kenyon, poet and translator) battle with cancer. On May 10, 1994, Hall writes:
You don’t understand, or you don’t permit yourself to understand. My life is over. Our lives are over. Everything is utterly changed. I live for nothing except to protect, comfort, and cherish Jane. Every morning I write a little bit–you don’t get rid of a habit of fifty years!–but I don’t care whether I am a poet or not, much less whether I am any good or not. All that stuff is a waste of time.
At that time Hall seemed to rely on their correspondence for a distraction and source of comfort. Frequent remarks on Bly’s delayed responses peppered Hall’s letters for the decades that followed.
Through it all they were constantly writing to each other about writing, even after Hall stopped writing poetry he would continue to send stinging remarks about Bly’s most recent poem and send his own prose for Bly’s comments along with the latest gossip from the publishing world or Hall’s most recent dating adventures, always typed on a typewriter or handwritten.
Funding for Prairie Poets and Press
Prairie Poets and Press has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. The Minnesota Historical and Cultural Grants Program has been made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund raises millions of dollars each year to support the artists and cultural heritage institutions (such as historical societies, libraries, and museums) that keep our state great, our citizens thoughtful, and our community thriving.
—Jennifer Shaw-Spence is a project archivist for the Upper Midwest Literary Archives. To learn more about the Upper Midwest Literary Archives, please visit www.lib.umn.edu/mss.
The materials featured in this article are from the Robert Bly papers in the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota.