Robert Bly vs. the First Ten Issues of kayak
By Sandy McIntosh
One June afternoon in 1967, I walked through the second floor sliding glass doorway of H.R. Hays' home in the East Hampton woods carrying a stack of a kayak poetry magazines. Hoffman and Julie had encouraged me to drop over any time I was in the neighborhood, but now I saw that I was interrupting something. Sitting with them at the dining table was a big man glowering at me.
"You see what he's been reading, George?" Hays said to the man, indicating the stack of magazines under my arm. "Sandy, I'd like you to meet George Hitchcock. He's the editor of kayak."
Of course, I recognized his name. He'd already rejected three of my poetry submissions, each rejection letter featuring an appropriately gruesome Victorian image or collage. On the one hand, these were hilarious; on the other, they were a direct challenge. I'd taped them to my bathroom wall, along with other less spectacular rejections I'd begun to receive. Meeting Hitchcock at that moment cowed me. I mumbled my greetings, placed the stack of kayaks on the coffee table, and withdrew. I was nineteen, and George Hitchcock was, in my secret thoughts, a literary star--in the Hollywood sense of the word--the first I'd met outside of the Hamptons' archipelago.
kayak was an exciting magazine, both form and content. It seemed to have been printed on whatever paper was lying around. In fact, the Contents page of kayak 19 declares: NOTICE: The major portion of this issue of kayak has been printed on rifle and small-arms target paper rejected as substandard by the U.S. Defense Department
The magazine, like it's rejection letters, featured illustrations from Victorian books and magazines, some of which Hitchcock had collaged. The magazine covers, as well as the covers of poetry collections he printed, were illustrated with these, too. Sometimes the result was quite lovely; at other times, not so. But it was the content that was exciting.
I'd been reading poems in the Hudson, Sewanee, Kenyon and other establishment poetry reviews available at the college library. I was also familiar with the burgeoning genre of little magazines, such as Cloud Marauder and lillibulero, that Hays and Ignatow were sent. But the most exciting discoveries I'd made, such as the poems of James Tate and Charles Simic, had been published in kayak. I was determined that kayak would publish me, too.
kayak published deep imagist and neo-Surrealist poems and, for all I could see, rejected the kind of stodgy stuff published in the Hudson Review. In fact, it's writers went further, and attacked the establishment magazines. In this way, a national community of "kayak" poets had been created.
By the twelfth issue, Hitchcock apparently decided to shake things up a bit. He asked Robert Bly to write an article, "The First Ten Issues of kayak." Bly begins: "George Hitchcock asked me for some prose for kayak, and I asked if I might do an attack on his first ten issues. He thought that was a good idea."
Preparing the ground (i.e. setting up his defenses) for what is to come, he suggests that "some people feel that criticism is always destructive, like an overexposure to X-rays." He says that this impression comes from the 'fifties, when Robert Lowell, Karl Shapiro and their generation were the dominant critics, but not good ones. "They were always looking up into the sky: who was there? Yeats.... His solitary rocket-like career was the only model." Consequently, writers were out for themselves. In reaction to this, Bly asserts, the Black Mountain poets formed a kind of mutual protective society with their criticism, making loyalty to the "Olson creed" a virtue.
These two approaches to criticism, capitalistic dog-eat-dog competitiveness and corporative 'don't knock the company' team-spirit, both seemed good ideas at the time, but both approaches now seem big failures. There is a third possibility: those who are interested in the same sort of poetry attack each other sharply, and still have respect and affection for each other.... The criticism of my own poetry that has been the most use to me has been criticism that, when I first heard it, utterly dismayed me.
Bly, having assured us of his respect and affection, now casts himself in the role of the kindly physician, who asks us to drop our pants and bend over as he flourishes the silver syringe. "This will only hurt for a moment. It's good for you," he seems to say.
I think the first ten issues have been on the whole clogged and bad. As an editor, George Hitchcock is too permissive.... Too much foggy stuff gets in: in kayak poems usually someone is stepping into a tunnel of dark wind and disappearing into a whistle: the darkness is always pausing to wait for someone.
He diagrams the typical kayak image:
... they are made of a) an animal or object, b) a violent action, c) an adjective (often tiny, dark or great), and then d) the geographical location. "Lighted cigars fall like meteors on a deserted football field in Pierre, South Dakota."
He goes after the faults of certain poets specifically: an example of "crystallized flower formations from the jolly intellectual dandies" (Richard Wilbur), and "the high-pitched bat-like cry of the anal Puritan mandarin" (Gilbert Sorrentino).
kayak poets write about "trees, leaves, animals, plants, nature poems." The big problem with the typical kayak poem is that it seems always to have been written at the poet's desk, and not out in the field. He quotes Bashō: "To express the flavor of the inner mind, you must agonize during many days." "The Japanese say, 'Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine." If American poets wants to write about, for instance, "a chill and foggy field," they have to stay out there, and get cold and wet themselves. He concludes with an instruction both outrageous and unforgettable (at least for me): "Two hours of solitude seem about right for every line of poetry."
In the "Letters" section of the next issue, George Hitchcock writes: "Robert Bly's review ... has provoked an unprecedented amount of comment." He then prints excerpts from nine letters addressing the review. Some, written by those directly or inferentially attacked by Bly, launched counter-attacks. Morton Marcus begins his:
Captain Bly has been on a rampage once again, flogging the innocent, seeking the elusive Christian he loves but is bent on destroying, and shouting orders which few of us can understand. As often happens with the good skipper, his trusty astrolabe enables him to find the right direction, but somehow he misses port by several thousand miles.
Richard Wilbur, one of the two poets actually named and castigated by Bly responds personally:
Having extolled a campy magazine
As a "fist" raised against my kind of writing,
What will you tell me know, friend? That you mean
No harm, of course, and would not dream of fighting.
And have but put, in furtherance of your Mission,
A little punch into your disquisition.
Granted that it's a figurative fist;
That critics punch as harmlessly as kittens,
That you have merely slapped me on the wrist
With one of kayak's puce Alaskan mittens;
Nevertheless, when you incite to riot
Against your friend, he is not pleasured by it.
Several other letters, including a long one from John Haines (whom Bly specifically exempts from his criticism) make the suggestion that, though Bly seems to be pointing his finger squarely at the faults of others, in fact, his complaints are as true about his own poetry as about anyone's.
The appearance of Bly's critique caused an excitement among the Hampton's poets, especially Hays and Ignatow, who had published in the magazine. Hays faulted Bly for his accusation that Hitchcock published his magazine quarterly and that that "hectic" schedule caused him to publish a lot of stuff that might not get into a magazine appearing less frequently. "If you only get around to publishing an issue every other year," Hays writes, comparing Hitchcock's output to Bly's own magazine publishing, "you never rid yourself of the taint of dilettantism, something Bly has never shed." Hays then adds something that I think is revealing of his moral [ethical?] point of view, typical of his time in which printing and distributing a poetry magazine were not such easy things: "Something has to be kept going."
After four decades, I recall the furor Bly's critique stirred up at the time of publication, but after re-reading it, as well as the poems, he criticizes, I find the furor difficult to understand. I was disappointed that the review was not as ruthless and bloody as I'd recalled it. And, to my surprise, some of the kayak poems Bly holds up to scorn are indeed terrible. Here, Louis Hammer cobbles together some kayak images:
Pirates have nailed the hands of neurosurgeons
To the masts of ships crushed by Charlemagne's armies;
Aaron Burr paddles down the Hudson
In a jeweled kayak bearing Hamilton's liver.
The Republic waves silk flags at the finish line.
Granted, he's using these lines ironically, as his concluding stanza makes clear:
Mao Tse Tung washes the scales from [Lorca's horse's] back.
He intones: "Two hours of fraternizing
For every line of a revolutionary poem."
I found that many of the poems that had baffled and intrigued me when I was in my teens now leave me scratching my head, asking, "What the hell?" (Of course, this is not fair of me and I should abide by Eliot's cautionary on looking at the past and at the meaning of Butterfield's title, The Whig Interpretation of History, in which the temptation to look over one's shoulder at the past is really looking at history through the wrong end of the telescope.) But in any case, two conclusions remain: First, that Bly was correct when he wrote,
At the same time kayak is valuable, and a much-loved magazine. Unlike the Kenyon Review, which everyone for years has been hoping would kick off soon, kayak would be missed very much if it developed a leak and sank...
It is this love for the magazine and the community it encouraged that brought its poets out to mount a defense. They were not really defending the poetry, but rather the community itself. I know that kayak's neo-surrealism was just what I needed to get started with my own poetry. Had I been born twenty years before, I would not have been happy with the poetic and critical world I would have found. I think others were glad of it, too.
Second, I think Bly was at least one step ahead of us kayak readers. I think he knew, master debater that he is, exactly what he was doing. As well as--or probably much more than--wanting to help out critically he wanted to stir things up, to make a loud noise with the purpose of keeping his name in lights.
He'd gamed us.