Agreeing Where the Water Goes: The Enduring Friendship of William Stafford and Robert Bly
With the passing of Robert Bly last November, it seems right to be sharing some words on his unique relationship with William Stafford. On the surface, they seem a most unlikely duo, both in stature and persona, but when one dives beneath, we are offered a special glimpse at the swirling undercurrents that drew them so closely together.
In late 1993, shortly after Stafford’s death, Bly hosted a circle at the Minnesota Men’s Conference — which he had founded nearly a decade earlier — to honour his old friend. Bly was lying amongst the crow feathers of grief that evening, letting out a throaty sigh (there were many to follow) before beginning a reading of one his dear friend’s most revered poems.
“If you don’t know the kind of person I am … and I don’t know the kind of person you are … then … a pattern that others made may prevail in the world,” he began earnestly, savouring the taste of each word in his jaw.
They are both gone now. Bly, the great, bellowing, elephant-headed remover of obstacles and Stafford, his soft-spoken companion — whose quiet devotion to their shared craft made the big man light enough to carry.
I came to Stafford later in my life. After a blood cancer diagnosis and the loss of my younger sister to suicide, I found myself sitting with a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, the same man who had tutored both my aunt and mother years before. He often taught the sutras using his favourite poems as metaphor, offering a photocopied, handwritten scrawl of each to which he referred. I cherished these pages and still have many today, but it was the work of one particular poet that penetrated deepest — and it was that of William Stafford, most notably ‘Nobody Cares…’ and ‘The Way It is’.
Soon after, fate found me studying the mythopoetic men’s movement and the work of Robert Bly. It enriched my life to the point where, in 2017, I founded a community of men to continue the tradition — which had by now moved somewhat underground — aiming through poetry and creative expression to provide an ongoing discussion of modern manhood, helping us turn inward and connect back to the ecological roots of the soul.
Travelling that road, it wasn’t long until I once again met Stafford — this time simply feeling my way along the same thread that led me to Bly. I quickly realised both men were pointing at the same thing, but with vastly different voices. When I eventually became accustomed to the rhythm they created together, and understood how to allow for both, what I heard was a song that carried me forward with both grief and joy into the dance of life.
Both were born in the Midwest of the United States. Stafford in Kansas, but spending much of his life in Oregon, while Bly hailed from the farmlands of western Minnesota. Both were animists, innately entwined in the soul of the land, which is so evident in their work, yet Stafford appeared to go about it with an introspection similar to the Native American shaman — which he learned from his father and may have even been in his blood — while Bly embraced the gusto of his Norwegian Viking heritage.
Bly knew himself well, and often used self-deprecating humour when discussing his hand-waving gesticulations and ravings. Meanwhile, Stafford remained contained, referring to himself as the ‘quiet of the land’. In the aforementioned circle, Bly summed up this sentiment when he said with a wide smile that, “Bill likes to speak in a low voice to those who are awake. I like to shout at people who are asleep.”
Both offered their unique way into the heart of the very same world, modern mystics, learning so much from the other about his journey. Two tributaries flowing, as we all do, into the one great ocean, with such reverence for the path each trod — and an understanding that any word of it would help them navigate their own.
Bly ended the circle with his own poem, titled ‘When William Stafford Died’:
Well, water goes down the Montana gullies.
“I’ll just go around this rock and think
About it later.” That’s what you said.
When death came, you said, “I’ll go there.”
There’s no sign you’ll come back. Sometimes
My father sat up in the coffin and was alive again.
But I think you were born before my father,
And the feet they made in your time were lighter.
One dusk you were gone. Sometimes a fallen tree
Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong.
I won’t say my father did that, but I won’t
Say he didn’t either. I was watching you both.
If all a man does is to watch from the shore,
Then he doesn’t have to worry about the current.
But if affection has put us into the stream,
Then we have to agree to where the water goes.
“I haven’t quite finished it,” Bly added wearily, repeating the final lines which still remain today exactly as they were then. “If we have put affection in the water, that kind of water moving, then we don’t have any choice…”. He tailed off.
This poem appears in Bly’s collection ‘Meditations on the Insatiable Soul’ (1994) — where he explores the relationship with his father, which he openly admitted he couldn’t come close to approaching in words until later in life when the man was gravely ill. The first section of the book contains poems which honour his friends and mentors, perhaps alluding to their father-like qualities, and this is where we find the ode to Stafford.
Bly often discussed the impact of having an alcoholic father who he said ‘never phrased what he desired’ while it’s been observed that Stafford gained his affinity with nature and his ‘quiet wildness’ — the overarching theme of his work — from his father.
The esteem Bly holds for Stafford’s manner of fatherhood is never far from reach — he recited real life stories from his friend’s life as teaching examples. It is perhaps best shown in his admiration for Stafford’s piece, ‘This Life’, which Bly called “maybe the most beautiful poem that’s ever been written by a father for a daughter in this country.”
With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach
We would climb the highest dune,
from there to gaze and come down:
the ocean was performing;
we contributed our climb.
Waves leapfrogged and came
straight out of the storm.
What should our gaze mean?
Kit waited for me to decide.
Standing on such a hill,
what would you tell your child?
That was an absolute vista.
Those waves raced far, and cold.
‘How far could you swim, Daddy,
in such a storm?’
‘As far as was needed,’ I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
Bly’s major response to this work came by way of a poem of his own, ‘On the Oregon Coast’:
For William Stafford
The waves come — the large fourth wave
Looming up, thinking, crashing down — all
Roll in so prominently that I become small
And write this in a cramped script, hard to read.
Well, all this fury, prominent or not
Is also hard to read, and the ducks don’t help,
Settling down in furry water, shaking
Themselves, and then forgetting it within a minute.
Remembering the fury, it is up to us, even
Though we feel small compared to the loose
Ocean, to keep sailing and not land,
And figure out what to say to our children.
“That comes out of you, Bill,” Bly said during one of many poetry readings they did together, as seen in Haydn Reiss’ 1994 documentary ‘William Stafford and Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship’. “We both speak to large groups of people. Shouldn’t we know what to say to our children, too?”
It begs a question of the nature of the relationship between these two men. Should we try to label it? Or does that devalue it in some way and take away from its mystical qualities? Stafford was almost 13 years older in years — but we cannot say he played the role of elder and mentor exclusively. In terms of guiding Bly in his own fatherhood, yes, Bly acknowledged that much himself, but not so much as a father figure.
I’m left with the overriding feeling that the most beautiful friendship between men is that of profound brotherhood, each learning from the other with reciprocity, generosity and care — without so much the handing down of advice — but through deep listening, observing a life as it is simply lived, and taking copious notes.
Bly suggested that Stafford’s work will only be read more this century due to the fact that it addresses what he considered a major problem of humanity — how to restrain our aggression. One can’t help but wonder if Stafford helped Bly bridle his own wild horses to a certain degree, while conversely, Bly brought in some healthy pursuit of purpose for Stafford, who always claimed that he wrote for no-one but himself. To him, it was simply the process — ‘following the thread’ and teasing out what was inside him. Bly, in turn, was unapologetic in the way he fired words directly at his audience of choice. He wanted strong movement. Both, however, saw the necessity of ritual, and of complete and utter surrender to the innate gift — the genius within.
I’m reminded of the last stanza of Bly’s poem, ‘Ravens Hiding in a Shoe’:
Robert, you’ve wasted so much of your life
Sitting indoors to write poems. Would you
Do that again? I would, a thousand times.
One imagines Stafford nodding in agreement at this sentiment.
It’s interesting to note that Stafford is often referred to as a pacifist and Bly an activist. This seems so incredibly apt. Stafford chose the road of conscientious objector in World War II, resulting in his own quiet revolution through the CO camps, while Bly was most vocal in his opposition to Vietnam, co-founding ‘American Writers against the Vietnam War’ and even very publicly contributing his National Book Award prize money (for ‘The Light Around the Body’ in 1968) to the antiwar effort.
However, it’s clear there is an element of activist in every pacifist — Stafford referred to his ‘pacifist disquiets’ — and the ultimate goal of the activist is peace. They bleed together. The yin-yang qualities of the relationship between these two men was set in stone from the very beginning, one infinitely contained in the other.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognise the fact.
As Reiss’ documentary draws to a close, we find the men gently discussing their take on Stafford’s idea of just where it is the elephants of ‘A Ritual to Read To Each Other’ should arrive — is it at the park, as Stafford penned it, or at the edge of Bly’s forest? Stafford reaches out a wizened hand to his great friend.
“So, our differences. Take my hand, Robert Bly. Don’t let me go.”
“Don’t you let me get lost,” the elephant retorts.
Drawing something more from Bly’s ode, it’s clear to me that the two men fully agreed on where the water goes, perhaps just not on exactly how it gets there. In the end, it appears this understanding of difference was the very source of the well they drank from, and the essence of their enduring friendship.
For me, bearing witness to the relationship between William Stafford and Robert Bly has brought me closer to becoming myself, to approaching the wild in my own way, and to understanding what it means to be human.
This essay first appeared in ‘Friends of William Stafford: A Journal & Newsletter For Poets & Poetry’, Volume 24, Issue 2 Winter 2021 — Spring 2022, and is reproduced with their permission. www.williamstafford.org