University buys poet’s collection of manuscripts

The University purchased more than 80,000 pieces for $775,000.

by Elena Rozwadowski

For years, aspiring authors have sent their work to 79-year-old Minnesota poet Robert Bly for feedback.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Bly said. “A lot of poets, especially in the Midwest, living in some small town feel very isolated and I know what that felt like.”

Now, his work can be a teaching tool for thousands of University students and literary scholars.

Bly’s collection of manuscripts and letters, many of them created in and about Minnesota, were recently purchased by the University.

“The Library of Congress wanted them, but that’s a long way away,” Bly said. “Who cares about that?”

The collection, which includes more than 80,000 pieces of handwritten manuscripts and letters, was purchased for $775,000. All but $300,000 of that came from more than 70 private donors in the literary community, said University librarian Wendy Lougee.

The rest of the funds came from endowments and other institutional resources given to the library by President Bob Bruininks, she said.

Bly said the money from the purchase will go to an artistic trust that will provide scholarships for young poets and artists.

The University approached Bly about purchasing his papers in 1993, but he was not interested.

When Bly made it known he had changed his mind a few years ago, the University expressed their interest, Lougee said.

The collection will be housed at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, along with the existing collections of John Berryman and James Wright, Bly’s literary peers. The material will be available to the public almost immediately, Lougee said, but it will take a few months to fully catalogue the collection.

“We’ve spent a lot of time building a literary heritage of the upper Midwest,” Lougee said. “Bly was a great capstone to what we’ve put together already.”

A literary legacy

Bly was born in 1926 in Madison, Minn., where he was raised on the family farm that would later be the inspiration for his first collection of poems.

Poetry Reading
WHAT: Public reading by Robert Bly to honor his collection
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today
WHERE: Willey Hall
COST: $10
For more information and tickets, (612) 624-9339

In 1944, Bly enlisted in the Navy. After two years, Bly went to St. Olaf College in Northfield and then to Harvard, where he took creative writing classes.

Bly decided to move to New York after he graduated, where he said he did odd jobs to pay the bills. Soon after, he moved back to one of two family farms in his hometown.

“My father knew I wasn’t going to be a farmer, but it was good he saved a place for me to live,” Bly said.

There, Bly wrote his first collection of poems, “Silence in the Snowy Fields,” in which he said he tried to capture the feeling of being in Minnesota in the fall.

Apart from his Minnesota-inspired work, Bly also wrote political pieces, reacting to the Vietnam War in the 1970s and to the war in Iraq today.

“The (Vietnam) war was so horrendous. Anybody who didn’t respond to it was sort of half-dead,” he said. “The Iraq war was getting to that point, too.”

In 1956, Bly received a Fulbright grant to travel to Norway to translate Norweigan poems into English. Bly has also done translations in Swedish, German and Spanish.

His translations, original work and some of his correspondence with James Wright are included in the collection.

“It’s an amazingly large thing,” Bly said. “I’ll never get through it myself.”

A new research tool

Patricia Hampl, local author and English regents’ professor, said Bly and his contemporaries have had a large influence on several literary generations.

“James Wright and Robert Bly represent a whole direction in American poetry,” Hampl said. “To have their papers in one place, in our library, makes us a fountainhead for this generation of poetry.”

Hampl said these types of collections are important to students because they can see writing at its earliest stages. That, she said, is what the University is all about.

English professor Michael Dennis Browne, who also has a collection at the library, said manuscripts give students an idea of the amount of work that goes into a single piece of writing.

“You see all the rehearsals, not just the final performance,” Browne said.

Browne came to Minnesota in 1971 because of Bly’s poems about the Minnesota landscape.

“I had to see it for myself,” he said.

Browne said Bly is widely known as a Minnesota-based poet and that the University is a good home for the collection.

“The papers are where they should be,” he said.

Bly said he is glad to have his work so close to home.

“There’s a real community of writers and that community has been very alive in Minnesota,” he said. “I am one of those who has tried to learn from that community and that means we help each other.”