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Robert Bly's "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter"

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Robert Bly - Poetry Out Loud Minnesota Finals at the Fitzgerald Theater, 2009

Robert Bly - Poetry Out Loud Minnesota Finals at the Fitzgerald Theater, 2009

Introduction and Text of "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter"

Technically, this aggregate of lines that constitute Robert Bly's "Driving to Town to Mail a Letter" could be considered a versanelle*; it does make a critical comment on human nature, although quite by accident and not at all what the poet likely attempted to accomplish. Human beings do love to waste time; although they seldom like to brag about it or lie about it, as seems to be case with the speaker in this piece.

*Versanelle: a short, usually 20 lines or fewer, lyric that comments on human nature or behavior, and may employ any of the usual poetic devices (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

Reading of "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter"


This 5-line piece by doggerelist Robert Bly is a fascinating conglomeration of images that results in a facile display of redundancy and an unfortunately missed opportunity.

First Line: "It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted"

The first line consists of two sentences; the first sentence asserts, "It is a cold and snowy night." That sentence echoes the line, "It was a dark and stormy night, by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose name is synonymous with atrocious writing. So much so that there is a contest named for him, "The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" with the subtitle where WWW means "Wretched Writers Welcome."

The second sentence proclaims, "The main street is deserted." The title of the poem alerts the reader that the speaker is out late at night, and this line supports that claim that he is out and about so late that he is virtually the only one out. This assertion also tells that reader that the town must be a very small town because large towns will almost always have some activity, no matter how late, no matter how cold.

Second Line: "The only things moving are swirls of snow"

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The second line reiterates the deserted image of the first line's second sentence: "The only things moving are swirls of snow." Of course, if the street were deserted, there would be no activity, or virtually no activity, so the speaker's redundancy is rather flagrant.

The reader already knows there is snow from the first image of a cold and snowy night; therefore, the second line is a throwaway line. The speaker is giving himself only five lines to convey his message, and he blows one on a line that merely repeats what he has already conveyed, instead of offering some fresh insight into his little jaunt into town.

Third Line: "As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron"

The third line is incredible in it facileness: "As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron." Such a line might be expected in a beginning poet's workshop efforts. The speaker had to have a line that shows he is mailing a letter, and he, no doubt, thinks this does it while adding the drama of "lift[ing] the mailbox door" and adding that he feels the coldness in the letter-box's iron. It's a lame drama at best; from the information offered already both the cold iron and lifting the mailbox lid are already anticipated by the reader, meaning this line adds nothing to the scene.

Fourth Line: "There is a privacy I love in this snowy night "

This line offers the real kernel of poetry for this conglomeration of lines. If the speaker had begun with this line, perhaps revising it to "I love the privacy of a snowy night," and let the reader go with him to mail his letter, the experience could have been an inspiring one.

The cold, snowy night of privacy, the deserted main street, the swirls of snow, the mailbox door set on a new stage without the insipid redundancy might have come together to make a brilliant little versanelle, instead of the flat verse that resulted from this arrangement.

Fifth Line: "Driving around, I will waste more time"

The final line, "Driving around, I will waste more time," gives the flavor of James Wright's "I have wasted my life" in his excellent poetic performance, "Lying In A Hammock At William Duffy's Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota."

There is a major difference between Wright's poem and Bly's doggerel: Wright's speaker is believable, genuine, authentic. Bly's empty verse is quite opposite in every aspect, especially as Bly's speaker proclaims he will ride around wasting more time. That claim is non-sense. Does he actually believe that mailing a letter is a waste of time? If he does, he has not made it clear why he would think that. It just seems that he has forgotten what the poem is about.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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