Robert Bly

The Great Society by Robert Bly

Published in Robert Bly’s award-winning collection, The Light Around the Body (1967), ‘The Great Society’ satirizes the set of domestic programs launched by Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964-65 by presenting contrasting imagery from contemporary American society.

Robert Bly’s poem ‘The Great Society’ makes an apparent reference to the “Great Society” programs, the “Cuban Project” during the 1960s, and the Cold War. In this highly political poem, Bly tries to express the hardships that result from a sentiment of war; yet some people take the situation for granted. Furthermore, he describes how the ambiance of poverty, depression, and conflicts left the city at a monotonous pace; people hopelessly carried on their activities without a care of what was happening around them.

Robert Bly wrote poetry on a variety of topics, including politics, war, society, conflicts, etc. He was the leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, a body of self-help activities and therapeutic workshops for men. Many of his poems have anti-establishment and anti-war themes. This piece also captures his cynicism regarding the Cold War as well as the development agendas of the 1960s.

The Great Society by Robert Bly


Summary

‘The Great Society’ by Robert Bly mainly focuses on the condition of the 1960s American society after the launch of “Great Society” programs and the after-effects of an ongoing conflict between America and Cuba.

Bly’s poem mirrors the exploitation of people during times of conflict. The rich people who had resources took advantage of the situation. In contrast, the poor could not even access their daily requirements. In the poem, the poet uses several contrasting images to reflect the fallacy of society after the launch of a holistic social development program called the “Great Society.” He describes how the people in power misused the available goods for their profit, such as destabilizing the Fidel Castro-led Cuban administration. Rather than distributing the resources to the needy, they kept their attention on their geopolitical goals.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Dentists continue to water their lawns even in the rain:

(…)

The coffins of the poor are hibernating in piles of new tires.

The speaker in Robert Bly’s poem ‘The Great Society’ reflects on the problems the American people faced during the 1960s. The war sentiment caused several damages and destruction, which eventually increased the prices of goods and resources. As the poem begins, readers understand that though there is no need to water the lawn during rain, dentists are doing it, which indicates the unnecessary wastage of resources. Through this image, the poet implies how the opportunistic people who have hoarded resources start to sell them for money when their fellow human beings are suffering from poverty. Those in power also exploit the goods in order to strengthen their geopolitics.

On the other hand, the poor are unable to sustain themselves due to the high tax imposed and the inflating price. They cannot even give a proper funeral to their loved ones due to the lack of resources and of their high cost. The poet also explains the brutality of the war by the lines, “There are murdered kings in the light-bulbs outside movie theaters.” The images of the deceased kings that hung on the light-bulbs in public implicitly alert the rulers about the inevitability of death in politics. In contrast, the following image shows the impact of economic exploitation.

Stanza Two

The janitor sits troubled by the boiler

(…)

Vines over the yachts and the leather seats.

In the first line, the word “Janitor” represents the middle-class who are unable to think. They just sit and wait for the instructions. In the 1960s, the middle-class became hopeless about their country’s future. They were frustrated with the geopolitical events. In contrast, the President daydreams of invading Cuba instead of doing something worthwhile for society. “The President” represents the White House or the administration which did nothing about the issue at hand and was planning to destabilize the political environment of Cuba.

The last two lines present a depressive state of society, the luxury items such as “yachts” are kept carelessly, depicting the wastage of resources by the rich. Similarly, bushes grow over the “outdoor grills” of houses. This image depicts the condition of the working class. They do not have time or the energy to think about their living conditions.

Stanza Three

The city broods over ash can and darkening mortar

(…)

While the mayor sits with his head in his hands.

In the last stanza of ‘The Great Society,’ the poet explains the depressing situation of the city people. The city people ponder over the wastage. Here, the poet actually refers to the poor who, with their hungry eyes, scan the ashcans and mortar roads for food.

In the second line, “On the far shore” indicates the future that the city holds for its coming generation. Coney Island is an entertainment area which is located in the southwest of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Far from the drooping city, the “dark children” of the island play on the beach.

Through these contrasting images, Bly describes there is so much less that is left behind for the future generation. Therefore, they have to play with a few resources that their predecessors leave. In contrast to that, the elected mayor sits with his head in his hands. He is depressed by the condition of the city, or he is engrossed with the thoughts of future elections.

Structure

‘The Great Society’ is divided into three stanzas, each consisting of five lines. The length of lines is irregular, and each section is concluded with an end-stopped line. There is no set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern; the poem is written in free-verse. Bly writes the poem from the perspective of a third-person speaker who comments on the activities of different people living in 1960s American society. Besides, he mainly uses the trochaic feet in the poem, in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable. This metrical foot is mainly used to express a feeling of hopelessness and dejection.

Literary Devices

Bly’s ‘The Great Society’ is filled with several poetic techniques and literary devices that include:

  • Irony: If we go through the poem with a focus on the title, we can understand the irony lies in the very title. This poem depicts what the so-called “Great Society” actually looks like.
  • Personification: By using this device, Bly gives human traits to non-living things in order to make readers understand the feelings of the speaker. He implies that the surrounding is also affected, just like human beings. It occurs in “The coffins of the poor are hibernating in piles of new tires,” “the city broods over ash cans and darkening mortar,” etc.
  • Imagery: This device is used to explain the wastage of resources and the despair and frustration of the working class. Bly uses contrasting visual imagery in the lines, “The janitor sits troubled by the boiler,/ And the hotel keeper shuffles the cards of insanity,” “Bushes are growing over the outdoor grills,/ Vines over the yachts and the leather seats,” etc.
  • Enjambment: Bly creates an unbroken flow within the text by using this device. It occurs in the following lines: “On the far shore, at Coney Island, dark children/ Playing on the chilling beach: a sprig of black seaweed, Shells, a skyful of birds,/ While the mayor sits with his head in his hands.” The lines are continuous till the last, broken with certain punctuations (use of caesura) in between.
  • Assonance: The vowel sound “au” can be repeatedly heard in the line: “Bushes are growing over the outdoor grills.”
  • Consonance: The consonant sound of “t” and “s” are repeated in the lines: “Dentists continue to water their lawns even in the rain,” and “Shells, a skyful of birds.”


Historical Context

Robert Elwood Bly, a poet, activist, translator, and the founder of the mythopoetic men’s movement, was born in 1926 in Minnesota. He grew up in an area inhabited by Norwegian immigrant farmers. After graduation, he enrolled himself in the US Navy and served for two years. Then, he went to Harvard University, where he found his inspiration and connection with literature.

Most of Robert Bly’s poems tap on the intricacies of society and the human (predominantly male) psyche. His poem ‘The Great Society’ was first published in the poetry collection, The Light Around the Body, in 1967, which won the National Book Award in the following year. The poem appears in the section “The Various Arts of Poverty and Cruelty” from the collection. Bly contributed his prize money to draft resistant organizations against the Vietnam War.

In this political poem, Bly describes his reaction to the Vietnam War, Cold War, and the US involvement in Cuban affairs in the 1960s. He ironically titled the poem ‘The Great Society,’ which alludes to the “Great Society” programs launched by the Democrats in the mid-1960s. This poem explains the condition of American society after the launch of the program.

FAQs

What is the message that is conveyed through ‘The Great Society’?

‘The Great Society’ by Robert Bly conveys the message that greed and power-hungry politics never bring good outcomes in a society. In this poem, Bly describes how the rich people used their money in their own business even in times of economic hardship, rather than supporting the society to sustain. He also depicts how the politicians use their power for other purposes rather than concentrating on real issues like poverty.

What is the theme of ‘The Great Society’?

‘The Great Society’ deals with the theme of hardships of society during the war, the coldness of politicians, greed, hopelessness, and depression. During a war, several innocent people die; there is mindless bloodshed. In this poem, Bly gives readers an insight into society and the people’s mental state during the time of political conflict. Their hardships are well explained in the line, “The coffins of the poor are hibernating in piles of new tires.”

What is the meaning of ‘The Great Society’?

The poem clearly depicts the impact of political turmoil on both physical as well as mental levels. Bly talks about how the middle-class people are dismayed and frustrated, and the poor people have no access to the resources.

Which war is referred to in ‘The Great Society’ by Robert Bly?

In this poem, Bly refers to the Cold War that extended from 1947 to 1991, soon after World War II. Besides, he also alludes to the “Cuban Project” that was devised to topple the Fidel Castro administration in Cuba in the 1960s by the line, “The President dreams of invading Cuba.”

What is the legacy left behind for successors in ‘The Great Society’?

Bly speaks about the future of society and how they are going to suffer because of the shortage of resources. He calls the coming generation “dark children” as their future is doomed. They would have nothing much to pick up and start again.


Similar Poems

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Robert Bly’s poem ‘The Great Society.’

You can also explore these heartfelt poems about depression.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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