Charles Altieri: On "Counting Small-Boned Bodies"

One notices first of all how Bly's sense of collective consciousness allows him readily to assume the voice of a whole culture, and his secure sense of values justifies a biting criticism of that culture, not only for its actions (as in Lowell) but for the modes of consciousness that support those actions. Three specific aspects of the public consciousness are dramatized in the poem. First Bly plays on the idea that counting, the manipulation of elements in the outer world, can ever be an adequate measure of events. (The history of body counts provides adequate empirical data to support Bly here.) Counting then leads to a second empty form of public measurement: the poem's tone and grammatical mood express a technological fantasy inspired by the false language of advertising. Finally, the concluding line allies the violence of war with perverted and simplified visions of love. It establishes and casts back over the rest of the poem a purposive role for the irony as intensifying the gap between public desire and the lack of a true inwardness that might define and direct that desire. These distortions then combine to present an inverted version of Bly's typical concentrative movement. The more compressed the bodies become the more the reader approaches the ring, the central unifying symbol of the horror involved in this exercise of perverted love. And the horror is deepened by the fact that advertising's words for this particular union are literally true, though of course in an unexpected sense: those dead bodies will remain intimately involved with our lives for a terribly long time.

From Enlarging the Temple. Copyright © 1979 by Bucknell University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Charles Altieri: On "Counting Small-Boned Bodies" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Altieri Criticism Target Robert Bly
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 May 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960s
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