On Robert Bly’s “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter”

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter (from poetry180)
Robert Bly

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.


The poem’s 6 sentences are 5 lines: “I” occurs 4 times in the last 3. The first 2 lines concern “things,” and the only “things” are “swirls of snow.” “Night” and “street” are time and place.

“Cold” and “snowy night” are split when “I” emerges: “cold iron” is lifted; the “snowy night” is dwelt in, holding privacy. Our speaker is the landscape: “The only things moving” implies, considered with “driving,” that he is a swirl of snow. “Waste more time” implies that going to mail the letter itself was a waste – writing it, then, was also a waste?

So is this just an ode to loneliness? Not quite. The desertion of the main street and the harsh weather ask whether man is by nature a social being. All of us have times in our lives where we must be alone; we can also wonder whether the first man ever knew – or could know – anyone else. If he is not social, he is a swirl of snow, but not simply: “I lift” / “I feel” / “I love” / “I will.” The burden is the absence of burden: he must love the privacy, for any hope of company is merely that – hope. Each end of his actions in the last three lines is directed to increasingly reduced objects: “door,” “iron,” “privacy,” “time.”

From Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics?” –

In anxiety, we say, “one feels ill at ease.” What is “it” that makes “one” feel ill at ease? We cannot say what it is before which one feels ill at ease. As a whole it is so for one. All things and we ourselves sink into indifference. This, however, not in the sense of mere disappearance. Rather, in this very receding things turn toward us. The receding of beings as a whole that closes in on us in anxiety oppresses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this “no hold on things” comes over us and remains.

Anxiety reveals the nothing…. With the fundamental mood of anxiety we have arrived at that occurrence in human existence in which the nothing is revealed and from which it must be interrogated (101).

It is not clear our speaker feels anxiety; it looks like the condition he is in is more like the counterfactual outlined above, “what if man is not a social being?” He does seem to be indifferent, but he is in motion, not closed-in. Still, Heidegger’s discussion of anxiety leading to questions of being and nothing is probably appropriate to consider now. Our speaker is confronting nothingness and can only communicate through what may be messages in a bottle. He can only wish to be truly heard. In a way, this is akin to a philosophic condition, one which logos does complicate. We note that only the title mentions something about a letter.


Heidegger, Martin. “What is Metaphysics?” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.  p. 89-110.


  1. Great discussion.

    I’d like to add that driving around and waste more time really stood out for me. Doing the functional thing (having to mail a letter) is one thing, but – pursuant to Heidegger – living is as much about being in the world, dwelling in the landscape and aware of oneself than mere production. I’m vaguely thinking of Heidegger’s later pronouncements on financial capitalism, which he said was die Erde entrissen.

    Yet driving around has me really piqued. Why not walking (apart from the aestethic problem of the triple w-alliteration)? Driving suggests speed and for me has more a sense of questing, but I’m not sure yet.

    Anyway, great poem and good post. Really got me thinking upon this early morning.
    .-= Ario´s last blog ..Pretty, pretty tealeaves. =-.

  2. There was a comment here by a gentleman named “Sevad” that insulted me, which I don’t mind.

    What I do mind is when people attack others on my site: the comment has been deleted.

  3. @ Ario – agreed, been looking at “driving” myself. I wonder if it is meant to be combined with “cold iron” and “door,” a reinforcement of the theme of isolation.

    I definitely think that “driving” is meant to evoke “swirls of snow,” inasmuch as the wind is driving them; how much the speaker is in control of his movement – is this what total freedom is like? – is an open question.

  4. Yes, it underlines the isolation and makes it inescapable. ‘Walking’ would have suggested a feeling of being at one with the world which this poem deftly elides.

    I’m mulling over the open question you posit there. The swirls of snow are mentioned before the driving, so it is as if that’s what’s causing the speaker drive on. At least the swirls and the speaker are both moving aimlessly.

    Another thing that strikes me is how the last line can be read. Can’t it be read as meaning both (paraphrasing) 1) I will drive around to waste more time and 2) If I drive around more time will be wasted?

    It seems like such a clear sentence, but it undercuts itself rather marvelously (unless I am reading it completely wrongly).
    .-= Ario´s last blog ..Pretty, pretty tealeaves. =-.

  5. I sometimes wonder if poets spend their time and brainpower planning their masterpieces with such analytic discipline (the painter Chuck Close comes to mind)? Great commentary and comments.

    These lines are all straightforward statements of fact, including the title, until “I feel its cold iron” which is a bit more nuanced and personal. Then he puts me visually into the driver’s seat, a very positive effect. I can see your questioning the ambiguity of the last line where he “will waste more time,” but by this time I am so totally with him, wanting to prolong the lovely experience. Such economy of words is startling to have such power.
    .-= Alice Shapiro´s last blog ..A Cappella Books – Reading 9/30 =-.

  6. What she said!

    This poem is so short and simple, but it puts you right into the author’s shoes.

    While I hate cold, I love snow- at night when it makes everything look so bright and clean and untouched and when nobody’s around. The poem puts you right there.

  7. Bly has come upon the realization that one is immersed in nature (made complete, as in deeply connected, overcoming alienation) when two things happen:

    1) there is no one else around.

    2) nature (the environment) is hostile to survival.

    The opposing connection, for example, might be fishing in a fast moving creek and feeling the tug of the fishing line as a connection with the creek current, the creek as a result of the topography, to the geography, to a million years of geo-history, etc. all integrated with the individual in an instant insight.

  8. “Driving around, I will waste more time”, puzzled me too. After reading this I wonder if his intention was to escape. Think about it, when you feel the desire to ‘just go for a drive’ you do so to get a quick escape. Escape the situation or place he was at and go to whom ever, or where ever, his letter is going. But he is, “wasting time” because he knows this is a silly, impossible request and it torments him. (This is just what I thought)

  9. I am a complete newbie to poetry, and am often lost in the structures that people pick up, and as you point out the repeated use of “I”.

    I simply read it to myself and also aloud and feel and see the pictures that are conjured.
    If I like it; I make a note.
    In the case of this piece, I enjoyed the feeling of peace and stillness that you rarely find on the roads these days.
    Thank you for sharing.

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