Bly, Robert (1926—)

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Bly, Robert (1926—)

In the early 1990s, mention of the name "Robert Bly" conjured up primordial images of half-naked men gathered in forest settings to drum and chant in a mythic quest both for their absent fathers and their submerged assets of boldness and audacity. It was Bly and his bestselling book Iron John that catalyzed a new masculinized movement urging males (especially white, middle-class American baby-boomer ones) to rediscover their traditional powers by casting off the expectations of aggressive behavior. Although this search for the inner Wild Man sometimes approached caricature and cliché, satirized in the popular television sitcom Home Improvement, the avuncular Bly is universally acknowledged as an avatar of the modern "male movement" who draws on mythology and fairy tales to help men heal their wounds by getting in touch with fundamental emotions. Iron John had such a powerful impact on American popular culture that it has all but overshadowed Bly's other significant achievements as a poet, translator, and social critic.

Robert Bly was born in Madison, Minnesota on December 23, 1926, the son of Jacob Thomas Bly, a farmer and Alice (Aws) Bly, a courthouse employee. After Navy service in World War II, he spent a year in the premedical program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, before transferring to Harvard University where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature, magna cum laude, in 1950. He later wrote that at Harvard, "I learned to trust my obsessions," so it was natural for him to choose a vocation as a poet after studying a poem by Yeats one day. After a half-year period of solitude in a Minnesota cabin, he moved to New York City, where he eked out a modest existence on the fringes of the Beat movement. He married short-story writer Carol McLean in 1955 and moved back to a Madison farm a year later, after receiving his M.A. from the University of Iowa Writing Workshop. With a Fulbright grant, he spent a year translating Scandinavian poetry in Norway, his ancestral homeland.

Back in Minnesota, far from the centers of the American literary establishment, Bly founded a journal of literature that turned away from the prevailing New Criticism of T. S. Eliot in favor of contemporary poetry that used surreal imagery. The journal, originally named The Fifties, underwent a name change with the beginning of each new decade; it has been known as The Nineties since 1990, the year Bly published Iron John. In 1962, Bly published his first poetry collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, whose images were deeply informed by the rural landscapes of his native Minnesota. Over the years, Bly has also published dozens of translations of works by such luminaries as Knut Hamsun, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Rainier Maria Rilke, St. John of the Cross, and Georg Trakl, among others.

As one of the organizers of American Writers Against the Vietnam War, Bly was one of the first writers to mount a strong vocal protest against that conflict. He toured college campuses around the country delivering sharply polemical speeches and poetry that condemned American policy. When his second collection, The Light Around the Body, won a National Book Award for poetry in 1968, he used the occasion to deliver an assault against the awards committee and his own publisher, Harper & Row, for contributing taxes to the war effort, and donated his $1000 prize to a draft-resistance organization. His 1973 poetry collection, Sleepers Joining Hands, carried forth his anti war stance. During the 1970s, Bly published more than two dozen poetry collections, mostly with small presses, though Harper & Row published three more volumes, The Morning Glory (1975), This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood (1979), and This Tree Will Be Here For a Thousand Years (1979). In 1981, Dial Press published his The Man in the Black Coat Turns. Over the years, Bly has continued to publish small collections of poetry; he has long made it a discipline of writing a new poem every morning.

Influenced by the work of Robert Graves, Bly was already demonstrating interest in mythology and pre-Christian religion and wrote in a book review of Graves's work how matriarchal religion had been submerged by the patriarchs, much to the detriment of Western culture. After his divorce in 1979, he underwent a soul-searching identity crisis and began leading men's seminars at a commune in New Mexico. It was during this period that he adopted the Iron John character from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale as an archetype to help men get in touch with their inner powers. Bly recognized that contemporary men were being spiritually damaged by the absence of intergenerational male role models and initiation rituals as found in premodern cultures. As he wrote in his 1990 preface to his best-known work, Iron John, "The grief in men has been increasing steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the grief has reached a depth now that cannot be ignored." To critics who responded that Bly was leading an anti-feminist crusade, the author replied by acknowledging and denouncing the dark side of male domination and exploitation. Still, some feminists argued that Bly was advocating a return to traditional gender roles for both men and women, and other critics assailed what they saw as Bly's indiscriminate New Agey salad of tidbits from many traditions. Still, the book was at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for ten weeks and stayed on the list for more than a year.

In 1996, Vintage Books published Bly's The Sibling Society, in which Bly warns that our dismantling of patriarchies and matriarchies has led to a society of confused, impulsive siblings. "People don't bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults," he wrote in the book's preface, calling for a reinvention of shared community. Bly's collaboration with psychologist Marion Woodman on workshops integrating women's issues into the Iron John paradigm led to the publication of a jointly written book, The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine (1998).

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Bly, Robert. Iron John. New York, Vintage Books, 1990.

——. The Light Around the Body, New York, Harper & Row, 1968.

——. The Man in the Black Coat Turns. New York, Dial, 1981.

——. The Morning Glory. New York, Harper & Row, 1975.

——. The Sibling Society. New York, Vintage Books, 1996.

——. Silence in the Snowy Fields. New York, Harper & Row, 1962.

——. Sleepers Joining Hands. New York, Harper & Row, 1973.

——. This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood. New York, Harper & Row, 1979.

——. This Tree Will Be Here For a Thousand Years. New York, Harper & Row, 1979.

Bly, Robert and Marion Woodman. The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine. New York, Holt, 1998.

Jones, Richard, and Kate Daniels, editors. Of Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly. Boston, Beacon Press, 1981.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1984.