December 1, 2021

Robert Bly, poet who inspired the movement and the backlash of men, has died

Robert Bly, one of America’s most influential poets, whose ideas about masculinity inspired a controversial national men’s movement and an equally fierce feminist retreat, has died at his home in Minneapolis.

Bly, who had suffered from dementia for almost 14 years, died on Sunday, her daughter, Mary Bly, told The Associated Press. He was 94 years old.

Heralded in literary circles as a brilliant poet and translator, the Minnesota native ironically gained most of his fame thanks to his first non-fiction work, “Iron John: A Book About Men”. The 1990 book, which hit bestseller lists for a year and sold a quarter of a million hardcover copies, explored the deep sense of grief and alienation among American men.

Relying heavily on Jungian myth, metaphor, and psychology, Bly primarily criticized the Industrial Revolution for removing adult males from the home, thus destroying the essential bond between fathers and sons. With the fathers out of the house, the sons were not properly initiated into adulthood, he writes. The result was estrangement from the father and a desperate search for a meaningful definition of masculinity, he concluded.

While criticizing the macho behavior, the former Vietnam War protester nonetheless urged the men to reclaim their fierce natures. Many men, in a serious attempt to disavow themselves from male macho-ness, had become overly feminized and let go of their savagery – a vital component of masculinity, Bly said.

His ideas spawned thousands of all-male groups across the country. Gatherings often took place around campfires and revolved around drumbeats and emotional revelations about family relationships.

This so-called men’s movement has aroused its share of criticism and even satire. Many feminists have attacked Bly’s work and men’s groups as nothing more than a transparent attack on the women’s movement. One reviewer said Bly described women as “a race of emasculators.”

Other critics saw the company as little more than an indulgence of upper-middle-class white baby boomers. Sitcom writers and cartoonists have also targeted Bly and men’s groups, frequently calling them adults acting like children.

“The media called all of this drumming and racing in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous,” Bly told the Paris Review in an interview in 2000. “I think the seminars for men did not threaten the women’s movement at all, but a lot of Iron John’s critics didn’t get it. “

Bly was born on December 23, 1926, near Madison, Minnesota, the second son of a Norwegian American farmer. Young on the family farm, he often divided his time between housework and reading.

It wasn’t until he joined the Navy near the end of WWII that he discovered what would become his lifelong passion.

“During a course on radar, [my teacher] wrote a poem while I watched. I sort of never understood that poems were written by human beings, and I still remember that moment with pleasure ”, Bly told the New York Times Book Review in 1984.

After his release, Bly enrolled at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. His intention was to become a doctor, but he soon transferred to Harvard University, where he studied English literature and learned Greek, Latin and German.

After graduating, Bly spent six months alone in a cabin in northern Minnesota in hopes of stoking her creative fires. After that, he moved to New York City, where he spent three years writing poetry and working a series of part-time jobs including typist, clerk, and house painter.

“I lived like an orphan,” Bly told Time magazine.

Bly’s first formal attempts at poetry took place while he was in the master’s degree program at the University of Iowa.

Entitled “Steps Toward Poverty and Death”, the work was generally well received. It was also around this time that Bly married his first wife, Carol, a writer he had met at Harvard. They had four children before divorcing in 1979.

Bly, however, strongly resisted taking a permanent academic post; he had long maintained that this would dilute the strength of his writing.

For a living, he took only occasional teaching assignments and translated the works of Scandinavian and South American poets, including Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner. Many translations were featured in a journal he co-founded, in part, to familiarize “isolated” and “old-fashioned” American readers with the poets of the world.

It was Bly’s second collection of poems that established his reputation as an important American poet.

Published in 1967, the fiery anti-war collection “The Light Around the Body” ruthlessly attacked American foreign policy. The work contained titles such as “Johnson’s Cabinet Watched by Ants”, “Those Eaten by America” ​​and “Driving Through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings”. When the collection won the National Book Award, Bly donated the prize money to an anti-project organization.

In the 2000 maintenance With the Revue de Paris, Bly said it was probably his bohemian tendencies or his desire to work alone that kept him from accepting a college assignment and the living wage that came with it.

“I still say to my wife sometimes, ‘You know, I really should have gone to college. So I could have one of these little white houses in a New England town, and there would be a veranda and a salary; and when I got to school there would be these happy faces that wanted to see me.

And then she said, ‘You would have been fired anyway because you never shut your mouth. “”

Bly’s later works were much more personal and reflected his roots in small town Minnesota. They were known for their surrealism, their non-academic nature, and their focus on the connections between the natural world and the human mind.

“Bly is trying to write down what it’s like to be alive,” wrote a reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. “A state in which, he implies, not all readers find themselves all the time. “

In 2006, the University of Minnesota purchased Bly’s Archives, which contained more than 80,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts and a diary he had kept for nearly 50 years. He was named Minnesota’s first poet laureate two years later.

Bly is survived by his wife, Ruth; four children, Mary, Bridget, Noah and Micha; and nine grandchildren.

Miller is a former Times writer.


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