Robert Bly, the Minnesota poet, author and translator who articulated the solitude of landscapes, galvanized protests against the Vietnam War and started a controversial men’s movement with a bestseller that called for a restoration of primal male audacity, has died. He was 94.
The death was confirmed by Cora Markowitz, a spokesperson for the Georges Borchardt literary agency, which represented Bly. She said she did not have information immediately on where or when he died.
From the sheer volume of his output — more than 50 books of poetry; translations of European and Latin American writers; and nonfiction commentaries on literature, gender roles and social ills, as well as poetry magazines he edited for decades — one might imagine a recluse holed up in a Northwoods cabin. And Bly did live for many years in a small town in Minnesota, immersing himself in the poetry of silent fields and snowy woodlands.
But from relative obscurity he roared into national consciousness in the 1960s, with anti-war free verse that attacked President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam. His pen also took on the U.S. war machine:
Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck,
Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets,
Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep over the huts with dirt floors.
In 1966, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and toured the country, rallying the opposition with poetry “read-ins” on campuses and in town halls. He won the National Book Award for poetry for “The Light Around the Body” (1967), and donated his $1,000 prize to the draft resistance.
Taking another abrupt turn in 1990, he published what was to become his most famous work, “Iron John: A Book About Men,” which drew on myths, legends, poetry and science of a sort to make a case that American men had grown soft and feminized and needed to rediscover their primitive virtues of ferocity and audacity and thus regain the self-confidence to be nurturing fathers and mentors.
The book touched a nerve. It was on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 62 weeks, including 10 weeks as No. 1, and was translated into many languages.
Bly was profiled in newspapers, magazines and a 90-minute PBS special by Bill Moyers, who called him “the most influential poet writing today.” He became a cultural phenomenon, a father figure to millions. He held men-only seminars and weekend retreats, gatherings often in the woods with men around campfires thumping drums, making masks, hugging, dancing and reading poetry aloud.
He said his “mythopoetic men’s movement” was not intended to turn men against women. But many women called it a put-down, an atavistic reaction to the feminist movement. Cartoonists and talk-show hosts ridiculed it, dismissing it as tree-hugging self-indulgence by middle-class baby boomers. Bly, a shambling white-haired guru who strummed a bouzouki and wore colorful vests, was easily mocked as Iron John himself, a hairy wild man who, in the German myth, helped aimless princes in their quests.
Undismayed, he continued his workshops for years with a more down-to-earth focus. He gave up the drums but still used myths and poetry and invited women and men to discuss an array of topics, including parenting and racism.
And he continued to write rivers of poetry, to edit magazines and to translate works from Swedish, Norwegian, German and Spanish, and to churn out jeremiads. In “The Sibling Society” (1996), Bly called for mentoring a generation of children growing up without fathers, who were being shaped instead by rock music, violent movies, television and computers into what he called a state of perpetual adolescence.
But he saw hope.
“The biggest influence we’ve had,” he told the Times in 1996, “is in younger men who are determined to be better fathers than their own fathers were.”
Robert Elwood Bly was born in Lac qui Parle County in western Minnesota on Dec. 23, 1926, to Norwegian farmers, Jacob and Alice (Aws) Bly. He graduated from high school in Madison, Minnesota, (population 600) in 1944, served two years in the Navy and studied for a year at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota. He then transferred to Harvard University.
“One day while studying a Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life,” he recalled in a 1984 essay for the Times. “I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character and events of one’s own life.”
After graduation in 1950, he spent several years in New York immersing himself in poetry.
In 1955, he married Carol McLean, a writer. They had four children, Bridget, Mary, Micah and Noah, and were divorced in 1979. In 1980, he married Ruth Counsell, a Jungian therapist. She survives him. Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.Bly earned a master’s degree at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1956, then returned to Madison. On a fellowship, he lived in Norway in 1956 and 1957. In 1958, he founded a poetry magazine, The Fifties, which survived to become The Sixties, The Seventies and The Eighties. It published works by Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and many others.
In the 1970s, he wrote 11 books of poetry, essays and translations, delving into myths, meditations and Indian ecstatic verse. In the ’80s and ’90s, he produced 27 books, including “The Man in the Black Coat Turns” (1981), “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds” (1985) and “Selected Poems” (1986).
Bly, who had homes in Minneapolis and Moose Lake, Minnesota, was the recipient of many awards and the subject of many books and essays.
In recent years, he traveled widely, lecturing, reading poems and joining discussion panels, and in 2008 he was named Minnesota’s first poet laureate by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. In 2004, he published “The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the War in Iraq” and in an introduction noted wryly that little had changed since Vietnam.
“We are still in a blindfold,” he wrote, “still being led by the wise of this world.”