Robert Bly

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This article is about the poet. For the business writer, see Robert W. Bly.
Robert Bly
Poetry Out Loud MN finals 27.jpg
Bly at the "Poetry Out Loud" finals, Minnesota 2009
Born Robert Elwood Bly
(1926-12-23) December 23, 1926 (age 88)
Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, USA
Occupation Poet
Genre American poetry
Literary movement Deep Image poetry, Mythopoetic Men's Movement
Notable works Iron John: A Book About Men, Silence in the Snowy Fields, The Light Around the Body
Spouse Carol Bly (1955-1979; divorced)
Ruth Counsell Bly (1980-Present)

Robert Bly (born December 23, 1926) is an American poet, author, activist and leader of the mythopoetic men's movement. His most commercially successful book to date was Iron John: A Book About Men (1990),[1] a key text of the mythopoetic men's movement, which spent 62 weeks on the The New York Times Best Seller list.[2] He won the 1968 National Book Award for Poetry for his book The Light Around the Body.[3]


Bly was born in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, to Jacob and Alice Bly, who were of Norwegian ancestry.[4] Following graduation from high school in 1944, he enlisted in the United States Navy, serving two years. After one year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, he transferred to Harvard University, joining the later famous group of writers who were undergraduates at that time, including Donald Hall, Will Morgan, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Harold Brodkey, George Plimpton and John Hawkes. He graduated in 1950 and spent the next few years in New York.

Beginning in 1954, Bly spent two years at the University of Iowa at the Iowa Writers Workshop, completing a Master's degree in Fine Arts, along with W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, and others. In 1956, he received a Fulbright Grant to travel to Norway and translate Norwegian poetry into English. While there, he found not only his relatives, but became acquainted with the work of a number of major poets whose work was barely known in the United States, among them Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Antonio Machado, Gunnar Ekelof, Georg Trakl, Rumi, Hafez, Kabir, Mirabai, and Harry Martinson. Bly determined then to start a literary magazine for poetry translation in the United States. The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies introduced many of these poets to the writers of his generation. He also published essays on American poets.

During this time, Bly lived on a farm in Minnesota, with his wife and children. His first marriage was to award-winning short story novelist Carol Bly. They had four children, including Mary Bly —a best-selling novelist and Literature Professor at Fordham University as of 2011— and they divorced in 1979. Since 1980 Bly has been married to the former Ruth Counsell;[4] by that marriage he had a stepdaughter and stepson, although the stepson died in a pedestrian–train incident.


Bly's early collection of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, was published in 1962, and its plain, imagistic style had considerable influence on American verse of the next two decades.[5] The following year, he published "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry", an essay in which he argued that the vast majority of American poetry from 1917 to 1963 was lacking in soul and "inwardness" as a result of a focus on impersonality and an objectifying, intellectual view of the world that Bly believed was instigated by the Modernists and formed the aesthetic of most post-World War II American poetry. He criticized the influence of American-born Modernists like Eliot, Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams and argued that American poetry needed to model itself on the more inward-looking work of European and South American poets like Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Antonio Machado, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

In 1966, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and went on to lead much of the opposition to that war among writers. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the war.[6] In his speech accepting the National Book Award for The Light Around the Body,[3] he announced that he would be contributing the $1000 prize to draft resistance organizations.[7] During the sixties he was of great help to the Bengali Hungryalist poets who faced anti-establishment trial at Kolkata, India. During the 1970s, he published eleven books of poetry, essays, and translations, celebrating the power of myth, Indian ecstatic poetry, meditation, and storytelling. During the 1980s he published Loving a Woman in Two Worlds, The Wingéd Life: Selected Poems and Prose of Thoreau, The Man in the Black Coat Turns, and A Little Book on the Human Shadow.

Perhaps his most famous work is Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), an international bestseller which has been translated into many languages and is credited with starting the Mythopoetic men's movement in the United States. Bly frequently conducts workshops for men with James Hillman, Michael J. Meade, and others, as well as workshops for men and women with Marion Woodman. He has taught at the annual Great Mother Conference since 1975. He maintains a friendly correspondence with Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves.[citation needed] Bly wrote The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine with Marion Woodman.

Bly was the University of Minnesota Library's 2002 Distinguished Writer. He received the McKnight Foundation's Distinguished Artist Award in 2000, and the Maurice English Poetry Award in 2002. He has published more than 40 collections of poetry, edited many others, and published translations of poetry and prose from such languages as Swedish, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Persian and Urdu. His book The Night Abraham Called to the Stars was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award. He also edited the prestigious Best American Poetry 1999 (Scribners).

In 2006 the University of Minnesota purchased Bly's archive, which contained more than 80,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts; a journal spanning nearly 50 years; notebooks of his "morning poems"; drafts of translations; hundreds of audio and videotapes, and correspondence with many writers such as James Wright, Donald Hall and James Dickey. The archive is housed at Elmer L. Andersen Library on the University of Minnesota campus. The university paid $775,000 from school funds and private donors.

In February 2008, Bly was named Minnesota's first poet laureate.[8] In that year he also contributed a poem and an Afterword to From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright. In February 2013, he was awarded the Robert Frost Medal, a lifetime achievement recognition given by the Poetry Society of America.[9]

Thought and the Men's Movement[edit]

Much of Bly's prose focuses on what he saw as a deeply troubled situation in which an increasing number of males find themselves throughout (but not limited to) today's western industrialised societies. He understood this to be a direct result of the decline in traditional fathering, which has left young boys unguided through the difficult stages of maturity. He claimed that in contrast with women who are better informed by their bodies (notably by the beginning and end of their menstrual cycle), men need to be actively guided through the path from boyhood to manhood by their elders. Pre-modern cultures had elaborate myths activated by rites of passage which helped men along this often dangerous path, as well as "men's societies" where older men would teach young boys on these gender-specific issues. He argues that this knowledge, which is as important to humans as instincts are to animals, is no longer being passed down to younger men since fathers have increasingly become absent from the household during and after the industrial revolution.[10] This "Absence of the Father" is a recurrent theme in Bly's work and many of the phenomena of depression, juvenile delinquency and lack of leadership in business and politics are linked to it.

Bly therefore sees today's men as half-adults, trapped somewhere between childhood and maturity, a state in which they find it extremely hard to become responsible leaders in their work and communities as well as fathers which eventually leads this behaviour to be passed down to the younger generations. In his book The Sibling Society (1997), Bly argues that a society formed by such men is inevitably problematic as it will also lack creativity and a deep care about others. The image of half-adults is further reinforced by popular culture which often portrays fathers as naive, often overweight and almost always emotionally co-dependent. As this is a relatively recent shift from the traditional patriarchal model, Bly believes that women rushed to fill the gap through the various youth movements during the 1960s,[11] infusing men with an enhanced emotional sensitivity which, while helping men to better understand women's age-old pain of repression, also led to the creation of "soft males" which lacked the outwardly directed strength to revitalize the community with assertiveness and a certain warrior strength.

In Bly's view, a potential solution lies in the rediscovery of the ancient meanings that are hidden in traditional myths and fairytales and are now in danger of being forgotten. He researched and collected myths that concern male maturity, many originating from the Grimms' Fairy Tales and published them in various books, Iron John being the most notable and best known example.[12] In contrast to the continual pursuit of higher achievements, that is constantly tough to young men today, the theme of spiritual descent (often being referred to by its Greek term κατάβασις) which is to be found in many of these myths, is presented as a necessary step for coming in contact with the deeper aspects of the masculine self and achieving its full potential. This is often presented as hero, often during the middle of his quest, going underground to pass a period of solitude and sorrow in semi-bestial mode. Bly notices that a cultural space existed in most traditional societies for such a period in a man's life, in the absence of which, many men today go into a depression and alcoholism as they subconsciously try to emulate this innate ritual.

Bly was influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who developed the theory of archetypes, the discrete psychic structures, often perceived as mental images of human or half-human form, that exist within the human Psyche. The Powerful King, the Evil Witch and the Beautiful Maiden are, according to Jung, images imprinted in the collective unconscious of every man and Robert Bly wrote extensively about their meaning and relations to modern life. As an example and in accordance with Jung, he considered the Witch to be that part of the male psyche upon which the negative and destructive side of women is imprinted, first developed during infancy to store his own mother's imperfections. As a consequence, the Witch's symbols are essentially inverted motherly symbols, where the loving act of cooking is transformed into the brewing of evil potions and knitting clothes takes the form of spider's web. The feeding process is also reversed, with the child now in danger of being eaten to feed the body of the Witch rather than being fed by the mother's own body. In that respect, the Witch is a mark of arrested development on the part of the man as it guards against feminine realities that the his psyche is not yet able to incorporate fully. Many fairy tales describe the mostly psychic battle of incorporation in physical terms, with the hero saving his future bride by killing a witch, as in "The Drummer" (Grimms tale 193). These concepts are expounded in Bly's 1989 talk "The Human Shadow" and the book it presented.[13]


Poetry collections[edit]

  • Talking into the Ear of a Donkey: Poems (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)
  • Reaching Out to the World: New & Selected Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2009)
  • Turkish Pears in August: Twenty-Four Ramages (Eastern Washington University, 2007)
  • The Urge to Travel Long Distances (Eastern Washington University Press, 2005)
  • My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy (HarperCollins, 2005)
  • Surprised by Evening (RealNewMusic, 2005)
  • The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (HarperCollins, 2001)
  • Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems (1999)
  • Snowbanks North of the House (1999)
  • Morning Poems (1997)
  • Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (1994)
  • What Have I Ever Lost by Dying?: Collected Prose Poems (1992)
  • Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1985)
  • Selected Poems (1986)
  • Mirabai Versions (1984)
  • The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981)
  • This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979)
  • This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood (1977)
  • Old Man Rubbing His Eyes (1974)
  • Jumping Out of Bed (1973)
  • Sleepers Joining Hands (1973)
  • The Light Around the Body (1967) — National Book Award[3]
  • The Lion's Tail and Eyes (1962)
  • Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962)


[clarification needed]

  • The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems of Olav H. Hauge, translators Bly and Robert Hedin (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
  • Peer Gynt (2008) — verse play by Henrik Ibsen
  • Kabir: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2004)
  • Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, translators Bly and Jane Hirshfield (Beacon Press, 2004)
  • The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations (HarperCollins, 2004)
  • The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (Graywolf Press, 2001)
  • The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib, translators Bly and Sunil Dutta (1999)
  • Lorca and Jiménez: Selected Poems (Beacon Press (1997)
  • Ten Poems of Francis Ponge Translated by Robert Bly & Ten Poems of Robert Bly Inspired by the Poems of Francis Ponge (1990)
  • Trusting Your Life to Water and Eternity: Twenty Poems of Olav H. Hauge (1987)
  • Machado's Times Alone: Selected Poems (1983)
  • The Kabir Book (1977)
  • Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Martinson, Ekeloef, and Transtromer (1975)
  • Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (1971)
  • Hunger (1967) — novel by Knut Hamsun
  • Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: A Translation from the German and Commentary by Robert Bly (1981)

Anthologies (as editor)[edit]

  • The Best American Poetry (1999)
  • The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures, Ecco Press (1995)
  • The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford (1993)
  • The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men (1992)
  • News of the Universe (1980)
  • Leaping Poetry (1975)
  • A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War (1967)

Nonfiction books[edit]

  • Remembering James Wright (2005)
  • The Maiden King : The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine, Bly and Marion Woodman (Henry Holt & Co, 1998)
  • The Sibling Society (Addison-Wesley, 1996)
  • The Spirit Boy and the Insatiable Soul (1994)
  • American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity (1991)
  • Iron John: A Book About Men (1990)
  • A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Bly and William Booth (1988)
  • Eight Stages of Translation (1983)
  • Talking All Morning: Collected Conversations and Interviews (1980)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Iron John: A Book About Men". 
  2. ^ Richard A. Shweder (January 9, 1994). "What Do Men Want? A Reading List For the Male Identity Crisis". New York Times. 
  3. ^ a b c "National Book Awards – 1968". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-03. (With acceptance speech by Bly and essay by Patrick Rosal from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  4. ^ a b Johnsen, Bill (June 2004). "The Natural World is a Spiritual House" (PDF). Colloquium on Violence and Religion Annual Conference 2004. Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. Retrieved 2007-04-30. 
  5. ^ Gioia, Mason, and Schoerke, editors. Twentieth-Century American Poetics, p. 260.
  6. ^ "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest", New York Post, January 30, 1968.
  7. ^ Bly, Robert. "National Book Awards acceptance speech". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 28 January 2015. 
  8. ^ "A Poet Laureate for Minnesota". The New York Times. March 1, 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-02. 
  9. ^ Aly Vander Hayden (February 14, 2013). "Robert Bly's "distinguished lifetime achievement"". Melville House Publishing. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 
  10. ^ Bly, Robert (1990), Iron John: A Book About Men, Da Capo Press, p. 97.
  11. ^ Iron John, p. 17.
  12. ^ New Dimensions Media. Retrieved 2011-01-18.
  13. ^ Bly, Robert (1989). The Human Shadow [audiobook]. Better Listen (remastered 2009).

External links[edit]