Robert Elwood Bly was born in Madison, Minnesota, on December 23, 1926, to Jacob Thomas Bly and Alice Aws Bly, second-generation Norwegian immigrants. He grew up on his family’s farm and, after completing high school in Madison, enlisted in the Navy, serving in a special radar program until the end of the war. According to Bly, one of the few positive memories he had of his experience in the Navy was the purchase of his first books of poetry, especially Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems: Poems of the Midwest (1946) and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855-1892).
After the war, using the G.I. Bill, Bly attended St. Olaf’s College in Northfleld, Minnesota, and studied writing under Arthur Paulson. Wanting to pursue his studies in a more concerted way, Bly transferred from St. Olaf’s after only one year and entered Harvard University in 1947, where he majored in English. His education consisted of traditional English literature, augmented by courses in Latin, Greek, and German; however, he also read the works of respected contemporary poets, such as Robert Lowell (especially Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1946) and Richard Wilbur. Bly’s interest in modern poetry led to an appointment during his junior year as literary editor of The Harvard Advocate, where he met other young writers and poets, among them Donald Hall, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Adrienne Rich, and John Hawkes. Bly graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 1950, and he delivered the class poem.
After spending seven months in a cabin in northern Minnesota, Bly decided to begin his career as a poet by moving to New York City, where he supported himself with a series of part-time jobs. At night, alone in his rented room, he read works of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and classical poets Horace, Vergil, and Pindar; he also began work on his first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962).
Tired of New York and eager to continue his academic studies, Bly enrolled in the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program in creative writing in 1954, under the direction of the midwestern poet Paul Engle. While there, Bly met several young, emerging poets, such as W. D. Snodgrass, Kim Yong Ik, and Marguerite Young. Also while at Iowa, Bly married Carolyn McLean, whom he had met while editing The Harvard Advocate in Massachusetts. The couple moved to a farm in Minnesota in June, 1955, while Bly continued working on his master’s thesis. Completed in 1956, his collection of poems titled Steps Toward Poverty and Death fulfilled the thesis requirement for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Iowa.
The following year, Bly received a Fulbright Grant to translate Norwegian poetry and traveled to Oslo, Norway, where he read for the first time the works of poets such as Pablo Neruda, Georg Trakl, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Gunnar Ekelöf, all of whom he would later...
(The entire section is 1202 words.)