Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202
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 translate into English and publish in the United States. Not only did the translations serve Bly as a means of income upon his return to Minnesota in the late 1950’s, but the poetry itself also influenced his work, invigorating it with new ideas on form and a new understanding of the poet’s role in society. Bly’s poetics began to take shape as early as 1958, when he and a friend, William Duffy, founded the literary journal (and subsequent publishing house) The Fifties. Bly’s journal began by publishing works by poets such as James Wright, Donald Hall, and Louis Simpson, placing it among the most avant-garde of academic journals at that time. Changing its name to the Sixties Press in 1961, Bly began to publish translations of Trakl, Selma Lagerlöf, and others, collections of poems by emerging American poets, and his own Silence in the Snowy Fields.
In the early 1960’s, after an extensive stay in Europe financed by an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, Bly returned and became politically active against the Vietnam War. He organized antiwar poetry readings at many colleges and universities and organized American Writers Against the Vietnam War, which sponsored an anthology, A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War (1966). The Sixties Press continued to publish antiwar anthologies, such as Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History (1967), most of which were edited and introduced by Bly. His own activities became increasingly public, as he read at demonstrations and draft-card burnings. Academically, he continued to gain notice, however, receiving a Rockefeller Grant in 1967 and winning a National Book Award for his 1967 collection, The Light Around the Body. Even these academic honors, however, Bly turned into political statements, donating all prize money to the draft resistance movement and using his acceptance speeches as opportunities to denounce the publishing world for not taking a more active role in the antiwar movement.
During the 1970’s, the Seventies Press continued to publish translations, and Bly continued to publish volumes of his own poems. His poetry readings took on a softer quality, with Bly reciting poems from memory and accompanying them on the dulcimer. When he was not reading or writing, Bly was founding and directing symposia on various topics, such as the Annual Conference on the Great Mother, later called the Conference of the Great Mother and the New Father. In the late 1970’s, he began to travel to poetry festivals and gatherings all over the world.
By the late 1970’s, Bly’s family had grown to include two daughters, Mary and Bridget, and two sons, Noah and Micah. Despite his love of family and the close ties he had with his children, Bly and his wife, Carolyn, were divorced in 1979, after twenty-four years of marriage. In 1980, Bly married Ruth Ray and moved to Moose Lake, Minnesota. Bly’s activities during the 1980’s centered on his conferences for men, which he has sponsored at various universities around the United States. His purpose has been to counterbalance the tendency of modern society to do away with appropriate role models for men. His readings and symposia have been well attended and well received.
With the publication of Iron John (1990), subtitled A Book About Men, Bly’s attraction as a public speaker on the recently dubbed men’s movement quickly outdistanced his steady but relatively smaller draw as a reader of his own poetry, mostly on college campuses and in small bookstores. As he approaches his eighth decade, he continues to maintain a national and international speaking engagement agenda, both as a published poet and as a continuing leading figure of the now-established men’s movement. His authorized Web site lists scheduled poetry readings on college campuses and at literary festivals as well as appearances at the Great Mother Conference and the Minnesota Men’s Conference, among other professional and casual gatherings of men’s groups. Bly continues to manifest the insights of a poet but with the zeal of a political or social reformer. He truly believes that if he is able to show men not only how to accept their “interior feminine” but especially the wildness or “un-niceness” that the Wild Man or Iron John represents in part as well, then men will be more self-actualized, and there is greater hope for human understanding and permanent relationships.
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