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...
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Perhaps more than practically any other poet of his generation, Bly has sought to enact what he believes is the proper role for the poet in society: a consciousness-raising, outspoken advocate for change and a moral conscience for a society often too willing to be morally and spiritually complacent. Bly believes that as a culture, the Western world, particularly the United States, tends to shirk its responsibilities to humanity and to its own future generations. New Criticism and the poetry it championed encouraged this lack of responsibility through its emphasis on exegesis of the text without reference to author or context. Bly’s criticism offers an effective counterstatement, to borrow a term from Edmund Burke, to formalistic theory, and his poetry offers a highly convincing, alternative voice.
Born in the small farming community of Madison, Minnesota, Robert Elwood Bly grew up, as he said, a “Lutheran Boy-god.” He attended a one-room school in his early years. Upon graduation from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he first became interested in poetry. After the war, Bly enrolled at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota, but after only one year there, he transferred to Harvard University. At Harvard, he read “the dominant books” of contemporary American poetry, associated with other young writers (among them John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, and Donald Hall), worked on The Harvard Advocate (which he edited in his senior year), delivered the class poem, and graduated magna cum laude in 1950.
Having decided to be a poet and seeking solitude, Bly moved back to Minnesota; then, in 1951, still “longing for ’the depths,’” he moved to New York City, where he lived alone for several years, reading widely and writing his early poems. In 1953, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1954 to Iowa City, where he enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. His M.A. thesis consisted of a short collection of poems titled “Steps Toward Poverty and Death” (1956). Bly was married to Carolyn McLean in 1955, and in 1956, they moved to Oslo, Norway, via a Fulbright grant. In Norway, Bly sought out his family roots, read widely, and translated contemporary...
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