Robert Bly 1926-
(Full name Robert Elwood Bly) American poet, translator, critic, essayist, and nonfiction writer. See also Robert Bly Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 15, 128.
A charismatic literary impresario and social critic, Robert Bly is among the most prominent and influential American poets of the postwar generation. During the 1960s, he emerged as a leading proponent of “deep imagism,” a school of poetry distinguished by its preoccupation with surrealism, Jungian archetypes, and the elemental description of the natural world and visionary emotional states. His first two collections of poetry, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962) and The Light Around the Body (1967), an award-winning volume of antiwar poetry, established Bly as a major contemporary poet and passionate spokesperson for the healing powers of literature and myth. A popular guest on public television and at writing workshops, poetry readings, and men's gatherings, Bly is credited with rejuvenating public interest in poetry and the imaginative arts in late twentieth-century America. A prolific author of literary criticism, translations, anthologies, and numerous collections of acclaimed poetry, Bly published his best-selling book about male initiation Iron John in 1990, catapulting him to the forefront of the men's movement. His 1996 dissertation on America culture, The Sibling Society, also appealed to a broad mainstream audience.
Born in rural Madison, Minnesota, Bly was raised on a nearby farm operated by his father. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946. Discharged at the conclusion of World War II, he attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota for a year, and then transferred to Harvard University, where he earned a B.A. in English literature in 1950. While at Harvard, Bly served as editor of the Harvard Advocate, the campus literary magazine in which he published his first essays and poetry. After leaving Harvard, Bly lived and wrote in an isolated Minnesota cabin before relocating to New York City. There he worked menial jobs while concentrating on his writing and self-education in philosophy and foreign languages. He subsequently pursued graduate studies at the University of Iowa, earning an M.A. in creative writing in 1956. Bly married writer Carol McLean in 1955. The following year, he received a Fulbright grant to travel to Norway, his ancestral homeland, where he studied and translated Scandinavian poetry. Returning to the United States in 1957, he settled on a Minnesota farm and founded The Fifties, a literary magazine devoted to poetry and translation that rejected the formalism associated with T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate. The magazine was renamed The Sixties and The Seventies in the ensuing decades. With the publication of his first volume of poetry, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), Bly received growing critical recognition. His second volume of poetry, The Light Around the Body (1967), won a National Book Award in 1968, one of many accolades his works garnered in this period. During the late 1960s, Bly became increasingly active in political and social causes. In 1966 he helped organize American Writers Against the Vietnam War, a protest group that conducted poetry “read-ins” on college campuses across the country. While living in Minnesota, Bly maintained a steady output of poetry over the next two decades, including the volumes Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979), The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981), and Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1987). He also published translations of the poetry that influenced his own work, notably that of Rainer Maria Rilke, Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, and the fifteenth-century Indian mystic Kabir. Bly divorced his first wife in 1979 and married Jungian analyst Ruth Counsell the following year. During the 1980s, Bly became interested in the psychological and spiritual rehabilitation of men, culminating in the 1990 publication of Iron John, the appearance of its companion videotape A Gathering of Men (1990), and a PBS interview that established him as a leading figure of the men's movement.
Bly's “deep image” poetry is largely concerned with unconscious awareness, spiritual revelation, and solitary communion with the natural world. Reacting against the intellectualized academic verse of the 1950s, particularly in its emphasis on technical virtuosity and artifice, Bly sought to infuse contemporary American poetry with emotionalism and spontaneity achieved through free association and nonrational subjectivity. The “country poems” of Bly's first volume, Silence in the Snowy Fields, introduce the pastoral Midwest landscapes, surreal imagery, and direct, personal idiom of his subsequent work. As does much of his writing, many of these poems feature a moment of awestruck clarity in which the speaker revels in private harmony with the world. One of his best-known poems from this volume, “Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River,” relates the speaker's euphoric connectedness to the weathered Minnesota countryside while returning home at dusk. The Light Around the Body, a much different collection, marks Bly's attempts to merge the personal and public in his art, resulting in a new didacticism that became a prominent feature of his work. In these overtly political poems, Bly adopts a polemic tone to condemn U.S. foreign policy and military involvement in Vietnam. Poems such as “Listening to President Kennedy Lie About the Cuban Invasion” and “Hatred of Men with Black Hair” express Bly's psychic despair over betrayals of conscious associated with American imperialism and the degradation of war. His next major volume of poetry, Sleepers Joining Hands, also contains powerful references to the Vietnam War, notably in “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last.” Informed by his study of Jungian psychology, many of these poems express Bly's disdain for masculine elements of the subconscious associated with aggression, morality, and analytic reasoning. In “I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” an essay from this volume, Bly extols the virtues of the Great Mother culture that preceded patriarchal ascendancy in the ancient world. With This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years Bly revisits the bucolic settings and visionary transformations of Silence in the Snowy Fields. Focusing on the duality of consciousness, these poems embody Bly's effort to unite the inner and outer realms of experience, often resulting in a melancholy realization of emptiness and loss. In The Man in the Black Coat Turns, which includes several prose-poems, Bly turned his attention to father-son relationships, the primal bonds of parentage, and male sorrow, reflecting a return to masculine awareness and Bly's need to reconcile with his own alcoholic father. Loving a Woman in Two Worlds explores themes of love, intimacy, and the possibility of cosmic union in human relationships. Typical of his poetry, the meditative imagery of stars, water, trees, farms, and wildlife suggests a profound, hidden knowledge in all things. In the prose volume Iron John, an interpretive study of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same title, Bly presents his ideas about masculinity and the importance of folk tradition, mentoring, and ritual initiation for the healthy socialization of men. Drawing broadly upon insights from mythology, psychology, social science, and poetry, Bly contends that the modern “soft-male” is afflicted with self-destructive grief, anger, and passivity stemming from a lack of guidance from older men. Bly expands upon similar themes in The Sibling Society, a sociological treatise in which he links the decline of American culture, education, and civil discourse with a state of perpetual adolescence fostered by youth-oriented cultural values that encourage immediate gratification, self-centeredness, and disposable relationships. As in Iron John, Bly stresses the significance of intergenerational mentoring and underscores his message with wide-ranging anecdotes from myth, folklore, and psychology.
Bly is widely recognized as a gifted poet, provocative social commentator, and captivating public speaker whose advocacy of spiritual introspection and creativity is responsible for a resurgence of popular interest in contemporary poetry. As a poet, he has been compared to Ezra Pound for his broad literary influence, and as a promoter and interpreter of world mythology, to Joseph Campbell. Though most acknowledge Bly's considerable intelligence and remarkable ability to convey the excitement of poetic expression to a general audience, critical evaluation of his own poetry has been mixed. While many praise the meditative simplicity, luminous imagery, and colloquial voice of Bly's verse, others find fault in his tendency toward sentimentality, banality, and empty exhortation. Most regard Silence in the Snowy Fields and The Light Around the Body as his most significant works, though he has also received critical approval for The Man in The Black Coat Turns, Loving a Woman in Two Worlds, and his Selected Poems (1986), which includes several new compositions and prefatory remarks. Attention to Bly's later poetic collections has generally been overshadowed by the enormous success of Iron John, which won him a mass readership and celebrity as a leading spokesman of the men's movement in America with its perceptive analysis of sexual identity and the demoralization of men in post-industrial society. Bly's subsequent nonfiction study, The Sibling Society, was likewise popularly praised. Nevertheless, several of Bly's slighter poetic collections, notably his Morning Poems (1997), have elicited the admiration of literary critics, who laud the reserved wisdom and insight of Bly's small-scale verse.