Robert Bly Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The titles of Robert Bly’s poems range from the rather general (“Night”) to the overly specific (“After Drinking All Night With a Friend, We Go Out at in a Boat at Dawn To See Who Can Write the Best Poem”). Consider how allusively or specifically Bly introduces his poetic subject matter through titles.

How effectively and compellingly does Bly convey his antiwar beliefs, both in general and specifically about the Vietnam conflict?

Is it disingenuous to suggest that the simple act of writing or reading poetry or prose can result in the psychic healing that Bly attests?

Do the male-centric observations in Iron John and elsewhere have relevance for readers of both genders?

How would Bly’s poetry fare via a Formalist or New Critical reading? What new insights about his work might such a noncontextual reading provide?

How well has Bly articulated the challenges of being a translator of poetry? How much influence from Pablo Neruda or Rainer Maria Rilke is there in the translations and how much Robert Bly?

How does Bly use rhyme, meter, and stanzaic configuration to convey his intended meaning, especially in his earlier poetry?

Are some of Bly’s early observations about the Jungian Mother consistent with his later assertions in Iron John?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Robert Bly has been a prolific critic, translator, and anthologist. His work in these areas complements his poetic accomplishments and was a significant influence on the internationalization of the literary community in the last third of the twentieth century. His most important works include translations of the poems of Georg Trakl, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Tranströmer, Federico García Lorca, Jall al-Dn Rm, Kabir, and Antonio Machado. He has also called attention to the work of other poets through anthologies: News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness (1980), The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau (1986), The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men (1993), and The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures (1995).

Bly’s writings about the practice of poetry have been published as Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (1975) and American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity (1990). His social criticism has ranged from A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War (1966; with David Ray) to Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), the best seller that became a primer for the men’s movement of the 1990’s. It was followed by similarly controversial studies, including The Spirit Boy and the Insatiable Soul (1994) and The Sibling Society (1996).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Robert Bly is the central poet of his generation. His wide-ranging achievements in poetry, criticism, and translation, as well as his work as editor and itinerant apologist for poetry and various social causes, have made him one of the most conspicuous, ubiquitous, and controversial poets in the United States since the mid-1960’s. His significance and influence extend well beyond his own work.

Bly’s various accomplishments have been rewarded by a Fulbright Fellowship for translation (1956-1957), the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship (1964), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1965 and 1972), a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1967), and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1966). In 1968, The Light Around the Body, his most controversial collection of poetry, won the National Book Award. Bly received the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award (2000) and the Minnesota Book Award (2002) for The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. In 2008, his poem “War and Childhood,” won the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Davis, William V. Robert Bly: The Poet and His Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. This chronological study traces the twists and turns of Bly’s reputation, accounting for both the aesthetic and nonaesthetic components of critical judgments.

Davis, William V. Understanding Robert Bly. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. A book-length study of Bly’s poetic career, geared to an understanding of the chronological development and ongoing significance of Bly’s life and work through a detailed analysis of individual poems and an in-depth consideration of each of the major books. Includes a primary and secondary bibliography and an index.

Harris, Victoria Frenkel. The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. This in-depth study examines Bly’s poetry in terms of his idea of universalizing poetic processes. Contains an exhaustive bibliography of work by and about Bly.

Jones, Richard, and Kate Daniels, eds. Of Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981. A miscellany of materials on Bly, including essays, memoirs, poems, notes, and documents, as well as new poems and translations by Bly. Includes an extensive primary and secondary bibliography but no index.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. A detailed critical introduction to and analysis of Bly’s career through The Man in the Black Coat Turns, stressing the way in which his various theories illuminate his poems. Includes a chronology of his life, a primary and secondary bibliography, and an index.

Peseroff, Joyce, ed. Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. A substantial collection of reviews and essays (including several previously unpublished) on Bly and his work through The Man in the Black Coat Turns. Includes an extensive primary and secondary bibliography but no index.

Quetchenbach, Bernard W. Back from the Far Field: American Nature Poetry in the Late Twentieth Century. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000. In a lengthy chapter on Bly, the author explores Bly’s concept of a true humanity, including his insistence that consciousness be linked to the environment or disaster will follow.

Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An introductory critical overview of Bly’s work and career stressing a Jungian interpretation, through The Man in the Black Coat Turns. Includes a selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources and an index.