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Poet Robert Bly Gives Voice to Men's Movement


Robert Bly is one of the leading poets of the postwar generation, and author of Iron John the book that helped to launch the so-called "Men's Movement" in the 1990s.

With his mane of white hair, and his graceful yet purposeful gait, Robert Bly looks every bit the poet-seer. He says he has always been drawn to the richness of non-literal, non-scientific imagery, and believes that a poet's life was the obvious path for him to take.

"There are people who are literalists and they can only understand facts," he opines, "but in poetry you use an image. I did a little stanza recently that said:

'Even though you are literalists, accept the invitation to go to Pluto's wedding.
Haven't you learned yet that the stars are faithful?'"

Bly was born on a farm in the Midwestern state of Minnesota on December 26th, 1926, but left the prairie as a young adult. He served in the Navy during World War II, and enrolled at Harvard University in 1947. He became editor of Harvard's prestigious literary magazine and befriended Donald Hall, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, and other stellar young postwar poets.

In 1951, Mr. Bly went to New York City, where he lived what he called "the garret life" of a poet for three years. Four years later, he moved with his new wife to the Minnesota farm his father had given him.

Today he advises young poets "…to have a place where you don't have to pay any rent. This is very, very important!" Bly lived there for 25 years and raised his children there. It was during that period that he published his first book Silence in the Snowy Fields, which he describes as "a nature book about the beauty of the landscapes on the prairie."

One short poem from the collection is called "Watering the Horses."

"How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
the white flake of snow
that has just fallen on the horse's mane!'"

During the 1960s, Robert Bly's opposition to the war in Vietnam impelled him to abandon his reclusive way of life and engage the political world more directly. He started an organization called American Writers Against the Vietnam War and orchestrated poetry readings at mass rallies.

"It was a kind of grieving and at the same time speaking to the students in a way they could understand," he says. "Sometimes professors would come and talk to them and the professors would have no grief, no real emotion. Poetry is very helpful in those situations."

In 1968, Bly won the National Book Award for his poetry collection Light Around the Body . At the ceremony, he shocked the audience by accusing the publishing industry of complicity in the war and then giving his prize money to an anti-war demonstrator.

In Bly's view, poets are akin to shamans and psychotherapists. All three roles focus on dreams and myths and the symbolic messages they offer. "The idea is that there is a creative being inside of you who is just as brilliant as the creator of a play like Hamlet. And that one is not available to you in the daytime but does all the work at night." After a pause, he adds "if you really pay attention to that one, then an incredible number of gifts come to you that help you with your marriage, that help you with your work, that help you with your emotions."

Robert Bly achieved international celebrity with his 1992 bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men. It was a commentary on a Grimm Brothers folktale in which he explored what he saw as the hidden grief of men in American culture and their need for positive masculine models.

"One of the things we have been trying to teach in the men's work is to help men grieve," he says, "grieve for the distance between themselves and their sons, grieve for the distance between themselves and their daughters, to grieve for the failed marriages, to grieve for what they have lost in their life by agreeing to simply be involved in money and facts. This is a long process -- learning to grieve -- and poetry is helpful in doing that."

The book helped create what came to be called "The Men's Movement." Since then, tens of thousands of men have participated in retreats and workshops where they explore and celebrate what it means to be male in today's society.

At the turn of the 21st century, Robert Bly began experimenting with an ancient Islamic poetic form called a 'ghazal', which changes subject in every stanza. In one excerpt, Bly wrote:

The goose cries and there is no way to save her.
So many cheeps come from the nest by the river.
If God doesn't listen, why are we listening?

When asked just why we are listening, Bly quickly answers: "Because we have to listen to each other! That's what is really meant by depth in human beings.

When asked how he hopes to be remembered, Bly answers at first in a light way: "Oh, I don't care." Then quotes from one of his more cryptic poems:

"Don't hope for what will never come.
Give up hope, dear friends.
The joists of life are laid on the wind…"

Robert Bly continues his work in the Men's Movement. His recent works includes two books of poems, My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy and The Night Abraham Called to the Stars.

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