Robert Bly, the Minnesota poet, author, and translator who articulated the solitude of landscapes, galvanized protests against the Vietnam War, and started a controversial men’s movement with a bestseller that called for a restoration of primal male audacity, died Sunday at his home in Minneapolis. He was 94.
He had been suffering from dementia for 14 years, his daughter, Mary Bly, told the Associated Press.
From the sheer volume of his output — more than 50 books of poetry; translations of European and Latin American writers; and nonfiction commentaries on literature, gender roles and social ills, as well as poetry magazines he edited for decades — one might imagine a recluse holed up in a Northwoods cabin. And Mr. Bly did live for many years in a small town in Minnesota, immersing himself in the poetry of silent fields and snowy woodlands.
But from relative obscurity he roared into national consciousness in the 1960s, with antiwar free verse that attacked Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and General William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam.
His pen also took on the US war machine:
Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck,
Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets,
Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep over the huts with dirt floors.
In 1966, Mr. Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and toured the country, rallying the opposition with poetry “read-ins” on campuses and in town halls. He won the National Book Award for poetry for “The Light Around the Body” (1967), and donated his $1,000 prize to the draft resistance.
Taking another abrupt turn in 1990, he published what was to become his most famous work, “Iron John: A Book About Men,” which drew on myths, legends, poetry, and science of a sort to make a case that American men had grown soft and feminized and needed to rediscover their primitive virtues of ferocity and audacity and thus regain the self-confidence to be nurturing fathers and mentors.
The book touched a nerve. It was on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 62 weeks, including 10 weeks as No. 1, and was translated into many languages.
Mr. Bly was profiled in newspapers, magazines and a 90-minute PBS special by Bill Moyers, who called him “the most influential poet writing today.”
He became a cultural phenomenon, a father figure to millions. He held men-only seminars and weekend retreats, gatherings often in the woods with men around campfires thumping drums, making masks, hugging, dancing, and reading poetry aloud.
He said his “mythopoetic men’s movement” was not intended to turn men against women. But many women called it a put-down, an atavistic reaction to the feminist movement. Cartoonists and talk-show hosts ridiculed it, dismissing it as tree-hugging self-indulgence by middle-class baby boomers.
Mr. Bly, a shambling white-haired guru who strummed a bouzouki and wore colorful vests, was easily mocked as Iron John himself, a hairy wild man who, in the German myth, helped aimless princes in their quests.
“The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous,” Mr. Bly told the Paris Review in a 2000 interview. “I think the men’s seminars were not threatening to the women’s movement at all, but a lot of the critics of ‘Iron John’ missed the point.”
Undismayed, he continued his workshops for years with a more down-to-earth focus. He gave up the drums but still used myths and poetry and invited women and men to discuss an array of topics, including parenting and racism.
And he continued to write rivers of poetry, to edit magazines and to translate works from Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Spanish, and to churn out jeremiads. In “The Sibling Society” (1996), Mr. Bly called for mentoring a generation of children growing up without fathers, who were being shaped instead by rock music, violent movies, television, and computers into what he called a state of perpetual adolescence.
But he saw hope.
“The biggest influence we’ve had,” he told the Times in 1996, “is in younger men who are determined to be better fathers than their own fathers were.”
Robert Elwood Bly was born in Lac qui Parle County in western Minnesota on Dec. 23, 1926, to Norwegian farmers, Jacob and Alice (Aws) Bly. Mr. Bly later said he first started writing poetry in high school to impress a beautiful high school English teacher.
He graduated from high school in Madison, (population 600) in 1944, served two years in the Navy, and studied for a year at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minn. He then transferred to Harvard University in 1947.
He found himself surrounded by some of the leading lights of the country’s literary scene, such as the late Adrienne Rich, a classmate of his who became a prominent feminist poet and writer.
“One day while studying a Yeats poem, I decided to write poetry the rest of my life,” he recalled in a 1984 essay for the Times. “I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character and events of one’s own life.”
After Harvard, it was on to New York City — he sometimes slept at Grand Central Station when he couldn’t find an apartment to crash — and then a year at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Mr. Bly returned to Minnesota where he’d live for most of the rest of his life.
In 1955, he married Carol McLean, a writer. They had four children, Bridget, Mary, Micah, and Noah, and were divorced in 1979.
In 1980, he married Ruth Ray, a Jungian therapist. In addition to her, Mr. Bly is leaves his children; a stepdaughter, Wesley Dutta; and nine grandchildren. A stepson, Samuel Ray, died in 1984.
In 1958, he founded a poetry magazine, The Fifties, which survived to become The Sixties, The Seventies and The Eighties. The inside of the front cover signaled the magazine’s intention to rattle the literary establishment with this warning: “Most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.”
“Up until then, there was a kind of academic lock on mainstream poetry. It all looked like very Victorian and kind of refried, stuffy, complacent,” said Thomas R. Smith, a longtime friend to Mr. Bly who worked for many years as his assistant, and has co-edited several books about him. “He defied the convention that all the important poetry was coming from the coasts and the college campuses, and carved out some new space for the poets of the American Midwest.”
In addition to writing poems influenced by his predecessors and peers in other countries, Mr. Bly also labored to bring their original work to US readers. Over the years, with the help of native speakers, Mr. Bly translated several dozen poets from a number of languages. Several poets he translated and championed, including Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Sweden’s Tomas Transtromer, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the 1970s, he wrote 11 books of poetry, essays and translations, delving into myths, meditations, and Indian ecstatic verse.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he produced 27 books, including “The Man in the Black Coat Turns” (1981), “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds” (1985) and “Selected Poems” (1986).
With his tall, burly physique and a thick shock of wild hair — gone snow-white in his later years — Mr. Bly cut a striking figure. His poetry readings were frequently rollicking affairs: He often donned masks or colorful shawls, cracked jokes, and gestured wildly, and had a habit of reading the same poem twice in a row.
“He’d say that the first time the poem got stuck in your head, but the second time it can get down in your chest,” said James Lenfestey, a fellow poet who was Mr. Bly’s neighbor in Minneapolis for many years.
Mr. Bly, who had homes in Minneapolis and Moose Lake, Minn., was the recipient of many awards and the subject of many books and essays.
In recent years, he traveled widely, lecturing, reading poems and joining discussion panels, and in 2008 he was named Minnesota’s first poet laureate by Governor Tim Pawlenty. In 2004, he published “The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the War in Iraq” and in an introduction noted wryly that little had changed since Vietnam.
“We are still in a blindfold,” he wrote, “still being led by the wise of this world.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.