Poet and essayist Robert Bly has died.
November 22, 2021 12:29 PM   Subscribe

"Deep image" Poet & essayist Robert Bly died at home on Sunday. He was 94 years old. He authored numerous poetry collections, essays, and works of non-fiction. An outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, Bly won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1968 for his collection The Light Around the Body. His mythopoetic exploration of male identity, Iron John, (1990) brought Bly fame and, occasionally, criticism.
posted by Bob Regular (28 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

While I don't want to shit on the guy's entire career, I do feel like the feminist critique of Iron John (and the mythopoetic men's movement it birthed) started shortly after the book was published and has continued to this day.

Back in 1992, 'Why Iron John is No Gift to Women' made the front page of the NYT Book Review. Here's another critical piece from around the time of the book's release, this one from the LA Times in 1991: ''Positive Patriarchy' is Still Domination.' And because I like threes, Deborah Tannen for the Washington Post in 1991: 'Born to Be Wild.'
posted by box at 12:48 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]

posted by pt68 at 1:00 PM on November 22

"He was besotted by words" is a fine line for a writer's obituary.
posted by doctornemo at 1:20 PM on November 22 [6 favorites]

Iron John? Though I was around during that time, the name now only invokes that ludicrous MAGA shaman dude from 1/6. Contra Bly, men don’t need to find themselves. Instead they need to cast off all that manly bullshit they think they need to express.
posted by njohnson23 at 1:20 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]

And .
posted by doctornemo at 1:25 PM on November 22

posted by Rash at 1:30 PM on November 22

posted by sammyo at 1:45 PM on November 22

"inside the veins there are navies setting forth,
Tiny explosions at the waterlines,
And seagulls weaving in the wind of the salty blood.
It is the morning. The country has slept the whole winter.
Window seats were covered with fur skins, the yard was full
Of stiff dogs, and hands that clumsily held heavy books.
Now we wake, and rise from bed, and eat breakfast!
Shouts rise from the harbor of the blood,
Mist, and masts rising, the knock of wooden tackle in the sunlight.
Now we sing, and do tiny dances on the kitchen floor.
Our whole body is like a harbor at dawn;
We know that our master has left us for the day."
-Waking from Sleep.
posted by clavdivs at 1:52 PM on November 22 [15 favorites]

posted by riverlife at 2:12 PM on November 22

posted by Stonestock Relentless at 2:22 PM on November 22

posted by adekllny at 2:28 PM on November 22

Here he is reading his translation of Kabir's Clay Jug at the beginning of Jackie Leven's song of the same name (bonus Mike Scott of The Waterboys reading Osip Mandelstam at the end)
Inside this clay jug there are canyons
and pine mountains, and the maker of
canyons and pine mountains!

posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:06 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]

posted by JohnFromGR at 3:29 PM on November 22

Having some insider knowledge of Bly and the editor who plucked his manuscript for “Iron John” out of the slush pile, I have to say that I always thought the feminist eye-rolling at the Men’s Movement was understandable but misguided. Yes, IJ was essentialist, and essentialist is usually kind of dumb, but it was never ever meant to be a gateway drug to conservative politics a la Jordan Peterson. Quite the opposite, actually; it was trying to offer men a way to pull their socks up and stop acting like jerks and solve their own problems, but in a style that still let them feel like “men”. The medicine-to-peanut butter ratio can always be debated, but I think it was more worthy attempt than he often gets credit for in certain circles. (And obviously it was a giant best-seller so no harm done, but still).

posted by ducky l'orange at 5:02 PM on November 22 [17 favorites]

Contra Bly, men don’t need to find themselves. Instead they need to cast off all that manly bullshit they think they need to express.

njohnson23, your second sentence could in fact serve reasonably well as a summary of what I think Bly was trying to say in "Iron John". It was a greatly misunderstood book. It wasn't against feminism; it was against what we now call toxic masculinity.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 5:09 PM on November 22 [11 favorites]

Thank you, Artifice_Eternity. Yes, exactly. And it placed a huge emphasis on men caring for other men, which is exactly what a lot of understandably frustrated and exhausted feminists wish men would do more of.
posted by ducky l'orange at 5:40 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]

I never got on the Iron John train, but I used to love an anthology he edited, with some of his own poems in it, with poetry of, uh, cosmic consciousness.
posted by thelonius at 6:15 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

My goodness, how did I not know that he was married at one time to Carol Bly, a brilliant essayist. "Bruno Bettelheim: Three Ideas to Try in Madison, Minnesota" is three feet from where I sit. In it, she explores "ideas developed in great straits (in the concentration camp at Dachau and later, in the Orthogenic School of the University of Chicago, where he treated autistic children) and deliberately using them in little straits." That is, for what they can do for the women of a town out there on the edge of the prairie.

Here's a paragraph:
Still, forty-five-year-old women do start dropping out of the artifically structured social life in Madison: people who have dazedly accepted belonging to clubs for twenty years now choose to topple their own inner lives instead. They simply have learned a sense of time left--and the tragedy of it is that a spiritually dormant society ever allowed them to waste twenty years.
Let's check the biographical sketch in the Norton Reader (8th edition, 1992)...nope, no mention of Robert: "After graduate work [at the U of MN] she married and raised four children in a small mining town on the western edge of Minnesota. Out of this time came a book, Letters from the Country (1981), a collection of essays originally written for the Minnesota Monthly." They divorced in 1979, I learn from the linked obit.

Anyway, about ROBERT Bly - I was exposed to his work in those serious anthologies of American verse that I'd peruse in the U of Northern Iowa library in the early 90s. Everyone seemed to have an Iowa City connection. His work was often challenging and a bit beyond me, and he had great range; his translations led me to other greats.

The whole Iron John business came a few years before I started grad school, and it sort of made him seem less an object of study than of attention. I never read it, however, and didn't read his poetry for...decades. Until today, in fact. But I find some of his words resonant still. Poetry is hard to write.
posted by Caxton1476 at 6:28 PM on November 22 [10 favorites]

posted by condour75 at 6:36 PM on November 22

posted by kneecapped at 7:17 PM on November 22

The contemporaneous links box posts above are excellent, and point to the naiveté and brokenness of men and the men's "movement", then and now. Myself included.
posted by riverlife at 9:20 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

METAFILTER: The medicine-to-peanut butter ratio can always be debated, but
posted by philip-random at 9:57 PM on November 22 [3 favorites]

posted by Cash4Lead at 6:37 AM on November 23

posted by exlotuseater at 9:49 AM on November 23

I think that Bly, although he didn't put it as such, was trying to let men reawaken a witch-y side of masculinity.

But when the tools that you have before you include the patriarchy someone is going to end up asking, "Is mayonnaise a privilege ?"

posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 10:42 AM on November 23 [4 favorites]

posted by riruro at 11:05 AM on November 23

The anthology I was recalling was News Of The Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. I think that's where I first read "For I will consider my cat, Geoffery..." by Christopher Smart.
posted by thelonius at 1:40 PM on November 23 [1 favorite]


“Poetry is hard to write.” Boy, that’s true.

I saw Bly read in the early 90s at the University of Colorado. My weird hyper-athletic and hyper-intelligent friend dragged me along. (CU has always had its share of jocks operating on a different wavelength.)

“Come on, man, it’s Bly!” The name was vaguely familiar, but my dad wouldn’t have read Iron John in a million years, and so I only knew of Bly by name. Still, I was taken by my friend’s glassy-eyed excitement, and went to the reading.

This quite a build-up to say that I don’t really remember the reading all that well. I do remember Bly. A big shambles of a man. He looked like a hermit, one who took to the woods after a long, undecided life. His presence was a truth of some sort. Or not. I don’t know. At the time, I was reminded of my high school English teacher’s memories of seeing Auden on campus at Berkeley in the 60s/70s. My teacher said Auden looked homeless. His sneakers (sneakers!) were broken with holes.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough, and reached nowhere in particular.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 7:34 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]

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