Robert Bly

Credit:  The Poetry Foundation
(Credit: The Poetry Foundation)


“It’s all right if you grow your wings on the way down.” – from My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy: Poems

Robert Elwood Bly was born on December 23, 1926 in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota. He is 87 years old today. Bly was married to the short story writer Carolyn (Carol) McLean Bly. At the family farm in Minnesota, they raised four children before their divorce in 1970. The Bly’s first-born child, Mary, writers romance novels under the pen name Eloisa James. Mary is a tenured professor of literature at Fordham University. Her godfather was James Wright.

Bly is famous for his book Iron John (1990), which became a central text of the men’s movement. However, Bly was an accomplished poet from the beginning. Although trained in traditional rhyme and meter, he embraced free verse early in his career. His second collection of poetry The Light Around the Body (1967) won the National Book award. He has published over 20 books of poetry. Bly championed a poetry and psyche rooted in Jung’s archetypes and a psychology of free will. He believed that such poetry breaks the chains of academic poetics.

A Wrong Turning in American Poetry

Bly’s essay by this name was originally published in 1963 and later collected in American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity.

Bly decries the lack of “spiritual intensity” in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Robinson Jeffers. He believes William Carlos Williams is the closest poet to getting it right, but Williams is still off the mark. He calls this group “the generation of 1917” which is around the time they were all born.  Eliot’s objective correlative is a formula that blocks creativity. “True freshness and surprise are impossible” within Eliot’s constraints. What the poet must do is embrace personal experience that extrapolates to a universal experience and not vice versa.

Lorca utilizes a “passionate spontaneity” in his poems. Williams and Moore are enamored with objects that convey “no inward life” and a preoccupation with objectivism. Rilke, on the other hand, had a different mission. Bly writes, “Rilke believes that the poet actually experiences the soul, does not share the mass’s preoccupation with objects.”  American poets have much to learn from the Spanish poets and from Rilke.

Bly attributes to objectivism the loss of the “I” in poetry. American poets, unlike Spanish poets, are taught not to speak through their own voice. The persona of an American poem must be separate from the poet’s reality. Another loss in American poetry is the unwillingness of poets to write on political subjects.  Bly states, “If revolutionary thought is put down, revolution in language also dies.” Anarchy and protest promulgate good poetry.

Bly champions the Spanish poets because they take risks and are not afraid to show emotion as in these lines from Lorca:

One day

The horses will live in saloons

And the outraged ants

Will throw themselves on the yellow skies that

have taken refuge in the eyes of the cows.

Bly attributes the unwillingness of American writers to scribe such lines to a “puritan fear of the unconscious” and a business attitude to engage in socially appropriate commerce.

What does Bly propose?

Become revolutionary in your writing. Deliver to the reader a fantastic, vivid image. Embrace that which lies at the center of your heart and not the center point of your rational mind.

Interviews with Robert Bly

Bill Moyers talks with Robert Bly about poetry, manhood, music, and American culture.

Bly’s personal site is a good place to start.

In 2000, the Paris Review interviewed Bly about his influences and poetics.

In this PBS transcript, Bly talks about the causes of male violence and methods to ending violence.

In this interview with Keith Thompson, Bly asserts that “young males crave engaged fathers, strong mentors, and meaningful rites of passage to adult masculinity.”

If you’re looking for a book list, this interview with The New York Times contains plenty of books that Bly enjoys.

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