Robert Bly: The Dude Abides

In his seventy-seven years, he has established himself as a world-class poet, teacher, social critic—and founder of the controversial “expressive men’s movement.”

Standing in his studio—a nineteenth-century stable behind what was once a lone farmhouse atop Lowry Hill—Robert Bly is surrounded by books, papers, and icons. This is a monk’s cell. In one nook stands a simple bed. There is a prayer room, where gatherings of chanting and drumming are held for a regular group of initiates who sit cross-legged on Persian carpets.

Bly himself is a tall and solid man. On these wintry days, you’ll find him cloaked in an enormous overcoat and black ushanka hat. He looks like a bear just out of the forest. Though he’s just embarked on his seventy-seventh year and his thick hair is frosty white, he displays a youthful vigor that reminds you he has lived a very active life.

Like the heroes of so many fairytales he has told, Robert Bly is an archetype in his own history. Such mythic journeys require tasks that prove fortitude, and Bly has duly tilled the soil, fought with dragons, and lived as a hermit. He is legendary for banging down institutional doors and tackling giants. As an outspoken poet, philosopher, and societal gadfly, he has written the laws of the world as he sees them, and he’s gotten himself into plenty of trouble for it. Most people are more familiar with Bly’s opinions than his poetry. Many don’t know much of either. It’s not easy following his mystical lead. Yet his longevity and conviction have earned him the begrudging respect of many critics, even on the nasty battlefield of literature.

As a studious pupil of many teachers, he learned the scholarly ways. He has been a supplicant in the church of Jung and knows the songs of Abraham, Muhammad, Shiva, and Odin. Bly has faced his share of demons along his far-flung path. Today he meets with me between his engagements as a still-active writer, speaker, and babysitter for his nineteen-month-old grandson.

Although he is an accomplished poet, a renowned translator of poetry, and a National Book Award recipient for his 1967 collection The Light Around the Body, Robert Bly is probably best known for his role in the men’s movement. It has been a long path, but suffice it to say that by the eighties, Bly’s studies of Freud and Jung and the world at large had led him to see the struggle of human consciousness as the result of a breakdown of our masculine and feminine sides. Not only were they at odds, they were largely lost. He took up these themes in his writing and in his activism, and in so doing he became the subject of at least as much ridicule as admiration.

Bly’s work with the men’s movement was inspired by his previous exploration of the Great Mother as a poetic theme, and by watching his two sons confront the cruelties of life. “My daughters were older than my sons. Daughters have a self-regulating mechanism. But sons are a problem. The world has so cuffed them about with such fantastic cruelty that becoming an adult male is a huge problem. Once I was with a thousand men at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. I had an idea that overnight we cut up like two or three thousand pieces of red cloth and then I said, ‘I’d like all of the men here who have a wound on their body to tie a piece of cloth around their wound.” Bly shakes his head in sadness. “There were men with eight of those ribbons on their bodies. Motorcyle crashes, fights, war, everything.”

The “father consciousness” needed tending, Bly decided, and masculine roles were rooted in violence. “It’s easier to socialize a young man into being a warrior than to be a father. You can do that in the Marines; men are geared for that in some way. But to socialize them into being fathers is a different matter.” Bly started the Minnesota Men’s Conference in 1984 near Sturgeon Lake, mixing teachers, poets, psychologists, and musicians. “In the seventies we were doing workshops with men and women. I’d always used the story theme of fairy tales, which is the old Jungian way to do things—but when I decided I wanted to teach a fairy tale to men, I didn’t have any. I read through the whole Grimm Brothers and finally found ‘Iron John.’ It is clearly a way of a man overcoming his shame. After all, he’s in the bottom of the lake.” Thus the “Expressive Men’s Movement” was born. When Bly put his work into book form in 1990, Iron John became an instant bestseller that inspired a competing reaction of acclaim and disdain.

Feminists were livid. Women Respond to the Men’s Movement, edited by Kay Leigh Hagan, collected several highly charged reactions from writers of merit, including Bell Hooks, Laura Brown, and Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver expressed dismay. “When I try to understand the collection of ideas and goals that has come to be called the men’s movement, what disturbs me is that it generally stands as an ‘other half’ to the women’s movement, and in my mind it doesn’t belong there. It is not an equivalent. Women are fighting for their lives, and men are looking for some peace of mind.”

Activist Hattie Gossett was perhaps the most reactionary, when she spat, “Well, what do they mean? What’re they going to the woods for then? Oh? Really? Sensitive? Does that mean they’re against rape now? When they come back from the woods do they issue statements against child abuse, wife battering, incest, lesbian battering? Do they pledge that, the next time one of their street-corner or health-club buddies is running off at the mouth about how he snatched him some pussy then kicked that bitch in her ass? These guys who paid all this money to go to the woods with what’s-his-name, will they silently organize a small group to take their brother for a little walk and show him some tongue- and penis-restraint exercises guaranteed to permanently clear his mind of all thoughts of ripping off pussy, or bitches, or kicking ass?”

Susan Faludi swung back hard in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. She painted Bly as a particularly fiendish perpetrator of the suppression of feminism, calling him the “general of the men’s movement.” She wrote, “The true subject of Bly’s weekends, after all, is not love and sex, but power—how to wrest it from women and how to mobilize it for men.” Her tome dedicates several pages to what today seems a hateful attack.

Bly looks quizzical and a little sad. “The women thought that the men’s movement came up to try to combat feminism. On the contrary, it was like a planned growth. It appears at a certain time. A tree doesn’t grow up because there’s another tree nearby. It’s got its own growth pattern. Women used to think of me as a huge enemy and attack me all the time. But now I find that a lot of women stop me in airports and tell me, ‘I’ve been reading Iron John. I can’t tell you how helpful that is in dealing with my own male side.’”

Whatever the verdict, the hubbub brought Bly a measure of celebrity that still lives. The highly respected Bill Moyers produced A Gathering of Men for PBS, bringing Bly and his Wild Man into our national living room. Spin-off books by spin-off Jungians, shamans, and visionaries flooded the media. A cottage industry of men’s conferences of innumerable stripes flourished from church basements to Fortune 500 boardrooms.

Dialogue was lost in the shouting of standard-bearers who had climbed into their opposing towers. Even politically motivated Jungians pecked at Bly’s interpretations as conservative. People took from Iron John whatever suited their own agendas. Feminists who were nervous in 1990 could point by the middle of the decade to scores of highly conservative and chauvinistic new men’s groups. It doesn’t take a psychic leap to guess that organizations like the Promise Keepers drew some of their energy from what Bly had started. Even worse, Iron John made for some of the best lampooning material in years. Men crying en masse, drumming, and chanting; it was all so easy. The image of a herd of naked white men plunging through the forest still comes to mind.

Yet, fourteen years later, Iron John’s drum can still be heard. Bly offers a grandfatherly smile. “The Minnesota Men’s Conference will celebrate its twentieth year in September. I think men have been helped somewhat. I was over at Powderhorn Park one day and I saw a lot of men there playing with their sons. My wife said, ‘That’s part of the work that you and the others did, that many more men are taking part in raising their children.’”

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