In the company of men: Mythopoetic mensch Robert Bly to be subject of Minneapolis conference


On April 16-19, people from around the world will converge in Minneapolis for a conference about Minnesota’s first poet laureate: Robert Bly. Best known as a co-founder of what he has called “the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement,” Bly has written over 40 books of poetry, essays, and translations.

“Robert Bly is one of the most important poets alive in the world today,” says writer Jim Lenfesty, one of the organizers of the conference. “I don’t think there’s any real debate about that.”

april 18, robert bly reads his poetry accompanied by musicians marcus wise (tabla) and david whestone (sitar) at wiley hall, 225 19th ave. s., minneapolis. tickets $10. april 16-19, the robert bly in this world conference will be held at anderson library, 222 21st ave. s., minneapolis. hear an interview with jim lenfesty, and robert bly reading poems, at the catalyst page at

Bly was born in 1927 in Madison, Minnesota, which Lenfesty describes as “a tiny town scratching up against the Dakota border on the prairie.” After graduating from Harvard, Bly studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then spent a few years in New York City, living a monk-like devotion to poetry. He married his first wife, writer Carol McLean, and then did something few writers did in the early 1950s: he came home to the family farm.

“Most people went to New York City or San Francisco,” says Lenfesty. “In his farmhouse with his family. Robert started The Fifties with his friend William Duffy. It was a magazine of literature and opinion…they blew the doors off the writing world in America! He published poets from around the world in translation. Robert was the first to translate Pablo Neruda. He’s done whatever he can to bring the great poets of the world to us.”

Traveling on a Fulbright to Norway in the 1950s, Bly discovered many of the international poets he would translate for Americans in a small town library. Bly’s newest book is a collaboration with a scholar of Persian poetry from England, Leonard Lewisohn: The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door: 30 Poems of Hafiz. Bly visited Iran in the last two years. Leisohn will be speaking at the conference along with Los Angeles poet Ray Gonzalez, talking about Bly and Latin American poets.

“Robert has an astonishing ear for metaphor,” observes Lenfesty. “Metaphor is the driver of Persian poetry. In his last two books of his own poems, Robert has taken up writing in the Persian form of the ghazal. Robert’s mind is not confined. He’s confined his life to Minnesota, but he’s been out roaming the world for any voices that enrich our lives.“

Men grappling with grief is the core of the men’s movement that Bly helped begin in the mid-1970s. Bly synthesized Jungian psychoanalysis, fairy tales, and ancient mythology, connecting up with Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero Has a Thousand Faces. While no longer in the media spotlight, the outdoor men’s gatherings Bly inspired continue to draw thousands of men across the country annually.

Bly’s 1990 bestseller prose work Iron John was controversial, especially among feminists. Taking a fairy tale as its starting point, the book explores how boys become men in a post-industrial era of absent fathers. The roots of Bly’s men’s movement also lie in his opposition to war, his understanding of what it costs men to become soldiers, and how an entire society’s psyche is mangled in the pursuit of war. It’s this “collateral damage” Bly observes while he faces the wreckage done to countries invaded by the United States. At the conference, Minnesota poet Thomas R. Smith will talk about Bly and the men’s movement.

Admired around the world, Bly has been awarded only one major literary prize in America: the National Book Award in 1967, for The Light Around the Body,a book of anti-war poems. He gave the $1,000 prize to the anti-war movement. Last year, his book The Insanity of Empire challenged the U.S. occupation of Iraq; Bly gave away hundreds of copies. The poem “Call and Answer,” part of that collection, reads in party: “I say to myself: ‘Go on, cry. What’s the sense / Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out! / See who will answer! This is Call and Answer!'”

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis writer and poet, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She is host/producer of Catalyst: Politics & Culture on KFAI.