Conference celebrates poet Robert Bly

Robert Bly
Minnesota poet Robert Bly is the subject of a three day international conference at the University of Minnesota. The 82 year-old has created a massive body of work that includes not just his poems, but editorial reviews, translations of other poets, and the creation of a men's movement.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Hugh Van Dusen, Robert Bly's editor at Harper Collins of close to twenty years, said Bly's place in literary history is clear.

"He's one of the great American poets still alive - it's obvious - you don't even have to talk about it it's so obvious," Van Dusen said.

"Our aim was to offend as many people as we could."

Van Dusen said he's mystified as to why Robert Bly has yet to be named the nation's poet laureate. He speculates that Bly is now too old to handle the heavy travel schedule the position demands, and wonders if perhaps it was Bly's political activism against the war in Vietnam that kept him from receiving the honor. Bly is known not just for his poetic eloquence, but also for his strongly worded opinions.

Sitting in his Minneapolis living room on a sunny weekday morning, Robert Bly chuckles as he remembers back to the days when he published the poetry review "The Fifties" with his friend James Wright. He said their goal was to combat dullness.

"Our aim was to offend as many people as we could," Bly said. "You're not old enough to know how dull the '50s were. So our aim was to offend as many people as we could, and we'd get wonderfully insulting letters back and we'd print those letters."

Young Bly
Poet Robert Bly was born in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota. He served in the Navy, then attended St. Olaf College for one year before transferring to Harvard University. There he studied alongside Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, George Plimpton and others.
Photo courtesy of the Robert Bly papers at the University of Minnesota

Bly developed a reputation for searing criticism. In one note to an aspiring poet, Bly wrote "we believe that all people who write sonnets should be hung to the nearest lamp post!" In another note, responding to one author's offer to submit an essay on the "poetic ear," Bly retorted he'd prefer something on the "poetic nose."

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But alongside the snide comments was a deep love for really good poetry. Bly translated the works of many international poets that had yet to be heard in English, including Pablo Neruda. "The Fifties" was so popular that it eventually had to be renamed "The Sixties", and then "The Seventies".

Ann Mulfort, archivist for the Robert Bly Papers at the University of Minnesota, said the back and forth between Bly and a generation of poets forged a whole new literary landscape

Iron John
Robert Bly's book "Iron John" became an international bestseller. Bly's work creating a men's movement in the 80s and 90s made him famous with a crowd he would have never reached through his poetry.
Photo courtesy of the Robert Bly papers at the University of Minnesota

"He single-handedly transformed poetry because many young poets would write him to get their poetry included into this magazine," Mulfort said. "The correspondance shows this give and take of this analysis of poetry of the mid-twentieth century that kind of blows your mind."

Mulfort even credits Bly with getting poets to abandon the rhyming meter.

Some of Bly's original letters from his editorial days are on display in the University of Minnesota's Anderson Library. There are also magazine articles profiling Bly's creation of what is called the "mythopoetic men's movement."

"We've got letters from Henry Kissinger Jimmy Carter, John Densmore - the drummer for the Doors," Mulfort said. "We've got some people from all walks of life that have been so affected by the men's movement."

Bly's editor, Hugh Van Dusen, also emphasized Bly's influence.

"In terms of his influence on other people, I think his great contribution has been the men's movement," he said. "And that in no way denigrates his abilities as a poet and as a translator."

In the 1980s and 90s, Bly led weekend retreats for men only, where they would read poetry and share stories. The retreats were criticized by some who believed them to be a backlash against feminism. But Van Dusen, who attended several of the retreats, said they helped men to recognize and express their emotions.

Bly's book about men, "Iron John", became an international bestseller. But Robert Bly doesn't mention the men's movement when asked what he would like to be remembered for.

"Oh, for being beautiful, handsome, [a] good father, good husband and a good poet," Bly said. "No, I'm happy to have lived long enough to do some good poems. Whether they're great or not is not the issue, really."

While the University of Minnesota is celebrating Bly's body of work, he is by no means finished yet. In recent years, he's been incorporating the formal structure of the great Persian poets, Rumi and Hafez, into his own writing. He said the structure is most easily put to use by poets who have done a lot of reading, and a lot of living. And he thinks he qualifies.