Robert Bly: Poet, ‘Iron John’ author dies at 94

MINNEAPOLIS – Robert Bly, one of the most prominent American poets of the past half-century and author of the best-selling men’s movement classic “Iron John,” has died. He is 94 years old.

Bly, a poet, writer and editor active for more than 50 years and a renowned translator of the work of international poets, died Sunday at her home in Minneapolis after suffering a stroke. amnesia for 14 years, his daughter, Mary Bly, said.

“Dad is not hurt. The whole family is around him, so how much better can you do?” she told the Associated Press.

Bly published his first poetry collection, “Silence in the Snowy Fields”, in 1962. He won the National Book Award in 1968 for “The Light Around the Body”, a collection of poems protesting the Vietnam War. Male. Bly donated $1,000 in prize money to the resistance movement.

But the western Minnesota native of Madison achieved his greatest fame with a piece of prose called “Iron John: A Book About Men.” His meditation on modern masculinity was published in 1990, and spent more than two years on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

The book helped launch a new men’s movement, but also angered some feminists and provoked ridicule by summoning images of topless businessmen gathering in the woods to beat drums and howl. to the moon.

Bly told the Paris Review in a 2000 interview: “The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods. “I don’t think men’s seminars pose a threat to the women’s movement, but a lot of Iron John’s critics have missed the point.”

Born on the family farm near Madison in 1926, Bly later said he first started writing poetry in high school to impress a beautiful high school English teacher. After a brief stint in the Navy, he landed at Harvard in 1947 and found himself surrounded by some of the leading lights of the country’s literature, such as the late Adrienne Rich, a classmate. of him, who became a famous feminist poet and writer.

From there to New York City – he sometimes slept at Grand Central Terminal when he couldn’t find an apartment to collapse – and then a year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bly returned to Minnesota, where he would live for most of the rest of his life.

Back in Madison, Bly and another local poet started a poetry magazine they named The Fifties (later renamed The Sixties, and later The Seventies). The inside of the front cover signaled their intention to rattle the literary establishment with this warning: “Much of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.”

Thomas R. Smith, a longtime friend of Bly’s, who has worked for Bly for many years, said: “Until then, there was a sort of academic course. assistant, and co-edited a number of books on him. “He defied the convention that all important poems came from the shores and college campuses, and created some new space for the poets of the Central Western United States.”

In addition to composing poems influenced by forebears and colleagues in other countries, Bly also worked to bring their original work to American readers. Over the years, with the help of native speakers, Bly translated several dozen poets from many languages. Several of the poets he has translated and championed, including Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Sweden’s Tomas Transstromer, will win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“The translation work is a wonderful part of his legacy,” said Jeff Shotts, executive editor at Minneapolis-based Greywolf Press, which has published several translations of Bly and other works. that.

With a tall, muscular build and thick shaggy hair – snow-white in his later years – Bly has created a striking figure. His poetry readings were often animated: He often wore masks or colorful scarves, joked and gesticulated wildly, and was in the habit of reading the same poem twice in a row.

James Lenfestey, a poet who was Bly’s neighbor in Minneapolis for many years, said: “He would say that the first time a poem gets stuck in your head, the second it can go down to your chest. your”.

George Borchardt, his agent for several decades, recalls one of his readings in New York City.

“I remember it was packed and people really paid attention to every word. He was a great reader,” the agent said.

Borchardt also remembers Bly as a joy to represent.

“He’s not the type of author who needs guidance in his writing,” he says.

Bly and his first wife, Carol, divorced in 1979; he moved to Minneapolis soon after. Bly is survived by his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1980, four children – Mary, Bridget Noah, Micha Bly and stepdaughter Wesley Dutta – and nine grandchildren.

Over the years, Bly has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, numerous translations of the works of other poets, and a handful of non-fiction books, of which “Iron John” is best known.

Smith said “Iron John” originated from Bly starting a relationship with his father, a taciturn Norwegian farmer.

“That leads to an examination of what it is to be a man,” says Smith. “He sees American men at a crossroads. He is concerned that men are losing their inner lives, their emotional lives, their connection to stories, traditions and literature. . But the caricature shows him as John Wayne with a drum. That’s the opposite of what he was.”

Mary Bly said funeral services will be private. She urged fans to send tribute donations to their favorite poetry associations.

“He was a great poet and a great father,” she said.

“And a wonderful husband,” said Ruth Bly.


Former Associated Press writer Patrick Condon contributed to this obituary.


This story has been edited to show Bly died at 94, not 95.


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