Prominent poet Robert Bly, author of ‘Iron John’, dies at 94

Robert Bley, one of the most prominent American poets of the last half century and author of the bestselling classic men’s movement “Iron John”, has passed away. He was 94 years old.

Bly, an active poet, writer and editor for more than 50 years and a famous translator of the works of international poets, died Sunday at his Minneapolis home after suffering from dementia for 14 years, his daughter Mary Bly said.

“Dad was not in pain. … His whole family was around him, so how could you do better?” she told The Associated Press.

Bly published his first book of poetry, Silence in the Snowy Fields, in 1962. He won the 1968 National Book Award for The Light Around the Flesh, a book of Vietnam War protest poems. Bly donated a cash prize of $1,000 to the resistance movement.

But the native of western Madison, Minnesota, gained fame for his prose work called Iron John: A Book of Men. His Meditation on Modern Masculinity was released in 1990, and spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

The book helped launch a new men’s movement, but it also angered some feminists and provoked some ridicule by invoking images of naked-breasted businessmen gathering in the woods, beating drums and howling the moon.

“The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, making it absurd,” Bley told the Paris Review in a 2000 interview. “I think the men’s seminars weren’t threatening the women’s movement at all, but a lot of Iron John’s critics got it wrong.”

Born on his family farm near Madison in 1926, Bly would later say that he first began writing poetry in high school to impress his lovely 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 in the country’s literary scene, such as the late Adrian Rich, a classmate who became a prominent feminist poet and writer.

From there he was to New York City—sometimes sleeping in Grand Central Station when he couldn’t find an apartment to crash—and then a year later at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Bly returned to Minnesota, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.

Back in Madison, Bla and a local poet started another poetry magazine they called the Fifties (later renamed the Sixties, then the Seventies). The inside front cover indicated their intent to cause a stir in the literary establishment with this warning: “Most poetry published in America today is very old.”

Until then, there was a kind of academic lock on mainstream poetry. Thomas R. said: Smith, an old friend of Bley’s who had worked for many years as his aide, and had co-edited several books about him, “all sounded very Victorian, kind of reworked, stuffy and complacent.” “He challenged the convention that all important poetry was coming from the coasts and from college campuses, creating a new space for American Midwest poets.”

In addition to writing poems that influenced his predecessors and peers in other countries, Bley also worked to introduce their original works to American readers. Over the years, with the help of native speakers, Bly has translated dozens of poets from a number of languages. Many of the poets he translated and endorsed, including Chilean Pablo Neruda and Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“The translation work is an amazing part of his legacy in and of itself,” said Jeff Schutes, executive editor of Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press, which has published some of Bly’s translations and other work.

With his tall, strong physique and the bushy bump of his wild hair – which became pristine in his later years – Bley cut a stunning figure. His poetic readings were often fickle matters: he often wore masks or colorful shawls, cracked jokes and pointed wildly, and was in the habit of reading the same poem twice in a row.

“He used to say that the first time you got the poem stuck in your head, but the second time it could come down to your chest,” said James Lenviste, a fellow poet who had been Bly’s neighbor in Minneapolis for many years.

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

“I remember it was packed and people were sticking with every word. He was a great reader,” said the agent.

Borchardt also mentions that Bly had the pleasure of representing her.

“He was not the type of author who needed guidance in his writing,” he said.

Bly and his first wife, Carol, divorced in 1979; He moved to Minneapolis soon after. Bley is survived by his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1980, four children — Mary, Bridget Noah, Misha Bley, and daughter-in-law Wesley Dutta — and nine grandchildren.

Over the years, Bley has published more than twenty collections of poetry, multiple translations of the works of other poets, and a handful of nonfiction books, of which Iron John is the best known.

Smith said Iron John’s roots go back to Bly coming to terms with his relationship with his father, a Norwegian farmer of few words.

“This led to an examination of what it means to be a man,” Smith said. He saw American men at a crossroads. He was concerned that men were losing their inner life, their feeling life, and their connection to stories, traditions, and literature. But the caricature became that of John Wayne with a drum. This is the opposite of what it was.”

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

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

“And a great husband,” said Ruth Bly.

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