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Poet Robert Bly, anti-war activist and 'men's movement' leader, dies at 94

Robert Bly won a National Book Award in 1968. He is pictured above in 2008.
Jim Mone
Robert Bly won a National Book Award in 1968. He is pictured above in 2008.

Poet Robert Bly, a tireless advocate for his art form, who over the course of half a century transformed American poetry and was also central to the controversial men's movement, died Sunday. He was 94 years old.

Bly's death was confirmed on Monday by his friend, neighbor and fellow poet, James Lenfestey. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Bly, who lived in Minneapolis, had been out of the public eye for close to a decade before his death.

Bly argued in his 1990 book, Iron John: A Book About Men, that society causes men to be disconnected from their feelings, and he knew he could rub people the wrong way. "I do remember people wanting to kill me, but that's not unusual," he said in 2010.

He was a brash farm boy from southern Minnesota who served in the Navy, then went to Harvard with the likes of poet Donald Hall and author George Plimpton. After graduating in 1950, he tired of East Coast life and moved back West. He got an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and then returned to farm life in the town of Madison, Minn.

In 1958, Bly launched a literary magazine called The Fifties with his friend William Duffy. In the first issue, they laid out their credo: "The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned." The Fifties became a must-read publication for U.S. poetry.

Bly said they got submissions from some of the best known poets of the time, but rejected almost all of them. "Bill [Duffy] was a genius at these rejection slips," he recalled in 1999. "He'd say things like, 'Dear Mr. Jones, These poems remind me of false teeth. Yours sincerely, William Duffy.' Or, 'Dear Mr. Jones, These poems are a little like lettuce that's been left too long in the refrigerator.' And then we'd get insulting letters back and we'd print the letters because they had more excitement and energy in them than the poem."

The magazine did print poems by Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and James Wright, as well as Bly's translations of poets largely unknown to U.S. audiences — poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado.

The Fifties also published Bly's own poems. Daughter Mary Bly remembers her father's lengthy writing process: "You write a poem; you put it in a trunk; you pull it out a year later; you re-write it intensely for two weeks; you put it back in the trunk; pull it out again. You're bringing months and years of your life to bear on the one idea that turns into 16 lines."

Bly won a National Book Award in 1968 and became a very public advocate for poetry. In 2009, Lenfestey organized conference to explore the poet's influence. He said at the time that Bly "really changed the way poetry is read and heard in America. He would attract huge crowds, in some cases, you know, thousands of people spreading over hillsides in California."

In the mid-'60s, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and some have speculated his activism was the reason he never became a U.S. poet laureate.

Bly was particularly interested in the deeper meanings of fairy tales and the roots of gender roles in modern society. The two came together in Iron John: A Book About Men, in which the poet used a tale from the Brothers Grimm to argue that society disconnects men from their deep feelings and emotions, and that causes problems for everyone.

"There is a tremendous amount of belittling of men that has been going on for a long time in our culture," he said in an interview in the mid-1990s.

The book, focused on helping men be more sensitive, spent 62 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and became a focus of the nascent men's movement. It attracted huge media attention, but also got slammed as being anti-women. Bly and his supporters denied this, and he kept writing into his 80s.

Admirers consider Bly's later poems among his best. Bly himself cited his 2011 poem "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat" to describe his feelings about growing older: "Each of us deserves to be forgiven," he said, "if only for/ Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat/ When so many have gone down in the storm."

As cantankerous as Bly could be sometimes, his second wife, Ruth, once said whenever he was writing poetry, he always smiled.

Copyright 2021 MPR News

Euan Kerr