Eminent poet Robert Bly, author of “Iron John”, dies at 94


MINNEAPOLIS – Robert Bly, one of the most prominent American poets of the past half century and author of the men’s movement bestseller “Iron John”, has passed away. He was 94 years old.

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

“Dad had no pain. … His whole family was around him, so what can you do better? She told The Associated Press.

Bly published his first collection of poems, “Silence in the Snowy Fields,” in 1962. He won the National Book Award in 1968 for “The Light Around the Body,” a book of poems in protest against the Vietnam War. Bly donated the $ 1,000 prize to the Draft Resistance movement.

But the native of Madison, in western Minnesota, gained his greatest fame for a work in prose entitled “Iron John: A Book About 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 start a new movement of men, but also angered some feminists and attracted some ridicule by calling out images of shirtless businessmen gathering in the forest to beat drums and yell at the moon.

“The media called all of this drumming and racing in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous,” Bly told the Paris Review in an interview in 2000. “I think the seminars for men did not threaten the women’s movement at all, but a lot of Iron John’s critics didn’t get it. “

Born on the family farm near Madison in 1926, Bly later said he 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 greatest figures of the country’s literary scene, such as the late Adrienne Rich, a classmate of his who became a distinguished poet and writer. feminist.

From there he went to New York – he sometimes slept in Grand Central Station when he couldn’t find an apartment to crash into – then a year to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Bly returned to Minnesota where he will live most of the rest of his life.

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

“Until then, there was a sort of academic lock on traditional poetry. It all looked very Victorian and a bit fried, stuffy, complacent, ”said Thomas R. Smith, a longtime friend of Bly’s who worked for many years as an assistant and co-edited several books on him. . “He challenged the convention that all important poetry came from the coasts and college campuses, and created a new space for poets in the American Midwest.”

In addition to writing poems influenced by his predecessors and peers in other countries, Bly also made an effort to present his original work to American readers. Over the years, with the help of native speakers, Bly has translated several dozen poets into several languages. Several poets he translated and defended, including the Chilean Pablo Neruda and the Swede Tomas Transtromer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“The translation work is an incredible part of his heritage in its own right,” said Jeff Shotts, editor of the Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press, which has published some of Bly’s translations and other work.

With her tall, beefy physique and a thick tuft of wild hair – turned snow white in her later years – Bly made a striking figure. His poetry readings were often exciting affairs: he often wore colorful masks or shawls, made jokes and made wild gestures, and used to read the same poem twice in a row.

“It looks like the first time the poem got stuck in your head, but the second time it can go down your chest,” said James Lenfestey, a fellow poet who was Bly’s neighbor in Minneapolis for. many years.

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

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

Borchardt also remembered Bly as a pleasure to portray.

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

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

Over the years, Bly has published over two dozen books of poetry, multiple translations of the works of other poets, and a handful of non-fiction books of which “Iron John” was the most famous.

Smith said that “Iron John” had its roots in Bly coming to terms with her relationship with her father, a taciturn Norwegian farmer.

“This has led to a review of what it is to be a man,” Smith said. “He saw Americans at a crossroads. He feared that men would lose their interior life, their sentimental life, their connection with stories, traditions and literature. But the cartoon became that he was John Wayne with a drum. It 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.

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

“And a great husband,” said Ruth Bly.


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


Former Associated Press editor Patrick Condon contributed to this obituary.

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