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Praising the Soul in Women and Men

Robert Bly and the Men's Movement

Copyright © 2000 by Thomas R. Smith


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Robert Bly, winner of McKnight Foundation 2000 Distinguished Artist Award

Robert Bly was recently awarded the McKnight Foundation 2000 Distinguished Artist Award. Thomas R. Smith prepared this essay as part of the foundation's beautiful tribute booklet. Copies of this boklet are available for free.

Thomas R. Smith
Thomas R. Smith

Nineteen ninety, the watershed year for the men's movement in the U.S., was also, not coincidentally, the year that rocketed Robert Bly, along with his best-seller Iron John, to international media visibility.

Interviewing Bly for New Age Journal, Jeff Wagehheim asked a question apparently puzzling many: Why a poet leading this issue, not a politician, say, or a sports hero?

Characteristically deflecting emphasis from himself, Bly replied, "One reason poetry is at the center is because the language that men use to communicate with each other has gotten very damaged." Bly's answer, though utterly consistent with his 50+-year career as a defender of the beauty, depth, and nourishing power of language, begs the question, Why this poet?

In fact Bly's intellectual engagement with gender matters reaches back at least to his 1973 essay, "I Came Out of the Mother Naked." Building on Jung's theory of the co-existence of both masculine and feminine traits in the psyche, Bly's essay stands as a manifesto guiding his subsequent thought on the sexes. He wrote: "All my clumsy prose amounts to is praise of the feminine soul, whether that soul appears in men or women." He added, tellingly, "The masculine soul . . . also needs praise, but I am not doing that here."

Although the 1970s for Bly were very much a time of "praising the feminine soul" (men were sometimes asked as a group to leave his readings), his attention would soon swing toward the masculine in the 1980s. Bly had taught the spiritual and cultural values of matriarchy at his annual Conference on the Great Mother since 1975, but in 1981, by request, he taught a group of men for the first time at the Lama Commune in Taos, New Mexico.

Perhaps this new men's work became Bly's way of dealing with mid-life crisis, or facing more directly the emotional legacy of a kind and upstanding but alcoholic father. He told Clarissa Pinkola Estés in 1991 that he'd at first thought, "My male side was developed, and my feminine side was not developed.... [But] what I developed is the shallow form of the masculine, and what I need now is to develop the deeper form of the masculine...."

Bly sits - reflection in window

That quest, of course, led directly to Iron John, Bly's often brilliant exploration of the Grimm Brothers' tale in which a boy discovers, in the person of a "wild man" covered with rust-colored hair at the bottom of a pond, a powerful teacher. Emphasizing a tempering of a man's psyche through confronting the grief in his life, Iron John proposed an expressive alternative to the stoicism of traditional masculinity. Beneath the colorful mix of poetry, mythology, psychology, and social commentary lay a brooding conviction that the emotional isolation and violence of American men masks a hunger for fathering and male mentoring, lost in a time of soaring divorce rates and single-parent households.

In the year that Iron John unbudgingly roosted atop bestseller lists, small "mythopoetic" men's groups sprang up by the hundreds nationwide. Newsweek's cover for June 24, 1991 displayed a grinning, bare-chested CEO holding a toddler in one arm and a conga drum in the other. Probably no one was more surprised than its author when the book Bly described as simply "an amplification of a fairy story" became a de facto Bible for what appeared to be a genuine mass movement. In Esquire (October 1991), Bly urged caution: "A movement implies a doctrine. I just say something is stirring."

Something else that stirred, perhaps inevitably, was hostility from women and men who feared that Bly's activity on behalf of men must also be against women, a kind of reasoning Bly has often skewered as "oppositional thinking." Despite Bly's courageous and well-documented record as an antiwar activist, Sharon Doubiago in Ms. (March/April 1992) didn't hesitate to conflate his men's work with the Persian Gulf War: "Iron John is our Desert Storm book."

Despite such attacks, Bly continued to fill lecture halls and retreat centers, appearing often with the psychologist James Hillman and the storyteller Michael Meade into the mid-1990s. To further stress the importance of poetry as an essential inner resource for men, the three co-edited the massive poetry anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, arguably the best of its decade.

Bly on front stairs of cabin

Since that time, Bly's men's conferences, though fewer and no longer deemed newsworthy by the media, have taken on a more activist tone, with a shift of focus from personal or internal to societal concerns. Part of Bly's genius lies in his ability to open these conferences to such remarkable teachers as the Mayan artist and shaman Martín Prechtel and the innovative prison reformer Bob Roberts. Bly has also introduced to the mostly white middle-class participants outstanding teachers of color such as Haki Madhubuti, Malidoma Somé, and Miguel Rivera.

Ten years down the road, the issues that ignited Bly's burst of high visibility in the early 1990s have not gone away. In fact, they have intensified. Incidents such as the tragic shootings at Littleton chillingly corroborate Bly's observation that the souls of boys, as well as girls, are under siege in consumer society. Many women seem to agree now with Bly's contention that it's primarily the job of older men to socialize younger men, a source of bitter gender controversy in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, Bly continues writing poems and essays praising the soul in men and women, some of which revisit his abiding interest in the ancient matriarchal civilizations. His 1998 collaboration with Marion Woodman, The Maiden King, examines a Russian story about a young man's initiation not into the masculine but the mysteries of the feminine, "which during long years of patriarchal culture we have forgotten." In his 1973 essay, Bly wrote: "[In the matriarchies] each man was once with the Mother-having gone out into masculine consciousness, a man's job is to return." Indeed, that is the arc that his life and work appear to be following.

Many of the values of the movement for which he was chosen unlikely spokesman have either been assimilated or co-opted by the society at large. In his Paris Review interview, Bly quotes a recent Dewar's ad ("You don't need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.") and remarks: "The corporate world dares to say to young men, knowing how much young men want to be men, that the only requirement for manhood is to become an alcoholic. That's disgusting. It's a tiny indication of the ammunition aimed at men who try to learn to talk or to feel."

This spring, when asked by the Minneapolis Star Tribune which activities he would propose for a national day for boys equivalent to Take Our Daughters to Work day, Bly suggested that fathers take their sons to the library and show them the books they love. Noting that women have often been excluded from the work world, Bly said, "I think it's just as likely now that men will be shut out of the inward world, the literature world." That is at the heart of what Robert Bly has been saying these past decades, to the many or the few.

Thomas R. Smith is a poet and essayist living in River Falls, Wisconsin. His most recent collection of poetry is The Dark Indigo Current (Holy Cow! Press, 2000).

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