Jim Mone / AP
Poet Robert Bly, a tireless advocate of his art form, which over half a century transformed American poetry and also played a central role in the controversial men’s movement, died on Sunday. He was 94 years old.
Bly’s death was confirmed on Monday by her friend, neighbor and fellow poet, James Lenfestey. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Bly, who lived in Minneapolis, had been out of public sight for nearly a decade before his death.
Bly argued in his 1990 book, Iron John: A Book About Men, that society disconnects men from their feelings, and he knew he could rub people the wrong way. “I remember people wanting to kill me, but it’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 poet Donald Hall and author George Plimpton. After graduating in 1950, he grew tired of living on the east coast and returned to the west. He earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then returned to farming life in the town of Madison, Minn.
In 1958, Bly launched a literary magazine titled 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 has become a must-read publication for American poetry.
Bly said he received submissions from some of the best-known poets of the time, but almost all rejected them. “Invoice [Duffy] was a genius for those rejection ballots, ”he recalls in 1999.“ He used to say things like, ‘Dear Mr. Jones, these poems remind me of false teeth. Sincerely, William Duffy. ‘ Or, “Dear Mr. Jones, these poems are a bit like lettuce that has been left in the refrigerator for too long. And then we would get insulting letters and print the letters because they held more excitement and energy than the poem. “
The magazine made print poems by Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and James Wright, as well as Bly’s translations of poets largely unknown to the American public – poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado.
the fifties has also published Bly’s own poems. Daughter Mary Bly remembers her father’s long writing process: “You write a poem; you put it in a trunk; you release it a year later; you rewrite it intensely for two weeks; you put it back in the trunk; pull again. You devote months and years of your life to a single idea that turns into 16 lines. “
Bly won a National Book Award in 1968 and has become a very public advocate of poetry. In 2009, Lenfestey organized a conference to explore the influence of the poet. He said at the time that Bly “really changed the way poetry is read and heard in America. It would draw huge crowds, in some cases, you know, thousands of people sprawling across the hills of California. . “
In the mid-1960s, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and some have speculated that his activism was the reason he never became an American Poet Laureate.
Bly was particularly interested in the deep 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 by the Brothers Grimm to claim that society disconnects men from their deep feelings and emotions, and this causes problems for everyone.
“There is a tremendous amount of depreciation of men that has been going on in our culture for a long time,” 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 bestseller list and has become a focus of the nascent male movement. It gained media attention, but was also criticized as being anti-women. Bly and his supporters denied this, and he continued to write until he was 80.
Admirers consider Bly’s latest poems among his best. Bly himself cited his 2011 poem “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat” to describe his feelings about aging: “Each of us deserves to be forgiven,” he said, “if only for / Our persistence in keeping our little boat afloat / When so many fell in the storm. “
As cantankerous as Bly can be at times, his second wife, Ruth, once said he always smiles when he writes poetry.