The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, November 23, 2021 1:00 am

Robert Bly, 'Iron John' author, dies

Poet analyzed masculinity

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – Robert Bly, one of the most prominent American poets of the last half-century and author of the best-selling men's movement classic “Iron John,” has died. He was 94.

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

Bly published his first book 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 Vietnam War protest poems. Bly donated the $1,000 prize money to the draft resistance movement.

But the native of the Minnesota town of Madison gained his greatest fame for a work of prose called “Iron John: A Book About Men.” His meditation on modern masculinity was released in 1990, and spent more than two years on the New York Times Bestseller List.

The book helped launch a new men's movement, but also angered some feminists and drew ridicule by summoning images of bare-chested businessmen gathering in the forest to beat on drums and howl at the moon.

“The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous,” Bly told the Paris Review in a 2000 interview. “I think the men's seminars were not threatening to the women's movement at all, but a lot of the critics of 'Iron John' missed the point.”

Born on his family's farm near Madison in 1926, Bly later said he first 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 leading lights of the country's literary scene, such as the late Adrienne Rich, a classmate of his who became a prominent feminist poet and writer.

In addition to writing poems influenced by his predecessors and peers in other countries, Bly labored to bring their original work to U.S. readers. Over the years, with the help of native speakers, Bly translated several poets from a number of languages. Several poets he translated and championed, including Chile's Pablo Neruda and Sweden's Tomas Transtromer, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

His poetry readings were frequently rollicking affairs: He often donned masks or colorful shawls, cracked jokes and gestured wildly, and had a habit of reading the same poem twice in a row.

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