Award-winning American poet Robert Bly dies aged 94
on Nov 23, 2021
The poet Robert Bly, who counted the National Book Award and the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal among his many honours, has died. He was 94. The Star Tribune newspaper, in his native Minnesota, said Bly died on Sunday. His daughter, Mary Bly, told the Associated Press that he died after suffering from dementia for 14 years.
“Dad had no pain,” she said. “His whole family was around him, so how much better can you do?” Bly emerged from two years in the US navy in the 1940s to become a prodigious poet, translator and writer of prose.
In an essay for the New York Times in 1984, he recalled his beginnings. Summing up his career, the Star Tribune said Bly “started out writing bucolic poems about rural Minnesota and went on to shake up the complacent world of 1950s poetry, rail against war, bring international poets to western readers, and become a best-selling author teaching men how to be in touch with their feelings”. Thomas R Smith, a longtime friend who worked as Bly’s assistant and has co-edited several books about him, told the AP Bly “defied the convention that all the important poetry was coming from the coasts and the college campuses, and carved out some new space for the poets of the American midwest”.
In the 1960s, Bly became a leading opponent of the Vietnam war. In 1968 he donated his prize money from the National Book Award, won for The Light Around the Body, to efforts to resist the draft. In later life, Bly was a leader of the “expressive men’s movement”, a controversial effort to “reconnect” men with traditional ideas about masculinity.
In 2016, New York magazine described Bly as “a media-friendly shaman for a strange, mythopoetic men’s-liberation movement … [a] flowering of men’s self-help workshops and books [that] managed to be both New Age and retrograde” and which “emerged genuinely out of feminism or at least claimed an alliance with it, and had as its mega-selling quasi-manifesto Bly’s Iron John: A Book about Men”. That book came out in 1990. Bly said his work with men was not meant to be against women, telling the New York Times in 1996: “The biggest influence we’ve had is in younger men who are determined to be better fathers than their own fathers were.”Smith said Bly’s relationship with his own father, a taciturn Norwegian farmer, “led to an examination of what it is to be a man. He saw American men at a crossroads. “He was concerned that men were losing their inner lives, their feeling lives, their connection with stories and traditions and literature. But the caricature became that he was John Wayne with a drum. That’s the opposite of what he was.”
More than 25 years later, the Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance wrote a tribute to Bly for the Guardian. Bly, Rylance wrote, “had this penetrating ability to see what was going on and he didn’t have any shyness about saying it. Robert was there the first time I went to a men’s gathering, organised under the auspices of wild dance. There were 90 men gathered, and it was remarkable.” Rylance said Bly taught him “to really look at what you’re writing about”, helping him process his daughter’s death through poetry. Referring to Bly’s extensive work as a translator, Rylance wrote: “The most profound thing that an elder man can do for a younger man is to mentor and encourage a particular gift. And Robert has brought into our culture the tribal teachers, just as he brought into the English language his great love of the Spanish poets, the Sufi poets, Rumi, all these brilliant people who have been such a help. “It’s as if we had been living in a little town that only had a Chinese takeaway, and now it has takeaways from all over the world, thanks to Robert Bly.”
Bly is survived by his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1980, children Mary, Bridget, Noah and Micah, a stepdaughter, Wesley Dutta, and nine grandchildren. Mary Bly said funeral services would be private, and urged fans to send memorial donations to their favorite poetry associations. “He was a great poet and a great dad,” she said. “And a great husband,” Ruth Bly said.
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