The essay you’re about to read was written during the winter of 2008-09, to present at the conference called “Robert Bly in This World,” held at the University of Minnesota on April 16-19, 2009. Later, with the assistance of James P. Lenfestey, I edited a collection of papers from that conference under the same title, published by the University of Minnesota Libraries. The conference observed, in addition to Robert’s more than six decades as a poet, the massive acquisition of his papers by the University. Bly experts and devotees, some from considerable distances (including the UK’s Islamic scholar Leonard Lewisohn), gathered to celebrate the work and life of a man without whom all of our lives would be far less rich.
Thomas R. Smith at Camp du Nord, 2014
I came into the men’s mythopoetic work in the mid-1980s around the time that a cadre of Minnesotans enthusiastically persuaded Robert to extend his men’s teaching (at that time centered in Mendocino, California) to his own native north country. My task with Robert Bly in This World (besides editing it!) was to outline Robert’s mythopoetic work with men and women. Surveying that work for this essay, I marvelled at the coherence of the arc Robert’s thought and teaching have followed from beginning to end. Though Robert’s in-person teaching is over, there is still much to learn from his generous writings and recordings. Meanwhile a new generation steps forward to fill the space, so formidably large, our retired or departed teachers have left vacant.
To my knowledge, no one has yet attempted a full-length study of this important but neglected cultural movement. That door is wide open for the foolhardy and brave who, following Rumi’s directive, would “start a huge, foolish project like Noah.” Until someone accepts that challenge, I offer this personal and inconclusive sketch.
– Thomas R. Smith
PRAISING THE SOUL IN WOMEN AND MEN: ROBERT BLY AND THE MEN’S MOVEMENT
Nineteen-ninety, the watershed year for the mythopoetic men’s movement in the US, was also, not coincidentally, the year that rocketed Robert Bly, along with his best-selling book Iron John, to media celebrity.
Interviewing Bly in the October 1990 New Age Journal, Jeff Wagenheim asked a question apparently puzzling many: Why a poet leading this men’s movement, and not a politician, say, or a sports hero?
Characteristically deflecting emphasis from himself, Bly responded, “One reason poetry is at the center is because the language that men use to communicate with each other has gotten very damaged.”(1) Bly’s answer, though utterly consistent with his lifelong role as a defender of the beauty, depth, and nourishing power of language, effectively sidestepped the question, Why this poet? In this talk, I will suggest an answer to that question.
While Robert Bly has generally insisted that his work with men is psychological rather than political in nature, his first major pronouncement on gender matters originated, somewhat ironically, in one of his most political moments. During the Vietnam War, Bly composed his furious anti-war poem “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” often improvising before live audiences passages of the poem later transcribed from tape and folded into the finished version, first published by City Lights in 1970.
Clearly “The Teeth Mother” required some explaining for the uninitiated, and one imagines Bly hoping to head off a few of those questions at the pass when he reprinted his great jeremiad in Sleepers Joining Hands in 1973. In that volume, “The Teeth Mother” strategically precedes a lengthy essay, “I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” in which Bly elaborates on the Jungian underpinnings of his poem. Drawing heavily on Erich Neumann’s study of the goddess archetype, The Great Mother, Bly lays out a highly poetic interpretation of Neumann’s ideas so as to illuminate the figure of the “Teeth Mother,” in Neumann’s schema one of the goddess’s destructive aspects. Bly viewed the Vietnam War as 1960s America’s introduction to the dismembering fury of that aspect of the goddess, standing for numbness, paralysis, catatonia, being totally spaced out, the psyche torn to bits, arms and legs thrown all over. America’s fate is to face this Mother before other industrial nations. . . . My Lai is part way down; hard drugs that leave the boy-man permanently “stoned” are among the weapons of this Mother.(2)
And yet Bly’s impulse, despite his knowledge of the darker potential of the Great Mother, was to embrace and affirm her values. Later in the essay, he says, “All my clumsy prose amounts to is praise of the feminine soul, whether that soul appears in men or women.” He adds, “The masculine soul . . . also needs praise, but I am not doing that here.”(3)
Indeed the Seventies were, for Bly, mainly a time of “praising the feminine soul.” During that decade, inspired by Joseph Campbell, he began working into his poetry readings brilliant commentary on fairy tales, which he included among the highest intellectual achievements of the vanished “Mother civilization” pre-dating patriarchy. At the farthest extreme of this arc, Bly would ask the men as a group to leave his readings, preferring to address only the women.
Remarks Bly made to East West Journal in August, 1976 testify to the speed with which his thought on gender matters was evolving. Asked about his efforts to “recognize the repressed feminine side,” Bly responded:
During the sixties, women began to have more confidence in the dignity and energy of their consciousness, and males began to feel that their consciousness had built-in destructive elements. Many writers wrote from that point of view. But there is some sort of mistake in the terms, since it involves preference. It virtually prevents one from praising male consciousness. I feel the seventies will need to do that.(4)
Foreshadowing his work with men in the coming decade, Bly continues: “I think it is a good time for both men and women to develop the ability to begin movements, not follow them.”(5)
Bly’s celebration of matriarchal values, rooted also in his reading of the Swiss anthropologist Bachofen’s Mother Right (1861), found a festive communal expression in the creation of the Conference on the Great Mother, which has continued to meet annually since 1975. Emphasizing the “ecstatic” side of the Great Mother, the conference has brought together original, independent artists and thinkers, collectively constituting one of the notable underground streams in American culture in the past half-century. In 1981, heralding the shift in attention from feminine to masculine consciousness, Bly accepted an invitation from the Lama commune in Taos, New Mexico to teach a group of about forty men.
In opening himself to the possibility of teaching men, Bly also signaled a willingness to engage his own neglected or unexamined masculinity. His 1981 collection, The Man in the Black Coat Turns, articulates this change, not only in its title image but in poems such as “The Prodigal Son,” “The Grief of Men,” and “Fifty Males Sitting Together.” The latter, a meditation on Bly’s own isolation as a self-described “mother’s son,” was subsequently adopted as a key text by the nascent men’s movement.
Soon other opportunities for teaching men arose. In California, the first Mendocino Men’s Conference in 1983 became the prototype of the gatherings for which Bly was to become famous: a mix of inspired teaching by Bly, psychologist James Hillman, storyteller Michael Meade, and others, home-grown ritual addressing American men’s lack of initiatory experiences, and alternately exuberant and tearful self-discovery.
James Hillman, Michael Meade, and Robert Bly, 1990
Bly’s decade of teaching and organizing such groups became the testing ground for his best-selling book-length essay, Iron John. In fact, Bly had chosen to teach that particular Grimm Brothers tale at his very first men’s workshop for the Lama commune, one of a handful in the Grimms’ collection he had identified as specific to the problem of male initiation. Bly’s exploration of the “Iron John” story took a giant step toward the book it would eventually become in an interview, “What Men Really Want,” conducted by Keith Thompson for New Age Journal in March, 1982. That interview probably did more than any other single source to alert American men to the potential of Bly’s new concentration on masculinity. In the proliferating men’s groups of the 1980s, new men would typically preface their introductions with the sentence, “I’m here because of that interview in New Age Journal.”
Minnesota understandably became an epicenter of the new men’s work, as Bly, responding to local demand, agreed to lead the first Mendocino-style conference to be held in northern Minnesota in September, 1984. The flier for that gathering reads in part:
This conference, and others held in different parts of the country, are tentative explorations toward what a men’s conference might be, now, in this decade. Some of the questions asked are: What does the mythological world mean now for men? Why are so few men’s relationships with women working? Why do so few men have deep male friendships? Is that connected with anger at our father? How is the wild man developed inside? What do men dance about?
The 1984 conference directly inspired the formation of the Minnesota Men’s Council, which met monthly into the mid-1990s at the YMCA on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. In 1987, Paul Feroe, who operated his Ally Press as a comprehensive clearing house for Bly’s work, published The Pillow and the Key, an essay worked up from the Thompson interview, the first chapter of Bly’s prose masterwork. A second chapter and chapbook, When a Hair Turns Gold, quickly followed.
Toward the end of this decade of ferment, Bly used the Twin Cities men’s community as a sounding board for his work in progress. Fifty or sixty men would converge on the University Y on a Sunday evening to hear a new chapter and then respond. Bly has always demanded forthrightness of his audience, and these men, despite their admiration for Bly and his project, could be bluntly critical. Bly took it in stride, duly noting remarks that seemed to him on-target, whether positive or negative. I think we all left those sessions feeling that our intelligence had been exercised, honed, and privileged by this sharing.
In many ways, the five years on either side of 1990’s publication of Iron John were the golden age of men’s work in Minnesota and perhaps in the United States as a whole. At the time I was helping to edit a small men’s literary journal, Inroads, and had many vigorous, sometimes heated discussions with fellow editors over whether the media attention which was sure to result from the impending publication of Iron John was an altogether good thing. We and many groups like ours around the country had up until that point been able to conduct a disciplined exploration of masculinity with a minimum of outside scrutiny and judgment. During that time, we were effectively invisible to mainstream society and appropriately esoteric. We harbored serious doubts that a psychologically unsophisticated America could do anything but mock a men’s movement based on poetry, storytelling, and Jungian psychology, and we were right to be wary, as subsequent events proved.
In January 1990, a Bill Moyers public TV special, A Gathering of Men, gave Bly’s mythopoetic men’s work its first big splash of national exposure. Moyers’ presentation, interspersing thoughtful interview footage with scenes from a large workshop for men in Austin, Texas, effectively balanced Bly’s private and public sides. Almost immediately, the Moyers program took its place alongside the New Age Journal interview as a major recruiting instrument for the new movement. The Moyers special also helped whet the reading public’s appetite for Bly’s forthcoming book.
The first hardcover copies of Iron John appeared in bookstores in early October, 1990. From our perspective almost twenty years on, it’s difficult to recall the explosive power of this arrival. For a generation of confused and father-hungry men, Iron John signaled the beginning of a process of self-reclamation that would have far-reaching effects on our lives and the lives of our spouses, lovers, sons, and daughters. And for a multitude of women nervous about this whole enterprise of men redefining masculinity, it served to manifest extremes of fear and loathing over the next few years.
In the Grimm Brothers tale for which Bly titled his book, a boy discovers, in the person of a “wild man” covered with rust-colored hair at the bottom of a pond, a powerful teacher. In emphasizing the tempering of a modern man’s psyche through acknowledgment of grief over the absence of the “wild man” in his life, Iron John proposed an 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, a hunger heightened in a time of multiplying divorce rates and single-parent households.
I remember, reading Iron John for the first time, my admiration at how Bly had unified all those disparate ruminations previewed piecemeal in interviews, chapbooks and critiques at the Y. The sturdily handsome volume somehow made coherent that far-flung speculation and debate, and did so in a way that felt both organic and constructed, familiar and startling. Breaking the Grimm Brothers’ story down into eight primary stages, Bly applied literary, psychological and mythological understanding to each of the main components, in an dazzling display of intellectual dexterity. Iron John represents Bly at the peak of his associative and intuitive power, adroitly weaving the varied threads of his learning into a rich tapestry. In Iron John, Bly really does give readers his all as a poet and thinker.
It would be wrong to pass this point in our reflections without backing the superlatives with some samples of Iron John’s prose. Here is Bly in his mythological vein, reminiscent of “I Came Out of the Mother Naked”:
The Boundary Waters
Water in symbolic systems does not stand for spiritual or metaphysical impulses (which are better suggested by air or fire) but earthy and natural life. Water belongs to lowly circumstances, ground life, birth from the womb, descent from the eternal realm to the watery earth, where we take on a body composed mostly of water. When our mythology opens again to welcome women into sky-heaven and men into earth-water, then the genders will not seem so far apart. White men will feel it more natural, then, for them to protect earth, as the native American men have always felt it right to do.(6)
Bly could be equally effective in relating to the concrete details of ordinary life a son’s need to be physically near his father:
Now, standing next to the father, as they repair arrowheads, or repair plows, or wash pistons in gasoline, or care for birthing animals, the son’s body has the chance to retune. Slowly, over months or years, that son’s body-strings begin to resonate to the harsh, sometimes demanding, testily humorous, irreverent, impatient, opinionated, forward-driving, silence-loving older masculine body. Both male and female cells carry marvelous music, but the son needs to resonate to the masculine frequency as well as to the female frequency.(7)
And this passage about the symbolic interior place we keep for our father gives a taste of Bly’s genius for the poetic image as well as his zany wit:
What sort of room have we made up for him? If we have the grudging, stingy respect for him suggested by the sitcoms, the chances are the room will be in a run-down neighborhood, with sagging door, plastic curtains, a smelly refrigerator with rotten food in it. The demons of suspicion, we can be sure, have visited this place. They throw out the sofa one day without opening the windows. They put up paintings of Pinochet and Jesse Helms, and tie little black dogs to the radiator.(8)
It needs to be said that the country we live in now is vastly different from the one in which Iron John was published. Only three months after the appearance of Iron John, President George H. W. Bush launched the first US war against Iraq. This attack portended a return to a more macho, aggressive approach to foreign policy after the supposed wimpishness of Jimmy Carter who endured the Iran hostage crisis without resorting to warfare.
Against this backdrop of events, the men’s movement inevitably took on a hawkish complexion in the eyes of some. In particular, Bly’s praise of the internal Warrior (ultimately a figure symbolizing firmness of character rather than a literal soldier) alarmed well-meaning feminists and anti-militarists unable or unwilling to follow Bly’s metaphorical thinking. This reaction reached its nadir in Sharon Doubiago’s attack in the March/April 1992 Ms.:
Iron John is so badly written, so inflammatory, and of such potential and outright treachery as to have, if not exactly unleashed the barely contained Mass Murderer in us, been a statement of his validity.(9)
“Iron John,” Doubiago concluded angrily, “is our Desert Storm book.”(10)
A poet herself, Doubiago was indulging in hyperbole as rash and inflammatory as any of Bly’s more reckless pronouncements. One can imagine how Doubiago, who was living in Paris at the time, might have conflated from a distance the energy of the men’s movement with that of the first President Bush’s war. Less forgivable was her failure to acknowledge Bly’s well-known anti-war activism, constant throughout his public life as a poet. During the first Gulf War, Bly interviewed, lectured and wrote tirelessly in opposition to the US battering of Iraq. Ironically, at the time Doubiago was preparing her salvo, an ABC TV crew sent to film a Minneapolis men’s gathering with Bly and storyteller Michael Meade received in the bargain three hours of uncompromising condemnation of America’s popular war. None of this footage was aired. Somewhere in the vaults of ABC, one of Bly’s finest, most courageous anti-war pronouncements has languished these eighteen years, along with, as it happens, an eloquently impassioned call for peace by Bly’s wife, psychotherapist and writer Ruth Bly.
Not all feminists felt threatened by Bly’s work with men and mythology. Molly Layton, a therapist quoted in the May/June 1990 The Family Therapy Networker, sounded a moderating note:
Before Robert Bly got into all this stuff around men, he did a lot of investigating into the female within himself. In my mind, Bly has really paid his dues in being able, at this point, to proceed dialectically into this focus on men.(11)
In one of the most insightful articles of that period, Don Shewey reminded Village Voice readers of a confrontational appearance on CNN in which Bly had called an atrocity from the Iraq war “our My Lai”: “The interviewer changed the subject. ‘Are you going to let that lie on the floor between us?’ Bly asked. She said, ‘Yes.’”(12)
Shewey further noted that the press’s coverage of the men’s movement repeated “a pattern recognizable from the trivializing coverage—not so long ago—of feminism as a movement of ‘libbers’ and ‘bra-burners,’ of man-haters and ugly women.”(13)
From this moment forward, Bly became a polarizing figure on the American literary and cultural scene, residues of resentment and distortion of his men’s work persisting to the present day. None, not even his friends and colleagues, seemed able to agree on the value of Bly’s work with men. On the one hand, Bly’s sometime cohort, the Jungian psychologist Robert Moore could assert, “When the cultural and intellectual history of our time is written, Robert will be recognized as the catalyst for sweeping cultural revolution.”(14) On the other side, Bly’s old political activist friend, Michael True, dismissing Iron John as “a file folder of sometimes interesting, mostly nutty ideas,”(15) could call on Bly to “return to his proper work, as poet and critic, in the years ahead.”(16)
But spiritual gold, and plenty of it, remained in that mine, and Bly was not about to walk away from the men’s work. Navigating such antipodal assessments with determined panache and a healthily cheerful disregard for his critics, Bly stuck with the men’s work long after the media had trained its short attention span on other targets. Although Bly went on to write two other volumes of prose aimed at a mass audience, it can be argued with some justification that the true sequel to Iron John came not in printed form but in the prolific live workshop recordings of those years. Originally released on audio tape, these presentations, sometimes in collaboration with James Hillman and Michael Meade, proceeded in rapid-fire succession from publishers such as Ally Press, Oral Traditions, Sound Horizons, and Sounds True. The titles—The Human Shadow, Men and the Life of Desire, What Stories Do We Need?, The Inner King and Queen, and many more—only begin to suggest the breadth and depth of Bly’s subject matter. A master of “composing on the tongue,” Bly has left from that period an unparalleled spoken word archive, now little known, ripe for rediscovery by a new generation.
Despite bitterly hostile attacks, Bly, along with Hillman and Meade, continued to fill lecture halls and retreat centers well into the mid-1990s. Underlining the importance of poetry as an essential inner resource for men, the three co-edited a massive poetry anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, perhaps the best poetry anthology of any kind in its decade.
Yet during the public flourishing of the mythopoetic men’s movement, Bly harbored an ambivalence toward the work and his role in it. There has always been an element in Bly’s thought on men (often detectable in Iron John) of a personal need generalized and amplified as a statement of collective need. It seems likely, in fact, that Bly’s men’s work may have originated in part as a way of dealing with a mid-life crisis, or facing more directly the emotional legacy of a kind and upstanding but alcoholic father. Bly told Clarissa Pinkola Estés in a 1991 interview 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….”(17)
Although Bly’s personal search for a viable masculinity struck a resonant common note in millions of American men, Bly found himself internally divided in his relationship with his emerging mass audience. What, for instance, did Bly have personally to do with the grinning, bare-chested CEO holding a toddler in one arm and a conga drum in the other appearing on the cover of Newsweek on June 24, 1991? Perhaps no one was more surprised than Bly himself at Iron John’s lightning ascendance. In Esquire in October, 1991, Bly maintained caution: “A movement implies a doctrine. I just say something is stirring.”(18)
Bly’s doubts about a men’s mass movement came to a head in his much-publicized refusal to participate in what was billed as “the First International Men’s Conference” in Austin, Texas, in 1991, ostensibly on grounds that it was too soon to “centralize.” Bly told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “I think it is time for continued work at a local level, in small groups of men, in prisons, in schools, in hundreds of cities and towns. I believe in many small streams instead of one river.”(19)
Bly’s avoidance of the Austin event no doubt owed in part to anger over organizer Marvin Allen’s decision to allow “20/20” to film for television one of his “Wild Man Weekends,” drawing public ridicule to men at their most vulnerable. Bly also hated the appropriation of his term “wild man.” Overall, his suspicion of mass movements was genuine and well-founded, heightened by the runaway speed at which the whole business seemed to be moving.
As with Marvin Allen’s perceived rip-off of the “wild man,” Bly voiced serious reservations over the directions in which others carried his ideas in those years of intense activity. He has often been critical, for instance, of the New Warriors, one of the more durable organizations to come out of the 90s men’s work. The Promise Keepers, an evangelical Christian movement of the mid-1990s capable of packing sports arenas, borrowed liberally from Bly and the mythopoetic men’s movement, but, as Bly noted in The Sibling Society, “The Promise Keepers seem to suggest that men can throw out all the work that women have done in the last thirty years.”(20) Though he admired the Promise Keepers’ attempts at conscientious fathering, he ultimately viewed them as “literalists,” prevented by their religious fundamentalism from dealing effectively with the dark side of their “missionary movement,” which, unlike the Jung-based men’s work, admitted of no “shadow.”
By the time The Sibling Society was published in 1996, Bly had begun calling the branch of the men’s movement with which he’d become associated the “expressive men’s movement.” The coinage “mythopoetic” had always whiffed of the inaccurate and vague, and Bly’s relabeling located the work squarely within the domain of art and verbal eloquence.
However, “The expressive men’s movement,” Bly wrote in The Sibling Society, “ …is not expressive enough.” He continues in this important critique:
Its stories are tuned primarily to the Anglo-Saxon world, and only in the last three or four years has it succeeded in attracting men from the black and Hispanic communities, who are in many ways more expressive than white men. The expressive men’s movement tries to make shame among men conscious, just as one wing of the women’s movement has tried to make women’s anger conscious…anger brings one more quickly into political battles than shame does. The expressive men’s movement has been slow in asking for political change and developing enough clarity so that the program they stand for can be apprehended even by the media.(21)
At this time Bly had already made significant headway in bringing outstanding teachers of color to the forefront of his men’s gatherings, including the Mayan writer and healer Martín Prechtel, the black poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti, the African shaman Malidoma Somé, and Guatemalan percussionist Miguel Rivera, to name only a few. In its early years the mythopoetic/expressive men’s movement had been glaringly white in complexion. Roger Kose’s widely published photographs with their hokey tribalism did nothing to dispel the image of privileged white men as Indian wanna-be’s shamelessly pilfering the spiritual treasures of already materially plundered cultures.
Bly first invited Haki Madhubuti to teach at a historic men’s conference in Buffalo Gap, West Virginia, in May, 1991. A conscious early attempt at broadening the racial scope of the men’s work, Buffalo Gap brought 50 black men together with 50 white men for a week. Among the black men attending Buffalo Gap was Malidoma Somé, who had both graduated the Sorbonne and undergone traditional men’s initiation in his native Burkina Faso. To this day, Malidoma remains an indispensable teacher at Bly’s men’s events.
With the arrival of these non-white teachers who retained living roots in traditional indigenous cultures, the tone and character of the men’s work underwent a gradual but profound shift. While the early conferences had been primarily psychological in nature, weighted toward discussion and analysis, in the mid-90s an experiential element took on new prominence, as participants began to put into practice what they’d only talked about previously. This added dimension of indigenous ritual moved Bly’s work with men even farther beyond the ken of mainstream media and society.
As the 90s wear on, one can detect a shift in Bly’s involvement in the men’s work and in gender issues as a whole; his interest in specifically men’s issues plateaus by mid-decade, and then begins a process of falling off. Even in his chapter on men and women in The Sibling Society, one senses a degree of detachment, even a pulling back. Of course Bly has always “walked swiftly” through the stages of his life and thought, but there is something else going on here as well.
At the height of Iron John’s popularity, an interview with Clarissa Pinkola Estés (whose Women Who Run with the Wolves, 1992, is the nearest thing we have to an Iron John for women) in Bloomsbury Review should have given pause to some of Bly’s feminist detractors. Referring to his position circa the 1970s, Estés asks Bly whether he still “believes in” a “return to the matriarchies.” Replying in the affirmative, Bly amplifies, “There are ways to look at how matriarchy and ‘men’s work’ go together. One is that the patriarchy has not only damaged the women, it’s damaged the men deeply. I think the feminists haven’t been entirely aware how much it’s damaged men.”(22)
The whole interview implicitly rebukes those who would accuse Bly of being an unreconstructed male chauvinist. It also confirms that Bly’s men’s work was in no way intended to repudiate his earlier championing of the feminine. In the 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.”(23) Bly’s collaborative book with Marion Woodman, The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine (1998), further enacts his continued fidelity to the arc or path he’d described nearly thirty years before. Certainly that volume as a whole reflects Bly’s long-standing fascination with the matriarchies more than it does his interest in men’s consciousness. One might deduce from The Maiden King that Bly has come full circle, or at least around to a position on the spiral similar to his pre-1981 thinking.
Among the issues “not addressed in Iron John,” says Bly, “is this noisy literalism that now characterizes the struggle between the ready-made masculine and the ready-made feminine.” He continues:
The masculine side of young men may find itself deeply at home with the masculine, or it may not. Probably not. And with its overemphasis on sports and financial success, our culture gives very little help to the feminine side of men. Thus, the masculine in young men may know almost nothing about the feminine, particularly its depth and fierceness.(24)
With the coming of the new millennium, the issues that powered Iron John and the mythopoetic/expressive men’s movement seem to have faded from public consciousness. One can be forgiven nostalgia for the quickly passing moment when it appeared that American society might be ready to take a step toward a more European psychological sophistication, a time when books exploring the meaning of fairy tales could crack the best seller lists. As a mass movement, the men’s work enjoyed its allotted 15 minutes of fame, before sinking, far from unscathed by media savaging, into its former obscurity.
This has occurred not at all to the displeasure of the powers-that-be. The largely unseen manipulators of the military-industrial economy would far rather American men occupy their waking hours with a struggle for basic survival than inner study that might lead to unpredictable or radical change in the social order. Bly has frequently chastised the corporate mentality for its hostility to inner values. In a Paris Review interview, he quoted as example a Dewar’s ad (“You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.”) and remarked: “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.”(25)
In the spring of 2000, the Minneapolis Star Tribune asked Bly to propose activities 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.”(26)
Though this may strike some as a descent from the more flamboyant intensities of Iron John, it is consistent with everything Bly had been saying about gender since the 1970s. In Iron John, Bly had argued, against the prevailing feminist position, that, despite obvious gender inequalities, the word “patriarchy” does not accurately describe our present situation. A true patriarchy, he contended, honors the interior mythological personages of “the Sacred King and Queen.” We now have no such common psychic figures:
The death of the Sacred King and Queen means that we live now in a system of industrial domination, which is not patriarchy. The system we live in gives no honor to the male mode of feeling nor to the female mode of feeling. The system of industrial domination determines how things go with us in the world of resources, values, and allegiances; what animals live and what animals die; how children are treated. And in the mode of industrial domination there is neither king nor queen.(27)
Though Bly’s words here bode ominously for the fate of everything he has strived to achieve in his explorations of masculine consciousness, the last word has not yet been written on these matters. The mythopoetic/expressive men’s movement in fact continues, though in reduced numbers, in various parts of the country, not least in Minnesota where Bly’s annual conference is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Though Bly writes and speaks less frequently on men’s issues, he has added terms to the discussion that have become a permanent feature of the ongoing debate. It seems to me entirely possible that the near future may witness a revival of the concerns that brought the men’s work to national prominence in the early 1990s, a period which arrived, like the present moment, as the hangover to another disastrous right-wing binge in America.
Clearly we, as a nation, are now in what Bly terms in Iron John an “ashes” period, in which events call us down from the heights of self-deceiving hubris to confront the realities of life “on the ground.” Whatever viable seeds the 1990s men’s work has produced, their intellectual DNA will bear strong traces of the work Bly and his collaborators have accomplished. Younger teachers like Daniel Deardorff and Martin Shaw show the readiness and energy to carry the mythopoetic work to a new generation. Gifted established teachers such as John Lee, Robert Moore, and Doug Von Koss, in addition to those named earlier, continue to contribute. The conditions making Iron John necessary have not gone away. As more wounded men return from our imperial wars and more men on the home front face the crisis of meaning and self-esteem resulting from unemployment, the hungers that drove men to Iron John in 1990 will rage perhaps even more desperately than before. And some of these men will no doubt find illumination, encouragement, and a measure of healing in Bly’s writings. Iron John’s effect on the masses of men will be more modest and less visible than twenty years ago on the steroids of media attention. But perhaps that is finally to the good. In one of the more perceptive reviews of Iron John, the Denver poet Phil Woods wrote: “I found it best to enjoy Bly’s book on aesthetic grounds, to let it nurture like water, retaining my capacity for discernment rather than intoxication. Iron John is not fuel for ideology, but for inner alchemy.”(28)
These days Robert Bly is again less polemicist and more poet. But poetry, lest we forget the obvious, has always been a crucial element in his work with men and women. As he told New Age Journal in 1990: “All poetry was originally love poems, and poetry is still a way of appreciating the universe. The part of American men that’s been most damaged is the lover.”(29) In his poetry and in his continuing work with men, Bly is still very much the “lover,” working his unique “inner alchemy” for the good of the many or the few.
A Personal Coda
Throughout this sketchy backward glance at a fertile, underappreciated moment in our cultural history, I have tried to be fair while knowing full well that I could never be objective about any of it. For I myself am one of the beneficiaries of the mythopoetic/expressive men’s work circa 1985-1995, the golden decade of that effort, the time when the imaginative flame burned brightest among the incandescent teachers I have named in this talk.
My life today is immeasurably better for having been there to do the work with other confused men of my generation. Vocation, relationship, and spiritual practice would, for me, be poorer without it. I especially owe a personal debt to Robert Bly for the role his men’s work played in repairing my relationship with my father, repairs that ultimately allowed me to face his death with renewed love and dissipated rancor over the injurious battling that had marred and defined our relationship for most of my adult years. I know that I am only one of a multitude who can cite the same debt of gratitude to Robert. The men’s work opened me, before it was too late, to a late-coming sympathy for my father and an appreciation of his struggles as a man. Though he never belonged to a men’s association more esoteric than the Lion’s Club, he acquired some measure of respect and perhaps even pride for the explorations I selectively reported to him, though he never understood them and never read or met Robert Bly. I say in all sincerity that Robert’s work with men finally allowed me to reconcile differences with my father and arrive at a more affectionate understanding of him while he was still alive and an absence of corrosive regret after he was gone. For that in itself, Robert would have earned my eternal thanks.
In concluding, I want to bring us back to Robert’s poetry, without which we would not have known him as a half-reluctant leader of this strange, unwieldy, and wonderful, if not movement, then “stirring” of men. In doing so, I wish to emphasize once more the inner necessity that has driven the ultimately coherent arc of Robert’s work with both genders, praising the soul in both women and men. Here is “A Man Writes to a Part of Himself” from Robert’s first book of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, from 1962, more than a decade before he began in earnest his adventures in the mysteries of mythology and gender. I believe it contains in seed form the whole development of my theme.
— Thomas R. Smith
A Man Writes to a Part of Himself
What cave are you in, hiding, rained on?
Like a wife, starving, without care,
Water dripping from your head, bent
Over ground corn
You raise your face into the rain
That drives over the valley—
Forgive me, your husband,
On the streets of a distant city, laughing,
With many appointments,
Though at night going also
To a bare room, a room of poverty,
To sleep among a bare pitcher and basin
In a room with no heat—
Which of us two then is the worse off?
And how did this separation come about?
1 “The Secret Life of Men,” interview with Jeff Wagenheim, New Age Journal, October, 1990, p. 43
2 Robert Bly, “I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” Sleepers Joining Hands, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 41
3 Ibid., p. 49
4 “About Gurus, Grounding Yourself in the Western Tradition, and Thinking for Yourself,” interview with Sherman Goldman, East West Journal, August, 1976, p. 15
5 Ibid., p, 15
6 Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men, Addison-Wesley, 1990, pp. 43-44
7 Ibid., p. 94
8 Ibid., p. 118
9 Sharon Doubiago, “‘Enemy of the Mother’: A Feminist Response to the Men’s Movement,” Ms., March/April, 1992, p. 82
10 Ibid., p. 82
11 R. Todd Erkel, “The Birth of a Movement,” The Family Therapy Networker, May/June, 1990. [/ 34
12 Don Shewey, “Town Meeting in the Hearts of Men,” The Village Voice, February 11, 1992, p. 46
13 Ibid., p. 46
14 Robert Moore, “Robert Bly and True Greatness: Some Musings from the Study of Leadership in Human Culture, Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday, ed. Thomas R. Smith, Ally Press, 1992, p. 217
15 Michael True, “Celebrating Robert Bly, But Taking Him to Task as Well, Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday, ed. Thomas R. Smith, Ally Press, 1992, p. 237
16 Ibid., p. 238
17 “The Man in the Black Coat Turns: A Discussion with Robert Bly,” interview with Clarissa Pinkola Estés, The Bloomsbury Review, Jan./Feb., 1991, p. 12
18 Charles Gaines, “Robert Bly, Wild Thing,” Esquire, October, 1991, p. 127
19 Kim Ode, “Robert Bly: A Man Rethinks His Role,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, “First Sunday Section,” February 2, 1992, p. 8
20 Robert Bly, The Sibling Society, Addison-Wesley, 1996, p. 179
21 Ibid., pp. 178-9
22 “The Man in the Black Coat Turns: A Discussion with Robert Bly,” p. 12
23 Robert Bly, “I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” p. 29
24 Robert Bly, The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine, with Marion Woodman, Henry Holt and Company, 1998, p xvii
25 “The Art of Poetry LXXIX,” Interview with Francis Quinn, The Paris Review, #154, Spring, 2000, p. 68
26 H. J. Cummins, “From BOYS to MEN,” Star Tribune, April 27, 2000, p. 1E
27 Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men, p. 98
28 Phil Woods, review of Iron John: A Book About Men, The Bloomsbury Review, Jan./Feb., 1991, p. 13
29 “The Secret Life of Men,” New Age Journal, p. 44
Camp du Nord
Links: Men and the Life of Desire (parts 1-4)
The Story of Iron John told by Robert Bly
On Being a Man by Robert Bly and Michael Meade (parts 1-6)