By Laurie Hertzel
Star Tribune (TNS)
MINNEAPOLIS Robert Bly, the National Book Award winning poet who began writing bucolic poems about rural Minnesota and continued to shake up the complacent world of 1950s poetry, speak out against war, feature poets international to Western readers and to become a bestselling author teaching men how to be in touch with their feelings, passed away on Sunday, just a month before his 95th birthday.
In his heyday, Bly was known to stage poetry readings by reading poems two or three times, simply because he liked their sound; read the work of other writers; wear a rubber scare mask or embroidered vest on stage; reading to the background music of drums and sitars.
But despite his theatricality, he has always been extremely serious about poetry and its importance in the cultural and political landscape. He was passionate about words.
Bly lived most of her life in her native Minnesota, a familiar figure in local literary events until recent years, when her memory began to fade. His last public reading dates back to 2015 in Minneapolis where he launched the collection. Like the new moon I’ll live my life. One by one, 24 poets read their favorite Bly poems before Bly himself got up and read Moon behind a poplar, Arrival in the northern woods and the poem that had become his end-of-life hymn, Keep our little boat afloat, on survival, grace and death. He banged his cane on the church floor to the rhythm of the words.
His latest book, Robert Bly: collected poems, was published in December 2018 by WW Norton.
Bly was born on the family farm in Madison, Minnesota on December 23, 1926, one of two sons to Jacob and Alice Bly. After high school, he spent two years in the US Navy, working with radar and sonar. He attended St. Olaf College for a year before transferring to Harvard, where he studied with Archibald MacLeish and was part of a group of spirited young writers John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Harold Brodky, George Plimpton and Adrienne Rich. They were all irascible, Bly said in a 2000 interview in the Paris review itself included. I swelled my throat like an iguana.
After college, he spent four years writing in New York with little success, even trying his hand at the theater. I wanted to be a playwright and wrote a play called Martin Luther. The problem was that no one in my family was speaking, he told the Paris review, and so his efforts to write the dialogue fell flat. This effort was hopeless from the start.
Bly attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, married Duluth short story writer Carol McLean, then received a Fulbright and went to Norway to study and translate Norwegian poetry. It was there that he became fascinated with the idea of publishing South American, Scandinavian, and European poets, and he began working on translations by Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Gunnar Ekelof, and others.
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Back in Minnesota, the Bly’s moved to a rustic farmhouse outside of Madison, half a mile from where he grew up. The Bly’s lived rustic, the house had no running water until 1962 and their four children, Mary, Bridget, Noah and Micah, were born there.
With schoolteacher William Duffy, Robert and Carol Bly founded a literary magazine called the fifties, in which they publish avant-garde poems and poets in translation. The first issue of the fifties, published in the summer of 1958, stated: The editors of this magazine believe that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.
The farm has become a gathering place for writers including James Wright, Bill Holm, Donald Hall, Lewis Hyde, Tomas Transtromer, Frederick Manfred and many more. After Duffy left the magazine, Wright and others helped edit.
Blys first collection, Silence in the snowy fields, was published in 1962. I spent whole days sitting in the fields, he told the Paris review. But there was peace. I had always had a great love for silence. … I would never have written such an interesting book if I had not returned to the country where I was a child.
In 1966, Bly co-founded the American Writers Against the Vietnam War. In 1968, he won the National Book Award for his second collection, Light around the body, which included poems harshly criticizing the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. He donated the prize money to the anti-war movement.
His poem The mother of teeth finally naked is considered one of the most important poems of the Vietnam War. It begins: Massive engines rise beautifully from the bridge. / Wings appear above the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets … Helicopters fly above. Death- / bee is coming.
Bly continued to write, translate, edit and publish for the next 40 years; in the 1970s he published 11 books of poetry, essays and translations. In 1975 he founded the Great Mother and New Father Conference, a gathering of poets, storytellers and mythologists, which continues to meet annually.
His 1990 book, Iron John, catapulted it to mainstream fame. The book was inspired by Bly’s intense grief at the death of her father, and it became an international bestseller, captivating thousands of men, drawing them to conferences to talk about their fathers and their emotions. In 1991 he was named one of the People magazinethe most intriguing people.
In a 1990 documentary, A gathering of men, Bill Moyers and Bly explored the changing role of men in modern America. In 2009, the Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota sponsored a four-day symposium on Bly that included readings, workshops, and a bus ride back to Madison, where Bly reunited with old friends and toured his old studio in handwriting, which had been moved from the farm. at the Lac Qui Parle County Museum, furniture and books intact.
In addition to the National Book Award, Bly received the 2013 Robert Frost Medal, the Transtromer Poetry Prize in Sweden, and the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.
In 2012, her daughter Mary, a teacher and author, spoke to Minnesota Public Radio about Bly’s fading memory.
My stepmom was talking about watching a video of him and he said I love this guy! And then he said I would like to know him. So it was very hard for my mother-in-law at that time. But he both recognizes what’s going on, his sense of humor hasn’t gone away at all, and recognizes that life has different phases.
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