Poet Robert Bly, anti-war activist and 'men's movement' leader, dies at 94 Bly won a National Book Award and was a tireless advocate for poetry. But he knew he could rub people the wrong way. "I do remember people wanting to kill me," he said, "but that's not unusual."

Poet Robert Bly, anti-war activist and 'men's movement' leader, dies at 94

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Poet Robert Bly has died. He was a tireless advocate for the art form. And over the course of half a century, he transformed American poetry. Bly was also central to the controversial men's movement of the 1990s. He died on Sunday at 94 years old. Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr has more on his long and complicated life.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: Robert Bly could rub people the wrong way.


ROBERT BLY: I do remember people wanting to kill me. But that's not unusual.

KERR: That was the poet from an interview in 2010. He was a brash farm boy from southern Minnesota who served in the Navy, then went to Harvard with the likes of poet Donald Hall and author George Plimpton. After graduating in 1950, he tired of East Coast life. First, he got an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and then returned to farm life in the town of Madison, Minn.


R BLY: (Reading) The small world of the car plunges through the deep fields of the night. On the way from Willmar to Milan, this solitude covered with iron moves through the fields of night, penetrated by the noise of crickets.

KERR: Bly launched a literary magazine with his friend William Duffy called The Fifties. In the first issue, they laid out their manifesto. Quote, "The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned." In 1999, Bly said they got submissions from some of the best-known poets of the time but rejected almost all of them.


R BLY: Bill was a genius at these rejection slips. He'd say things like, dear Mr. Jones, these poems remind me of false teeth - yours sincerely, William Duffy. And then we'd get insulting letters back, and we'd print the letters 'cause they had more excitement and energy in them than the poems.

KERR: The magazine did print poems by Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and James Wright, as well as Bly's translations of poets largely unknown to U.S. audiences - Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado, among many others. The Fifties also published Bly's own poems, and daughter Mary watched her father polish some of them for years.


MARY BLY: You write a poem. You put it in a trunk. You pull it out a year later. You rewrite it intensely for two weeks. You put it back in the trunk. You're bringing months and years of your life to bear on the one idea that turns into 16 lines.

KERR: Robert Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 and became a very public advocate for poetry. Writer Jim Lenfestey organized a 2009 conference called Robert Bly: In This World to explore the poet's influence.

JIM LENFESTEY: He really changed the way poetry is read and heard in America.

KERR: Bly also studied the deeper meanings of fairytales and the roots of gender roles in modern society. The two came together in 1990 in "Iron John: A Book About Men." Bly used a tale from the Brothers Grimm to argue that society disconnects men from their deep feelings and emotions, and that causes problems for everyone.


R BLY: There's tremendous amount of belittling of men that has been going on for a long time in our culture.

KERR: The book spent 62 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and became a focus for the nascent men's movement. It attracted huge media attention, but also got slammed as being anti-women. Bly and his supporters denied this, and he kept writing into his 80s.


R BLY: That's what it feels like when you get to be my age. Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat when so many have gone down in the storm.

KERR: For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Minneapolis.


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