When Paul Simon and his world musicians played the Tacoma Dome, they took in $25 a ticket, but today in the Eastvold Auditorium in nearby Parkland, Wash., 1,000 men have shelled out $75 each to witness a different sort of multicultural event: an all-day lecture/ encounter group/pep rally led by Robert Bly, the rumpled 64-year-old lion of the men’s movement. As the customers file in, a dozen white guys flail away incompetently on African drums. When the crowd is seated, the drummers quit the stage and Bly and Michael Meade, a storyteller who helps run the workshops, begin to recite rambling myths and bits of verse. Meade occasionally bangs a bongo. Bly plinks a bouzouki, the Greek version of the mandolin, sending mournful notes wafting out over the audience.
But if Robert Bly is a god-awful bouzouki player, he is a genius at playing a crowd, and in the year he has become something unique on the American scene: a major poet who has suddenly turned into a manful guru to the masses. The winner of the 1968 National Book Award for his antiwar poems The Light Around the Body, Bly by 1984 was being hailed by Current Biography as ”arguably the most influential living American poet.” Then he appeared on Bill Moyers’ PBS show A Gathering of Men in 1990, and a strikingly more popular Bly was born. The 90-minute Gathering, rebroadcast repeatedly, is one of the most requested titles in the 11-year history of Journal Graphics, a company that sells TV transcripts. Videotape sales of Gathering are expected to hit $2.6 million this year, and on the lecture circuit, where he spends about one week a month, Bly says he earns ”about $500 to $15,000” per appearance. ”I donate $5,000 to the homeless in each city. If I still had kids in college,” he adds, ”I’d probably keep it.” Perhaps most impressive of all, Bly’s myth-laden 1990 self-help book, Iron John: A Book About Men, has become one of the most unanticipated best-sellers since Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Iron John has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 20 straight weeks — nine of them at No. 1.
A hulking 6’3” man with anarchic white hair, Bly onstage is a strange cross between folksy fellow Minnesota Norwegian Garrison Keillor and Joseph Campbell, the erudite professor and author also launched to stardom by Moyers with the 1988 PBS series The Power of Myth. Bly dispenses philosophical sundries in a down-home way reminiscent of Keillor’s. And where Campbell instructed Americans to ”follow their bliss” like Homer’s Odysseus and Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker, Bly urges men to rediscover their manhood by getting back to their wild nature. Some feminists, he says, ”in a justified fear of brutality, [have] labored to breed fierceness out of men,” creating the sort of ”soft male” of whom Teddy Roosevelt might have said, ”I could carve a better man out of a banana.” Bly believes that inside every such male there’s a ”Wild Man” yearning to get out, a ”radiant inner king” just waiting to confer masculine pride and sureness of purpose.
Bly himself, a Minnesota farmer’s son who was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, has always been ruggedly independent. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1950, he earned his master’s from Iowa, married writer Carol McLean in 1955, and settled on family farmland in Madison, Minn. He spent the next 30 years writing nine books of poetry, giving readings, lecturing, and occasionally teaching. (He and McLean divorced in 1979; he married Ruth Ray, a psychologist, the next year.) Yet Bly’s recent metamorphosis from lofty littérateur to self-help swami reflects less change than you might think: Bly for decades has been part of a ”Deep Imagism” school of poetry that places greater faith in mankind’s intuitions than in its rational mind. He even found his true poetic voice by accompanying his readings on a dulcimer, just as he does today on the bouzouki.
Bly insists that he doesn’t blame women for men’s sorry state; he blames older men who have failed to provide young ones with the role models they crave. In traditional societies, boys worked alongside men, plowing fields and fashioning arrowheads, but the Industrial Revolution severed that connection. The title character in his best-seller is a wild, hairy fellow who, in a Grimm fairy tale, is fished up from a pond and becomes a boy’s mentor. That image is also the inspiration for his most extravagant exercise in manly self-discovery: five-day ”Wild Man” excursions, in which groups of 100 men take to the woods under the tutelage of Bly and others to dance around fires, banging on drums.
Not everyone finds Bly’s ideas and methodology appealing: His ex-wife is writing a book featuring an essay blasting the men’s movement. ”I’m desperately against sexual separatism,” says Carol Bly, author of the just-published fiction collection The Tomcat’s Wife. ”Women may talk way too much about relationships, but men do it too little…. All this ‘I want to get back to the woods and be a male warrior’ — that’s regression.” Katha Pollitt, an award-winning poet who writes about sexual politics, concurs. ”Men run the world, they have all the money, and they’re still not happy? Poor babies!” she snorts. ”Bly’s trying to invent some male identity not involving dominance over women, which he accomplishes by leaving women out.”
”The young boys are drowning in female energy in the schools,” Bly is warning his listeners in Parkland. ”Every young man has a fantastic need for initiation — that’s why we all became so crazy about our football coach.” Such initiations, he says, channel wildness into socially approved acts. ”There’s something in a man that welcomes thunder! I mean, if everyone were Doris Day, what the hell would thunder do?” From time to time, he and Meade interrupt their cautionary observations to ask their followers to thunder on their own.
”Anybody need to say anything?” Meade inquires at one point.
”AOOOOO!” shrieks a voice in the crowd.
”Does anybody have a two-syllable word?” Meade asks, bringing down the house.
Bly has reached his fundamental message: Men and women are essentially alien and neither should apologize. ”They’re different tribes,” he is saying. ”My father was an alcoholic, and yet if you look underneath his weakness, there was something there that my mother didn’t have — she was fine, but she didn’t have it…. Three million sperm start out, and they find themselves immediately in a hostile environment, facing an egg approximately 40,000 times bigger [the actual figure is 10,000]. We’re the product of the one survivor that didn’t give up.”
A while later, three males troop down to a microphone below the stage and interrupt the master’s rap. ”I am very pleased to be here today with my son and grandson,” says the eldest. This elicits a standing ovation, and Bly — who is often belligerent when his authority is challenged — replies warmly, ”You’re blessing those two as well as blessing us.”
Bly insists he is not preaching old-style machismo, and he takes pains to tell his audience that in fact male rage is weakness. ”We’re not talkin’ about aggression,” he calls out. A few of his listeners seem confused. At the height of an hour-long discussion of the gulf war, one audience member announces that he’s seceded from society. ”I’m not paying my taxes, I’ve bought an AK-47, and I’m farting around with ammunition just in case I have to back up my decision,” he says softly but firmly. Bly and many others have spoken against the gulf war, yet nobody criticizes the AK-47 fellow. And when Bly asks the Vietnam vets present to stand to be honored, the room erupts with applause for about three minutes.
The man who has spent almost eight hours unleashing the spirits of Iron John, Dionysus, and Bhutanese bird-men with dogs’ teeth now returns to the topic of womankind. ”It feels good to end with remembering our wives, sweethearts, daughters,” Robert Bly says. ”Buy her a gift, so when she asks what you got out of today, just give it to her.” There are a thousand chuckles. And then he closes by intoning a famous haiku: ”Snail. Snail. Slowly. Slowly. Climb Mount Fuji.”
The thousand men sigh and head home, like members of a secret society dispersing into the dark.