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The Battle of the Sexes, Continued: Communiques From the Trenches : Poet Examines 'Men and Women Now' Through Looking Glass of Stories, Songs and Verse; Psychologist Uses the Fable of Porcupines and Moles to Illustrate Gender Differences

September 25, 1985|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

The male in the past 20 years has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process he has not become more free. He's a nice boy who now not only pleases his mother but also the young woman he is living with. --Robert Bly in a 1982 New Age Magazine interview

So, you think what the new woman wants is Phil Donahue? Alan Alda? A man who cries, embraces feminism and will listen to her endlessly?

Wrong. At least according to Robert Bly, a 58-year-old poet who came from his farm in Moose Lake, Minn., to speak on "Men and Women Now" at a daylong seminar Saturday at the Malibu Community Center.

What women want, Bly says, are men who are sensitive, yes, but men who have also dug deep into the pit of their primitive maleness, who have met the hairy, Wild Man of their ancient, collective past and know about male pain, male joy and male power.

A poet given to psychological analyses, Bly eschews jargon in favor of myths, fairy tales, stories and poems. Jargon, he says, is hard to remember. "You go to seminars and someone in there (a part of you) doesn't even know you went. . . . Stories catch your attention, usually when they're told and not read."

Like a troubadour, he accompanied himself Saturday on a dulcimer, a bouzouki (Greek mandolin) or a drum. About 70 men and women came, including a college administrator, a city councilman, a doctor, a film director and several psychologists obviously already familiar with Bly. His ideas were often met with collective sighs of approval. He sometimes greeted their comments with approving grunts.

His hands stroked the bouzouki as he read one of his poems:

Every breath taken

by a man who loves

fills the water tank

where spirit horses drink.

He is tall, 6-foot-3, with a soft, ruddy complexion surrounded by unruly white hair. He speaks in a slight nasal tone--shifting dialect when it pleases him. His hands move in elegant gestures, sometimes as quickly as if he were translating for the deaf.

He is controversial, irreverent, metaphorical and vague, deflecting questions or criticism he deems irrelevant. "In a seminar I make about 4,000 generalizations. Five hundred of them must be off," he said. He also exaggerates.

His hands beat a graceful cadence on the drum--stopping now and then for dramatic effect--as he reads another of his poems:

The ram and his cohorts enter the dark bridge and we all follow. Grieving men descend from the harvested hills and tell boys what can be told of the dragon turning in its spiral shell. God-taught men tell boys of the male turning dragon but the grief our fathers lived cannot be told. Bly is known for his crusading, sometimes cranky individualism. In 1966, he co-founded American Writers Against the War in Vietnam. He translates Scandinavian, Spanish and German literature and has published a poetry journal as well as a dozen books of poems including "Out of the Rolling Ocean: A Book of Love Poems" and his most recent, "Loving a Woman in Two Worlds." Bly's "The Light Around the Body" won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1967.

Divorced, remarried and the father of five, Bly has achieved another sort of fame as a mediator in the ongoing battle of the sexes--focusing primarily on men. He said he travels five days a month, giving poetry concerts and seminars on such topics as "Love in the Western World."

Men and women, Bly said, are in a disastrous situation, though it's not much different than ever. "What we love is conflict between men and women first and self-pity second."

'This Curious Distance'

Central to the problem now, he says, is a lowered "consciousness" in American domestic life, which stems from a lack of observation and not "taking care of things." He compared it to leaving a wool blanket outdoors in a damp Minnesota night and finding in the morning that crickets have eaten it. "It's so subtle. You wake up in the morning and you feel this curious distance."

Bly has culled his ideas from a variety of classic and modern psychologists, mythologists and poets.

Among the cultural defects that he says have estranged men and women are modern birthing practices that separate mother and child, preventing early bonding and encouraging attachment to objects. He also blames the proliferation of pornography, that he says has overstimulated men, encouraging them to make objects of women.

Additionally, he said, men and women enter relationships with totally different models to follow. While a woman's first love relationship--with her mother--ended in merging, a man's with his mother was abruptly severed by the incest taboo.

Lost Male Rites

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