If the want ad had read: "Patriarch needed for new men's movement--must be able to withstand the slings and arrows of outraged feminists," Robert Bly would seem the ideal candidate. At 66, the white-haired poet from Minnesota has earned celebrity status late in life as a quick-witted--and often sharp-tongued--articulator of men's issues.
Only problem is, it wasn't a job he ever applied for. "I'm a teacher of mythology and poetry--that's the way I earned a living for my family!" Bly said, laughing during a recent telephone interview. "I did this same kind of psychological and mythological work for both men and women for about 10 years and no one had paid any attention at all. Then in 1981 when I did a couple just for men, everyone started saying, 'Oh my God, there's a men's movement . . . and you're the leader!' To me it was very funny."
Bly is best known for his book "Iron John," in which he uses analogies to a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm to identify the ways in which contemporary social roles block what he feels are vital aspects of male psychology. Ever since he became the subject of a documentary profile by Bill Moyers, Bly's association with men's gatherings routinely draws 400 to 500 hundred participants.
On Saturday, Bly will perform in Santa Barbara's Arlington Theatre, accompanied by former Doors drummer John Densmore. The evening of poetry, mythology, and personal reminiscences will be a benefit for the Pacifica Graduate Institute's new archives of the late mythologist Joseph Campbell.
That Bly's writings and performances have touched a nerve somewhere is evident in the depth of controversy that they have sparked. "Well, don't go into the gender work if you really want to be liked by everybody," he said with another laugh. "But I think it's important work to do."
Much of the criticism has come from feminists who argue that Bly's focus on male psychology diverts attention from social, political and economic injustices between the sexes that still need to be corrected.
Bly admits that they have a point. "I think that men need to listen carefully to what the women's movement is saying and not dismiss that. At the same time, one can praise the great qualities in men without being anti-female, just as defending women does not mean being anti-male."
Currently, the primary mechanism for dredging men's issues into consciousness is through men's groups, though Bly feels that these are often misinterpreted, even by men. "Many men find it astonishing to go and find that they aren't 'rah-rah' things and there isn't a lot of anger. Instead, there's an attempt to look at what one had lost from the kind of parents, and particularly fathers one had, and the terrific loss from not supporting and pursuing deep friendships with other men."
Most of the males who come to the gatherings are about 35 years old, he said, and have experienced failure relatively recently--in a relationship, a marriage or in a business. "So they are in that tentative place where they recognize that the John Wayne model isn't working."
As with any quick-fix formula, the flamboyant drumming and chanting that accompany these gatherings are a ripe target for sitcom parody, Bly admits. "But the real work is not done in these public events. It's done over a period of three and four years when the man meets with a group of around eight men in a small, local, not flashy, not exciting situation."
Bly claimed that one of the most helpful achievements of these smaller groups is that they allow men to express pent-up rage without falling into violence, especially toward women.
In the small men's groups, he said, over the years a man will be encouraged to express that rage so that "when he lays it out, he doesn't burn down the world. If he's had an opportunity to cross over that border from anger into rage a number of times, and learned to feel the details and the evidence of his own body, then when he is with his wife and he gets angry, he'll know what that moment is and stop."
Much of Bly's work in both poetry and philosophy centers on the theme of the father, a figure defined more by absence. "I think the greatest mistake in 20th-Century sociology is to underestimate how important the father is. Many fathers today literally think they're of no significance because nothing in the sociological literature says that. It says the mother can do all the work."
Bly stressed the importance of older males in initiating boys into manhood, a topic that he explored at length in "Iron John." He pointed out that in pre-industrial times, the genuine masculine companionship would have come from the grandfather and from the uncles. "But in our culture they're all gone to Phoenix or Florida--no one wants the uncle in the house, he's too weird and so on."