How Poet Robert Bly Unleashed ‘Iron John’ and Started the Drum-Thumping Men’s Movement of the ’90s

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Poet & men's movement guru Robert Bly, circa 1990.Photo: Per Breiehagen

Robert Bly is now 87 and living in Minnesota, lately distinguished as the most prominent translator in English of the 2011 Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Transtromer. But for a moment — say, 1991, when I was a Martin Amis–reading Nirvana-listening 15-year-old — he was a media-friendly shaman for a strange, mythopoetic men’s-liberation movement. Seeking lessons and cures for the modern man in fairy tales and myth, this flowering of men’s self-help workshops and books managed to be both New Age and retrograde. It emerged genuinely out of feminism or at least claimed an alliance with it, and had as its mega-selling quasi-manifesto Bly’s Iron John: A Book about Men. If you remember it now, it’s probably via the media caricature: so many gatherings of men in midlife crises, trying to get over their lingering daddy issues through primal scream sessions and group runs through the woods. (I think even Saved by the Bell put Mr. Belding in a bearskin around a drum circle in one episode.)

The satires were deserved, but the movement wasn’t actually all that new. It may seem obvious why we don’t hear every day about something called masculism, but for about as long as there was a women’s movement, there was something like its opposite. The term masculism was coined in 1914 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in reference to forces opposing women’s rights, and there have been spasms periodically ever since. With the Trump campaign, it’s probably fair to say we’re in another one now, animated more by the (reactionary, misogynist) men’s-rights movement than Bly’s proto-woke brand. But even reactionary minds can have limited historical clarity, which means for many of the bros of the alt-right, Bly probably lingers in hazy memory as a men’s-needs icon from childhood.

He was a poet first, of course. Bly made his debut in 1962 with Silence in the Snowy Fields and won the National Book Award for The Light Around the Body in 1967. The titles alone give a good sense of Bly’s sensibility. It’s fair to call him an anti-modernist. In 1963 he published an essay, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” attacking T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams for promulgating a poetry drained of personality, which he believed reduced it to the practice of sociology. “True freshness and surprise are impossible,” Bly wrote. “The poet’s eyes are not on the impulse, but are constantly looking over the public world for reliable sets of objects. Finally the poet’s own mind becomes objective; he becomes the public.” To Bly, this was a fraud, and he preferred the more “impulsive” and “intimate” forces he saw at work in Spanish-language poets like Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca.

So Bly is something of a neo-Romantic who prefers the elemental to stuff you can find around the house. “Marianne Moore’s poetry,” he wrote, “also represents a treasure house — a feminine one. The objects in the poem are fragments, annexed, and the poem is a parlor full of knickknacks carefully arranged. Melville leaves such a room and goes to sea: there he sees whales moving about in the sea their whole lives, winds thrashing freely, primitive forces that act out their own inward strength.” None of those knickknacks out there at sea.

Fast-forward 27 years and it’s easy to see how Bly’s ideas about poetry metastasized in his diagnosis of the Anglo-American male. The trouble, he wrote, started with the Industrial Revolution, which broke the age-old tradition of boys serving as their fathers’ apprentices, and sent fathers off to remote factories and offices — places where their work was secret and possibly shameful. Meanwhile, a guy like D.H. Lawrence saw daddy come home every night tired, sooty, and crooked from the coal mine, and was told by day in the classroom, by young women teachers imported from London, that such work was beneath what the education he was getting would make him. Closer to home, for Bly, was “’50s man,” who was “supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide.” This led, Bly wrote, to Vietnam, Reagan’s ’80s meddling in El Salvador, and callousness toward the poor and the elderly. It also led to the younger “’60s man,” who was more in touch with his feminine side — a “wonderful” thing — but disillusioned with manhood because of Vietnam and generally “lacking in energy.” “They are life-preserving but not life giving.” Add to this a growing number of men raised in fatherless homes, the rise of violent street gangs, junk-bond trading, swelling rates of alcoholism and cocaine use, plus an epidemic of “passivity,” and you have Bly’s vision of the crisis of male identity circa 1990. Bly’s diagnosis is rather crude and cliched, though it has a lot in common with more sophisticated critiques of the time from both the left (Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism) and the right (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind). His prescribed cure is elaborate, and in many ways quite bizarre. Iron John is a dense exegesis of a fairy tale first put to paper by the Brothers Grimm in 1820.

That story goes like this: Something in the forest is killing a kingdom’s hunters. A stranger arrives, goes into the forest with his dog, and returns with a large, hairy man he’s extracted from a pond. This is the Wild Man, whom the king locks in a cage. The king’s son, playing with his ball, lets it slip into the cage, and the Wild Man tells him he’ll give it back if the boy steals the key to the cage from under his mother’s pillow and sets him free. The boy unlocks the cage, but fearful that he’ll be in trouble with his parents, flees on the Wild Man’s back to the forest. After the boy fails a series of trials and acquires a head of golden hair, the Wild Man kicks him out of the forest, but after he sinks to the low status of a kitchen worker in a foreign kingdom, the Wild Man (a.k.a. Iron John) helps him become a mighty warrior and he wins the hand of the princess, is reunited with his parents, and becomes a rich, heroic king in his own right. Rest assured, there are horses of many colors involved.

Not a bad story, if a bit heartwarming and triumphalist. In its basic structure — collusion with a trickster; flight from the mother; failure at trial; social descent (anabasis, as the Greeks called it); redemption in battle; getting the girl and getting rich — Bly tracks the stages of ancient male initiation rites. It’s a process that can last from adolescence through middle age, repeated over and over again with the steps out of order, until the boy becomes an Iron John to his tribe’s boys. Bly says the Iron John tale could be “ten or twenty thousand years old” or “pre-Christian by a thousand years or so.” Math aside, old equals good in the Bly equation. His mythopoetic technique, borrowed from the scholar Bruno Bettelheim, as well as from Freud and Jung, allows him to free-associate any element from any myth from any culture of any era with any detail from any other anywhere anytime, draw sweeping conclusions, then time-travel to the downtown of the present, resulting in not a few passages like this one:

To judge by men’s lives in New Guinea, Kenya, North Africa, the pygmy territories, Zulu lands, and in the Arab and Persian culture flavored by Sufi communities, men have lived together in heart unions and soul connections for hundreds of thousands of years. Contemporary business life allows competitive relationships only, in which the major emotions are anxiety, tension, loneliness, rivalry, and fear.

After work what do men do? Collect in a bar to hold light conversations over light beer, unities that are broken off whenever a young woman comes by or touches the brim of someone’s cowboy hat. Having no soul union with other men can be the most damaging wound of all.

For someone who isn’t in the market for help, any self-help book will seem by turns obvious, eye-rolling, or ludicrous. Iron John is all those things. It’s irony-free, humorless, and often quite scoldy. I tend to be skeptical of any therapeutic, didactic, or moralizing readings of literature, and often reading Iron John I found myself wanting to toss the book across the room when I thought Bly was playing fast and loose procrustean games with familiar myths. He invokes the myth of Paris and the apple, skirting the part where none of that ended well for anyone in Troy. He talks a lot about “Zeus energy,” without grappling too hard with Zeus as a patricidal serial rapist, and whimsical thunderbolt tosser. He does at one point admit that there are next to no good fathers in Greek mythology, but that barely slows him down on his march through masculine space-time. As he proceeds down any of his many mythopoetic rabbit holes, where the color white means semen but also virginity but also saliva and teeth and therefore laughter but also rivers but also snow but also strength, he reminds me of nothing more than a sort of Midwestern version of Doctor Who, saving the day with some preposterous inference that thwarts an alien most likely repurposed from Norse, Celtic, or Greek myth. Look at photographs of Bly in waistcoat and cravat and a head of white hair — he could be a Mississippi cousin of the mid-’70s vintage third Doctor Who played by John Pertwee.

But I shouldn’t oversell Iron John even a little: The experience of reading it for something other than its “healing powers” is deeply boring and sent me into many fits of procrastination. Yet when I left it I had a hard time getting it out of my head, which is ultimately probably less to Bly’s credit than to the power of the stories he was drawing on. But I was seeing him everywhere. Over the course of a few days and Memorial Day weekend I fled its pages to go to a bar where I put Nirvana’s Nevermind on the jukebox — Kurt Cobain, that child of abuse and addiction, if only he’d been through the proper initiation rites! (Did Courtney Love ever throw him a golden apple?) I made my slow way through the fifth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — that time he cut up his face, was he enacting his own ritual wounding, each cut, as Bly would have it, his own feminine wound? Daddy issues were everywhere. X-Men: Magneto is Quicksilver’s father! Captain America: Winter Soldier killed Iron Man’s father! I finished binge-watching Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete — so much paternity confusion and abuse — my God! Even the election news: Donald Trump with his sort of golden hair, he’s stuck at stage three of the Iron John myth and must be due for an anabasis … Time to call Dad. We used to watch a lot of Doctor Who together.