Robert Bly at an October 2006 University of Minnesota Libraries event
Robert Bly at an October 2006 University of Minnesota Libraries event.

Robert Bly, an outstanding person of letters in Minnesota, died at the age of 94 on Nov. 21. Those wishing to know more about the late poet, translator, activist, performance artist, and expressive men’s movement founder can access the collection of his materials held in the Upper Midwest Literary Archives in the University Libraries.

“He was by far the most consequential poet of the second half of the 20th century,” says James Lenfestey, poet, writer, and former Star Tribune editorial writer.

Lenfestey discovered Bly’s poetry when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in 1967. He was astounded, he says, “by the fragrance of the corn stubble of the Middle West in [Bly’s] poems.” Lenfestey finally met him in 1998, when he attended one of Bly’s Great Mother conferences, which convinced him that Bly was interested in men developing their inner lives, their spiritual lives, in ways that were not done at the time.

“He was by far the most consequential poet of the second half of the 20th century.”

—James Lenfestey, poet, writer, and former Star Tribune editorial writer.

The men’s movement Bly founded, outlined in his book “Iron John: A book about men,” was deeply misunderstood, Lenfestey says. It was not an anti-women movement, he says, but rather a way for men to delve deeply into feelings that were being ignored. The Robert Bly collection held at the University has audio and visual recordings from the men’s movement conferences.

Lenfestey was co-editor of “Robert Bly in this World.” This book, edited with Thomas R. Smith, recounts a conference held at the Elmer L. Andersen Library in April 2009 honoring Bly and the acquisition of his papers and other materials by the University’s Archives and Special Collections. Lenfestey and Margaret Telfer of the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries were leaders of the effort to raise funds to purchase the Bly archive.

Bly archive is ‘linchpin’ of the Upper Midwest Literary Archives

“The Robert Bly archive is probably the linchpin of our Upper Midwest Literary Archives,” says Kris Kiesling, Director of Archives and Special Collections at the University. “It’s a very large, very rich collection.” Among the highlights is Bly’s correspondence with James Wright, in which they would share draft poems and offer opinions on each other’s work. Bly was tremendously influential through his poetry and the men’s movement, she says, as shown in the archive.

“I am most grateful to have had access to this extraordinarily important collection,” says Mark Gustafson, author of the recently published “Born Under the Sign of Odin: The life and times of Robert Bly’s Little Magazine and Small Press.”

“The correspondence, personal journals, and other papers were/are absolutely fundamental to that book and my ongoing work,” he says. “There would be no book without them.”

Bly was a very warm person whom Kiesling met several times.

“I used to love to hear him recite his poems; he had a certain cadence he used” and would often repeat whole poems or parts of them, she says. Readers can hear Bly read during one of his appearances at the University on Oct. 16, 2013, to celebrate a new book of poetry, “Stealing Sugar from the Castle.”

Brief biography

The Robert Bly Archive

The collection of Bly’s materials is held in the Upper Midwest Literary Archives in the University Libraries.

Bly was born Dec. 23, 1926, in Madison, Minnesota, and grew up on his parents’ farm. After graduating from Madison High School in 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Discharged in 1946, he enrolled in St. Olaf College; after one year, he transferred to Harvard University. There he met many poets, including Donald Hall, with whom he became lifelong friends.

After time spent in northern Minnesota and New York City, Bly attended graduate school in Iowa, and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study poetry in Oslo, Norway. He returned to Minnesota and in 1958 started a magazine of contemporary poetry, The Fifties. (It continued to be published as The Sixties and The Seventies.)

In 1966, he co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War; in 1968, he won a National Book Award for his book of poetry “The Light Around the Body.” In 1982, Bly collaborated with Keith Thompson on a ground-breaking article, What Men Really Want in New Age magazine, which grew into a men’s movement. He continued working in this movement through 2010.

During his life, Bly wrote poetry, translated poems by others, and was close friends with many poets including, among others, Bill Holm and James Wright. In 2008, Bly was named the first Poet Laureate of Minnesota. He published many books, translations, and essays. He continued to write and translate into the 21st century.

—Allison Campbell-Jensen

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