Review: Iron John and American Poetry by Robert Bly Print

iron john(Written March 1991)

Since its publication in September 1990 Robert Bly’s Iron John has become a national bestseller. At the end of 1991 the book was beyond its twentieth printing, and there was still no word on a paperback edition. The book also seemed certain to remain for a second year on the New York Times bestseller list. Quite a feat for a book by a poet whose subject is men. Never before has a book about male psychology sold as well and galvanized the attention of American men as this one has. If men are seriously reading Iron John, then they are exploring a more joyous masculinity, examining the emotional pain of their lives and developing maturer psyches. But Bly’s book may have also attracted the anxiety and confusion that many contemporary men feel. If men are ambivalent about their condition today, then what has caused this feeling and why are men turning to Bly for help?

Consider first the negative images our society too often has of men: on one hand, they are seen as abusers, rapists, insensitive brutes and, on the other, dumb, passive, ineffectual wimps. Some even claim that women’s pain and world problems are the result of maleness itself. Bly and other men are denouncing the idea that men are biologically tainted or incapable of helping themselves. The new thinking about men says that oppression stems from systems of control propagated through male prerogatives--physical strength, ownership and inheritance privileges, hierarchical and patriarchal institutions. Systems that males control victimize women, not male gender. When men reject such wrongful portrayals (the anti-male greeting card industry alone must gross millions), they can better accept their anger and self-assertion not as toxic but as traits in need of valued, guided expression. Men are discovering that they need not feel bad for feeling masculine.

Men also are hearing the message, promoted by Bly and other men’s movement writers, that men have endured oppression, just as women have, by a minority of powerful men. The difference is, men feel connected to these men. Harsh, duty-bound men are often their fathers and grandfathers, men like Laius, the father who abandoned Oedipus yet to whom Oedipus felt lifelong allegiance. To understand why men abandon and oppress other men is not easy. It usually begins with the estrangement sons feel from their fathers. But men cannot reject other men, particularly son to father, as easily as women can. A knowledge of, and a sympathy for, male oppression has at last come to consciousness.

To further explain the “Iron John” phenomenon, add the role of media. For some time Bly has been coming at us quadraphonically: workshops for men that explore the Wild Man, audio tapes of those workshops, the PBS-Bill Moyers show, "A Gathering of Men," and the book itself. This is not mere exposure; it is saturation. A multi-media book, tape, and video experience, we find poet and product on most of the culture’s channels.

But despite these social and promotional causes men are moving toward Bly because Iron John has captured men’s emotional interest. Bly is expressing things men feel deeply but have not heard since the rise of feminism, two decades ago. A couple examples.

The contemporary mind might want to describe the exchange between father and son as a likening of attitude, a miming, but I think a physical exchange takes place, as if some substance was passing directly to the cells. The son’s body--not his mind--receives and the father gives this food at a level far below consciousness. The son does not receive a hands-on healing, but a body-on healing. His cells receive some knowledge of what an adult masculine body is. The younger body learns at what frequency the masculine body vibrates. It begins to grasp the song that adult male cells sing, and how the charming, elegant, lonely, courageous, half-shamed male molecules dance.

So many roles that men have depended on for hundreds of years have dissolved or vanished. Certain activities, such as hunting or pirating, no one wants him to do anymore. The Industrial Revolution has separated man from nature and from his family. The only jobs he can get are liable to harm the earth and the atmosphere; in general he doesn’t know whether to be ashamed of being a man or not . . .. And yet the structure at the bottom of the male psyche is still as firm as it was twenty thousand years ago. A contemporary man simply has very little help in getting down to it.

Men need help, but too many self-help books preach to men and women with simplistic exercises that require personal discipline. (To call Iron John a self-help book is a misnomer; I use the term to show that any book about self-exploration offers guidance.) Bly, however, is not preaching an individual path; he is gathering men together (the book is part of the lure) through story and ritual--drum beating, dancing, sweat lodges. The collective experience that unites the book o workshops for men which Bly runs may also explain the book’s success. Bly tells men stories in groups, which in turn stirs in them a reverence for masculinity, not a fear of it. They turn to the book then, as Bly has said, "to dignify the masculine with knowledge." Indeed Bly’s tack of stimulating men collectively through storytelling may be the only way into the male psyche: Individual men are just too busy, or too privately ashamed, to get themselves moving. The exuberance with which men participate in a Bly workshop is proof that men want to hear their lives interpreted by their elders, not their tax attorneys, celebrated with their male friends, not their wives or companions. In short Iron John’s popularity may stem from Bly’s empathy for the ambivalence men have about masculinity and the fact that he has right now an audience eager to redefine manhood.

The psychology of masculinity is complex; the book’s framework is simple. Recalling Robert Johnson’s He, in which Johnson uses the myth of the Holy Grail as a way to discuss masculinity, Bly tells, with many digressions, the story of Iron Hans, the Wild Man, a Grimm Brothers fairy tale of male initiation. Many by now know the story; I will refrain from a summary for those who have not heard it. (Bly’s incantatory telling on tape or video is a great treat.) I will mention the qualities that the Wild Man evokes: "... love of spontaneity, association with wilderness, honoring of grief, and respect for riskiness. " Bly says it is not correct to be the Wild Man, but to be in touch with him. He stresses that Iron John is an initiator who gives men a vehicle with which to learn responsibly "the ancient modes of male feeling," among them, spontaneity, courage, and fierceness. These modes, of course, respond to narrative--stories of action, mystery, romance. To interpret this intricate, adventurous tale Bly divides the story into eight sections and uses each one as a treasure map to the masculine psyche, covering like a great migratory bird its many levels of consciousness.

The range is three-dimensional: Bly discusses the story as myth, which includes male spirituality, the pantheon of Gods and the world of kings, as sociology, which focuses on current social strictures that victimize men, and as psychology, which is about the individual man and his relationship with women. Bly leaps from level to level, frequently, unexpectedly, like a laughing Buddha. Often I am struck by his ability to make myth and psychology cohere. Here is a discussion in which Bly uses the metaphor of a myth to ground an idea in current male thinking.

Alchemists of the Middle Ages made a lot out of the scene in which Paris chooses among the goddesses. A sixteenth-century woodcut, which Edward Edinger reprints in his Anatomy of the Psyche, shows, near Paris and the goddesses, a king lying on the ground, sound asleep. At the instant Paris indicates his choice with his wand, the king wakes up.

If we choose "the one precious thing"--the object of our desire--then, according to the alchemists, the inner King in us that has been asleep for so many years wakes up. During all the conductor years in which we buried our iron, and made ourselves into copper bridges, the King had no choice but to sleep. As long as nothing is clear, as long as we have not chosen whether to be conductor or human, the King--and the Queen--sleeps on.

To be fully male and human for Bly is to be iron. But one becomes iron; it is not a birthright. Without knowing that the masculine in men is developed, men will according to Bly give themselves entirely to career, children, marriage, or relationship, because they believe self-sacrifice is the way they become a man. But what happens if they lose that which they have worked so hard to sustain. They discover, often in their forties, that they have no support, no one with whom to share their pain. Bly feels men have to share pain with other men: only men can respond fully to male loss, particularly to the loss of father and children. Bly is trying to show, as male initiators have shown more easily in other cultures, that men must support their losses by gathering, in grief, together.

The power in Bly’s thought--what he is saying and how well he says it--may scare some readers. Men today are in a vulnerable position. Because they are anxious about their losses, they may fall prey to a teacher of Bly’s authority. But Bly does not claim he can fix anyone; he merely sets out on the sea of male myth, offering up its traditions as sails for a man’s grief. He wants men to know that their suffering has a tradition of stories and rituals, passed from men to men, from fathers to sons. To find the meaning of masculinity, men need to study and practice that tradition.

There are a few weaknesses. Occasionally Bly loses contact with the fairy story by picking apart a single detail. In one chapter, for instance, he devotes too much time to color symbolism, overstating its significance. Also, the idea that the Iron John story "involves partnership with the feminine principle" seems important but under-developed. But Iron John seldom obfuscates its subject or loses its passion. The book feels trustworthy because it so seriously values male psychology and the cosmos of gods, kings and warriors the male psyche contains. It seems Bly’s book will be measured ultimately by the good it will do. Its value, like Leaves of Grass, lies in its potential reach. Men to Come: How will you use the traditions of ancient and contemporary masculinity to instruct yourselves in a man’s best traits and save yourselves from his worst ones?

Much of the aggressive energy in Iron John also appears in Bly’s A eric Poet , a collection of essays about writing poetry, about poetry in America, and about American poets. Bly’s literary preferences are better known than his ideas on masculinity are recognized. In poetry, he asserts the primacy of "turning inward," following the attraction of the solitary, secretive world. Imagination cooked with the unconscious is the recipe.

For over three decades, Bly has tried to make the spiritual power of poetry more central in our culture. He has published over a dozen volumes of verse, edited a journal of criticism in three decades The Fifties, The Sixties, The Seventies, given hundreds of performances of his own as well as of others’ poetry, popularized through translation poets known to American readers, such as Neruda, Rilke, and Lorca and poets less known, such as Antonio Machado, Cesar Vallejo, and Tomas Transtromer--all riders of the unconscious. His work is also associated with the "deep image" poets, Robert Kelly and James Wright. Bly has arguably done his best critical work in exposing the anti-spiritualism of New Criticism and objectivism, in examining the excesses and limitations of political poetry, and in defining poetry as an inner art, whose craft belongs neither in the degree-rewarding hands of the university nor in the self- censoring hands shaped by National Endowment grants. (Bly is against government sponsorship of artists because he feels artists become too dependent on sources of forbearance outside themselves.)

But despite Bly’s authority and current status, this book seems very dated. In terms of current critical thought, too many essays are from the distant past, (sixties and early severities). Only seven of 27 pieces are from the 1980s, although some had been added to (revised?) in 1989. Several essays are important, which I will touch on. Many are distant, or too didactic. The piece on Denise Levertov, for example, covers her poetry only up through 1967. On average we have an ancient Bly--essays from his seed-time, not his maturity.

Of course, it is in the nature of the essay collection to group pieces over time. But in developing such a book the time covered need not be so vast. An example. The University of Michigan Press regularly issues its Poets on Poetry Series, marvelous books of interviews with American poets, which often include prose pieces, reviews and critical essays. Bly’s Talking All Morning from 1980 was an invigorating book of interviews and poems from the previous decade and a half. The book had a sensibility about the sixties and seventies, about politics and poetry, which read in the early eighties was quite vibrant. (Two essays included here--"Leaping Up into Political Poetry" and "Knots of Wild Energy--An Interview with Wayne Dodd"--are both in the UMP book and make better sense in that book’s context.) Diffuse and arbitrary, this collection has little of that vibrancy.

Bly is a dogged critic, and he wants other cultural workers and poets to be as engaged as he is. In a polemical piece "Where Have All the Critics Gone?" he castigates the little literary magazines of America for rarely reviewing poetry or, if they do, for rarely going beyond praise.

The country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions. When the older writers remain silent on what they despise, the young ones get confused. The emphasis on praising everything is part of the sixties, and its odd belief that criticism is an attempt to put down the young or minorities. This is condescending to young poets and no help to anyone.

In this 1978 essay Bly first called on poets to voluntarily review two books of poetry every year. The reviews’ publication is not the point, but doing the critical work is. Bly believes such a commitment will lead poets to possess "a joy in their own intellect and judgment."

Bly cuts some of the mustard himself in the middle section of American Poetry. He talks about a dozen contemporaries, poets whom "I admire or detest," or whom "I express both feelings about...." Poets he loves include James Wright, John Logan, Etheridge Knight, David Ignatow, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, and Thomas McGrath. Poets he is ambivalent about are Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, and Louis Simpson. And poets he detests are Robert Lowell and James Dickey. (In the preface Bly regrets "the rudeness to individual poets" he practiced in the sixties. Today, post-Iron John, I believe he would be reluctant to deconstruct any older poet.)

The trait Bly prizes in a poem is the luminous--a poem must give off light. Luminosity helps Bly judge poetry primarily as "something that penetrates for an instant into the unconscious." He foregrounds this quality in his readings of other poets, looking always for new revelations of thought and image.

On John Logan: "John Logan braids language, making a whip that he hits himself with, or a jungle-vine rope with which he lets himself down dangerous cliffs. In his greatest poems he creates some sort of weaving, living, headed thing--all muscle, weaving about in the air, swaying. Its motions are curiously like the motions emotions make as they rise from the unconscious, and we feel strange because we know these."

On Galway Kinnell’s poem "Daybreak": "In this masterpiece, Kinnell describes the process of sinking with utter clarity. One simply sinks down into matter; there is no apparent effort. When one sinks in the psyche, one does not lose touch with the world above the earth. On the contrary the starrish resemble--in a way the physical eyes cannot see--‘the true stars at daybreak.’ The aim then is to sink in such a way as to retain contact with the stars."

James Dickey has luminosity but too often smothers it. "Someone said that what is so wonderful about Mr. Dickey’s poems is that miracles happen in them; the trouble is that the poem continues to go on after the miracle is over."

Bly knows what he wants poems to do, perhaps because having experienced for himself that quality that "leaping" poetry can accomplish, he knows this is what poetry should do. Ever vigilant for that unexpected, hair-crawling, pierced, flung sense great poetry achieves means that Bly reads with a Basho-like indifference. He cares not a wit for what doesn’t work, spending little time blaming poems that fizzle and much time praising poems that glow.

Yes, praising poems that glow. Which goes against his insistence I quoted earlier that bad poets be thrashed more frequently. Even though Bly reminds us of the "inner bankruptcy" of Robert Lowell and the "absence of spiritual intensity" in William Carlos Williams, he fires his guns more often at the idea of bad poetry than at any particularly bad poet. Overall, Bly is as praise-crazy as those he criticizes for bestowing too many accolades on poets. True, his praise is forcefully wrought. But, when he sets himself such lofty principles and then does not follow them in what he publishes, he appears hypocritical.

With this book we are reviewing the poetry of an era which Bly helped vitalize 25 years ago. That shocking 1963 essay "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry," which contained salvos against Williams, Pound, and Charles Olson and for which he was roundly booed by academia and then roundly vindicated by many poets, has with time lost its hurtfulness and gained respect as a necessary critique of a generation of poets. Today Bly’s poetry, and his work with men and myth, still possesses such healthy terrorism, keeping him young but not entirely current. Consciousness of this gap between contemporary poet and sixties Wild Man I would have hoped to find here, maybe in an essay about the irrelevance of criticism in a life currently devoted to so much teaching. I believe the critic’s development needs to keep pace with that of the poet and the teacher, and I am troubled that A eric P t reveals Bly’s tardiness on this point, even though the collection reminds us of his historically important depth as a reader.