Robert Bly

Distinguished Poet, Writer & Translator

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Robert Bly

“In his lifetime Robert Bly has introduced more energy, ideas, and technique into American poetry than can be measured. In a different America, or in an era in which politics, art, and spirituality were not segregated, Bly would have been a natural pick for poet laureate.”-Tony Hoagland

“[S]uch is Bly’s guileless authority that you can take him any way you want and still come away learning something about imagination.” -Kirkus

“Robert Bly is today one of the leaders of poetic revival which has returned American literature to the world community.”-Kenneth Rexroth

Robert Bly has changed the American literary landscape in numerous ways. He has published over a dozen highly-regarded volumes of poetry, including Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey (Norton, 2011); My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy; The Night Abraham Called to the Stars; Morning Poems; Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems; and The Light Around the Body, for which he won the National Book Award in 1968. His poems in My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy and The Night Abraham Called to the Stars are written in his own adaptation of the Mideastern ghazal form in three-line stanzas. Bly has also established himself as one of the great translators of international poetry into English, with pioneering translations of Nobel Prize winners Tomas Transtromer and Pablo Neruda, and Antonio Machado, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hafez, among many others. The best work of his long and varied translation career appeared in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations. In 2008 his translations of Hafez were published in a volume Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door. Air Mail, a book of Bly’s correspondence with Tomas Transtromer, was published in 2012.

By way of his literary magazine, successively known as The Fifties, The Sixties, The Seventies, and now The Thousands, Bly has introduced poets of many cultures to American audiences. In his American Poetry Review article, “The Village Troublemaker,” Tony Hoagland writes “It may be as a maker of communities, literal and virtual, that Bly has made some of his greatest contributions. Bringing American readers into intimate contact with European and Eastern poetries has irrevocably enlarged the scale of our literate worlds.” Hoagland also writes, “Only a few individuals in American poetry seem comparable, in longevity and energy, as bridge builders and identity-creators.” As editor, Bly has also produced the landmark anthologies News of the Universe, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart (with James Hillman and Michael Meade), and The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy. He has also edited the prestigious Best American Poetry of 1999. In his wide-ranging roles as groundbreaking poet, editor, translator, storyteller, and father of what he has called “the expressive men’s movement,” Bly remains one of the most hotly debated American artists of the past half-century. According to the Jungian psychologist Robert Moore, “When the cultural and intellectual history of our time is written, Robert Bly will be recognized as the catalyst for a sweeping cultural revolution.” And literary critic Charles Molesworth suggests that some of Bly’s importance and complication lies in the fact that he “writes religious meditations for a public that is no longer ostensibly religious.”

Bly’s bestselling book-length essay, Iron John: A Book About Men, sparked the men’s movement of the early 1990s and defined a whole generation’s view of masculinity. His other influential books of social and psychological commentary include The Sibling Society and The Maiden King, the latter co-authored with Marion Woodman, with whom Bly co-leads workshops for women and men in the US and Canada. He frequently conducts seminars with Gioia Timpanelli on European fairy tales. His awards include two Guggenheims and the National Book Award. In 2013, Poetry Society of America awarded him its highest honor, the Frost Medal, which is awarded annually for “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.” Bly lives in Minneapolis with his wife Ruth.

Robert Bly’s website

Learn more about Robert Bly’s Annual Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father

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With poems ranging from the ghazal form to free verse, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey is Robert Bly’s richest and most varied collection. In the title poem, Bly addresses the “donkey”-possibly poetry itself-that has carried him through a writing life of more than six decades.

“What has happened to the spring,”
I cry, “and our legs that were so joyful
In the bobblings of April?” “Oh, never mind
About all that,” the donkey
Says. “Just take hold of my mane, so you
Can lift your lips closer to my hairy ears.”

In his collection, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), Bly explores the dynamics of the ghazal, a form established by Islamic poets and which he crafts in tercets. His newest ghazals are ecstatic and gorgeously associative lyrics that draw on the myths and sacred texts of many cultures, various works of art ranging from a Rembrandt drawing to a painting by Robert Motherwell, and striking personal reminiscences. Bly, as he always does, is seeking the universal even as he embraces the particulars of a practice, a place, a painting, or a musical tradition. He calls out to sitar and tabla players. He writes of Adam and angels, Plato and Andrew Marvell. These are prayers, koans, warnings, assurances, and revelations. But for all the art, philosophy, and literature Bly pays homage to, it is nature that holds the key, nature that is holy. Sweet and full of longing, these are enrapturing poems about death and rebirth, humankind’s small place in the cosmos, and the great wheel of life. -Donna Seaman, Booklist

IRON JOHN (Essay, 2004)
Today’s sensitized male may be in touch with his “feminine” side; but, writes poet Bly, this “soft male” possesses little vitality and is hobbled by grief and anguish. To achieve real masculinity, Bly argues, men must cultivate a fierce tenderness to be found neither in the macho/John Wayne model nor in the “interior feminine.” Taking as his starting point the Grimm fairy tale “Iron John,” the author sets forth an eight-stage initiatory path whose steps include remembering one’s psychic wounds, communion with a mentor or “inner King,” becoming a lover, reviving one’s inner warriors, and receiving a “second heart.” Bly avoids cant as he ransacks Jung, Freud and Reich; referents include Greek, Egyptian, and Celtic myths, the Parsifal legend, Blake and Amerindian ritual. A wise and healing book full of fresh insights, Bly’s odyssey will help men grapple with identity, fatherhood, relationships, and such crises as addiction and divorce.


Oh well, let’s go on eating the grains of eternity.
What do we care about improvements in travel?
Angels sometimes cross the river on old turtles.

Shall we worry about who gets left behind?
That one bird flying through the clouds is enough.
Your sweet face at the door of the house is enough.

The two farm horses stubbornly pull the wagon.
The mad crows carry away the tablecloth.
Most of the time, we live through the night.

Let’s not drive the wild angels from our door.
Maybe the mad fields of grain will move.
Maybe the troubled rocks will learn to walk.

It’s all right if we’re troubled by the night.
It’s all right if we can’t recall our own name.
It’s all right if this rough music keeps on playing.

I’ve given up worrying about men living alone.
I do worry about the couple who live next door.
Some words heard through the screen door are enough.

- from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey


The goose cries, and there is no way to save her.
So many cheeps come from the nest by the river.
If God doesn’t listen, why are we listening?
Very deep water covers most of the globe.
Whenever I see it, I think of St. John.
There is no remedy for deep water but listening.
The King and Queen already know about love;
They search for each other through the whole deck.
While we play our hands, they are listening.
The day we die, we’ll each be like the fish
Abruptly jerked out of the water.
For him, it is the end of all listening.
Like thousands of others, I’m eating beet soup
In some Russian inn. People write letters
To me from Heaven, but I’m not listening.
The hermit said: “Because the world is mad,
The only way through the world is to learn
The arts and double the madness. Are you listening?

-from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars


Some love to watch the sea bushes appearing at dawn,
To see night fall from the goose wings, and to hear
The conversations the night sea has with the dawn.

If we can’t find Heaven, there are always bluejays.
Now you know why I spent my twenties crying.
Cries are required from those who wake disturbed at dawn.

Adam was called in to name the Red-Winged
Blackbirds, the Diamond Rattlers, and the Ring-Tailed Raccoons washing God in the streams at dawn.

Centuries later, the Mesopotamian gods,
All curls and ears, showed up; behind them the Generals
With their blue-coated sons who will die at dawn.

Those grasshopper-eating hermits were so good
To stay all day in the cave; but it is also sweet
To see the fenceposts gradually appear at dawn.

People in love with the setting stars are right
To adore the baby who smells of the stable, but we know
That even the setting stars will disappear at dawn.

Read What’s In Print

• Article in the Sunday Star Tribune