Uncovering Iron John

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An Interview with Robert Bly

In the folk tale “Iron John,” a mysterious being living in a lake grabs people and animals and pulls them under the water. After seeing his dog nabbed by the creature, a hunter has an ingenious idea: He gathers three men armed with buckets and empties the lake. At the bottom they find a man “whose body was as brown as rusty iron. His hair hung down from his head over his face and all the way to his knees.” This wild man is called Iron John.

“Iron John” did not grab Robert Bly. Like the hunter in the story, the noted poet sought out the wild man, intent on finding a folk tale that speaks to men, and to social ills related to men. In “Iron John,” he discovered a compact narrative that, he said, “fit a hundred different ways with men’s lives.”

Bly published his tract on the story in 1990, and it remains the work for which he is best known.

Yet it’s often grossly and dismissively misrepresented. Used in conjunction with Bly, “Iron John” has come to symbolize gatherings in which men drum and dance in the woods, unleashing their own wild sides. It has been credited as a spark to the “men’s movement,” and attacked as trying to equate the emotional suffering of men with centuries of oppression of women.

All of those things carry at least a hint of truth, but they ignore what Iron John is really about: the idea that men are worn down and worn out, even as they’ve become more sensitive to the planet and their mates. As Bly writes in the opening chapter of his book: “Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has little vitality to offer.”

The premise is touchy-feely, but its implications are distressing and wide-ranging. What’s missing from contemporary culture, the 79-year-old Bly argues, is a clearly articulated development path for boys, and the milestones on that road — rites of passage that confer upon them the responsibilities of manhood, mentors to teach them how to be men. As a result, Bly claims, boys are quite simply not becoming men.

Bly is careful at every turn to not dismiss the oppression and pain that women have had to deal with, and said that any “men’s movement” should not be construed as a reaction to — or counter to — feminism. “One does not trivialize the other,” he said in a phone interview.

There’s a good reason that he’s talking to men, rather than women or people in general. Bly said that we’ve become a “culture of the half-adults,” but that the problem is more pronounced among boys. “There are more half-adults among the males than there are among the women,” he said. “The reason that the men are often more immature, half-adults, than the girls is because you need contact of younger men with older men in order to produce a fully grown male, and we used to have that when men were working together on the farm ... . But women still have a good connection with their mothers. It’s the fathers that are absent.”

The “Iron John” story, really, is only partially about uncovering the wild man at the bottom of the lake. In Bly’s deep and intuitive psychosocial reading, the tale is also about breaking from one’s mother, leaving the protective home, and what needs to happen once a boy has left his parents and gone out into the world.

Bly added that the story also speaks compellingly about respect for one’s elders and authority, as well as the duality of men: “I was amazed that it had ... respect for the king; a lot of leftists have no respect for the king. But the king is a being inside the psyche that stands for order, and for honor ... . And then this story had not only the king but a wild man, who is underneath the water, and people don’t go near him because if you come near it, a hand reaches out and pulls you under. So it had these two huge opposites inside the male: the wild man and the king. With those two, it’s like a current passing through two big poles.”

The book originated with fairy-tale workshops Bly conducted with women and men in the 1980s. “A lot of people are talking to the women, but very few people are talking to the men,” Bly said. “And so therefore I needed a story that would be good for men, and I was amazed at how ‘Iron John’ when I read it clearly set out six or seven stages in the development of men. ... So I spent a lot of time studying those stages and finding other metaphors and poems that would fit in each stage. ... After four of five years of that, I decided to write it down, and I was amazed at the number of people who found it helpful.”

Like Iron John, Bly is more than his public image might suggest. He graduated from Harvard in 1950, and presented the translated work of international poets in his magazines The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies. During that time, he showed a disdain for old forms of poetry. “We sent rejection slips saying things like, ‘The sonnet is the place where old professors go to die,’ and then they’d write us insulting letters, and then we’d print the letters,” Bly said. “We’d say, ‘It’s more interesting than your poems.’”

He co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and contributed his prize money from the National Book Award he won to “the Resistance,” his Web site says.

His recent poetry has been in the “ghazal,” a form with its roots in 10th Century Persia. The attraction, Bly said, is that the ghazal limits stanzas to 36 syllables, requiring the author to be concise and varied. “As you become an adult, there should be many things in your mind at the same time, and this enables you to move from one to another,” he said. “The same word ends every stanza ... so therefore it’s more attuned to ... other people listening to it than ours in general, because they’re waiting ... to see how you’re going to get the word ... into this next stanza.”

Bly sees an obvious link between his poetry and the sociological prose of Iron John and the more recent The Sibling Society.

“It’s the training in poetry — looking at the complication of a given single image, how many implications it has — that enables one to look at something like ‘Iron John,’” Bly said. “You take the image, and you allow it to open, like a flower opens. ... Sociologists can’t possibly do it, because they’re trained to kill the image as soon as they see it.”

Yet it’s that poet’s art that makes Iron John easy to discount for many people; the book is not is a reasoned argument. Perfectly sensible statements are followed by wild generalizations, offered without evidence. Early in the book, Bly writes: “A man takes up desk work in an office, becomes a father himself, but has no work to share with his son and cannot explain to the son what he’s doing.” The author is talking about how white-collar labor had made it more difficult for fathers to mentor their sons in terms of work, and it makes sense. A farmer or other laborer can pass down his trade to his son.

Yet this is followed by what could at best be called a thesis without support: “When the office work and the ‘information revolution’ begin to dominate, the father-son bond disintegrates.”

At times, Bly comes off merely as curmudgeonly. His obvious yearning for the old ways is matched by his dislike of television, and an assertion that popular culture devalues men. Fundamentally, he preaches a respect for one’s elders — hardly a radical notion.

Yet “Iron John” seems like the perfect muse for Bly, a new lens through which to look at longstanding social concerns. And while it might seem like an odd detour for a man who’s devoted his adult life to poetry, Bly said the departure was necessary. “I don’t think you can keep writing unless you’re able to move into different passions and loves than you had in your 20s,” he said. “To continue to write means you have to find new subjects, because your brain gets tired of the old ones. ... That’s the kind of thing that helps keep people alive.”

(This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.)

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