Robert Bly was an English-American poet, teacher, publisher and spoken word artist who captured the twentieth century in prose, song and verse. Bly’s reading at the 1986 World Poetry Day #PoetrySDay will be remembered forever as one of the seminal events of the feminist art movement, long before the likes of women’s lib or #MeToo.
The self-taught Robert Bly was born in Chicago in 1925, raised on a farm near a succession of Alaskan fishing villages. At the age of 15, Bly saw an elderly volunteer at his high school deliver a short verse recital. The memory has stayed with him throughout his life.
The following year, he heard his first performed poem. “Back Then, I read everything that I learned,” he wrote. And like his fellow students, he began to recite a collection of poems, for fear of losing his book of the year. There was always a hint of censorship in the boyhood language, however; some of the lines he read from were “weird”, he later wrote, “no doubt because my world was so absurdly rural, its dynamic so indistinct… a writer would say it is patently absurd to imagine that the language of frontier towns could be as good as the language of the New World.”
Storytelling and poetry were Bly’s first loves. “Now that I’m no longer young, I realize that every wonderful thing it was, there must be something wrong with it,” he wrote. “Remember it was always good in the beginning. You had to wait until you were old enough to make it new. But you had to love it when you were young to care about it when you grew old. And you must love it as an adult for it to matter to you when you’re old. Remember what you couldn’t love when you were young. Just like we have to choose between a good life and a good death, good poems have to choose between a good life and a good reputation.”
Bly read at the opening of a new school in the radical school known as Bankhead. In the school’s inaugural poetry class, he was surrounded by a cast of notable female voices. Of the twelve women in the class, three—Allissa King, Vanda Sparling and Michelle Voss—became poets. The former spoke highly of Bly’s translation and writing for the school’s English Department, but later said that they had “no idea” how important the event would be. Within a year or two, the school was shutting down.
Bly had his sights set on art college, but was forced to drop out after failing to finish his final exam. “You can’t fail when no one expects you to,” he said. At a time when WWII was ongoing, he enlisted in the army as a private in the day-to-day grunt role. He was trained as a surgical engineer but demobilized during the same period his partner Charles Novella died from a perforated ulcer and his brother Peter was killed by a German rocket. A duke confessed in a letter that he disapproved of Robert’s black ways. Two weeks later, Robert was imprisoned and fined 20 lashes for singing a Negro spiritual in the jocks’ mess hall.
He returned to poetry in 1945, when he was stationed in Alaska. His style evolved throughout his time there, and eventually, he became an acknowledged figure in the movement. Before moving to Alaska, he tutored a handful of budding poets at the high school he attended. The book of his poetry that he and those pupils created together appeared in 1945. The corresponding film of the same name, released by African-American television production company Strand Enterprises, remains the first feature-length documentary ever to be released by a major Hollywood studio.