Norwegian-American poet Robert Bly dies

Robert Bly

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Poet Robert Bly at the “Poetry Out Loud” finals at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., in 2009.

Washington, D.C.

Journalist Michael Carson writes that Robert Bly’s “highly visual, quietly surreal poems, often in rural settings, reflected his upbringing in Scandinavian-settled Minnesota.” His parents, Jacob Bly and Alice Aws, emigrated from Norway and settled in Lac Qui Parle County, where they became farmers. Bly was born on the farm on Dec. 23, 1926.

After graduating from high school in 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. When he was discharged in 1946, he enrolled at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., but attended for one year only. He transferred to Harvard, where he decided to become a poet after reading a poem by W.B. Yeats. He was named Class Poet for the Harvard Class of 1950 and graduated magna cum laude. He then attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master’s degree in 1956. 

He was granted a Fulbright scholarship to study in Oslo, Norway, where he began to translate Norwegian poetry. He later translated Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and it was performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2008. That same year, he was named the first poet laureate for Minnesota. 

He was eager to make poets from other countries known to Americans and he translated works not only from Norwegian but also from other languages, including Swedish, Spanish, Persian, and Urdu.

He became well-known for his strong anti-war stance. He co-founded the group American Writers Against the Vietnam War. He wrote a particularly powerful poem in 1967 entitled “Driving through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings.” He also published The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the War in Iraq in 2004.

He was prolific, writing more than 50 books of poetry. He did not limit his writing, however, to poetry. In 1990, he published Iron John: A Book About Men. His primary thesis was that, as feminism gained ground, men were becoming soft and were no longer raising their sons to be suitably masculine. This book remained on The New York Times bestseller list for 62 weeks.

Deborah Tannen, linguistics scholar at Georgetown University, wrote in her review that the success of his book showed “the need for ritual and for new stories and images to replace the ones that have worn out and let us down, the alienation of father and son in post-industrial society.”

Bly continued to write and translate into the 21st century and died in Minneapolis on Nov. 21, 2021, at the age of 94. According to the poet and writer James Lenfestey, “He was by far the most consequential poet of the second half of the 20th century.”

Submitted by Christine Foster Meloni

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.