Something’s happening here. For the most part these guys look like standard-issue yuppies and academics. And chatting before the evening’s program begins at New York City’s Cooper Union, they sound like yuppies and academics. But later, after poet Robert Bly has spoken, a handful of men in the audience begin to punch the air with their fists and grunt, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” This is no training Camp for Santas. “Ho” signifies agreement in the Me-Wuk Indian language, and tonight it serves as the emotional rallying cry for those males who feel they’ve lost touch with their manhood. Men, Bly maintains, have become increasingly tenderized by the social pounding of unsatisfying work, women’s rights and a perplexing sense of grief—and he wants to help his gender get back to where it once belonged.
A respected poet—his collection The Light Around the Body won the National Book Award in 1968—Bly, 64, has long cultivated a rustic image. Last spring, with the publication of his manifesto Iron John: A Book About Men, he became the unlikely guru of the nascent men’s movement. An instant best-seller, Iron John instincts a generation of “soft males” in how to rediscover their “hidden warrior” and awaken their slumbering pride in order to recapture their gender identity. “It is clear to men that the images of adult manhood given by the popular culture are worn out,” writes Bly. “By the time a man is 35, he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man, which he received in high school, do not work in life.”
The problem, Bly says, is that the communication between male generations has broken down. “The knowledge of how to build a nest in a bare tree, how to fly to the wintering place, how to perform the mating dance—all of this information is stored in the reservoirs of the bird’s instinctual brain,” he writes. “But human beings, sensing how much flexibility they might need in meeting new situations, decided to store this sort of knowledge…in stories.”
But the storytelling tradition broke down for most boys once the Industrial Revolution took their fathers off to work. “Not seeing your father when you are small, never being with him, having a remote father, an absent father, a workaholic father, is an injury,” Bly writes.
Bly’s father, Jacob, was a farmer—and an alcoholic, his own form of absenteeism. The son grew up angry and escaped the hard Minnesota winters for Harvard in 1946. There he met and married his first wife, Carolyn McLean, and brought her back to a farm outside Madison, Minn., where they raised four children. They were divorced in 1979, and Bly later married Ruth Ray, a Jungian analyst.
Over the years Bly won many awards for his poetry. He also earned a reputation as a lively public speaker, often interrupting his readings to play the mandolin or chant Irish dirges, as if channeling his professed spiritual mentor, William Butler Yeats.
But if, as Bly writes, “you cannot become a man until your own father dies,” he did not really grow up until 1988, when Jacob died in a nursing home at 87. Bly was 61. Several years earlier, searching for his own inspirational story, Bly had stumbled upon an early 19th-century tale by the brothers Grimm in which a “hairy man”—Iron John—acts as mentor to a youth. After Jacob’s death, Bly’s musings on this obscure myth began to coalesce as a book about men—not an attack on the women’s movement, he has been careful to point out, but a complement to it that offers men the same opportunity to grapple with their feelings and frustrations about sex, power and ambition.
He could not have foreseen the result: A growing number of men looking for new meaning in their sterile post-industrial lives embraced Iron John as their bible and soon developed a set of rituals as well. Exhorted by Bly to rediscover the “hairy primate” within, they gathered in the woods to strip off their clothes, paint their faces, bang drums and chant. The goal was to find expression for their bewildering grief because, writes Bly, “men have trouble with words.”
“This sort of thing is long overdue,” says one participant, Kenneth Berk, 47, a Manhattan optometrist who believes that men have been “oversocialized, overculturized and obsess about things that are a lot of smoke. Women talk it out, and men get heart attacks.”