The poet Robert Bly’s family farm connected to my maternal family’s farm out on the western edge of the Minnesota prairie. Robert’s father Jacob was a drunkard and the Bly farm never amounted to much, even in those pre-indoor plumbing days. My mother went to high school with Robert and described him as an aloof and enigmatic classmate who had few if any friends. This is often the description of children of alcoholics.
Many years later, Robert’s ex-wife Carol and I became friends when she taught at Hamline University. Carol was an intense, pretty woman who had the unsettling habit of staring deeply into your eyes when you talked with her. I recall being a bit smitten by her, as well as intimidated by the sheer incalculability of her talent. Her memoir, Letters from the Country, exquisitely reveals the rigidity and loneliness that often saturate small-town life, and it remains a standard for memoir that Wendell Berry and others have followed.
Carol’s been dead a long time, but Robert’s become one of America’s most revered poets – he is 90 now –and responsible for introducing Pablo Neruda and Latin American poetry to the English reading public. His most-known work is the non-fiction bestseller, Iron John: A Book About Men (1990) that was his take on how men are increasingly failing to grow up. Iron John hasn’t worn well over the years – Bly’s proposed cures are goofily trapped in Disco Era culture and rhetoric – but his contention that men have become soft and aimless (Bly’s words) – is comprehensively supported by the data.
Bly said the lack of good role models was the cause of men’s failure to launch. That makes sense. We’re a culture that’s made swapping someone like Dwight Eisenhower for Donald Trump acceptable, and the waving of flags at ball games the standard for patriotism. We don’t speak softly anymore, and we’re as happy as pigs in slop as long as we don’t have to personally carry the big stick.
And men don’t need to carry. It’s a job we’ve outsourced to Political Action Committees, lobbyists, and churches that have turned Jesus into a Powerball ticket.