A Gathering of Men With Robert Bly

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Bill Moyers and poet Robert Bly explore the changing role of men in modern America. Bly mixes ideas from the Ancient East with 20th-century sociology and psychology in his poetry and music.



Robert Bly reading poetry.

Screenshot of Robert Bly at poetry reading.

ROBERT BLY, Poet: [at gathering] We are leaving our time now. We are leaving our time now. There are places where time moves more slowly than here. We all know all four directions, east, west, north, south. And we are also under the fifth direction, the vertical one, which is in us today, here.

Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. And they lived in a castle. And near the castle there was a forest. You know there’s always a forest near the castle. And this forest was like other forests, with one exception: when anyone went into it, he didn’t come back. Five hunters went out, and they didn’t come back. Ten hunters were sent after them, and they didn’t come back. Then twenty hunters went out, they did not come back. And then thirty hunters were sent after them, and they did not come back.

And pretty soon, no one went to that part of the forest anymore. Only occasionally a hawk or an eagle flew over it. That identifies this as a male story, the hawk and the eagle are male birds. That was the situation, and that’s the way it lasted for many years.

Finally, one day a young man came, and he said, “Anything dangerous to do around here?” And the king said, “Yes, there is, but I don’t recommend it, because the return rate is not good.” And the young man said, “That’s the sort of thing I like, I think I’ll go.”

So he went, taking only his dog with him. Maybe the fact that he didn’t go in a group was a part of it. He took only his dog with him, and he walked into the forest and he walked all the way into the forest and all of a sudden, a hand came up out of the pond and pulled the dog down. And he didn’t get hysterical. He just said, “This must be the place.”

BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. The title of this program is “A Gathering of Men,” but women are invited, too. What we are exploring is the confusion many men feel today about their roles in society and their inner lives as well. Women have a stake in how men address these issues, of course, just as men have been affected over the years by the feminist movement.

It’s not accurate to describe what’s happening as a men’s movement, as such, but gatherings like this one in Austin, Texas, are taking place more and more frequently, and they’re drawing larger and larger numbers of men. What summons these men, in my experience, is not a desire to separate again from women, or to move back to that destructive, aggressive and dominating masculine personality of more chauvinistic days.

To the contrary. Men are drawn to these retreats by a sense of loss, a loss of familiar myths and road maps, but also by a sense of hope. There is something optimistic about the very willingness of men to learn from one another through sharing their confusion over the problems of life.

For many of these men there is also the chance to share in the hard won wisdom of Robert Bly.

[voiceover] Robert Bly is arguably the most influential American poet living today, whether writing about Silence in the Snow Fields or The Light Around the Body, about the war in Vietnam or the archaeology of private memory, he confers upon even the simplest words a weight and consequence of new things.

Born on the Minnesota prairie of Norwegian Lutheran stock, Bly first attended a one room school, then the University of Iowa and Harvard. But the experience of his own life and the poems, myths and fairy tales of the world have been his most constant teachers. His own poems are woven from the realities of pain and hope, tribulation and joy. He won the National Book Award for poetry in 1968, and has since published a growing collection of poems and translations that express what one critic calls, “a deep marriage between the inner and outer worlds in one man’s life.”

His clear, strong images of masculine consciousness and the honesty of his own autobiography have made Robert Bly a father figure at gatherings of men all over the country. He’s now writing a book on masculinity, and one of its themes is the grief and loss men often feel, but seldom acknowledge.

BLY: [at gathering] I’ll begin with a poem by Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet. There’s a lot of pain and grief around men these days, and he touches on it here.

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

The wind said, “In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses. ”

[Machado said,] “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead … ”

The wind said, “Then, I’ll take the withered petals, and the yellow leaves, ”

and the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

Good poem, hmm? I think this feeling of the garden being blown apart doesn’t happen much to you until you’re 35 or so. The models we were given as men in high school, well, what were they Eisenhower, John Wayne? They only last till you’re maybe 32 or 33. And then you notice that something’s gone wrong in your business, in your private life, in your relationships; these things don’t last. And so around 35, you have to find another image for what a man is, or what your man is. Is that clear, that idea?

So it takes a little bit of courage to come here. There’s lots of men who feel this, and then they won’t act on it. Or those in their 20s say: “I’m doing fine, Jack, I’m fine. It’s true that 14 women have left me, and two beat me up, but I’m doing fine. It’s true I’m bleeding from all my pores, but I’m fine.”

MOYERS: Why “A Gathering of Men?” I mean, that’s really rare, isn’t it, to have a workshop for men only?

BLY: Maybe 20 years ago it would have been rare, but lately the men in various parts of the country have begun to gather. I think that it isn’t a reaction to the women’s movement, really. I think the grief that leads to the men’s movement began maybe 140 years ago, when the Industrial Revolution began, which sends the father out of the house to work.

MOYERS: What impact did that have?

BLY: Well, we receive something from our father by standing close to him.

MOYERS: Physically.

BLY: When we stand physically close to our father, something moves over that can’t be described in material terms, that gives the son a certain confidence, an awareness, a knowledge of what it is to be male, what a man is. And in the ancient times you were always with your father; he taught you how to do things, he taught you how to farm, he taught you whatever it is that he did. You learned from him. But you had this sense of being of receiving a food from him.


BLY: A food. From your father’s body. Now, when the father went out of the house in the Industrial Revolution, that food ended, and I think the average American father now spends ten minutes a day with a son — I think that’s what The Minneapolis Tribune had — and half of that time is spent in, “Clean up your room!” You know, that’s a favorite phrase of mine, I know it well.

So the Industrial Revolution did not harm the mother and daughter relationship as much as it did the father and son, because the mother and daughter still stand close to each other and have stood close to each other. Maybe that’ll change now when the mother is being sent out to work also, but the daughters then receive some knowledge of what it is to be a woman, or if you prefer to call it the women’s the female mode of feeling. They receive knowledge of the female mode of feeling. And the mother gets that from her grandmother, who got it from her great grandmother, who gets it from her great grandmother, it goes all the way down.

After the Industrial Revolution, the male does not receive any knowledge from his father of what the male mode of feeling is, and the old male initiators that used to work are not working anymore.

MOYERS: What do you mean, male initiators?

BLY: Well, the you know, in the traditional times, you were not initiated by your father, because there’s too much tension between you and your father. You are initiated by older, unrelated males, is the word that’s used, older unrelated men. They may be friends of your father. They could even be uncles or grandfathers. But they are the ones who used to do it. Then they disappear. Then it falls on the father to do. Then the father is off at the office. You see the picture?

MOYERS: Yeah. In fact, in some of the traditional cultures, a night arrives, and a group of men show up at a boy’s house, and they take him away from the home and they don’t bring him back, then, for several days. And then when he comes back, he has ashes on his face.

BLY: Yeah. In New Guinea, where they still do it today, the men come in with spears to get the boys. The boys know nothing about the men’s world. They live with their mother completely. They say, you know, “Mama, Mama, save us from these men that are coming here.” Now, all over New Guinea, the women accept and the men accept one thing. A boy cannot be made into a man without the active intervention of the older men.

Now, when they all accept that, then the women’s job is to be participants in this drama. So the men come and take the boys away, and the boys are saying, “Save me, Mommy,” you know. Then they go across, and the men have built a tent on this island they have a built a house for the boys’ initiation hut. Then they take them across the bridge, and three or four of the women, whose boys these are, get their spears and meet them on the bridge. And the old men have their spears. And the boys are saying, “Save me, Mama, save me, these are horrible men, they’re taking me away,” you know, and they fight and everything. And then the women are driven back. Then the women all go back and have coffee and say, “How’d I do? How’d I look?”

So that wonderful participation in it, the women are not doing the initiating, they’re participating, and then, as you said, then he’ll stay with the men for a year, maybe. Then they will explain to him something has to die to be born, and what will have to die is the boy. This is what isn’t happening to the men in this culture.

BLY: [at gathering] I was giving a reading in Minnesota, in my little town, this year, and I gave “Rapunzel,” and the cutting off of the golden hair of Rapunzel, and I said to the audience, “How many of you do you remember when you had your golden hair cut off?” And then later a young man came up to me at the party afterwards, and he said: “I didn’t dare say anything at that time, but this is what happened to me. I was about 15, and my parents wanted my long hair off. And I refused to cut it off. One day they got me and they tied me down, and they cut it off. I started to beat the ground, and I was weeping and hitting the floor. And while I had stopped hitting the floor and was still weeping, my grandfather walked in, and he saw immediately what had happened.” I said, “What did your grandfather do?” They lived in Long Island. He took the boy out to the ocean and he said to the boy, “You see this ocean? Now, this is for you. This ocean is going to be here whether you have long hair or short hair.”

That only the grandfather could say that. And then that man said to me, “You know, he was right?” He said: “I went away, six years later I came back, I looked at the ocean, wham! It was incredible, like my grandfather had given it to me.”

I said, “Unbelievable, unbelievable.” That’s the kind of thing that the older men do, that your father can’t do.”

BLY: My father was an alcoholic, and he didn’t teach me much about the male mode of feeling. But he taught me something. But many men have no father at all, or the father left when they were two, or the father doesn’t say anything, or the father doesn’t talk well about feelings natural, it seems to be natural in the American male, it comes from the frontier, apparently.

So then, how does he learn the male mode of feeling? He doesn’t. And in the ’60s, it came to a crisis, I think.

MOYERS: Vietnam?

BLY: Yes. You know, in the Vietnam War, it was as if many of the women offered to initiate the young men. The young men hadn’t been helped by their fathers, and they really were betrayed by the older men in the time of Vietnam. And so the women would offer to initiate them, in wonderful things like respect for the earth, respect for life, respect for feeling and so on. That wasn’t wrong at all, it was just that no one has helped them with the male mode of feeling.

MOYERS: What’s the chief difference, as you see it, between male feeling and female feeling?

BLY: A strong part of the women’s mode of feeling has to do with pain. Moving towards pain and help removing it, and also the pain of being devalued. I mean, women’s values have been rejected in this culture for 2,000 years or more, and women feel a strong pain in this devaluation. Men don’t feel devalued quite that much. With the men it’s more an area of grief, as opposed to pain. And

MOYERS: You keep using that word, grief, in regard to men.

BLY: Yeah. You see, in my own case, I began as a poet, writing poetry, and poetry deals with feeling, but I felt that until I felt that grief is a door to male feeling. Until I had really tried to go into some of the grief around my father, I didn’t feel that I had access to the feeling.

MOYERS: Tell me about that.

BLY: Well, you know, as men we’re taught not to not to feel pain and grief, as children. I remember seeing one of my boys, he was maybe about nine. He was hit in a basketball [game], maybe hit by the ball, and I saw him turn around and bend down and get control of his pain and his grief before he stood up again. That same boy would be so wonderful in being open to wounds and crying and so on when he was very small. But, you know, the culture had said to him, “You cannot give way to that, you must turn around and when you must turn around; you must have a face without pain or grief in it,” right?

So therefore, as a son of an alcoholic, I received that. I mean, when you’re in an alcoholic family, you’re hired to be cheerful. That’s one of your jobs. You’re appointed that way. One is hired to be a trickster, another I was hired to be cheerful, so that when anyone asked me about the family. I’d have to lie in a cheerful way and say, “Oh, it’s wonderful, yes, indeed, we have sheep, you know, and we have chickens, and everything’s wonderful.”

Well, then if you can deny something so fundamental as the deep grief in the whole family, you can deny anything. So then how can you write poetry, then, if you’re involved in that much denial? So the word denial was very helpful to me.

MOYERS: Did you resent your father? Did you feel

BLY: No, I think that what happened was that as far as the grief goes, being appointed to be the cheerful one in the family, I would tend to follow a movement upward like this, hmm? More and more achievement, more and more and so on, hmm? That’s what you’d do. And finally you’d redeem the family’s name by doing this.

Well, I got to be about 46 or so, and then I realized how unsteady I was, and how my own poems didn’t have well, I didn’t even mention my father in my poems until I was 46. Not once. So I’d look at my poems they’re good poems but there’s something missing in there. And then I began to realize that in the ancient times, the movement for the man was downward, a descent into grief, Before you’re really a man that descent has to take place. It’s referred to in the fairy tales as the time of ashes and the time of descent.

So I wrote a poem at that time, and it’s the first poem — I must have been 46 or 47 — it is the first poem I had written in which there was some sort of grief. I’ll read it to you. Want to hear it?

MOYERS: Mm hmm.

BLY: It’s called Snowbanks North of the House. Maybe you know the poem. Snowbanks snow comes down from Alaska, you know, and then stops suddenly. And I’d noticed that little place there where something stops and doesn’t go further. So I wrote this line:

Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly, six feet from the house …

I left it in the drawer for two or three months, to see what would happen, and finally the rest of the poem came.

Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet from the house …

Thoughts that go so far.

The boy gets out of high school and reads 110 more books; the son stops calling home. The mother puts down her rolling pill, and makes no more bread. And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party and loves him no more. The energy leaves the wine, and the minister falls leaving the church. It will not come closer the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing, and are safe. And the father grieves for his son,

[This is Lincoln]

And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave the room where the coffin stands. he turns away from his wife, and she sleeps alone

And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on through the unattached heavens, alone. And the toe of the shoe pivots in the dust … The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down the hill. No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and did not climb the hill.

MOYERS: What did that do for you?

BLY: Well, to me it was the first time that I had felt my words being involved not in the new age of sense, not in higher consciousness, but a movement down, when you break off the arc and you move down, and you go down towards your own. In that case, it had to do with the possibility that my life is not going to be a series of triumphs, that what is asked of me is not to ascend, but to descend.

MOYERS: But how about in relation

BLY: That meant that meant I had to start paying attention to my father.


BLY: There. In other words

MOYERS: But he was here. You didn’t have him out there.

BLY: He was out there, too. In other words, how shall I say it, oftentimes my father my mother and father were living on a farm a mile from where I was. I would go over and see them. My father had lost part of one lung and he would be lying in the bed, in the next to the living room. I would go and sit and talk with my mother for an hour, because I was probably in the conspiracy with her early on. And if I remembered it, I’d say goodbye to my father before I left.

Now, my father’s lying out there. How do you think he feels about my talking with my mother for an hour? What can he do? He thinks, “Well, that’s nice, they have a good relationship.” But how about him? So therefore, I realized that I had been in a conspiracy with my mother to push my father out since I was two or three years old. And I decided at this same time I wrote that poem, it’s time for this to end. I don’t want to be in this conspiracy anymore. So what I did was, I would go in and sit down with my father. And my mother would wait for me to come into the living room. And I didn’t. I’d sit down next to him. He’s not a great conversationalist, but we’d talk a little bit. And eventually my mother would have to come in and sit down on the bed. And then we all knew that some change had taken place.

MOYERS: It seems to me that you and your mother hadn’t pushed your father out. Your father had removed himself, like so many fathers do, either through alcoholism or through work or through obsession with the world, through ambition.

BLY: It’s possible.

BLY: [at gathering] When your father is away during the day and during the year, when he only comes home at five o’clock, you only get his temperament. What you used to get was his teaching and his temperament. The teaching would help you. You know how sweet it is when someone says, “Well, the way you make it is, you put your board, nail over here, you put your board over here, and you do that,” and those teachings are sweet.

Even mean men are often sweet when they’re teaching. And then we have that gratitude when someone has taught us something, that’s so wonderful. We used to receive that from our fathers. Now he goes to work, and all we get is his temperament when he gets home at five, and he’s tired. And what’s more, at work he has been humiliated by older men and other men, bosses. He’s been in competition with other men. He has he has he knows that his work he’s not going to be able to see the end of his work. It’s not like making a chest of drawers. He knows that his company is probably polluting Alaska. How do you think he feels when he gets home? And that’s all you’re going to get.

And I want to remind you that the same thing is true of women, that many people that we call angry feminists are women who have only experienced the temperament of their fathers. They have never experienced the teaching. And their attacks on the patriarchy are really a turned attack on the fact that they don’t believe that there is any older male that has anything but this irritable temperament. Is that clear, what I’m saying? So that has to be understood, too. The women only get the temperament of the father, and it’s usually irritable and angry. One thing I have to say to the men is that, your father is convinced that he is an inadequate human being. Women have been telling him that for 30 to 40 years.

He doesn’t know how to talk, he can’t express himself, he doesn’t know what his feelings are; People hear what they hear. Your father feels that he’s okay when he’s with a hammer, but in every other way he’s inadequate.

So you call up your home and you get your father, and he says, “Oh, John, this is just your father, here’s your mother.” And I was saying there are only two kinds of men. One kind of man is willing to go along with that, and the other kind of man says, “Wait a minute, I didn’t call here to talk to my mother, I want to talk to you.” “No, no, here’s your mother.” “No, no, that isn’t it, I want to talk with you.” “What about? You want to borrow money?” “No, that’s not it.” Huh?

The other day I was in Atcheson, Kansas, and I met a wonderful man there who was an economics teacher. And there’s a tiny little Catholic school in Atcheson, and this man came up to me, we started talking. His father was a car mechanic who worked very hard and knew beautifully the engines, just knew what was wrong and so on. The father got ill, eventually got his got the one leg cut off. He was lying in bed, trying to deal with the phantom pain. Rick calls him up on the phone, says “How are you doing, Dad?” Dad says, “What do you want?” Rick says, “I want to say something to you. I want to tell you how much I appreciated everything you did, how much I appreciated all the work that you had to do in order to send me to college. I’m a college teacher now, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate that, and how much I love you.” And the father said, “You been drinking?”

I thought that was wonderful. I said, “You just lived through the history of the last 80 years.” The father can’t imagine, that right. Right? There’s only two points. Because men don’t talk about feelings. So if you’re talking about feelings, probably you must be drunk. And you’ve got to get over that. You’ve just got to say, “No, I have not been drinking, I’m not on dope, and I love you. You get it?”

BLY: I’ll read you a poem. It is the first poem I did at all connected with my father. In fact, it is the first one in which I used the word father. It isn’t my father, but it’s a poem called Finding the Father.

My friend, this body offers to carry us for nothing. This body offers to carry us for nothing as the ocean carries logs. So on some days the body wails with its great energy; it smashes up the boulders, lifting small crabs that flow around the sides.

Someone knocks on the door. Someone knocks on the door. We do not have time to dress. He wants us to go with him through the blowing rainy streets, to the dark house. We will go there, the body says, and there find the father whom we have never met, who wandered out in a snowstorm the night we were born, and who then lost his memory, and has lived since longing for his child. Whom he saw only once … while he worked as a shoemaker, as a cattle herder in Australia, as a restaurant cook who painted at night.

When you light the lamp you will see him. He sits there, behind the door … the eyebrows so heavy, the forehead so light … lonely in his whole body, waiting for you.

MOYERS: Looking for father?

BLY: Finding the Father, it’s called.

MOYERS: Did you find your father?

BLY: To some extent, I did. He died only a few months ago, but one of the things that did happen is this. I was living in Moose Lake, about five hours away. I get a call. My mother and father are both in the old people’s home, in Madison, Minnesota. I get a call saying my father was in the hospital with pneumonia. So I drove down especially to see him, and some change had taken place in me, so that when I walked in the room, he was alone there, and for the first time, I picked up a book, my book that I write in, and I wrote a poem in his presence. I had written so many poems in the presence of trees like these, so many poems in the presence of women, never a single line in the presence of my father. So this is the poem I wrote. It’s called, Sitting. No, it’s called My Father at 85.

His large ears hear
A hermit wakes
and sleeps
in a hut underneath
his gaunt cheeks.
His eyes, blue,
alert, dis-
appointed and suspicious
I do not bring him
The same sort of jokes
the nurses do.
(Hmm? When the nurses come in. He’s right.)
He is a small bird
waiting to be fed,
mostly beak,
an eagle or a vulture
or the Pharaoh’s servant
just before death.
My arm on the bedrail
rests there,
relaxed, with new love.
All I know of the Troubadours
I bring
to this bed.
I do not want
or need
to be shamed
by him
any longer.
The general of shame.
has discharged him
(He’s probably Lou Gehrig.)
and left him in this small provincial
Egyptian town.
If I do not wish
to shame him, then
why not
love him?
His long hands,
large, veined, capable,
can still retain
hold of what he wanted.
But is that what he desired?
Some powerful
river of desire
foes on flowing
through him.
He never phrased
What he desired.
and I am
his son.

MOYERS: “He never phrased” your father never phrased.

BLY: He never put into language what he desired. In the United States, we put into language what we want. We want another television set, we want a VCR, we want a refrigerator, we want a good 3.2 beer. We want to have a cowboy hat and have some girl come along and touch it. That’s what we want. But in television, we never talk about what we desire. What you desire is something you’re never going to get, so that gives it a little fragrance.

MOYERS: Wait, what do you mean by that? We’re going to desire something that you’re not going to get?

BLY: Well, someone says, “I want to be as great a poet as Shakespeare.” You never I desire to be as great a poet; it’s not going to happen. But it’s sweet, the desiring. In the 13th and 14th century, they did desire. They desired God, they desired to have God as a lover, for example, with the Provencal poets. And all of those, and the Sufis, the Moslems, at the same time. You know that Moslem poem, a Rumi poem. “I want to kiss you.” Answer: “The price of kissing is your life.” “Now my loving is running towards my life, shouting, ‘What a bargain! Let’s take it!'” That’s a poem of desire, isn’t it? It’s a poem of [unintelligible].

So if our parents could have phrased what they desired, our lives would have been different.

MOYERS: Why do fathers have such a hard time talking to sons about desire, about what they really seek?

BLY: I don’t think the mothers phrase what they desire, either.

MOYERS: Yes, but–

BLY: The grownups don’t phrase what they desire.

MOYERS: why?

BLY: Well

MOYERS: Do they know? Do we know?

BLY: I think I think they brood about it a lot. You know, my father spent many hours — I saw him lying in bed, brooding. And he was brooding about something. And I think it was on what he had desired to do. He had to go onto the farm because his own father had a heart attack. He himself read a tremendous amount. One of his favorite people was the Prince of Wales. He read everything about the Prince of Wales. Now it must be, you see, that the Prince of Wales abdicated and I think my father felt that he had abdicated from what he desired in order to raise his family, and so on. I think so. That must be one of the connections.

MOYERS: But that’s–

BLY: So therefore, it was painful for him to talk about what he desired. Everyone comes into the world with a certain way he wants to be fathered. And every father comes into the world with a certain way that he wants to father. What if they don’t mix? What then?

BLY: [at gathering] That’s the way for most of it, isn’t it? We wanted to be fathered in a certain way, and our father didn’t do it, so we complain. But it’s better to go to the father and say, “How did you want to father?” The he says, “Well, the problem is that I wanted a violinist son,” you know, or, “I wanted an athlete son, I really did.”

I remember, my daughters came first, and it was three or four or five years before I had the sons. And my daughters still say to me, “Robert, you–Dad,” they say, “you remember how you used to buy all those little green tractors for us?” I’d go to the store and buy these I loved these little John Deere tractors, you know. And they knew that I was trying to father a son. And they were charmed, but it was very weird.

So therefore, you talk about, you ask your father how he wanted to father. And then you tell him how you wanted to be fathered. You know, what I wanted was this, and I wanted this, and it takes a lot of work to go down to what you want and still because what you wanted, you still want. And it’s good, then, if you’re with a woman, to say to her: “Look, this is the way I wanted to be fathered by my father, and I want you to write this down, because I’m going to ask you to do it, and you’d better not do it. Don’t do it. Write it down, will you?”

And then when I try to ask that for you, they say, “Wait a minute, that’s one of the ways you want, wanted to be fathered, I’m not a father.” “Oh, I missed that.” And then be sure to ask your wife or your girlfriend how did you want to be fathered. Ooh, ow. And if she’s able to lay that down, then you check off number one, you got angry about that last week, number two, that was the time we went down to California, number she will want to get from you the fathering she didn’t get from her father. And you’re the only one that can move into that, and help with that, and try to get it clear. And then you have to say to her over and over again, “I’m not your father, and I wish I were, but I’m not, and I can’t give you that.”

And Alice Miller says a wonderful thing. She says: “When you were young, you needed something you did not receive, and you will never receive it. And the proper attitude is mourning.” Mourning is the proper attitude, not blame. Mourning. And she says another thing, so wonderful. She says, “You know, when you came into the world, you brought this fantastic thing with you, coming from centuries and eons and you brought this amazing energy in from animal life, reptile life, other planets and everything. And this incredible energy you brought in, and your parents didn’t want it, they wanted a nice boy. They wanted a nice girl.”

You couldn’t believe it. That’s your first rejection. It’s preverbal. That’s why encounter groups won’t get to that. That’s your first rejection, and it’s profound. They didn’t want the energy you brought. They wanted a nice boy or a nice girl.

So when you’re small, you realize you can’t fight against that stuff your parents want a nice so you make up a kind of a false personality. T.S. Eliot wrote about that, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. You invent a false personality, and you survive. And then Alice Miller says, “Now, please, you’ve got to forgive yourself for that, because you did it to survive, and you did the right thing. You did the right thing.” And the proof of it is that you’re alive right now.

MOYERS: Why do you think there’s so much confusion today over what men are?

BLY: Well, you know, you can why don’t I put it in terms of high school? What were we given as models in high school? John Wayne? A horse? The models we were given for what a man was in high school don’t last past the age of 32 or so. Around 35, men begin to realize that the images they were given of what a man is don’t work. They don’t work in their job, they don’t work in their relationship, they don’t work in the marriage, they don’t work.

MOYERS: So what happens when these high school images fade?

BLY: Well, I think that there’s a deep sense of failure, and a sense that you’re inadequate. I think that the absence of the father standing next to the son and giving I don’t know what you’d call cellular significance, cellular confidence that we talked of earlier, when that’s gone, then you judge yourself a great deal more. And when it seems to you you’re failing in your relationship, what was it that Maggie Scarf said, that the typical relationship in the United States involves the woman chasing the man to try to get him to talk more, and the man fleeing? But she doesn’t chase him fast enough to really catch him, and he doesn’t run away fast enough to really get away. That’s the game that’s played.

But then, you see, the man can’t turn and face her, in a way, because without a clear sense of what it is to be a man, he cannot turn and say, “Wait a minute, I know what I want in a relationship, it isn’t exactly what you want, let me tell you what it is.” And so he feels and since the woman knows what she wants in a relationship, he again feels inadequate. So I would say that the primary experience of the American man now is the experience of being inadequate in your work, you can’t achieve what you want to. You feel inadequate as a man because you don’t feel that you have any close male friends, and you don’t know why. You feel inadequate as a husband because your wife is always saying that you don’t talk about your feelings enough. And you don’t know what your feelings are.

And I say to women you know, men are not hiding their feelings from you. When they look down in, they don’t see anything down there. And I know that. It’s a feeling of numbness that comes early on in life, as a man.

MOYERS: Do you remember when you first began to get in contact with your feelings? As a man?

BLY: It was because I had decided in college that I was going to write poetry the rest of my life, which was a very rash decision for a Lutheran. Anyway, and so, I found that my first book was called Silence in the Snowy Fields. And what is speaking in that book is not so much my feelings as a kind of envelope around my body which is in touch with the trees and the wind and the air and the pine trees. And like Thoreau, my feelings didn’t go from here in, they went from here out. And it’s like a beautiful surrounding to your body that puts you in touch with everything else that’s alive. And I typically wrote my poems by sitting down under a tree for two hours, and then it was as if the tree said something.

But then I was 36 when I published that. I still wasn’t in touch with my feelings. So I think it was about 46, around that time I was telling you in that poem. That’s why I say grief is the door to feeling. Even being out in nature is not the door to feeling. Excitement, I thought, was the door to feeling. It isn’t. That’s why rock music doesn’t always work in helping opening people to feeling. Excitement is not it.

With men, grief there’s some quality of grief. And men don’t know what they’re grieving about. It’s as if the grief is impersonal with men. It’s always present. You don’t know if it’s about the absence from their father or it may be about all of the animals that we were in touch with all the millions of years we were hunters, and all the animals that died. It may be a grief that’s in nature itself. You remember the Latin term, Lacrimae Rerum, the tears of things? Men have lived for centuries out there, and they feel that terrific grief of nature and the out of doors and pine trees. There are certain there are certain little groves in England, if you walk in there, you’ll burst in tears, because there is grief in nature.

MOYERS: Look, I have grief, but I don’t write poems. What do I do about it?

BLY: I don’t know that you have to do something with it, but I think it’s a choice at any second. You know, in a conversation there are little turns, you can turn up or down. Someone says, you know, “I lost my brother five years ago.” At that point, you know, you can say, “Well, we all lose our brothers,” or you can touch a hand, or you can go into the part of you that’s lost a brother. You can follow the grief downward in this way, or you can upward in the American way. You can always tell an American on the streets of Europe, because he’s smiling.

So it’s really important for us. I mean, we hired three presidents in a row who promised us that we would not go into the grief about the Vietnam War. Carter and Reagan and then Bush Ford; four of them in a row. And if Lincoln had been alive, do you know how he would have gone into that grief? He would have gotten everybody you know, five years after the Vietnam War, and he would have said, “We’ve killed so many people, and these veterans are here, we have destroyed them aah, let’s all weep Aaah, Aaah, Aaah.” That’s what Lincoln would have done. He would have encouraged America to grieve over the losses in the Vietnam War.

We still haven’t grieved over that. Only the veterans are grieving. This is not right.

MOYERS: How does a whole people grieve?

BLY: Well, we don’t do it by hiring people like Reagan, who you know, Reagan’s father was an alcoholic, and when I look at Reagan, I know he has not gone through the grief of that. So he’s in denial. When you’re in denial over your own father, you can deny the budget deficit easily. That’s not a problem. He is the first president we’ve ever had who has spent the whole presidency in denial, and the result is we’ve got all the homeless sleeping on the vents, we’ve got what a $3 trillion deficit. That’s what it’s like when you decide not to, when you decide not to take that turn down. You decide not to go and face your father and do that work. Then you get Reagan.

And so it’s a very serious thing, because we knew all of that when we hired him, in some way. And if we are so co-dependent as a nation that we’ll hire this man who didn’t go through the “adult children of alcoholic work,” or whatever that is, that doesn’t speak well for our future.

MOYERS: This is territory I’m not very competent to enter, but America never really has come to terms with the shadow of its past.

BLY: That’s right.

MOYERS: The Indians, the blacks.

BLY: We didn’t mourn over the death of the Indians, and we didn’t mourn I think, you know, Lincoln and Whitman, Lincoln felt that mourning in Whitman, or Whitman in Lincoln. And they did moderately well in mourning the Civil War. But after that, it’s been a process of not mourning, you know. Alexander Mitschlich in Germany has written a book called The Inability to Mourn, about the Germans, after the Second World War. Now, we’re in that same situation. We have an inability to mourn. So again, you see, how can we have men or women if we can’t go into grief at all?

BLY: [at gathering] There’s one great book on the men’s question, the only one I know that’s really great. It’s by a German analyst, Alexander Mitschlich, M I T S C H L I C H, just put all the s’s and ch’s you can get into it, that’ll do it. He doesn’t fool around. He doesn’t say we have a society that has a weak father, we have a society that has an absent father. He says we’ve got a society without the father, period.

So I’ll give you two ideas out of his book. The first one really amazed me. I read this about 15 years ago, and it astounded me. This is what he said: “If you are not with your father at all times of the day, and at all times of the year, a hole will appear in the son’s psyche. And that hole does not fill with little Bambis, and Walt Disney movies. It fills with demons.” That hole in the son’s psyche fills with demons, and those are demons of distrust of older men.

Like when I was a younger poet, my father was alcoholic, as I said, so therefore there was that hole in me there, and the times he was with the bottle. Is that clear? And it’s very interesting. I started a literary magazine. The first thing I did was attack all the older male poets. I noticed I left the older women alone, but the older male zoom, I went for them, and I got my bow and arrow out, and when an arrow went right through their bodies it felt really good, boy. Choom.

And it wasn’t until 10 years later, I looked at it and said, “God, that is weird.” And it caused them pain. I didn’t give a damn. Caused them a lot of pain. So you’ve got to look in your own soul and see what effect these demons have had on you. And if you do not have the trust of the older men, then you’ll tend to go to women and get all get whatever you want from women. And that doesn’t work too well, because there are certain things that women cannot give. Do you understand me, what I’m saying?

They try, they really do, but there are certain kinds of assurances that we can only get from older men that you cannot get from women. Then we blame the women for not giving us, they feel guilty, etc. etc. etc.

You cannot kill demons. It’s an old tradition. For example, Marie Louise van Franz says that every woman now, after the patriarchy, has a small figure on her left shoulder, about an inch and a half tall, who says to her: “You know something, you’re nothing. You’re absolutely nothing. You’re totally worthless. You’ll never make works of art. You know why? Because you’re a woman, and all women are nothing.”

And she describes this little figure as a demon. And I heard a bunch of women say to her one day, “Ms. van Franz, can you kill this little demon?” She said, “No, no, you can’t kill them; all you can do is educate them.”

BLY: To be a man means that you need to develop the warrior, which means that you are not always obeying the body. Robert Moore of Chicago, who is doing wonderful work on the warrior and the king, I heard a tape of his and he said, “All of you who in graduate school, if you don’t have the warrior, you’re going to be in trouble, because you have to do a lot of unpleasant things in graduate school.” And he said, “I’m writing a book; if I don’t have the warrior, I’m not going to finish this book.”

MOYERS: The warrior enables us to–

BLY: To go when the body says, “Let’s quit and get some Haagen-Dazs,” the warrior says, “No, no, no, no.” And your body’s okay when you’re getting a massage, right? “For now, we’re going to do the task, and we’re going to continue.” Joe Campbell had a great warrior. In his 20s he read nine hours every day. That’s the warrior that enables him to do that. So the warrior in men is not always the one that’s out there killing people. That’s not it. It’s the one who is able to pursue a task until it’s finished. And the warrior usually has a cause transcendent to himself.

MOYERS: Transcendent to himself? Which means, “I will do it even if I can’t explain it to other people.”

BLY: Yes. “I’m not doing it for my good, I’m not doing it for selfish reasons. I’m doing this for a cause that I believe in.” The traditional way it’s said is that the warrior works for the king, and the king is the one that’s connected to the sun, and to the spirit and to God. So that when the warrior, as in our culture, has no king, like Ollie North, then he gets in trouble.

You know, the Japanese tell the story about the it was a little pond, and the leader of this pond, I don’t know, disappeared. So they hired the heron to be the king. And the heron ate up everyone in the pond. Because he was a warrior, he wasn’t a king. The warrior will eat up everyone in the pond if he doesn’t have a transcendent cause.

So about the Americans, the Americans are very weak in the warrior now, the American men. The Japanese men were strong in the warrior during the Second World War, and they somehow transferred that into their briefcases and into their VCRs. And so we don’t have warriors to stand up against them, even in the business world.

Robert Moore, again on the warrior, has said wonderful things, like, “The only warriors we have in the United States are the negative versions of it, the shadow versions, who are the drug lords.” They’re the ones. We need warriors in the city who are able to stand against the drug lords. But instead of that, we have only negative warriors.

MOYERS: But when you use the word “warrior,” most of the people watching and listening are going to say, “Oh, he means the slayer, the combatter.”

BLY: No, the warrior, in general terms, is not sent out there in order to harm or damage others. The warrior is a defender of the boundaries.

When you live in a dysfunctional family, then people in the family cross your boundaries all the time. They will open the door, they will say things, their mood is the strongest in the house, your moods mean nothing. You understand what I’m talking about?

MOYERS: Right. Okay.

BLY: And when you’re three and four years old in relation to grownups, you have no boundaries. They simply do what they want. And the sexual abuse means really means, you know, that didn’t happen to me in a strong way, but it means you open the door and you go in. There’s no way you can you have no boundaries. So that the adult man and the adult woman needs to have a warrior so that they can hold the boundaries.

So that one way that I see it now is, when we’re three and four years old, the doorknob’s on the outside of the door. Now, I have to understand I’m not three to four years old now, I’m a grown person. And if I want to get the doorknob on the inside of the door, I will. If I do not wish to be shamed. That’s my choice. But the hardest thing is to realize you’re not four years old.

So therefore, with my father, I do not want or need to be shamed by him any longer. Well, that means that there has been some movement to get the doorknob on the inside of the door. That’s called a warrior. A warrior is not someone that goes off and kills. That’s the negative warrior. That’s the one that’s without the king. But each of us needs our warrior desperately.

Women have a very fierce warrior in them, you know. They have a very fierce warrior. And I would say that the women, in the last 20 years, have a much greater sense of their own boundaries than the men do.

So, you know, I have felt that the men have suffered a great deal in losing the wild man, which is a certain form of spontaneity connected with the wilderness itself. And they’ve suffered a great deal since the Second World War in losing the warrior. It’s very strange how this works.

We gave up the king, that is, we founded our country with getting rid of the king. And you know, the king is weak in American men also; how can it be otherwise?

MOYERS: The king being–

BLY: The king [being] the part of the man that determines what he is going to do now. What my course is going to be.

MOYERS: The king can decide that for himself. That’s the whole image.

BLY: This is the inner king, the one who’s down there, who decides. And when he comes in “Follow your bliss,” is what Joe Campbell said. That means that the king decides that. You don’t join IBM and then do what your boss wants you to do. That means there’s only one king in the whole thing, and that’s the boss, and everybody else is a non-king.

MOYERS: It’s the way the world works.

BLY: Yeah, it’s the way it works. That’s the way it destroys inner kings in all of the men and in most of the women. So the king, then, is that part of you that can decide. And I mean it’s very private, too, because there are various kinds of kings.

When I am with a group of over 200 people, my king is fairly strong. I’ll decide what I want to happen that day. When I’m with three or four people, my king is moderately strong, but they can still drag me off to a movie I don’t want to go to. When I’m with one person, my king is rather weak. And I think that’s because of all those crossing of boundaries and so on when I was a child. So that if I go in, for example, with my wife into a store, and there’s two sweaters, one is green and the other is a blue, I can’t decide. And I say to her, “What do you think?” She says, “Oh, the blue is beautiful.” Immediately the green fades into some hideous color. You understand me?

MOYERS: I do, but I’m troubled by the analogy, because we can’t go back to being an aboriginal society. We can’t become a traditional society again. We cannot restore those images that were transferred to the boy through the initiation. Can we?

BLY: No. But we have a much stronger, resilient man once he goes through the process. They’d produce a rather brittle one, I think. It’s for a purpose, you know, to protect them from the neighboring times. But so, we’re not saying that all of that is good. What I’m saying is that we can’t go on any longer without trying to do initiation consciously. We can’t go on any longer without trying to be conscious of that which affects us. Because each generation, the men are farther and farther separated from the grandfathers and from the kings and from the inner warriors, and so they’re weaker in some way in every generation.

MOYERS: Who is telling us today that we are men? Who is in charge of the initiation?

BLY: One of the things it said, if you do not do the initiation consciously, you will do it unconsciously, ’cause it’ll take place.

MOYERS: Aren’t we initiated as men by the sergeant in the army, by the–

BLY: No! No, no, no.

MOYERS: corporate executive we take our first jobs from, by the professor at the university?

BLY: To some extent. But the sergeant is not the equal of the old male initiators, because he’s not interested in your soul.

MOYERS: In your soul?

BLY: In your soul. He’s interested in your not dying, or he’s interested in your physical health, or he’s interested in your obedience. But the old male initiators we’re talking about — King Arthur would be one — is interested in the soul of the young man. That’s what the young men are missing, that there aren’t any older men who are interested in their souls.

MOYERS: And you mentioned King Arthur. He was a mentor to the knights, he was the one who stood at the gate.

BLY: Yes. You could say that a beautiful thing see, one of the ways to think about a male initiation, it goes in this way, possibly. The first stage is bonding with the mother, and separation from the mother. We do the bonding with the mother pretty well in this country. We don’t do the separation well at all. There’s no ritual for it.

Secondly, bonding with the father and separation from the father. Now, we don’t do the bonding with the father well. What did Jeffrey Gore say in The Americans? He said, “In order to become an American, it’s necessary, first of all, to reject your father.” That’s about all that is necessary. You don’t even attack him, as in Freud; you just regard him as ridiculous, as in all those movies that we’re seeing, and all the filmstrips and all the situation comedies in which the men are the fathers are completely ridiculous. You know those?


BLY: All over television. The father is a fool and the woman is a wonderful person and knows everything, and the father the man is in bad shape, you know, and the woman says, “You should have Comtrex.” And he says, “What is Comtrex?” She tells him what it is. You mean the man doesn’t know what Comtrex is? So there is this feeling in which, all over the situation comedy, the young males writing that are rejecting their fathers over again in order to become real Americans.

Okay. So the second thing is bonding with the father and separation from the father. In a culture in which you reject the father automatically, as in America, oftentimes you don’t become bonded with your father until you’re 40 or 46. That’s what I told you in my story.

MOYERS: Well, how do you bond with a father who’s absent all the time, who goes off to the office eight, 10, 12, 15, 30 miles away?

BLY: Sometimes you have to wait until he’s 63 and he’s home. It’s not easy. The men that I know say they’re 50 years old, they’re 45 years old. They call up their father and he’s saying, “Here’s your mother,” and they say, “Wait a minute,” you know, “I’m going to take you down to New Mexico, we’re going to go down to New Mexico for five days.” “No, I don’t want to.” “Yes, you’re going to go, I’m going to pay for it and we’re going to go.” Well, that’s a bonding that sometimes takes place with their father there. The son has to do it. The son has to make the motion.

MOYERS: That’s the stage of bonding, that’s a part of it.

BLY: Bonding with the father. And after that you still have to do the separation. Then the third stage is called the appearance of the male mother.

MOYERS: The male mother?

BLY: The male mother. That is a man who does nurturing in a similar way as a woman, only he’s not a woman. King Arthur acted that way for those young men.

MOYERS: What does he do?

BLY: Cuts his arm and gives them the blood. He nourishes them and nourishes their souls. So this is like Pablo Casals was a wonderful male mother.


BLY: Every jazz musician every black jazz musician in this century has had a great male mother. ‘Round Midnight was about that. You remember, the first scene of ‘Round Midnight, he walks into a hotel room in Paris, and you don’t know what’s going on. And the black musician stands there a long time. And finally someone says, “Is this where he died?” And he says, “Well, I guess so, but these rooms all look so much alike.” That was the room where his male mother, his mentor, his male mentor had died.

MOYERS: Well, you’re talking about a mentor, you’re just using–

BLY: We’re talking about a mentor.

MOYERS: You’re just using the phrase mother as a metaphor.

BLY: Male mother. I’m using it I mean a mentor. And so King Arthur was a mentor to those young men, and when the male mother or the mentor comes along and helps the young male to separate from his mother and from his father, because he has a man who is not his father who is acting to him both as a mother and a father. That’s the third stage.

MOYERS: Wordsworth has this wonderful poem in which he talks about the old man who sat under the tree.

BLY: You found that, too?

MOYERS: Yes, the old man sits under the tree, and he says, “He picked me out from all the rosy boys and I became a comrade for life.”

BLY: I couldn’t believe that passage when I read it. And he was in grammar school, and an old man there at the edge of town would talk with him every day. And Wordsworth, at the end, says, “I think he had the greatest mind in England.” Do you remember that? Because he had given that boy so much. So that’s a perfect example. That’s how you produce a Wordsworth.

MOYERS: Where do we get our mentors today?

BLY: I tell the men, you know, you have to look for it. Your father came to you, you didn’t have to look for your father, but you have to look for your mentor. If you want a mentor, you have to go look for him. That means that usually he’s in your field, but not always. If you’re an architect, you go and look for a male mentor.

You know, I met Szent Gyorgyi, I stopped to see Szent Gyorgyi one day, the one who invented vitamin C, got three Nobel prizes. And I said to him he was living alone in Woodstock, and he told me various things, and he said: “When I got out of graduate school, I knew exactly who I wanted to work with. I would have walked 150 miles to work with this man, and I did. I worked with him, I loved him.” And he said, “I’ve been here 30 years. Not a single American man has ever come and wanted to work with me.” I said, “Well, maybe they’re not interested in ideas.” “They’re not interested in ideas!” he said. “You know what they’re interested in? Retirement plans!” He was a wonderful old man. But he was waiting to be a mentor, a male mother, to young American scientists, and they didn’t know the tradition and they didn’t go to him.

MOYERS: But in these traditional cultures, when these older men played this role for young men, what were the older men? What were the male mothers doing for the boys?

BLY: When the male mother is there, and the mentor is there, one thing he does is bless the young men. And it’s so strange, that men need blessing from older men. Robert Moore, I heard him say in a tape, “If you’re a young man, and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.” I like that a great deal.

So that many women bless young men, but the man still needs a blessing from an older man. You know, I heard Robert Moore say it to a group of men: “How many of you have admired a younger man in the last two weeks, and told him so?” Silence. “How many of you were admired by older men when you were young?” Silence. Then he said that sentence, “If you are a young man and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.”

BLY: [at gathering] Robert Moore, from Chicago, is a wonderful man. He’s beginning to do work with men. He’s got about 11 degrees. And I heard him the other day. And one of the things he said, “Men do not learn except in ritual space.” I was astounded at the idea. “Men do not learn except in ritual space.” And he said, “I know from talking to the men who have been there that you set up a ritual space.” How you don’t know how you do it, but it’s done. And partly it’s done because no women are there, partly it’s done because it’s in the woods, partly it’s done because older men are there.

Now we take all the older men we have, over 60, we put them all in the front row. You can imagine how that helps with ritual space. These men that I used to ask to sit in the front here, they had never been honored as an older man in their whole life. They couldn’t believe it.

1st MAN AT GATHERING: Can we do that now?

BLY: Should we do it? Let’s do it. All the men over 55, would you come up here and sit down in the front row? [applause] Will you come down? Come on over here.

I told Bill a story last night that we did one up in upstate New York in July last year, at the old Shaker colony. It was very interesting. We were up in the old hill where the Shakers used to have their stuff. We had about 85 men, and they had a big tent up there, it was a big tent.

So we were in this tent for six days. About the fourth day, we started to go into fathers, and so on. And the young men were very good, and they started to be very open and talk a lot, and pretty soon the younger men were weeping and with their fathers. And a lot of weeping went on in the fourth and the fifth day.

On the sixth day, which was the last morning, we had the old men here in the front. And there was a wonderful man who was Heinz was his name, Heinz. And he was 75. And he was in the heron clan. We had herons. And we had a we usually get a samba going, and everybody dances for five or six hours. And the heron clan were brought in at one point to dance. And they don’t know how to dance.

Suddenly, Heinz stopped the whole thing and Heinz started to do the heron dance. You know, it took him five minutes. All the young men broke off immediately, and went behind Heinz, and they did the heron dance. So beautiful. He knew that the heron dance is done slowly, it isn’t done fast. He’s 75. He knew how to do the heron dance. And he did that gorgeously. And suddenly, all the young men were following him. He was doing the heron dance that night.

The next morning, we were sitting here, and all of a sudden Heinz said his wife had died three months before, and he hadn’t wept for her. Because, you know, people don’t weep much at funerals. And he had been given permission by the younger men to weep. And suddenly he started to weep, and he walked up and another man was over here, 78, whose wife had died three years before, and he hadn’t wept for her, either. And he got up and went over, and those two old men started to hold each other and weep, and they wept for 20 minutes. And the young men just sat there, and we did a little chant while these two old men wept. That’s ritual space, isn’t it?

MOYERS: You talk about the old men giving the young men “Zeus energy.”

BLY: Ah-hah.

MOYERS: What do you mean, “Zeus energy?”

BLY: Well, the way that the king is described in Greek mythology is through the image of Zeus. And Zeus energy is authority that the male, that the man takes for the sake of the community. The American Indians in upstate New York, for example, had a strong chieftainship. The chief was chosen by women, but once the chief was chosen, he had to agree to give up all property. He had nothing that was his. And the authority that he had was for the sake of the community.

Now, that’s we don’t have Zeus energy in the corporations, because they take authority for the sake of their corporation, they take power for the sake of their corporation. Exxon takes power for the sake of the corporation, not for the sake of the environment.

MOYERS: Where did you get your Zeus energy?

BLY: I don’t know if I have any Zeus energy. It could be I just have a big mouth, you know. That’s always a possibility.

MOYERS: No, I happen to know that there are a lot of young writers and artists and students who look to you as a mentor.

BLY: Men didn’t trust me until I was maybe 45 or 50. And I don’t know what that was. I noticed it. They were right. So that–

MOYERS: They were right not to trust you?

BLY: whether it was they were right not to trust me, that’s right.


BLY: If I don’t have a connection with my father, where’s my grounding? If I don’t have a connection with grief, where’s my grounding? So somewhere along the line, because of various disasters in my life, I must have gotten in touch with some sort of grief, and then I’ve done a lot of work to try to maintain my connection with my father and deepen that. And

MOYERS: But you–

BLY: I think that’s something there, I don’t know what it is yet.

MOYERS: Robert, how can a 46-year-old man bond with his father after those long years of estrangement?

BLY: I wrote a poem on that subject, and it said:

There must have been
a fire, that nearly
blew out, or a large
soul inadequately
feathered, who became
cold and angered.
Some four-year-old boy
in you, chilled by
your mother, misprized
by your father, said,
‘I will defy, I will win
anyway, I will
show them.’
When Alice’s (that’s my mother) well-off sister
Offered to take your two
boys during the Depression,
you said it again.
Now you speak the defiant
words to death.
This four-year-old old
man in you does
as he likes: he likes
to stay alive.
Through him you
get revenge,
persist, endure,
overlive, overwhelm,
get on top.
You gave me
this, and I do
not refuse it.
It is
in me.

So that I realized, then, that my father gave me this, “I will defy, I will win anyway,” and that’s a gift. It’s not the gift I wanted. My father my other father was Yeats. He was my male mother. He wasn’t alive, but your mentor doesn’t have to be alive. Does that make sense to you?

MOYERS: What does a male mother do that the father doesn’t do?

BLY: The father cannot do initiation well with the son because there’s too much tension. They’re both interested in the same woman. That’s a problem. [laughter] And when men recognize that their father when the initiators are gone, then there’s no one to welcome the young men into the male world. And all young men are angry about that.

When you’re looking at a gang, you’re looking at young males who have no older men to welcome them into the male world. They’re trying desperately to do it themselves. They’re trying to teach each other what courage is, how much pain you should endure, what a cause is. They’re trying to do it; it doesn’t work, because young males cannot initiate each other. But they’re angry at the absence of the older males who are not doing that.

Well, when this group of old male initiators disappears, then everything falls on the father. The father’s supposed to do everything. And when the young men that I talk to realize that their father could not have done that, then they begin thinking of the things their father did do to try to initiate them. Oftentimes they are touched, they weep when they think of the possibilities.

MOYERS: So when the older men–

BLY: Our father was only intended to keep us through the age of 35 and make sure we didn’t get eaten by ants and stuff like that. He was never intended to initiate us.

MOYERS: And when the father is gone, as happens so often in America today, often it’s just a single mother who is left to do it all, the initiation and–

BLY: That’s right, and women try very hard with that. And I remember, I said at that thing in Evanston, I said: “You know, a woman can bring the boy from the fetus to be a boy, but she cannot move him from a boy to being a man. Only other men can do that.” And some of the women got angry, and another woman said, “I think he’s right, because when my boy was in high school, I knew that he needed something harder than I could give him, and if I did that, I’d lose my own femininity.”

So it’s just to say that women try very hard with this, and it’s hopeless. They cannot really guide a boy all the way to being a man. That’s a job for the men to do. And if a woman is in that situation, then she should recognize that, and try to find some older man that she trusts, and ask him to hold the boy in his heart. It isn’t necessary that he take the boy to the zoo every other day, but many young men do not know a single older man who encourages them, or holds them in their heart.

So to some of the men who come to my things, I say: “This next year, you’re not going to pay me with money. What I’d like you to do is to go out and find a young man who doesn’t have any father in the house. I’d like you to hold that boy in your heart. Which means that you may write him once a month, you may take him somewhere once a month. He knows that he has a heart-link through you with the male world.”

And that’s a responsibility that the men have got to take in this country. They’ve got to take more responsibility for the younger men, for encouraging the younger men, admiring the younger men and holding the younger men in their hearts.

MOYERS: How do we get in touch with the male mother that’s in us? How do I find in me the male mother that serves another young man?

BLY: I would think that, first of all, one would consciously reject the idea that all men are in competition. In business, that is the primary assumption, and in fact, it happens, so that there are very few genuine male mothers in business. There have been exceptions, of course, but I would say that first of all, I never realized that younger men needed anything I had to give them.

MOYERS: Except a job.

BLY: Yeah, that kind of I didn’t realize that they are hungry and thirsty for a simple connection to an older man that’s not shaming. What are the older men saying? “Clean up your room!” Right? “You did this wrong, you have to stay after school!” “You’re foolish, stupid!” And then they go to women for comfort.

But what if they could go to older men for comfort? Then the women wouldn’t be so burdened with all these aspirins and stuff. I think it’d be a great relief to women, when the men could go to other men for comfort. So I have to realize that by being an older man, I have some substance that’s helpful to younger men, and then I also have to realize that I can perform something for them without intending to, by being consciously aware that they need to step from the father to an older man to God.

And I’m not a guru, because I’m not going to I’m not that. People say to me, you know, “Will you can I be will you be my father?” I say, “If it doesn’t cost me anything.” You know, I’ll think about it. But it isn’t anything I do, that I you understand me.


BLY: That you just have to agree that that’s an important thing, as is supporting your family, or loving your wife or protecting the earth. A fourth important thing you can do is to be open to the younger men, and recognize that they can use a blessing from you.

And the way it’s done in a place like Russia, where the toast is so fantastic, the toasts, and when they do toasts at the dinner table, they all toast the younger men. Now, the idea is that they have to see that younger man clearly. No lying, no flattery. They have to be able to see there. And then, at the same time, do some praise there. So

MOYERS: Do some praise?

BLY: Some praise. Blessing is a form of praise. Remember what Robert Moore said? “How many young men have you admired in the last two weeks, and told them so?”

MOYERS: [at gathering] Are you confused about what it is to be a man today, of what the society expects of you as a man?

2nd MAN AT GATHERING: Well, I’ve gotten a whole lot of contradictory signals in my life, Bill, and I’m you know, it’s to be Superman and Superwoman, to be the best parent, to be the best child, to be the best person, to be everything to everybody and then it still never seems to be good enough.

3rd MAN AT GATHERING: I feel safer talking with men than I do with women, in kind of in this vein, that I can tell you what I think about you, and if it hurts you, somehow that doesn’t it doesn’t affect me. But if you’re a woman and I told you something that hurt you, then somehow I’d be responsible for hurting you. But if you’re male, take it, you know.

4th MAN AT GATHERING: We’re all so afraid of women. And I don’t know why that is. That’s an interesting discovery to make after so many relationships. And right now I do feel a little safer with men, and I don’t have an explanation for that.

5th MAN AT GATHERING: As males, you grow up with your emotional experience centered on women. And yeah, that’s right, and all the political and economic and military power in the world doesn’t erase that dependency. And so one feels hamstrung sometimes in the presence of this kind of womanly power.

3rd MAN: And we deal with that at home, we deal with females at home, but we don’t ever have other males, with the exception of our sons, we don’t ever have other males that we can talk that about. But I can talk to my wife about the female point of view, and that. But very seldom do I get together with guys and talk about it.

6th MAN AT GATHERING: I realize that I desperately want to heal my relationship with my father, and it’s very difficult for me, and I see a lot of issues in my life that I become frustrated with, with myself, and I blame myself a lot. And now I realize my dad is as strong as my feelings are for and against him, still very important to me. And I do much better with that when I realize that there are other men that also have that as an important issue in their lives.

7th MAN AT GATHERING: For some of us, the problem is all the more poignant; our fathers have died. How do we resolve that? And I can feel it in my voice, my voice is changing now as I try to express it.

MOYERS: Why do you think your voice is changing?

7th MAN: Because of the emotion. I mean thank you.

MOYERS: What do you need to heal with your father?

7th MAN: I’m not sure where it is. Tried to show love and was rejected, and tried to seek advice and it was a putdown.

2nd MAN: Well, one of the reasons I came was because there seems to me to be, for years, an incredible lack of strong men, clear men, powerful men in this world. And Robert Bly is one of those men of power.


2nd MAN: And I really I always grew up believing that nature abhorred a vacuum, and what I see is that we’ve gotten so close to a complete vacuum of powerful male men in this world, male models of clarity, initiated men, that we men are trying to rediscover fire. And that is the quest.

MOYERS: Are you aware that some people say this is a throwback, a regression to the segregation of the past, to the time when men had their own private clubs and could talk about things without worrying about anybody catching on to their secrets, that this is a throwback?

BLY: I don’t think it’s that way at all. Women learn that they will say certain things when men are not present. Women will talk about certain things when men are not present. And that’s surely true of men, because the sexes can shame each other so easily. So for the men getting near their grief, it’s really important that it be done in the presence of men.

MOYERS: Are you–

BLY: So it isn’t an attempt to exclude women in that sense at all.

MOYERS: you think that men have a harder time with relationships than women?

BLY: I think that men cannot mix words with feelings as well as women. And this has been known for a long time. But sometimes the fury of the male happens because the woman is able to go ahead of him, go ahead of him, finishes his sentences for him, goes on ahead. And he cannot do it. The mix isn’t there. It takes him a long time to learn how to do that, 40 or so years. The woman can often do it at 14. And some of the rage of men has to do with that. So it’s important for men to be together in expressing their feelings at their own pace, which is slower than women’s pace. At their own pace, and then eventually they come down into grief and they come down into some other place. And the amount of feeling on the fourth day of a men’s group alone is unbelievable, fantastic to someone who hasn’t been there, that the they will show more feeling and amaze themselves with the depth of their feelings. And many times they wouldn’t have shown that to a woman. Later they can do so.

MOYERS: What does all of this have to do with poetry?

BLY: Well, you know there are two kinds of men’s groups. In one kind of men’s groups you use psychological jargon, which is okay, but those men’s groups usually end up complaining about their wives for three months, and then it stops. The other kind of men’s groups in which they use mythology and fairy stories the fairy stories were in this territory long before us, and when you go into the male area through the fairy story, you find that many men have had this suffering long before you.

So therefore mythology, I have found, to be wonderful in teaching, in teaching in trying to teach. To use story and mythology.

MOYERS: Fairy tales in particular?

BLY: Yeah.


BLY: Well, they’re not connected to any one god. You see, a fairy tale and a myth are alike, but the difference is that the name of the god is not mentioned in the fairy story. So therefore it’s a social form, and can be told with jokes or in any way, but it still contains all the energies and the genius.

So, as for poetry, Gary Snyder said a wonderful thing. “The function of the poet is to find out what part of the mythology is useful in his lifetime.” Milton did that. He made the wrong choice, in my opinion, but that’s what he did. So therefore the old connection to the poet with mythology is centuries and centuries old. The poet is not connected primarily only to the lyric poem or the poem of feeling, but he is someone who filters the available mythology.

And people have praised me for what I have done with the men; it’s nothing but finding a couple of fairy stories that are useful. That’s all it amounts to.

BLY: {at gathering}

After a long walk in the woods clearcut for lumber,
lit up by a few young pines,
I turn home,
drawn to water. A coffinlike band
softens half the lake,
draws the shadow
down from westward hills.
It is a massive
masculine shadow,
fifty males sitting together
in hall or crowded room
lifting something indistinct _
up into the resonating night.
The woman stays in the kitchen, and does not want
to waste fuel by lighting a lamp,
as she waits
for the drunk husband to come home.
Then she serves him
food in silence.
What does the son do?
He turns away,
loses courage,
goes outdoors to feed with wild
things, lives among dens
and huts, eats distance and silence;
he grows long wings, enters the spiral, ascends.
How far he is from working men when he is done!
From all men! The males singing
chant far out
on the water grounded in downward shadow.
He cannot go there because
he has not grieved
as humans grieve. If someone’s
head was cut
off, whose was it?
The father’s? Or the mother’s? Or his?
The dark comes down slowly, the way
snow falls, or herds pass a cave mouth
I look up at the other shore; it is night.

MOYERS: [voice over] From Austin, Texas, this has been “A Gathering of Men,” with Robert Bly. I’m Bill Moyers.

You can view more about this program at the Bill Moyers Journal website.

This transcript was entered on May 26, 2015.

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