The Father of Men’s Work: Robert Bly – a new film

9 mn read

‘Creation and destruction, I am dancing for them both.’ Rumi

Sometimes a man can live his life on the borders and in the margins, camp out in purgatory, know the territory of thresholds and sing his song among strangenesses. Sometimes, living feels like dying and dying feels like living.

Occasionally, one becomes the other. But more of that later.

For now, it is 1996, and I am standing on the back lawn of a red-brick pile in Dorset next to a pre-Oscar, pre-Spielberg Mark Rylance and poet-activist and Iron John author Robert Bly. There are perhaps six of us and Rylance, whose first men’s retreat this is, has written and delivered a devastating poem. There is the first flutter of autumn leaves.

(Yesterday, watching him as The BFG with my son, I realize it would be legitimate to call Rylance the biggest star in the world.)

He will soon be one of Bly’s more famous sons, yet we are legion. Haydn Reiss, whose film Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy premieres in Notting Hill on Sunday told me from California: “I am one of his many sons. I went up to him and said many of us look up to you as a father and he said, ‘That’s ok’.”Robert Bly

For Bly, often grizzled and grumpy in his need to carve out some space for himself after finding success in his 60s with his insights into the old Grimm’s fairy story Iron John, is both father and grandfather to a movement and knows it. He is also, Reiss reminded me, fallible and human.

One needs reminding, for Bly with his wild shocked white hair, colourful waistcoats and odd cravats, cuts quite a figure: at first glance a floral bear, then one who soon shapeshifts into an American eagle with ferocious talons. If you want to avoid their pinch, don’t call him Bob. (If you want to hear about that get to a Q & A and ask Mark Rylance.)Robert Bly

On the dais at his first men’s gathering in Dorset, he was, I wrote recently in a poem, Uranus distilled, shooting bolts of seismic thought, which his floating hands, reached up and gathered from the heavens like twin birds, returning to caress one ear then slap another. He left you stunned, felled by the koans he delivered like darts, foxed by a mind that knew what you did not. Father and friend to so many, he built sheds in the garden of thought, pinpointed and pulled out what we needed yet never wanted to hear.

He could also be infuriating and was horrendously late for one event, apparently held up by a lengthy lunch – or so the rumour went. I recall, more fondly, his many kindnesses. At one gathering, I had not felt part of the group, and slipped to the side in isolation. Bly, ever watchful, came over, simply putting an avuncular arm over my shoulders and asking if I was okay.

In the new film – which like Bly’s poems yields more with each sitting – we are taken into the heart and soul of the man who crashed his tractor into a ditch while reading Omar Khayyam as a Minnesota farm boy; who readily quoted Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats; then later wooed the great Pablo Neruda. Of course, he also organised resistance against both Vietnam and Iraq wars for American writers. He challenged many of the poets of his day he saw as ‘old-fashioned’, refusing to accept the division of spiritual reverence from sacred activism in their work, seeing them both as the poet’s sacred duty.

His love of Omar Khayyam foreshadowed his later love affair with the Sufis for, as one commentator says, Bly is an ecstatic, widely read (he researched both Freud and Jung), and has a knack for sniffing out exactly what his soul needs next.

There are a number of poignant moments: Bly, an alcoholic’s son, weeping, chest heaving, as he explains the benefits of apologizing to your children; and early scenes when, after going to Harvard and distinguishing himself among a group of noted young poets, courageously, drops out and hangs out in Minnesota, eschewing ambition and success in favour of watering his soul.

It would have cost him dear by the usual standards, but he remained true, refusing to surrender his complexity for a false peace. Like Rumi, who was at the height of both worldly and egoic powers when he met his mentor, he sacrificed everything the world values for a finer wine, treading the mystic’s path.

That helped me clarify why I feel such love and admiration for Bly. For just before meeting him, I had – to everyone’s shock and horror – given up my job as a newspaper editor as my young marriage crashed to a halt and was soon working as a commis chef in the kitchen of Gaunts House, the retreat centre where he pitched up, for board and lodgings.

I was 33 and had responded, without knowing it, to a call from my soul to vital questions put by Martin Shaw, perhaps Bly’s natural heir, in his wonderful book A Branch From The Lightning Tree: ‘Where is the mystery in going straight from school to college to job to mortgage? What wider perspective, what beauty cuts through that ghastly procession and makes you howl with the joy of being alive.’

Or as another poet, Mary Oliver, said: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

I was howling with both grief and joy and Bly understood, in detail and with a precision that no-one else did and probably few people could.

Ask Rylance (who introduces the film on YouTube), Devon-based storyteller Shaw, stage director and mythodrama pioneer Richard Olivier, Rumi translator Coleman Barks, for their most significant influence and they will likely come up with a variant on Reiss: ‘All roads lead back to Bly.’

If you have never heard of Robert Elwood Bly, now 89, the former should tell you something about his significance, the reach of his intellectual arm, and his ability to weave threads that rivet the attention.

The new film, which Reiss rushed into a theatre near Bly last summer so the old man could see it before crossing the threshold between Saturn and Neptune, the two worlds he has straddled so ably, begins on home turf in Minnesota.

Bly, gruff and staccato when I met him now says almost nothing, but the viewing, apparently, went well: ‘I could tell the film really fed him,’ his wife Ruth confided to the director, who came across his first men’s meeting while working on Oliver Stone’s JFK, and moved out of Hollywood and into documentaries.

Reiss had worked with Bly for a piece with fellow writer William Stafford, whose work is often read on men’s retreats. He later realized there was more to tell and was aided by interest from British actor-director Harry Burton, who swapped a documentary of his own on Pinter.

Harry is another veteran of what is called the mytho-poetic men’s movement and one of the film’s producers.

Late in June, he brought me via Facebook two distinct yet connected pieces of news, almost exactly one week apart.

The first, which came late at night, simply read: ‘Awful news today that Robert Moore has killed his wife and himself in Chicago.’

Moore, theologian, professor, Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago and much-respected mentor to many seems, for whatever reason, to have been devoured by the Great Self he spoke so much about.

It was shocking news, its shadow silent in the air. When I looked for Iron John on Amazon, Moore’s book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine was offered as a companion piece. Both were bibles, both published in 1990.

While the reverberations and reasons for Moore’s act will pose questions and inflict wounds for some time to come, men’s work, despite the noble efforts and great work of many men – not least in the UK – is no longer in vogue, says Reiss. Simply put, the zeitgeist moved on.

Harry’s second message was happier, with a clip of Rylance’s introduction and an invitation to the West Country screening planned for Dartington, Totnes, three days after London.

The gifts inherent in ritual and myth – something that never happened yet always is – remain: ‘These ritual forms are the secret history of the world: they are medicine. To face the world without them is to walk naked into a blizzard, to enter a desert without water,’ writes Shaw.

When Bly and Olivier, mythologist Michael Meade, Dagara tribal chief Malidoma Somé, shaman Martín Prechtel and the English poet William Ayot, entered the centre’s kitchen they came bearing myths. I put down my knife and followed.

For I had discovered through my own experience – and horror at the career in newspaper management laid out before me – that Flatlands almost always mean Badlands. If I could not cross the line into a wild adulthood, then I would sooner stay an adolescent.

I needed a life rich in meaning, purpose and passion, populated by people I could admire. My own fatherless existence and the longing that poured from my wounds caught the mood of the moment.

And so we listened to the old stories, greeted impossible dilemmas, wept and made friends, rediscovered our inner rhythms through drumming, turned and faced our grief. It was some of the best work I ever encountered. For it lent context to exile, something I knew well, and suggested staying true to one’s depths whatever others thought and, as importantly, for however long.

‘Fairy stories are the fundamental gifts we have received from the preliterate ancient world. The images of the stories given are meant to be taken slowly into the body,’ Bly tells us. A myth, adds Jung, is the collective dream of the culture. Slowness and patience are qualities long abandoned in industrialized nations.

Wild Dance Events, the organization set up by Richard Olivier with the encouragement of Bly, brought some of the power and energy experienced in America to Britain, drew on the wisdom of other cultures, included women at many gatherings and, to use Shaw’s words, amplified things we didn’t know were available any more.

There was a deep, cloying sadness when both that time and organization came to a close and although I was initiated by The Mankind Project in 2003 and attended some wonderful groups, I did not connect with it in the same way. In short, I had been spoilt.

Bly popped into my mind later through a number of channels. I wrote a piece on Steinbeck for The Independent in 2001; we had cross-referenced Steinbeck’s interest in mythology years earlier. It was the heart of my article.

A few years after that I made friends with the late actor Bruce Boa, who told me he had given up drinking for 17 years when he found himself sawing through his basement gas pipe in an attempt to kill himself.

As we drank tea in his Kew Gardens home, he told me he was the brother of Bly collaborator, Jungian analyst Marion Woodman. I had known him, like many, as the angry American in the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers.

All addictions, if seen with an eye for initiation could be argued as a failure of transformation, specifically the failure to complete what is a three-stage journey and be welcomed home. I wondered about Moore once more as well as the differing paths taken by Bruce and his sister.

It seems there is a hair width’s divide between sanity and madness, life and death, this world and the Other world.

‘The descent,’ says Woodman, ‘is a mythological term for the period during and after a powerful event in which the ego has been overwhelmed by a wave from the unconscious. Energy that is normally available to consciousness falls into the unconscious. This is known as journeying to the underworld, a state in which creative energies are going through transformations that the unaware ego may know nothing about.’

Shaw, rightly, emphasizes the importance of Return, moving back from the Threshold, coming home from the vision quest. There are always some who don’t make it.

After watching The BFG, Mark Rylance appeared once more in my mind. I tried to recall the poem he had written all those years before. The word diamond kept coming to me.

Then I read the transcript of his interview for the Bly film. He recalls that early poetry workshop and the central idea that the father cannot praise the diamond in you, something Bly knew only too well:

’Um, and this idea of the diamond in each of us, of a unique kind of gift um, gift that – that is there from birth…but it really takes a different elder man to say, “hey, I see something there that’s you – that’s in you.’”

Such seeing is a blessing and with the fires of conflagration everywhere, hawks and policemen bullying America, the fallout from Brexit oozing like stagnant water from a broken river bank, and a shredded political landscape here, there was never a more urgent time for the appearance of mystics, visionaries and men and women prepared to stand for something finer, telling truths that challenge the consensus.

There is no question that hindsight will elevate Bly, but adopt him now as inspiration and example. As Reiss and I agreed, such men only pass this way once in a thousand years.


AUGUST 7th 2016 at 12.30pm


Special guests: Haydn Reiss; Academy Award winner, Mark Rylance; and celebrated storyteller, Martin Shaw.

For tickets in London:

For tickets in Devon:

© Simon Heathcote 2016

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