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A Weekend With Robert Bly

Copyright © 2008 by John Roman


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Robert Bly - sketch by John Roman

On-site portrait sketch of Robert Bly [Pencil drawing].

No two Bly events are alike, but all are similar in their aim and intent: to awaken the soul from its animal instincts. While attending a three-day Robert Bly conference held at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Western Massachusetts, I decided, as writer and artist, to capture the event in both written and visual form. What follows is my translation of Mr. Bly's presentation in drawings and words.

The Poet

"The purpose of the mammal brain is to resonate with another being," began the poet, storyteller and philosopher Robert Bly to a group of forty during a recent weekend-long conference held at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Western Massachusetts. Bly, sometimes referred to as the father of the so-called men's movement, is author of numerous books on poetry, society, mythology and men's history. His now-classic 1990 book on male initiation rites, Iron John, addresses the lack of adequate mentoring for boys in western cultures since the industrial revolution. In his large body of poetry and prose he has been a consistently outspoken and controversial critic of war, injustice, Hollywood, and corporate greed.

Seated at the center of a large semi-circle in the open, airy and light-filled lecture room at Rowe's Grace Jordan Hall, Bly drew from this storehouse of material during the conference keeping all engaged with readings of his personal poetry as well as works of other inspirational poets. Occasionally he stood and recited strictly from memory the likes of Blake, Yeats, Dickinson and Neruda, his towering six-foot-plus frame swaying gently like a massive tree. With eyes closed and graceful hands dancing out before him, he emphasized and set rhythm to each recitation, sometimes stopping in the middle of a stanza to open his eyes and interpret a passage or share a related thought or story. Then he'd return to the poem and the trance-like state in a genuine display of his love for the poetic form.

Throughout the three-day gathering the 76-year-old magician single-handedly kept the energies flowing and the participants thoroughly captivated. Sessions began early and ran late into the evening. During breaks Bly mingled with the guests, continued dialogues on aspects brought up during the forums and got acquainted with the individuals present, most of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to attend the conference at this remote mountain retreat.

Robert also moderated group dialogues over current political issues in addition to leading open discussions that afforded the opportunity for people to express some of their own personal pains. Many revealed detailed stories of sorrow and grief in their lives. One or two had been physically abused as children, several emotionally and verbally abused, a few abandoned by parents, some emotionally shut out by one or both parents. But Bly, careful not to allow the weekend to turn into a therapy session, steered all issues back toward the topics that were central to his agenda: resonance, grandiosity, the inner king, personal gold, going underground and archetypes. These themes were taken from Iron John, as well as from two books by psychologist Robert Moore, The King Within and Facing the Dragon. But the resource that became the backbone to the conference was A General Theory of Love, by psychologists Lewis, Amini and Lannon, from which the idea of resonance was raised.


Like musical instruments, human brains strike chords that may or may not vibrate or resonate between each other. A mother's brain resonates with her newborn infant, but in some cases a mother with emotional or personal problems does not resonate with her child. A man may resonate with a certain woman. A man may resonate with another man, a woman with a woman, a human with an animal. The brain seeks that which it can resonate with, and it must resonate in order to keep itself healthy and alive. This was the starting point for the weekend's work. Many offered their ideas of what they considered resonance to be: love, compassion, care, concern, nurturing. "Somewhere deep in the brain is a musical string which, when struck, will resonate sending out a vibration that is picked up by another brain living on the same vibration," explained Bly.

During a lengthy, poetic lecture Robert referred to the "inner" person; "The inner me who steps back when I speak, who takes a walk when I go inside." What he was verbalizing was something from the non-verbal realm of our mind, which is exactly what poetry represents; non-verbal thoughts and images set to the limited vocabulary of human beings. If someone attempted to concretize a concept, Bly would guide him or her back toward its symbolic origins. "The better a metaphor is, the less you'll understand it," Bly explained, meaning that our non-verbal brains will understand the message while our animal egos will not. It was clear that such a supposition could best take root in a setting such as this one at Rowe as the intensity and duration of the sessions helped to heat up and awaken the silent, non-verbal, inner brain of every person in the room.

Evident from the start of the conference was Bly's contrast in demeanor. The off-stage Bly was gentle, soft-spoken, very kind, guiet, and always wearing a half-smile. Once he stepped in front of the crowd, however, a different energy force took over. His body seemed to toughen and even lengthen a bit, and his voice deepened. The smile was there less often replaced by a look of seriousness and concern. His commanding presence was unmistakable and, at times while speaking or listening, he resembled a pacing lion as he walked slowly and deliberately back and forth across the crowded room.

Grace Jordan Hall at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center

On-site sketch of Grace Jordan Hall at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center, Rowe, Massachusetts [Pencil drawing].


The Jungian idea of inner archetypes was a recurring theme during these sessions, and Bly reflected a clear and positive physical demonstration of how those archetypes can work. He encouraged his students to be aware of their own inner warrior, lover, magician, and king; the archetypes, which reside in everyone. One's archetypes may be weak or strong, but all require maintenance and attention. Practicing what he preached, Bly's inner warrior was the internal force that would toughen his body and voice in preparation for the work to be done during each lecture period. His inner lover archetype, already at work off stage, was a compassionate and facilitating force. His magician archetype, the inner poet, performed and created new ways of perceiving and instructing throughout the event. And the three archetypes in unison, to quote Moore, "danced the four quarters," to summon up that fourth energy known as the inner king. In Bly's case, all his archetypes showed equal strength, no one archetype overpowered another and thus his strong inner king was in control. It takes years of awareness and practice to master this very ancient mythological reality and to be able to utilize it in one's daily life, and Robert Bly as mentor set an excellent example of how this could be approached with style and poise.

The Two Sides of Grandiosity

Grandiosity in the psyche was another concept explored during the retreat. Grandiosity gives a person confidence in oneself, yet too much grandiosity turns into egocentricity and not enough becomes low self-esteem. Balance is the key. Bly connected this principle to Robert Moore's newest book, Facing the Dragon, reading from the book and offering Moore's theories on the subject. Grandiosity enables us to accept the positive aspects of our own personality and talents. But, "waiting in the hall is Grandiosity's twin, Utter Worthlessness, who is anxious to take in every bad thing that has ever been muttered about us," Bly warned. In a rare moment on stage, Robert revealed a little secret about himself. He commented on all he has accomplished in his lifetime as poet and author and admitted to a reserved pride in his success.

"But… there is a flip side to all of this," he added. "At times an overwhelming feeling comes over me. A feeling of absolute worthlessness." At that moment his whole body seemed to subtly sink into the chair as if some of the life had gone out of him by merely speaking about the feeling. Those in attendance were not accustomed to seeing Bly in this state or hearing about his personal fallibility. His courageousness to divulge such personal information before a large group, however, conveyed to the attendees that it is part of the human condition to experience both ends of the grandiosity spectrum. In other words, grandiosity and worthlessness reside with equanimity inside of us. "The more grandiosity we feel, the harder worthlessness will hit us," Robert said. Bly's intention was to help everyone recognize the importance of keeping grandiosity in check despite personal achievements, and in keeping worthlessness in check despite failures or shortcomings.

Beyond the realities of individual grandiosity lie the dangers of group grandiosity where people believe that they are superior to other individuals who are not part of their particular circle. Robert expressed his concern about the horrors such groups can perform against other human beings once they've taken on a tribal or group self-righteousness. On the smaller scale this dynamic might surface within a family that singles-out one of its members to ostracize and/or to project upon all the negative history of that family. On the larger scale group grandiosity can manifest within political systems or entire countries that galvanize together, deeming other parties, cultures or governments as "the enemy." Or it can be seen within religious organizations that reject other religions as evil and treat those outside their private belief system as being less-than-human. In all these examples the self-righteousness of a group is exposed when they justify their actions.

All group grandiosities are negative, dangerous and cruel. This has always been a part of the human animal's past and only through an awareness and consciousness of its potential for existence will the individual soul be protected from being sucked into a poisoness environment. "Live your grandiosity by yourself," Robert advised, "and match it to something you do. Don't be content to be ordinary. Excel at something." One's grandiosity can be expressed in art, poetry, writing, or craft. Grandiosity that remains fixed with the ego or remains unconscious lacks an outlet for expression and is left exposed to the possibility of being taken advantage of by a group. "Our work then is to free ourselves from family cages and collective mindsets," Bly tells us in Iron John.

Going Underground

Robert told a favorite tale of his, an important story called "The Devil's Sooty Brother." It's an ancient myth that describes the inner work required surrounding a loss, personal betrayal, divorce, or separation of some sort. The story tells of a soldier discharged from the army with nowhere to go and nothing to do (the discharge symbolizing a painful, personal event). One day he encounters the Devil who offers him a job (the Devil in this case is not Satan, rather an inner guide who knows we have work to do on our injury). The soldier is instructed to go underground for seven years and keep several very big pots boiling, after which time he would be paid very well, though the exact fee for his work was not discussed. He accepted the job and went underground (a metaphor for the personal unconscious). The Devil also instructed the soldier that under no circumstances should he ever look into the boiling pots. But one day when the Devil was not around, the soldier decided to look into the pots anyway (the soldier being a child at heart, children always doing what they are told not to do). In the pots the soldier is shocked to see the bodies of all the people who had ever caused him hurt or pain during his lifetime. Now, knowing exactly what is in the pots, the soldier had no trouble at all keeping them boiling good and hot for the next seven years. (This aspect of the story represents the work we do when we are in therapy, talking out the pain connected with difficult personal relations.)

At the end of the seven years the Devil complimented the soldier on a job well done, then gave the soldier his wages which, to the soldier's dismay, only amounted to a big bag filled with all the ashes from underneath the pots (we take the ashes of the psychological work we've done with us when we leave the therapist's office). Very disappointed, the soldier left the underworld walking slowly and dragging his bag of ashes on the ground behind him. Once back in the outer world, however, something quite marvelous happened. The soldier discovered that all the ashes in his bag had miraculously turned to pure gold. (Not only is the work done in therapy very valuable, but also within that work lies the secret of our own unique gifts.)

Everyone enjoyed this story, and many found similarities to their own lives. There was enough wisdom amongst the crowd to also see that the story was not about blaming or punishing others, but had more to do with the release of buried anger and sadness surrounding personal sufferings. Everyone has these wounds to greater or lesser degrees. Robert said that something as simple as "never receiving a blessing from your father is an injury that needs to be burned out." To ignore the injuries in our lives is to remain ignor-ant of their presence and to the silent, subconscious harm they do to our relationships, our careers, and our health. This is a very old story, and yet it still holds real truths for all who accept its message.

"Seven years in a myth can represent fifteen or twenty years in real life. The inner work is never quite done," Bly explained. "More weird stuff keeps coming up. It's not about getting to the end of the process or about succeeding at it or about coming out on top. It's about cooking and finding the true flavor of your life. It's not about confronting those who have hurt us or about attacking our abusers. The boiling work can be done privately, verbally in your room. Thoreau did his cooking in his writing," Bly added, and he continued with other examples of ways to burn: artwork, music, poetry, journal writing, sculpture and crafts were all exemplified as good ways to cook. Each of us has a personal garden within us where we can water and grow the fruits of our underground work. Failing to do this work through denial or laziness is the greatest crime one can do to the inner self. "What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?" asks Antonio Machado in a poem quoted by Bly. The ancients knew all this, but somewhere in our modern culture, we've lost it all. Over-indulgence of television, sporting events, movies, rock concerts and the like, all get in the way of the real work we were sent here to do, to paraphrase from Bly's The Sibling Society. Bly suggested that all present should, "accept the wounds you've been given, and the powers that be will notice you." A Chippewa Indian poem from Robert's The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, says the same thing, only a little differently:

Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
And all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.
Bly reading poetry in the Grace Jordan Hall

Bly reading poetry in the Grace Jordan Hall [Pen and ink drawing].

"Occasionally Bly would stand and read (or recite strictly from memory) the words of Blake, Yeats, Neruda and his own poetry. A visual and audio treat, Robert's towering six-foot-plus frame would sway gently like a tree, his eyes closed, his graceful hands dancing out before him as he emphasized and set a rhythm to each recitation. Sometimes he would stop in the middle of a stanza, open his eyes and give his interpretation of the passage or share a related thought, and then he would return to the poem and to his trance-like state. This could have been mistaken as a performance, but it was actually a genuine display of his love for the poetic form."

Robert further interpreted what is to be done with one's "gold" in a lengthy reading from Iron John. There are many references to gold in this nineteenth-century Grimm brothers fable, the themes of which go back thousands of years. At first, in Iron John, the gold is hidden. Then, while the inner archetypes are in the process of gaining strength, the gold is given away or declined. Showing one's talents too early in life is always disastrous. Later, however, as the archetypes mature, the gold is not only nurtured and refined but can be confidently displayed and shared.

Returning to the World

During that weekend Robert Bly had become more than a teacher. He was a cook who had set out forty big pots for his visitors, and for three days he kept the fires burning hot under them with poetry, storytelling, lectures and conversation. "The job of the artist, the job of the musician, is to increase the heat," he said. And the people did cook. Their own stories, poems and songs emerged as they voluntarily added fuel to their own pot fires. "Boil me some more. Hit me with the skimming spoon. I can't do this by myself," cries a passage from a related Rumi poem about the cook and the chickpea. More poetry from Bly served as more wood for more burning, and more boiling. No one wanted it to end. The last session on Sunday ran an hour and a half longer than scheduled and closed with Robert leading an ancient African chant honoring the ancestors of everyone in the room. All the chanting voices became one voice…one resonance.

For three days the sun had shined brightly in those Massachusetts mountains. But as the conference came to a close a pouring rain began outside, as if all the fires under the pots were being extinguished. While the people mulled about and said their goodbyes, Robert quietly walked around the room and gathered up the ashes from underneath each person's pot. Then, one by one, he sent them on their way. Forty people left Grace Jordan Hall that afternoon. Forty people, walking slowly and dragging bags of ashes on the ground behind them.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Bly, Robert. News of the Universe. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980.

Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. New York: Random House, 1996.

Bly, Hillman, and Meade; editors. The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Hillman and Gillette. The King Within: Accessing the King in Male Psyches. Chicago: Exploration Press, 2007.

Hillman, James. Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity. New York: Chiron Publications, 2003.

Lewis, Amini, and Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, 2000.

John Roman, a graduate of the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University, has been teaching perspective drawing at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston since 1993. John's been a free-lance architectural illustrator since 1980 and has produced artwork for clients that include; Time, the National Park Service, the National Fire Protection Association, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, King Features Syndicate, Mercedes Benz, Coca Cola, Golf Digest, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is a member of the Thoreau Society, American Society of Architectural Illustrators and the New York Society of Renderers. Roman's written works have appeared in The Artist's Magazine, The Concord Saunterer (an annual anthology of Thoreau-related essays, 2008 edition), the national Out of Line literary journal (2006), and in hundreds of newspapers via his nationally syndicated feature, "Biography," distributed by the United Feature Syndicate (1986-1990).


John Roman

575 Washington Street

Canton, Massachusetts 02021 Tel: 781.830.9490 Fax: 781.830.9482



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