The name of Robert Bly often evokes images of paint-covered men drumming -- and bonding -- in the woods. Though an award-winning poet, he was hardly known outside academic circles before he wrote a best-selling book a few years ago that galvanized the so-called men's movement.
Most of the reading public knows Bly for "Iron John." But he has written or translated more than a dozen books of and about poetry and calls the genre his first love.
And it is poetry he will read and discuss today at Howard Community College in Columbia.
Bly is one of 60 artists visiting Columbia and Ellicott City during the 10-day Columbia Festival of the Arts, which started Friday.
Today's festival events also include free activities and performances at Lake Kittamaqundi marking Columbia's 30th birthday, performances by the Parsons Dance Company, a play by Larry's Resolution Theatre and a magic show called "Cinderella."
In addition to Bly's appearances, two other events in the festival are related to books or writing. Yesterday, the authors of "Creating a New City," a book about the building of the town, signed their book.
On June 29, John Gregory Brown, formerly of Columbia, will appear at a reading and discussion called "A Writer's Homecoming."
Two poles of poetry
Festival director Katherine Knowles called Bly "marvelous."
"We are delighted he is coming," she said.
Bly's workshop will focus on what he calls the two poles of poetry: the expressive, often politicalform, and the musical form.
"In the last 30 years, I have gone toward expressive poetry and away from [the musical] form," said Bly in an interview from Bennington College in Vermont, where he spoke last week.
"I started with poetry as form and moved into expression, to express emotions and intensity, especially around the Vietnam War," he said. "Now I am moving back to form.
"Why? I'm an elder now. That's what elders do: They try to connect the youngsters with tradition."
This is the kind of talk that made Bly, 70, popular after he wrote "Iron John: A Book About Men," published in 1990.
The book -- which spent dozens of weeks on the New York Times best-seller list -- sparked a national wave of workshops and retreats for men who wanted to reconnect to a male tradition.
Fathers and sons
In the book, Bly wrote that fathers and their sons have lost touch in the modern age as the pace of life quickened and families disintegrated. In response, he said, men should rediscover the "hairy primate" within.
And they did -- by the thousands -- gathering in the woods to strip off their clothes, bang drums and chant.
Some feminists dismissed the retreats as reactionary. But thousands of men made it a movement, and they dubbed Bly one of its leaders.
The designation is fine by him -- but he doesn't take it too seriously, he said.
"That 'Iron John' became so popular was just a funny quirk," he said. "I've published poetry books that sell 7,000 or 8,000 copies, and that means as much to me as the success of 'Iron John.' "
Besides "Iron John," Bly's only other book of prose not directly related to poetry, "The Sibling Society," was published last year.
In it, Bly laments the inclination for adults to behave like children and children like adults -- with neither fulfilling their natural roles.
"It's an unheard-of situation," he said. "I don't think it's ever happened before."
Though he is currently co-writing another book of prose -- analyzing a Russian fairy tale through the lens of gender -- Bly emphasizes that he is a poet first. He edits poetry, translates it, writes prose books about it and writes introductions for books by poets.
He writes a poem each morning. "I wrote a poem today," Bly said. "It was bad -- most poems are bad. But if you do a poem in the morning, what does it matter what you do the rest of the day?"
Some of his daily poems are compiled in his current book, "Morning Poems," from which he will read this evening.
Bly, who lives in Minnesota with his wife, won the National Book Award in 1968 for his poetry collection "The Light Around the Body."
At his workshop this afternoon, participants will be encouraged to submit poems.
He won't judge them or teach from them, he said, so much as look at them and use them as a starting point for the discussion about poetry.
"This is more of a little community thing than anything," he said. "A community for a moment while writing poetry, which is a very lonely occupation in many ways."
Bly's workshop and poetry reading will take place at Howard Community College. The reading is presented by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Tickets for the workshop, at 2: 30 p.m., are $15. The reading at 5 p.m. is $18 general admission, $12 for students. Information: 410-715-3055.
Pub Date: 6/22/97