the Battle of the Sexes, continued: Communiques From the Trenches : Poet Examines ‘Men and Women Now’ Through Looking Glass of Stories, songs and Verse; Psychologist Uses the Fable of Porcupine and Moles to Illustrate Gender Differences

Share via
Times Staff Writer

The male in the past 20 years has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process he has not become more free. He’s a nice boy who now not only pleases his mother but also the young woman he is living with.

--Robert Bly in a 1982 New Age

Magazine interview

So you think what the new woman wants is Phil Donahue? Alan Alda? A man who cries, embraces feminism and will listen to her endlessly?

Wrong. At least according to Robert Bly, 58, a poet who came from his farm in Moose Lake, Minn., to speak on “Men and Women Now” at a daylong seminar Saturday at the Malibu Community Center.


What women want, says Bly, are men who are sensitive, yes, but men who have also dug deep into the pit of their primitive maleness, who have met the hairy Wild Man of their ancient, collective past and know about male pain, male joy, and male power.

A poet given to psychological analyses, Bly eschews jargon in favor of myths, fairy tales, stories and poems. Jargon, he says is hard to remember. “You go to seminars and some one in there (a part of you) doesn’t even know you went. . . . Stories catch your attention, usually when they’re told and not read.”

Like a troubadour, he accompanied himself Saturday on a dulcimer, a bouzouki (Greek mandolin) or a drum. About 70 men and women came, including a college administrator, a city councilman, a doctor, a film director and several psychologists obviously already familiar with Bly. His ideas were often met with collective sighs of approval. Bly sometimes greeted their comments with approving grunts.

His hands stroked the bazouki as he read one of his own poems:

Every breath taken

by a man who loves

fills the water tank

where spirit horses drink


He is tall, 6-foot-3, with a soft, ruddy complexion surrounded by unruly white hair. He speaks in a slight nasal tone--shifting dialect when it pleases him. His hands move in elegant gestures sometimes as quickly as if he were translating for the deaf.

He is controversial, irreverent, metaphorical and vague, deflecting questions or criticism he deems irrelevant. “In a seminar I make about 4,000 generalizations. Five hundred of them must be off,” he said. He also exaggerates.

His hands beat a graceful cadence on the drum--stopping now and then for dramatic effect--as he reads another of his poems:

The ram and his cohorts enter the dark bridge

and we all follow.

Grieving men


descend from the harvested hills

and tell boys

what can be told of the dragon turning

in its spiral shell. God-taught men

tell boys of the male turning dragon

but the grief our fathers lived cannot be told.


Bly is known for his crusading, sometimes cranky individualism. In 1966, he co-founded American Writers Against the War in Vietnam. He translates Scandinavian, Spanish and German literature and has published a poetry journal as well as a dozen books of poems, including “Out of the Rolling Ocean: a Book of Love Poems” and his most recent, “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.” Bly’s “The Light Around the Body” won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1967.

Divorced, remarried and the father of five, Bly has achieved another sort of fame as a mediator in the ongoing battle of the sexes--focusing primarily on men. He said he travels five days a month, giving poetry readings and seminars on such topics as “Love in the Western World.”

Disastrous Situation

Men and women, says Bly, are in a disastrous situation, though it’s not much different from what it’s always been. “What we love is conflict between men and women first and self-pity second.”

Central to the problem now, he says, is a lowered “consciousness” in American domestic life that stems from a lack of observation and not “taking care of things.” He compared it to leaving a wool blanket outdoors in a damp Minnesota night and finding in the morning that crickets have eaten it. “It’s so subtle. You wake up in the morning and you feel this curious distance.”

Bly has culled his ideas from a variety of classic and modern psychologists, mythologists and poets. Among the cultural defects that he says have estranged men and women are modern birthing practices that separate mother and child, preventing early bonding and encouraging attachment to objects. He also blames the proliferation of pornography, which he says has overstimulated men, encouraging them to make objects of women.

Additionally, he said, men and women enter relationships with totally different models to follow. While a woman’s first love relationship--with her mother--ended in merging, a man’s with his mother was abruptly severed by the incest taboo.


Disintegration of Rites

Most significant, he believes, is the disintegration in America of male initiation rites. In primitive tribes, such as those in New Guinea today, older, respected men of the tribe teach boys about male roles and male feelings. Snatched by men in the middle of the night, the New Guinea boys, 8 to 12, are taken to an island, told and asked to repeat a Cain and Abel story to “take responsibility for a murderous quality inside,” Bly explained in a separate interview.

And they are also taught that a male “mode of feeling” is something extremely lively, connected with dancing and ecstasy, he said.

In agricultural societies, boys learned to be men by associating with their fathers in the fields every day, he said. But after the Industrial Revolution, fathers started leaving the home to spend their days working miles away and most forms of initiation broke down.

Sergeants in the old Army used to initiate men, but the spiritual dimension was lacking, said Bly. Today’s corporations are more involved in cloning than initiation, he said. “In our culture feelings are mainly taught by women in the home.”

Sometimes, some men want initiation from women--either their mothers, wives or girlfriends, he said. But women, he said, cannot initiate men. He advised single or divorced women raising sons to “find a man of some sort. You can’t do it alone.”

‘Leftover’ Maternal Energy

Women who try to comfort uninitiated men are dooming their relationships, he said. “Women give tremendous amounts of ‘leftover’ maternal energy to young males.” But whenever he accepts comfort, a man feels like more of a child than when he started. The incest block appears, and he resents that very much. He leaves and feels that leaving is a victory.


“Women at these conferences say, ‘You mean I shouldn’t comfort him?’ I say yes. If he says ‘I have a headache,’ you say, ‘Well, big boy, you know where the aspirin are.’ It’s not a woman’s job to comfort the men.”

To try to compensate for what he sees as lost initiation rites, Bly has for the past five years held male-only weeklong or weekend retreats, nicknamed “wild man seminars,” in which men try to decrease their dependency on women and find their “male energy” by learning to chant and play drums. They listen to poetry, music, ancient myths and fairy tales. They role-play with witch masks and join mock wrestling battles in the outdoors. They do not, say participants, complain about women.

Wilderness retreats for both men and women, co-hosted by Gioia Timpanelli, a storyteller from New York, have been discontinued, said Bly.

The retreats for men have grown in popularity through word of mouth, said Michael Ventura, a Los Angeles writer who has attended two retreats and introduced Bly Saturday. Last May, at a group of 100 men at a men’s retreat in Mendocino, Ventura said “everything was heightened into a walking metaphor.”

Once he said he found himself in the kitchen with Bly involved in a half-real, half-play duel with spoons. “He’s a big guy and strong. It was weird, I didn’t want to hit him back,” said Ventura. But when it was over, they both had blood on their hands.

‘Gift of Risk’

“He (Bly) gives the gift of risk, and that’s a precious thing,” Ventura said.

Before he knew Bly, Ventura, 40, said he was a frantic, lonely bachelor. Like other single people, he tended to wonder why the right woman didn’t come along as if it were coincidence and people were finished products, he said.


“What Robert articulated for me is that you can’t expect to concentrate on surfaces and still get gifts from the depths. If you are working on deep things, that work will draw someone to you. Months later when I was trying to change, zap! the woman appeared,” he said. He has been married to the woman he met then for three years, he said.

Bly asked for volunteers from the audience Saturday, alternating men and women, to read John Cheever’s “Chaste Clarissa,” a story of a young man devoted to a beautiful but unresponsive girl. In the end, the hero wins her over by adjusting his flattery to what she wants to believe about herself--that she is intelligent.

Switching to the style of an English literature teacher, Bly told his audience that “the only power she (Clarissa) has is to hook into the weak side of the man. He’s not dealing with his masculine side.

“If he had the slightest consciousness, he would say, ‘Oh, shut up,’ instead of, ‘What would she like to hear?’ ”

‘Don’t Worry’

One man raised his hand and asked what he should do about his fear of hurting women by saying “the wrong thing.” “Don’t worry about the other person!” Bly exclaimed. “Henry Miller said you can’t break the heart of a person over 35. If they’ve lived this long, you can tell them anything.”

Jane Alexander Stewart, 46, a Los Angeles psychologist and a feminist, said she is a Bly fan now but has not always been. “The first time I heard him talk, I thought he was anti-men, then I thought he was a misogynist, blaming the mother for everything. As I listened to him longer, I understood he’s trying to come to grips with the poverty of men in our society. We all suffer from a patriarchy bereft of positive male presence. Bly is the only one I know who talks about getting men there.”


Most men stop at appreciating feminist sensibilities and do not go any farther, she said.

Jim Conn, 41, a councilman from Santa Monica and a Methodist minister, said he thought he had understood feminism. He had read the feminist poet Adrienne Rich and was present when his child was born. But at 38, and just divorced for the second time, Conn said: “I was at a total loss as to what it meant to be a man and a father.” He took a writing class with Bly. He said it changed his life.

Now he said he has a “capacity for hardness and limits that a child needs.” He said his deepest relationship now is with his son. As for women, he said, “I’m not on a giant search. I’m looking inside now.” Besides, he added: “Who knows anything about relationships?”

Instinctual Knowledge

Bly told the audience that ancient stories offer human beings instinctual knowledge about relationships that we no longer possess. He picked up the drum and told a complicated Norwegian story he estimated could be as much as 20,000 years old.

A young man leaves home. He falls in love with a princess. But she is bound to the Hostile Mountain Spirit--an old man who lives in a mountain. He directs her to ask her suitors three riddles. If they do not guess the answers, they are killed. (“You want to have a relationship with her?” Bly said in an aside to the men. “Good luck.”)

With the help of an older man, the young man answers the riddles, chops off the mountain spirit’s head and marries the princess. She turns into a raven and then a dove. After he plunges her in water both times, she becomes a loving wife and they live happily ever after.

The story relates the effort required by either a suitor (or the masculine side of a young woman) to break the heavy influence of a jealous or negative father, said Bly. It also points out the importance of a male mentor for men.


“There’s a certain point in helping someone,” said Bly in explaining the lesson, “when you stop being nice. The sword comes down and chom! He (the young man) doesn’t say (to the mountain spirit) I know a good person in San Francisco who can help you with your obsession with blood.”

Also, he said, “There are women whose form of unconsciousness is a heavy, powerful hatred of men their own age. Certainly there are women whose anger is wonderful, then it passes into rage, then cold rage.”

Irreparable Damage

Cold rage, he said, does damage that cannot be repaired. That’s when men need to walk away for a while, he said, rather than stay and “talk it out.”

Women, too, need to stop being nice and emulate the Fierce Woman, a female role model represented by some Celtic or Greek goddesses, he said.

Bly’s seminar was sponsored by the Hermes Project, a nonprofit corporation that advocates “personal and planetary peace and health.” From here, he will go to Ojai for a men’s group Nov. 1-3; then to San Francisco for a reading and language seminar. The schedule of his future workshops may be obtained by writing to Paul Feroe, Ally Press, 524 Orleans St., St. Paul, Minn. 55107.

Bly does not foresee relations between the sexes improving on a grand scale. “I believe the corporate mentality will continue to block most men and women in the culture from development.”


But he sees more hope for individuals: “If men are able to use the image of the Wild Man as an example of a god that has deep roots and is nourishing and includes the male mode of feeling and women can move into the Fierce Woman, then they can make a lot of progress.”