IRON JOHN A Book About Men By Robert Bly Addison-Wesley. 268 pp. $18.95

IN ADDITION to being one of our finest poets, Robert Bly has, over the last 10 years, inspired -- through talks, workshops and tapes -- a growing men's movement, conceived not to oppose the women's movement but to claim for men the strength and rejuvenation that he sees the women's movement giving women. Iron John is Bly's brilliantly eclectic written meditation on why men today are unhappy, and how they can become happier. Iron John, in the Grimms' fairy tale, is a wild, hairy man living at the bottom of a pond deep in the forest. Since the story's gradual unfolding provides the book's suspense, I will not reveal it, but simply note that Bly sees Iron John as a metaphor for what men need.

Bly's premise is that the '60s and '70s created a "soft male" who is in touch with his feminine side, eschews violence and seeks harmony, is "a nice boy who pleases not only his mother but also the young woman he is living with" -- and is full of grief. Suffering from passivity, naivete and numbness, what he needs to know is not only his feminine side (though it also is of value) but the "deep male" symbolized by Iron John. Making contact with (not becoming) the Wild Man entails forsaking parents for a male mentor. Though "a clean break from the mother is crucial," Bly refreshingly does not blame mothers when this break isn't made; he blames fathers, who abandon their sons, leaving a vacuum that mothers fill. He finds our society deficient in mythology and impoverished by the loss of ritual, especially initiation rituals by which older men take boys from the women and teach them how to be men.

The book is structured around Bly's colloquial rendering of the Iron John tale, told piece by piece, interspersed with commentary, snatches of tales from other traditions and mythologies, anthropological lore of non-literate cultures, Jungian insights and, most gloriously, poetry, much of it written or beautifully translated by Bly. The book is illuminated by the poet's image-rich vision and voice, generous in such wonderful phrasings as "old-man-minded farmer," "the Idaho of the mind" and "Men and women alike once called on men to pierce the dangerous places, carry handfuls of courage to the waterfalls, dust the tails of the wild boars."

The growth of the men's movement is testimony that Bly has struck a resonant chord: the need for ritual and for new stories and images to replace the ones that have worn out and let us down, the alienation of father and son in post-industrial society. He seeks to restore the terms "masculine" and "feminine" as legitimate, apolitical descriptions of the sexes as essentially different but not opposed. His observations about the differences between the sexes are true -- and work both ways. Indeed, "how often every adult man has felt himself, when baffled by a woman's peculiar interpretation of his behavior -- so different from his own -- go into a sulk."

Though she may be more likely to talk than sulk, every adult woman, too, has been baffled by a man's peculiar interpretation of her behavior. Similarly, Bly correctly observes that mothers can distort their sons' views of their fathers: "Mothers can be right about the father's negative side, but the woman also can be judgmental about masculine traits that are merely different or unexpected," such as not talking about his feelings. This is important and also applies to fathers who give sons (and daughters) a view of their mothers as hysterical, manipulative, and illogical. I AM a bit nervous, not about Bly's own enlightened and enlightening vision, but about what might be made of it. He cautions that the Wild Man, who is fierce, should not be confused with the "savage man," who is aggressively destructive; yet the two are easily confused. Writer Trip Gabriel found that, during a men's retreat inspired (but not run) by Bly, the participants easily danced like savages but were at a loss when asked to dance like wild men. And I could imagine Bly cringing at a letter responding to Gabriel's article about the retreat in which a man claims to have displayed his Wild Man by fighting in gang brawls and beating on garbage cans during college keg parties.

A theme running through the book is that men must regain comfort with the sword, learn to fight, get in touch with their "inner warrior." Despite Bly's emphasis that the inner warrior is better expressed through ritual display, such as poetry, than by literal warfare, he uses much warlike imagery. For example, he says of the naive man, "If his wife or girlfriend, furious, shouts that he is 'chauvinist,' a 'sexist,' a 'man,' he doesn't fight back, but just takes it. He opens his shirt so that she can see more clearly where to put the lances. He ends with three or four javelins sticking out of his body, and blood running all over the floor." But then I am probably uncomfortable with such imagery because I am a woman and therefore take it more literally than it is meant.

Bly overestimates the effect of the women's movement, of women's strength and self-assurance, of the change in men resulting from New Age thinking. It hardly seems that most men have rejected the sword, when child abuse, rape, wife-beating, street crime and war are increasingly evident. If, as Bly eloquently demonstrates, agonism -- fighting or warlike behavior -- is an inherent and essential part of male consciousness, he is also right that our hope lies in the rediscovery of ritual enactments to replace the literal enactments that have both our society and the future of the earth under siege. This rewarding book is an invaluable contribution to the gathering public conversation about what it means to be male -- or female. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is the author of "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation."