What is it with men these days, anyway?

Why are so many men unhappy and unfulfilled?

Why can't they speak from their hearts to their friends, to the women in their lives, to their children and to their parents -- especially their fathers?

Why do so many men feel isolated and alone?

And why are 1,500 of them paying $75 each to beat drums, share intimate self-revelationsand listen to a poet and a mythological storyteller hash out answers to those questions in "A Day for Men" beginning at 9:30 this morning in Lisner Auditorium?

"An affirmation and strength comes from a bonding between men that's impossible to put into words," says Ed Honnold, the mild-mannered federal lawyer and founder of the Men's Council of Greater Washington, one of six such local groups salving men's deep inner pain through communal rituals of dancing and roaring, hugging and weeping. "This experience was known to men in the past, but has been forgotten. American men face a desperate situation and don't even know it. There are large numbers of men wandering lost, in some personal wasteland of jobs with little meaning, personal lives with little passion, and massive confusion about the reasons why."

He pauses thoughtfully and adds, "There's a lot of hurtin' cowboys out there."

The truth, says Robert Bly, who will lead today's gathering with storyteller Michael Meade, is that a man's life is a shocking descent into grief, and not the upwardly mobile American dreamscape of high-flying success that so many want. Bly, the big poet with the multicolored vest and wild white hair, author of the new bestseller "Iron John: A Book About Men" and head guru of the so-called Mythopoetic Men's Movement, says flatly that "the door to men's feeling is grief, and to be able to make that turn downward, break the upward spiral, and start thinking about what actually went on in your family" is a key to what people in the movement like to call "the mature masculine."

American men never learned to be Men, Bly theorizes, because after the Industrial Revolution their fathers weren't around to teach them. They were raised by women who, no matter how wonderful, didn't know how to convey "the distinctive male mode of feeling." Thus, the theory goes, instead of mature or "kingly" men, what we tend to have these days are mama's boys, filled with intense "father hunger," who feel uncomfortable in the company of men but who certainly can't stand up to a woman either.

Gruff and grandfatherly at 63, Bly thinks an answer can be found in ancient stories and myths, that all-male retreats into the woods -- or into Lisner -- for male "soul talk," rituals and initiation ceremonies can help men "nurture" one another toward growing up. "Men have lived together in heart unions and soul connections for hundreds of thousands of years," he writes in his book. "Contemporary business life allows competitive relationships only, in which the major emotions are anxiety, tension, loneliness, rivalry, and fear. ... Having no soul union with other men can be the most damaging wound of all."

When men get together seriously, he thinks, they can help one another touch their grief. "Everybody tells men they should cheer up and be the strong one in the family," he says over a big breakfast of bacon and eggs during an earlier book promotion tour in Washington, "but when they go to a men's group they're allowed to weep over their fathers and they're not considered weak. In fact, the other men consider it tremendous to be able to weep either over the remoteness of your father or the sufferings that your father went through."

The other thing is to get in touch with your "Wild Man."

In "Iron John," Bly spins a mesmerizing mix of modern psychological and ancient mythological speculation around the Grimms' fairy tale of a hairy Wild Man (the essential masculine) pulled from the depths of a lake (the male psyche) and locked in a cage in the castle (the constraints of civilization). The king's son steals (significant: He doesn't ask) the key from under his mother's pillow (very significant: break with mother), unlocks the cage and rides into the forest on the shoulders of the Wild Man, who teaches him about Life. In the end, drawing upon these lessons taught by Iron John, he claims his full manhood through suffering and courage, and wins the hand of a princess.

"The Wild Man's job," Bly writes, "is to teach the young man how abundant, various, and many-sided his manhood is. ... To receive initiation truly means to expand sideways into the glory of oaks, mountains, glaciers, horses, lions, grasses, waterfalls, deer. A man needs wilderness and extravagance. Whatever shuts a man away from the waterfall and the tiger will kill him."

Working through his bacon and eggs, he discourses extravagantly, occasionally roaring like a giant and screeching like a witch as he recounts mythological literature that he's translated. He takes delight in the thought that practices of other cultures might be applied to our own. The "old initiators" in Africa and New Guinea, he says, "take a boy off into the woods, make a vagina 20 feet long out of twigs and brush, send the boy in one end and greet him at the other, and they say, 'Now you're born a second time, you're born for men this time.' They give him a new name, and cover his face with ashes to indicate that the son of the mother is dead."

He guffaws. Then changing mood, tells of a poem he wrote about sorrow as "the storehouse of wheat, barley, corn and tears. ... and I say to myself, 'Will you have sorrow at last? Go on, be cheerful, be stoic, calm. Yeah. Or, in the valley of sorrows, spread your wings.' "

He stops munching.

Says, somewhat matter-of-factly: "A man doesn't get wings until he comes into his own grief. Before that, he's like a chicken hopping around on the ground."

The Explosion The new men's movement has grown explosively since January 1990, when a Bill Moyers special on Bly, "A Gathering of Men," appeared on PBS. Transcripts and videocassettes of the show became bestsellers, as did tapes by Meade and other national movement leaders. "Iron John," in its seventh printing with more than 200,000 hardcover copies sold, according to a spokesman for the publisher, Addison-Wesley, is No. 1 today on both the Washington Post and New York Times bestseller lists. David Russell, associate editor of American Bookseller magazine, says men's books are now "one of the fastest growing segments of the new age or psychology book trade." Courses on men and masculinity have sprung up in hundreds of universities.

"I really think the '90s will be the decade of men, just as the '60s and '70s were the decades of women," says Chris Harding, editor of Wingspan: Journal of the Male Spirit, a quarterly tabloid whose circulation shot from 15,000 to 125,000 last year largely through the pro-bono efforts of an Arlington fund-raising consultant, Forrest Craver. "There's clearly been a feminization of American culture as a result of the women's movement," says Craver. "Our wives and children often don't see our innate humanity, our beauty, our essence as men."

The last issue of Wingspan lists dozens of publications and events for men around the country, including a "New Warrior Training Adventure Weekend" in Wisconsin, "Drumming and Dancing for Men" in Massachusetts, "Brother to Brother" in New York, "Healing the Father Wound" in California and "Afro-American Males at Risk" in New Jersey. A recent "Grandfather Ceremony" at the Fairfax Unitarian Men's Council featured drumming on a "5 1/2-foot Thunderheart" drum. In this area, there are three large councils in Virginia, one in Gaithersburg and another in Baltimore. The Men's Council of Greater Washington, which Honnold started in June of 1988 with 50 men, is the largest, with 2,000 members and 50 newcomers arriving for each monthly meeting.

Late one night in January, at the council's meeting in the Washington Ethical Society auditorium on upper 16th Street NW, Honnold sheds his Clark Kent image as he leads 500 men who are pounding drums and chanting. The sweating windows shake with rhythmic thunder that reverberates up and down the street as they raise Honnold -- gyrating and clapping -- high overhead and parade him about the room. Then group leaders circulate with large feathers and clay pots, wafting the smoke of burning sage into waiting faces in what is termed a Native American ritual, designed to put you in touch with generations of male ancestors.

It's easy to make fun of this sort of thing, and many news reports have been highly skeptical. As a man never having experienced it before, you feel distinctly uncomfortable at first. Perhaps it's the arm-over-arm ouhmmmm, ouhmmm, ouhmmm stuff they do, or the unexpected whiff of real paganism so jarring to the Judeo-Christian sensibility, or just the group mentality with its slight suggestion of coercion. On the other hand, there's a kind of charming innocence here too, harking back to clubhouses and high school locker rooms, and suddenly you remember the slap of wrestlers on the mats, the shouts of drill sergeants in the smoky pre-dawn chill down at Fort Jackson, or the way your bare feet toughened to the road gravel over the long summers when you were a kid running on it with your friends.

There are no women in the meeting, and reporters aren't allowed to take notes or names. On this particular night, two of the movement's national leaders, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, authors of another new bestseller, "King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine" (Harper San Francisco), are on hand to explicate their work. Moore is a Jungian analyst and professor of psychology and religion at Chicago Theological Seminary, and Gillette a "mythologist" and co-founder of something called the Institute for World Spirituality.

Moore lays out his theory of how these four archetypes are contained in what he calls "the hard-wiring of the masculine psyche," and Gillette backs him up with a cross-cultural slide show demonstrating how they have been historically present in men in many societies. They're enthusiastic about another new book by State University of New York anthropology Prof. David D. Gilmore, "Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity" (Yale University Press), a scholarly overview suggesting that "manhood" in the form of toughness, aggression and stoicism is nearly universal.

The Jungian approach -- with its emphasis on archetypes, myths, spirituality and collective unconscious -- is critical to the new men's movement, laying a basis for the assertions not only that men and women are different, but that men are a certain way and no other. Bly, for example, attacks what he calls "soft males," the "Woody Allen-types" who came of age alongside the feminist movement and who Bly thinks have left behind the necessarily "fierce" aspect of manliness. "Many of these men are not happy," he writes. "You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving."

Yet the new mythopoetic leaders, in rediscovering this ancient male "gender ground," as it's called, claim they're rejecting the John Wayne image as well. They're seeking something new, dusting off the old ferocious, enthusiastic energy of men and seeking to govern it with high moral purpose toward ends other than the control of women, the despoliation of the earth and the slaughter of populations. Moore and Gillette believe, as their book jacket puts it, that "mature masculinity is not abusive, domineering, or grandiose, but generative, creative and empowering of the self and others."

Thus Bly and Meade plan to lead a candlelight "grief march" at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial tonight to mourn the loss of life in the Middle East war. The Washington council, whose membership is divided on the war, is taking no official position.

James Hillman, another movement leader who is a former director of studies at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, thinks men are spending too much time turned inward, and in a meeting in San Francisco last March yelled at the audience of men that he's "outraged at you being outraged at your father, or your mother, and not being outraged about what else is happening in the world!" Craver, who has raised funds for the National Organization for Women, thinks "it's fine to stand for poetry, for increased mythological awareness, {but} we must respond to the urgent challenges of our moment in history. Mature masculinity is defined in terms of stewardship of the earth, compassion, care for younger men."

Nevertheless, the mythopoetic movement seems more than anything a highly intellectualized personal enrichment program for upper-middle-class whites, who are seeking to solve their problems through mythology and poetry just as they might otherwise do in a psychiatrist's office or a 12-step program. While leaders say that blue-collar men are involved, that wasn't evident in visits to council meetings here or in interviews with dozens of observers nationwide. The Moore-Gillette evening, leaving aside the smoke and drums, seemed like a graduate seminar at Harvard, only with many of the participants middle-aged and bearded.

One man, after the lecture, quizzed Moore closely on the intrinsic opposition between the male personality traits of Warrior ("the energy of self-disciplined, aggressive action" in the Moore-Gillette formulation) and Lover ("the energy that connects men to others and the world"). Then the man turned and explained enthusiastically to a reporter that he had improved since his Lover days, when he "had 14 relationships going. Now I've sent my Warrior down to set boundaries, and I'm happier. Of course, I'm not getting laid as much."

What About Black Men? Only a few black men attended recent meetings of the Washington council, and Bly and other leaders are so concerned about the absence of blacks in the movement generally that they've started a "scholarship fund," setting aside a portion of the often considerable proceeds of meetings (today's gate may be in the $100,000 range) for this purpose. Craver has teamed with the Rev. Calvin Morris, professor of pastoral theology at Howard University School of Divinity, to put on a "Weaving the Male Soul" weekend here in March, which is expected to be attended by both blacks and whites.

And in May, a week-long retreat is being planned for the Washington area in which half of the teachers and participants are supposed to be black and half white. Bly, Meade and Hillman will teach, "but we haven't got the black teachers yet," admits Neil Froemming, an Arlington computer specialist who has branched out into mythopoetic drumming and storytelling in his spare time.

There are several ironies at work in all this. One, as Froemming points out, is that "black men are ahead of whites in mentoring youths in schools." Another is that African drumming and stories have become key parts of a white movement. Froemming himself just returned from a visit to West Africa to study these traditions, and in a recent meeting of the Washington council accompanied himself on the drum as he recounted a powerful Bantu legend about murderous soul-fighting between a young man and his father. Honnold learned to dance and drum as a graduate student observing initiation ceremonies in African villages.

Morris, the Howard professor, says that "father hunger" is a common theme for both black and white men, but that a wide gap remains between the two groups. "I'm not terribly comfortable with a lot of the terms," he says. "I'm not sure what they mean -- the Warrior, and the Wild Man." In a small retreat he conducted with Craver, he says, "I used black poetry and prose and things out of African literature, but Bly and those guys don't do that enough. The movement needs to be more inclusive if it's not to be a lilly-white, segregated experience."

At one point, he says, a white movement leader shared an article with him about "Glory," the movie. "He was really excited about it, how the essayist looked at 'Glory' from some of these mythopoetic viewpoints. I was not as excited, and he said, 'Why?' And I said, 'What the guy does is focus 98 percent of the article on Colonel Shaw, who is the white commander of the black regiment. He didn't deal with the courage and dynamism and perseverance of the black soldiers.' For me, that was too narrow."

Charles Herring, founder of the Black Men's Health Project in New Jersey, puts it more starkly. Although his "Afro-American Males at Risk" seminar is listed in Wingspan, Herring says he's never heard of the mythopoetic men's movement. "We're dealing with real issues," he says, "like education, health, employment and the criminal justice system."

The Feminist Critique Mystic brotherhoods with elaborate initiations have long held a fascination for American men. W.S. Harwood, writing in the North American Review in 1987, estimated that as many as one in five men belonged to at least one of the nation's 70,000 fraternal lodges, such as the Odd Fellows, Freemasons and Knights of Pythias. They felt, he wrote, a "strange and powerful attraction" to the ritual. In his recent book, "Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America" (Yale), Mark C. Carnes notes that this movement was primarily an urban middle-class phenomenon.

Most of those fraternities died out as America moved into the Depression and war in the '30s and '40s. As the iron grip of the patriarchal system came under siege from the feminist movement in the '60s, the men's movements that arose in support of feminism (still in business as the National Organization of Men Against Sexism, or NOMAS) and as a backlash to it (various men's and fathers' rights groups) were different -- men banded together in support of a cause, not primarily to enjoy ritual and one another's friendship.

One starting point of today's mythopoetic movement was Bly's realization in the early '80s, after a decade of studying and teaching ancient matriarchal literature -- "the Goddess thing and the Great Mother," as he puts it -- that his personal quest had less to do with women than with his hunger for a bonding he'd never had with his alcoholic father. After seeking out his father during the man's last years, Bly felt happier and began sharing his new theories on the lecture circuit. He struck a chord: Others had felt the same.

Many women have a lot to gain, according to Honnold, if their men can break away from all-too-typical patterns of alternating passivity and rage through "nurturing associations" with other men. "The vitality and enthusiasm for life that they experience increases their capacity for love with their wives and families," he says. "A man in touch with his own grief, and also with his exuberance, can be a more compassionate and loving man."

Theoretically, perhaps. But many women react with mild puzzlement, suspicion or shock. "Oh God, sick," says Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" helped launch the feminist movement. "If I've ever heard a demonstration of threatened macho -- this Wild Man thing -- I mean, honestly. I'd hoped by now that men were strong enough to accept their vulnerability and to be authentic without aping Neanderthal cavemen." And Carol Bly, Robert's ex-wife, told the Utne Reader that she considers the movement "frightening. The goal of invoking 'exhilaration' through regressive behavior isn't what's needed."

Jean O'Barr, director of women's studies at Duke University, is skeptical of the mythopoetic approach, calling it intellectually "weak because the power analysis is missing" and men still largely run the world. On the other hand, Molly Yard of the National Organization for Women says that "men reaching for community" in this way "is probably a good thing as long as they're a support group for one another and not hurting women."

Women professionals who counsel men tend to be more positive. "This Wild Man and Warrior stuff, I think it needs to be done," says Ruth Meaders, a psychotherapist at the Austin Men's Center in Texas. "It's a hell of a lot better than beating your wife or kicking your kids. That men are bonding with other men in a nonsexual way, instead of looking to women to complete them emotionally, is very healthy. It's opening up the anima in men, making them more approachable, more human, more honest."

Anima is the Jungian term for the feminine side of the male psyche, and Bly says male flowering includes nurturing it. In his theory, the final stage of male development (after bonding and breaking with mother, father and mentor in that order) is "marriage with the interior Queen. To marry the Queen you have to be a King. To be a King means you're not accepting other people's opinions any more as to how you should run your own life."

Bly's daughters, he says, insisted on vetting his "Iron John" manuscript, and that he write, as he did in the preface, that his book "does not constitute a challenge to the women's movement. The two movements are related to each other, but each moves on a separate timetable." (According to Wingspan editor Harding, there's a "gender reconciliation movement" afoot, mainly in California, but so far the results aren't in.)

How, exactly, they relate remains a mystery that Bly doesn't explain, but Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York and spokesman for NOMAS, thinks "the mythopoetic movement has everything to do with women and feminism. It's a retreat from strong, powerful, assertive women. Many men at these gatherings that I've spoken to suggest that a significant amount of anger is expressed at mothers and ex-wives."

In Kimmel's view, Bly is right when he says that men feel powerless on an individual level, and that their feelings can lead to rage and violence against women. "But we don't want," he says, "to support each other in how valid is our anger against women. We need to work it out in a context that says the anger is inappropriate, not that it's appropriate." Bly, for his part, says this is what the mythopoetic movement does.

NOMAS co-chair Jack Straton, a physics professor at California State University, recalls attending a Bly workshop in Washington a few years ago and being disturbed that, among other things, "there was no mention that a considerable number of us are gay. ... And at one point Bly was saying that women criticize men for being too aggressive, but that 30,000 years ago if men hadn't been aggressive against lions, there wouldn't be any women today. And the entire room of 500 men roared like lions at that point. It scared the hell out of me. I sat there with my jaw open."

Another self-described "feminist man," Robert C. Brannon, professor of social psychology and director of the Center for Sex Role Research at Brooklyn College, says he was concerned at first about the apparent "nuttiness" of the mythopoetic movement, then surprised when it caught on big, but finally decided that it's "harmless as long as they're not buying into separatism. It's a matter of taste and style -- our movement is more of a politically correct, lefty type atmosphere where people want to eat vegetarian."

Seriously, though, Brannon objects to this "soft male" stuff.

"I mean, the guy's a poet -- what's so tough about him? We have the guts to stand up and oppose male privilege and power, so who are we calling 'soft,' and why?"

Into the Woods He loved me; from a swarm of rosy boys

Singled me out, as he in sport would say,

For my grave looks, too thoughtful for my years.

As I grew up, it was my best delight

To be his chosen comrade. Many a time

On holidays, we wandered through the woods... .

-- Wordsworth, "The Excursion"

Bly quotes Wordsworth's tender memory of an old man who befriended him to underscore his point that, nowadays, "Grandfathers live in Phoenix or the old people's home," as he writes in "Iron John," "and many boys experience only the companionship of other boys their age who, from the point of view of the old initiators, know nothing at all."

In men's gatherings like today's, he says, "nothing happens unless there's some older men there. Nothing happens if there's just one or two generations." Typically, at some point during these gatherings, the older men are called forward to be applauded and honored.

"There's father hunger and grandfather hunger," Bly observes over his bacon and eggs, "and the grandfather hunger is so deep that we will even hire a total fake like Reagan because he looks like a grandfather. Actually, he's a regressed child."

As for his own father, "I was 55 years old and my father was in an old people's home before I bonded with him," he says. "He was off the bottle then, and I went to see him. ... Initiation was a little slow with us, wouldn't you say?"

The old boy is really getting going now, you might say. Good night's sleep. Full belly. "Often in our culture a bonding with the father begins in adolescence and then often is broken," he says. "In traditional cultures, adolescence is where the father teaches his son a craft. The son gets tuned to the frequencies of the adult male body. For thousands of years, our father was an incompetent arrowhead maker, and we sit with him watching him ruin all these arrowheads. Heh heh heh! He's taking a long time, then he finally gets one done! And all that time we're learning what it's like.

"But that's not happening today. In our culture, adolescence is where we decide our father is crazy and there's a big break. And we go into our work life and it stagnates for 20 years or so, and then at 48 or 50 the man begins to realize he doesn't know his father. I don't know how many men have said to me, 'My father's on his deathbed and I want him to tell me that he loves me.' And we have to say, 'It's very likely that you're not going to receive that... .' "

But you can always go out and roar in the woods.

Bly says: "Guy stood up in Colorado the other day and he said, 'I'm having a hard time with my wife' or 'my girlfriend' or something like that, 'and I'm 48 years old and I'm always getting put down. And, well, I went out in the forest a week ago and took off all my clothes and started to roar, I was going to look for a mountain lion and kill him.' "

He laughs again.

Continues: "Well, he never found a mountain lion, but something happened there when he took off his clothes and roared, and then the men clapped and men came up and hugged him. That Wild Man that Christianity and Judaism had tried to kill came out in that kind of form. It sounds silly. It wasn't silly. He broke through a whole lot of negative software by doing that.

"What's amazing about it is the men come up to him and say, 'That was fantastic what you did.' They'll support him. They don't shame him."