He had dementia, said his daughter, Mary Bly.
In a literary career that spanned more than a half-century, Mr. Bly produced hundreds if not thousands of poems, elevated the works of other poets through his masterly translations and emerged as a prominent public intellectual with prose works examining contemporary society.
To the men in the 1990s who attended sylvan retreats where he led them in search of the primitive beings within their softer socialized selves, Mr. Bly was a guru, although he expressed discomfort with such a moniker. To admirers who flocked to readings where the white-maned poet also played a bouzouki, he was a bard of irresistible charisma. Even People magazine, not ordinarily known for its emphasis on modern poetry, included Mr. Bly in a ranking of the “most intriguing” persons of 1991. (His book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” had been released the previous year.)
“It is superfluous to say that Bly is one of the legends of contemporary poetry, which never got over its bewilderment at producing him,” writer David Biespiel observed in the New York Times in 2018. “Reasonably or not, he remains the prototypical non-modernist, the one who set in motion a poetics of intensity for generations to come.”
Mr. Bly was inextricably linked with Minnesota, where he grew up in a Norwegian farming community, and where he lived and wrote for much of his life. The setting provided unending inspiration for his art, but Mr. Bly did not live a secluded life; he was deeply engaged with society from the start.
Mr. Bly was a co-founder of the group American Writers Against the Vietnam War. When he received a 1968 National Book Award for his second poetry collection, “The Light Around the Body,” Mr. Bly gave the prize money to the cause of assisting draft resisters.
In his 1967 poem “Driving through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings,” Mr. Bly presents a speaker who, motoring between placid lakes, encounters turkeys presumably awaiting slaughter.
How long the seconds are in great pain!, the image prompts the speaker to exclaim.
Terror just before death,
Shoulders torn, shot
From helicopters. “I saw the boy
being tortured with a telephone generator,”
The sergeant said.
“I felt sorry for him
And blew his head off with a shotgun.”
Mr. Bly continued writing prolifically through the 1970s and 1980s and reached the peak of his fame with “Iron John.” (The title alludes to a Brothers Grimm story about a seemingly savage man discovered at the bottom of a lake.)
Calling upon ancient religions, mythology, fairy tales and psychology, Mr. Bly argued that modernity had weakened men’s constitutions, diminished their self-worth and left them unable to impart strength on one another and especially on their sons. He traced the problem to the Industrial Revolution, which had removed fathers from the home to the workplace.
“The primary experience of the American man is to be inadequate,” Mr. Bly said in an interview with television journalist Bill Moyers.
In his writings and retreats, Mr. Bly invited men to acknowledge the grief they felt over their state and to partake in rites of initiation to bolster their psyche. He was often described as having led a men’s movement, a notion that at times attracted the ire if not laughter of adherents to the women’s movement.
“The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous,” Mr. Bly told the Paris Review in 2000, noting that in reality attendees took a “deep interest in poetry and mythology.”
“I think the men’s seminars were not threatening to the women’s movement at all,” he insisted, often emphasizing that his purpose was in no way to return to chauvinistic or misogynistic models of the past. “A lot of the critics of ‘Iron John’ missed the point.”
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has extensively explored male-female interactions, was among those scholars who saw profound value in Mr. Bly’s work.
“The growth of the men’s movement is testimony that Bly has struck a resonant chord,” she wrote in The Washington Post, reviewing “Iron John.” “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.”
Tannen concluded, “This rewarding book is an invaluable contribution to the gathering public conversation about what it means to be male — or female.”
Robert Elwood Bly was born Dec. 23, 1926, on his family’s farm in Lac qui Parle County, in western Minnesota near the South Dakota border. His father was an alcoholic who, by Mr. Bly’s account, “really preferred a bottle to us.” The poet would later said that if his work in any way strengthened the bond between fathers and sons, this was his greatest accomplishment.
Many of Mr. Bly’s neighbors had immigrated from Norway, a country he would later visit as a Fulbright scholar translating of Norwegian poetry. He also translated the works poets Pablo Neruda of Chile and Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden, both Nobel laureates, and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.
Mr. Bly enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II, a decision that proved formative when he encountered a fellow serviceman who wrote poetry.
“During a class on radar, he wrote a poem as I watched,” Mr. Bly wrote in a reflection published in the Times in 1984. “I had somehow never understood that poems were written by human beings, and I still remember that moment with delight.”
After his Navy service, Mr. Bly enrolled at Harvard University, where his contemporaries included John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Adrienne Rich (a student at Radcliffe), and where Mr. Bly graduated in 1950. He was reading a poem by Yeats, he recalled, when he “decided to write poetry the rest of my life.”
Mr. Bly later studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and settled in Minnesota. His first book of poems, “Silence in the Snowy Fields,” appeared in 1962.
His later poetry collections included “Sleepers Joining Hands” (1973), “This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years” (1979), “The Man in the Black Coat Turns” (1981), “Morning Poems” (1997), “The Urge to Travel Long Distances” (2005), “Stealing Sugar From the Castle” (2013) and “Collected Poems” (2018).
Besides “Iron John,” his most noted prose works included “The Sibling Society” (1996), a critique of modern American society in which people — himself included, he confessed — often pursued instant gratification over loftier ends.
“What I’m saying is that once we dismantled the patriarchy and paternalism, we didn’t get a matriarchy,” he told the Times, “we got a culture run by adolescents.”
Mr. Bly’s first marriage, to Carol McLean, ended in divorce. In 1980, he married the former Ruth Counsell.
In addition to his wife, of Minneapolis, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Mary Bly of New York City, Bridget Bly of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Noah Bly and Micah Bly, both of Minneapolis; a stepdaughter, Wesley Dutta of Los Angeles; and nine grandchildren. A stepson, Samuel Ray, died in 1984.
For years, Mr. Bly would pen at least one poem every morning before rising from his bed.
“If prepared right,” Mr. Bly wrote in the Times, “a poem can keep an image or a thought or insights on history or the psyche alive for years, as well as our desires and airy impulses.”
In one of those poems, “Prayer for My Father,” the ending does not foreclose any possibility of redemption. Mr. Bly writes:
If I am not
with you when you die,
that is just.
It is all right.
That part of you cleaned
my bones more
than once. But I
will meet you
in the young hawk
whom I see
you and me; he
you to the Lord of Night,
who will give you
you wanted here.