In search of the Missing Father

Robert Bly – Poet, Essayist, and Activist

Modern civilization is more cruel to men than women – not from a misogynistic point of view. This is a recurring theme of the poetry of Robert Bly who is also an activist and a therapist.

In the days of yore when there was no formal schooling, knowledge passed down in oral tradition either from the father or from a father figure. Along with knowledge one important thing that passed down was – manhood. A father figure was responsible to convert the boy to man. A mother or a motherly figure cannot do this.

In some ancient traditions still they do this. After a certain age the boy is forcefully taken away from the mother and kept surrounded by men for months. When the transformation happens he is brought back to live in his family.

These days fathers rarely talk to their sons. Back from office the father is too tired to take interest in the affairs of the son. The son is too busy with his friends and his toys to show any interest in communicating to his father unless he needs a new toy. Of course the mother- son relation has still continued over the years. But the mother cannot convert the boy to a man.

In contrast, girls don’t face the same problem. They are not cut off from the line of communication from their mothers, or motherly figures. Mothers are in regular conversation with both their sons and daughters. But, the modern father remains an elusive figure. He does not spend the quality time necessary to convert the boy to a man. In school his teachers are not interested in transmitting anything other than the impersonal knowledge which is part of the school curriculum.

Another distinction that Robert Bly makes between the maturity of men and women is that while women must come to term with pain to be mature in their being, men must experience grief and come to terms with it.

Thus according to Bly, the breakdown of ancient societies has been devastating to the male sapiens. Mothers have tried to substitute for the absence of the father figure with a result that men are becoming softer and losing the capacity to lead the society.

In contrast, the female of the species does not have this disadvantage in modern age. First of all nature itself provides the opportunity to women to be aware of their bodies during their menstrual cycle. Unlike men, women don’t behave like the absent mothers even though many of them may be working mothers these days.

American poet Robert Bly was born in 1926 and as of date he is one of the few surviving poets of that age. In his lengthy career as a poet, translator and essayist he has authored more than fifty books. His book Iron John : a book about men was a New York Times bestseller.

He is one of the leading poets who popularised Rumi, Hafiz, Kabir, and Mira in the west. Not satisfied with the available translations of Rumi, he inspired Coleman Barks to do justice in translating Rumi. The translations of Coleman Barks are considered the most authentic ones among many versions of Rumi available in English.

Apart from popularising Kabir and Meera to the western audiences, Robert Bly’s Indian poetic connection is derived from his support to the Hungrialists of Bengal who were facing prosecution for their anti government stances. He was also a vocal opponent of Americas’ war in Vietnam and mobilised artists and poets for the protests.

Robert Bly’s love of persian poetry goes beyond his translations and essays. He has himself written a lot of poems in the Ghazal format like the following one:

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars 

Do you remember the night Abraham first saw
The stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!"
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,

( read the full poem in author's official site)

What impressed me the most after listening to his talks and going through some of his poems are his attempts to demystify the mystic elements of poetry and give a new meaning to the fairy tales, thus making both the mystic poems of the east and the age old fairy tales of the west more relevant to the new generation.

Here is another of his talks that I found interesting:

This is the fourth in my series of posts about poets and poems. Here are the previous posts of the series:

10 thoughts on “In search of the Missing Father

  1. It is such a treasure trove on Bly! It is a post I will need to return for the links. Your observation on the ‘missing father’ puts its finger on the core of the malaise that has altered the psyche of humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article, the kids these days are however growing up in the absence of both the father and the mother, who are too busy with their jobs. We dont know if this makes these kids weak, emotionally soft and unlike leaders, the good ones always find a way, but what we know is that they must be more disoriented due to the lack of parental presence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think this is the age of women. After being ill treated for many years, after being denied equality and rights, women are getting access to power. Obviously, if balance of power shifts, one group or other will feel slighted. I think for a balanced society, both men and women have to be treated equally, not as one superior to another. What the poet said is true. But it is not that all fathers do not talk to their sons. In the west I have seen father take son/s to baseball and soccer games. They go out fishing. After attaining puberty, father advices son on the imminent change he is likely to feel. May be not all fathers do it, but they still do.

    Liked by 1 person

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