Robert Bly was born in Madison, a town in rural Minnesota, where he has lived most of his life. He was educated at St Olaf's College and at Harvard, thereafter enrolling in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. From 1944 to 1946, Bly served in the Navy. In addition to his poetry, he has done a number of translations, including poetry by Neruda, Vallejo, and Rilke, and edited a continuing journal renamed after each decade——The Fifties, The Sixties, etc. He organized antiwar poetry readings during the Vietnam War. A broadside version (without copyright notice) of his “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” printed by the Palo Alto, California, Free Poetry Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, was widely distributed at the time. Bly often read the poem in a grotesque rubber mask of an ancient, mad crone. In recent years he has been a leading figure in the men's movement, for which he has written successful manifestos, including the widely read Iron John (1992).
Influences on his poetry include the poets he has translated and the seventeenth-century mystic Jakob Boehme. He believes scientific rationalism has led us astray. Bly seeks deep images drawn from the unconscious and deploys them in relatively simple structures, believing that such subconscious or unconscious revelations can resist the dominant Cartesian logic of the Western world.