In his inaugural address, Barack Obama declared, “The time has come to set aside childish things.” In fact, according to the great American poet and social critic Robert Bly, that time arrived quite a while back.
In his 1996 book The Sibling Society, Bly noted that the traditional concept of initiation into adulthood, in which young people are tutored by elders who impart whatever wisdom they have accumulated throughout the years, has broken down. He suggested we have entered a state of perpetual adolescence, in which the culture is dominated by stubborn self-centeredness.
Since he wrote those words, a disheartening number of national leaders have come to embody the immaturity Bly described. First up was the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. That embarrassment was followed by eight long years of the Bush administration, which history will likely record as the tale of a boy-leader who looked for fatherly guidance in all the wrong places.
Most recently, the titans of world finance have been exposed as functional adolescents who engaged in ridiculously risky behavior. Where, one wonders, were the adults-the veteran bankers and brokers who had experienced enough ups and downs to realize the bubble would eventually burst?
“We’ve seen a lot of boyish behavior, that’s for sure,” Bly said in a telephone interview from his Minnesota home. “There has always been a tremendous longing for boyishness in the United States. When that enters into finance, it’s not good news.”
Bly is best known for his 1990 bestseller Iron John, his myth-based attempt to forge a new type of masculinity, one stripped of the dubious privileges of patriarchy and forged in the strength that comes with emotional awareness. But the bulk of his creative life has been devoted to poetry: writing it, performing it, and sharing the joy he receives from reading the verse of writers he admires.
On April 23, Bly will be joined by sitarist David Whetstone and tabla percussionist Marcus Wise for a reading and performance at the Granada Theatre. Proceeds will benefit Mankind Project Santa Barbara, Boys to Men Central California Coast, and Domestic Violence Solutions of Santa Barbara County.
Expect about half the evening to feature Bly’s poetry, including some selections from his just-completed collection Wanting Sumptuous Heavens. The other half will include readings of the ancient, ecstatic poetry of Hafez and Rumi.
Like a jazz musician, Bly has no set lineup, but rather picks pieces depending upon how he feels in the moment. The results can be amazingly intense: The Arlington Theatre program he led with John Densmore of The Doors a decade or so ago remains alive in the minds of many.
In conversation, Bly takes something of a bemused tone; he is gracious and affable, even when puncturing false hopes. He expressed pleasure at the election of Obama, observing, “He’s quite adult himself, so I think it’s very good news that he is president. He has handled himself very well so far.”
But Bly hasn’t gotten overly optimistic in his old age. Far from it.
“One can’t hope for too much, because so much has already collapsed,” he said. “So many organs of intelligence in the United States are disappearing. Newspapers are going down pretty fast. Universities are being dumbed down. Chances are poverty is going to increase around the globe and culture is going to decline. It’s not a good picture. It’s always good to imagine the worst is going to happen,” he added. “That means you won’t be too surprised. You won’t be like a boy, waiting for goodies. You’ll be more like a man, trying to recover after a war.”
Robert Bly will read at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Thursday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.