This great package of a book, whatever else,
and I suppose to Transtromer (b.1931) and Bly (b.1926) unawares over the
years, is a significant primer of translation as well as, for us now,
something of a commentary on decades of poetry in the wider culture - and
politics. From 1964 to 1990, Transtromer in Sweden, Bly in the United States,
exchanged letters and poems, became aquainted with each other's families,
developed separately, and tested on each other, their own poetic art.
Transtromer was awaded the Nobel Prize in 2011. In 1990 he had been severely
incapacitated by a stroke, this book stops then, does not document his
further life or poetry - and there is a further, courageous, making of poems
and piano playing with one hand only). And though we know him, as one might
say, as a professional poet, his working life had been also that of a prison
psychiatrist. Bly has been poet from start to finish, on the road and working
in the academies.
Some poems are included, where especially relevant to detailed to-and-fro of
letters, some previously unpublished, but for most poems reference is made to
Although the foremost translator of Transtromer has been Robin Fulton, it
isn't clear from these letters how this came about; I am not qualified to
judge, except by preference; Bly in a letter of March 1985 asks for
Transtromer's view, suggesting he (Fulton) "is very inattentive to
sound, and almsot all the music and grandeur of the train poem is gone,"
and asks for his friend's view which, unless I've overlooked it, goes
It is appropriate to speak by then of their 'friendship'; this is the tenor
of the book. It is notable also that Transtromer wrote most of these letters
in English and that, while he does have Swedish, Bly responds in English;
there is a preceding Swedish edition, edited by Torbjörn Schmidt.
When he was in Birmingham reading in October 1988, Transtromer signed my copy
of his 'Collected Poems' (translated Fulton) and also corrected (wrote it in)
a word of his poem 'Nocturne', from 'dogs' to 'vehicles' - as it became in
the further edition. A legitimate mistake, I dare say. He did say either from
the platform or to me (my note later) that 'the Bly translations of his work
are perhaps more expansive than he is and the Fulton rather plainer than he
There is a fullness of to and fro in the letters, of alert minds, very good
to read; my sense of their presence through letter-writing is that
Transtromer, always alert, is the more conversational, easy-going, while Bly
is the more self-conscious correspondent, a maker of phrases. And I see from
the way I am writing this review, my attention has been mostly with
Transtromer. But it is essentially a book of equals, and Bly's output over
many years has been notable.
Very occasionally the book has dot-dot-dot marking part of a letter kept
secret. Mostly, while the continuity of 'How is the family?', 'How was the
journey?' and so on can seem repetitive and not of itself interesting,
context - their own lives and the wider culture - is what makes this a
distinctively original sharing, between them and now us.
The correspondence is never less that cheerfully informal. There may be this
or that happening in one of the other's lives, but their relaxed welcoming of
eachother is maintained throughout. There are instances when Bly sends a
tentative translation of a Transtromer poem, the latter responding with warm
thanks, says something like 'Excellent!', then picks it apart.
I recall hearing Robert Bly lecture in Clifton Cathedral many years ago, with
Kathleen Raine - she was pessimsitic then about culture and society, Bly was
not - and there is this strand in Bly's practice, including his 'Iron John'
book, of social mission and the broadly (not church-based) 'spiritual' more
overtly than anything in Transtromer, though you could feel Transtromer has
it distinctively without making a point of it inside or outside of his poems.
Bly in these letters is in touch with other American poets and the poetry
scene there, whereas there seem few poets in Sweden to make a network or set
of groupings of them. Anyway, Transtromer had a demanding day job. Here is
Bly writing in May 1964:
lots of people translating and studying Charles Olson
part of the widespread suicidal impulse visible in all
parts of the
world at present. It's like parsing Latin, also,
good for penance! There isn't much in the [Donald]
anthology except Gary Snyder, Robert Creely, and Denise
Those three are genuine. Ginsberg is very intelligent,
considerably less a poet than someone like Snyder.
And so on. In early 1967, Transtromer wrote,
I've gotten a
book, very well known in Denmark, by Poul Borum,
goes through the most important
Baudelaire to Eugen Gomringer. One chapter is
"Young America" and includes the names John Berryman
for heaven's sake must not be confused with the frightful
women's-magazine poet John Betjeman"), Lowell (his For the
Union Dead is
explained as being "somewhat weaker"), Plath,
Ashbery, Levertov, Creeley and Bly."
So, according to when you came in, as reader you can get nostalgic, annoyed,
sniffy, delighted, whatever. Any quotation from the book tips its balance one
way or another; it is richer than anything that might be extracted from it,
and as the years pass both poets become more relaxed, they know each other
now in a leisurely way via letters and from meeting each other's families.
Some comments might make you answer back. For instance, also in February
1967, Bly comes out with this bit of dogma, "Believe me, Susan Sontag is
the greatest bore in the world." He opens this up to further comment and
this is how the book is: letters can follow through but their authors are not
planning 400-plus pages.
And there are incidents and 'conversation' outside of the immediate making of
poems. In December 1987 Transtromer writes that he had been on a train in
Poland (was visiting the University of Warsaw) and when getting off was
robbed clinically by two men of all his money, when he had thought he had
been helping them get by in the squeeze getting off the train. Bly responds,
'I have been writing an essay on the naive male...'.
Somewhere Transtromer says he has lost a letter (not from Bly, a letter put
away somewhere in his house), and there is comment about sending letters by
ship or, more expensively, by air; I suppose books - no, not books but web
sites - will be the equivalent before long (or already now) of such a book: a
collection not published, if a book at all, as AIRMAIL but EMAIL. A much
quicker turnaround of correspondence possible, perhaps a different kind of
poem-making - I mean distinctive in a different way of representing who we
are to each other
A web site - http://www.neuropenews.org/?p=1710 - looks in an interesting way
at Thomas Transtromer's life and writing since his stroke.
© David Hart 2013