Nostalgic, annoyed, sniffy, delighted, whatever

AIRMAIL, The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer,
edited by Thomas R.Smith, (475pp, 15, Bloodaxe)

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Some poems are included, where especially relevant to detailed to-and-fro of letters, some previously unpublished, but for most poems reference is made to published collections.

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 unanswered.

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 is.'

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:

      I see lots of people translating and studying Charles Olson
     now. It's part of the widespread suicidal impulse visible in all
     parts of the world at present. It's like parsing Latin, also,
     remarkably good for penance! There isn't much in the [Donald]
     Allen anthology except Gary Snyder, Robert Creely, and Denise
     Levertov, Those three are genuine. Ginsberg is very intelligent,
     but 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,
     called Poetic Modernism
, which goes through the most important
     poets from Baudelaire to Eugen Gomringer. One chapter is
     entitled "Young America" and includes the names John Berryman
     ("Who 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,
     Snyder, 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 - - looks in an interesting way at Thomas Transtromer's life and writing since his stroke.

        David Hart 2013