The illuminating letters of the National Book Award winning poet Robert Bly and the Nobel Prize winning poet Tomas Tranströmer
One day in spring 1964, the young American poet Robert Bly left his rural farmhouse and drove 150 miles to the University of Minnesota library in Minneapolis to obtain the latest book by the young Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. When Bly returned home that evening with a copy of Tranströmer's The Half-Finished Heaven, he found a letter waiting for him from its author.
With this remarkable coincidence as its beginning, what followed was a vibrant correspondence between two poets who would become essential contributors to global literature. Airmail collects more than 290 letters, written from 1964 until 1990, when Tranströmer suffered a stroke that has left him partially paralyzed and diminished his capacity to write.
Across their correspondence, the two poets are profoundly engaged with each other and with the larger world: the Vietnam War, European and American elections, and the struggles of affording a life as a writer. Airmail also illuminates the work of translation as Bly began to render Tranströmer's poetry into English and Tranströmer began to translate Bly's poetry into Swedish. Their collaboration quickly turned into a friendship that has lasted fifty years.
Insightful, brilliant, and often funny, Airmail provides a rare portrait of two artists who have become integral to each other's particular genius. This publication marks the first time letters by Bly and Tranströmer have been made available in the United States.
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About the Author
Robert Bly received the 1968 National Book Award in poetry. Tomas Tranströmer received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. They have been friends for fifty years. Graywolf Press published The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, selected and translated by Robert Bly.
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By Robert Bly, Tomas Tranströmer, Thomas R. Smith
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2013 Robert Bly
All rights reserved.
April 6, 1964
Dear Herr Tranströmer,
We are sending you Vallejo and Lion's Tail & Eyes under separate cover — and we'll send Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History as published.
No, The Sixties magazine is not dead. (It will never die.) #6 is the most recent issue, though. Our printer in Ireland says he will have #7 to our subscribers in about 3 weeks.
Thanks again for all your orders with us.
Yours sincerely, C. Bly
[on same page]
Dear Mr. Tranströmer,
The air rate was so ungodly high we sent The Sixties by boat, as we did these. I have been enjoying your poems. Just before your first note came by accident, I went to the Univ of Minn library to get your Halvfärdiga himlen. Jim Wright showed me your letter mentioning that you had translated a couple of his poems. That was very kind, and you chose excellent poems. I do read Swedish, and if you'd like to send a copy of the translations to me — I'd love to see them in the first place, and will check them for any mistakes that have crept in, in the second.
Our address from April 20th to August 20th will be
Robert Bly Mill End Thaxted Essex, England.
I'm going to send you from England a translation of your "Paret," which I did a few weeks ago.
Best wishes, Robert Bly
15 May, '64
Dear Tomas Tranströmer,
Thank you for your letter, and for the translations! I must say I think the translations are excellent. I have no suggestions whatever. You have two of the best poems of J. Wright's book in the Eisenhower poem, and the "I dag var jag so lycklig, etc." Another one I think is awfully good is "The Undermining of the Defense Economy."
As for my own book, my favorite there is "Snöfall på eftermiddagen"!
I am very surprised at how natural the lines sound in Swedish, at least in your Swedish.
I hope that we can meet sometime this summer, fall, or winter. I will be here (in Europe) for a year all told. Until July or August, in England, then perhaps 3 months in Norway followed by three or four months in France. Surely sometime during the time in Norway I will skip over the border! For your part, if you plan to be in England or elsewhere, you are very welcome at our house (wherever it may happen to be!)
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 the present. It's like parsing Latin, also, remarkably good for penance! There isn't much in the Allen anthology except Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. Those three are genuine. Ginsberg is very intelligent, but considerably less a poet than someone like Snyder. The rest of the people are nightmarish. The Allen anthology, by the way, is the one J. Wright had in mind — he had been asked to review it — in the poem on page 36 of the Branch, "Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, etc."
Here follows a version of your poem "Paret." You may find all sorts of mistakes here. The phrase "Sedan lyftas" I am most unsure about.
They snap the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Now a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into the heavenly darkness.
Their love movements grow softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts go on meeting
like two colors that meet and run together
on the white paper in a schoolboy's watercolor.
It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
in the night. With its closed off windows. Houses arrive.
They stand in crowded expectation considerably nearer,
a mob of people with expressionless faces.
All good wishes — Robert Bly
Dear Robert Bly,
good to hear that you approve my translations! Still better that you are to visit Norway-Sweden fairly soon. Thinking about your visit, I was suddenly filled with enthusiasm. We have a large house by Swedish standards (5 rooms, bungalow) and you are welcome to stay with us. The summer will be difficult — we are expecting a baby in July and have one child already, my wife has been ill and we will have to hire some sort of help during the first months — but by September things ought to be normal again and a guest room should then be available. We are in the country here, though the situation is somewhat special — in point of fact, it's a prison. I work as a psychologist in a facility for disturbed criminal youth, and the bungalow comes with the position. Don't be alarmed/ frightened! Visitors generally think it an idyllic setting. It is located right outside Linköping, 22 Swedish miles south of Stockholm, near the main road between Malmö and Stockholm. A convenient place to spend the night when driving from Stockholm to Malmö or vice versa. Or you can take the train and get off at Linköping, and I can pick you up at the station. So you'll be able to recognize me, I will be wearing a green tail-coat, a false beard, and a straw hat, and reading Nixon's autobiography. Or perhaps some simpler arrangement could be found.
[Editor's note: The rest of this letter is missing.]
25 Aug, 64
Dear Tomas Tranströmer,
I would like some advice from you. I have been thinking of doing a little book for the Sixties Press called "Twenty Swedish Poems." This is roughly my plan so far:
Pär Lagerkvist — "In i mitt hjärtas blodiga hamn"
Karin Boye — Stenarna (Gud hade givit oss tunga själar av sten)
Harry Martinson: — Havsvinden
perhaps one more
Gunnar Ekelöf — Tionfo della Morte (Tre riddare stego ut)
Monolog med dess hustru
(Tag två extra gamla, etc.)
Etudes (I) (Natt och stiltje)
Etudes (III) (En varld ar varje manniska)
Svanen (I) (Jag hörde vildgässs over sujkhuset)
perhaps also an early one such as "blommorna sover"
Artur Lundkvist — from Freud
Eric Lindegren — Mannen Uten Vag #XXIX (I have doubts
I dislike Lindegren)
Karl Vennberg — We have all done our best
Werner Aspenström — På kyrkogården
Tomas Tranströmer — Paret
Now I would like to have you just comment on this list. Where are the holes? Have I left out anyone extremely important or good? Do you think Lindegren should be included at all? Do you have any suggestions for the third Martinson poem I might include, or the second Aspenstrom? How about the younger ones? Is Eddegren good? I have never read a poem of his, but I hear him mentioned often. I'm most interested to see what you'll say about this plan!
Thank you very much for your last good letter, and forgive my long delay in answering it! Somehow I thought I had already answered it, and was astonished to see it still about. I'm bad on answering anyway. I finally wrote a little poem on it.
Strips of August sun come in through shutters. Baskets of unanswered letters lie on chairs. Some foolish man must live here.
Has your new daughter come yet?!! Or son! We have two small daughters, one Mary, about 2½ (there is a poem about her in Jim Wright's book) and a new one, Bridget, about 1¼. Do tell me how it all turned out! I will definitely come to see you some time this year. We'll be here another month, and then we go either to Paris for three months, or Oslo for three months (we'll go both places, but the order isn't decided yet). So I do want to know when you will be leaving for the United States. How long will you be in that strange Goldwater-ridden nation? Is your family going along?
There is not much to say about James Wright. As he said on the dust jacket of his Saint Judas, he has led a "bookish, uneventful" life. Of course that's a lie, but anyway. He was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, a steel-plant area, not far from where W. S. Merwin, Kenneth Patchen, and Jonathan Winters (our best comic for thirty years) was born. He makes his living as an English teacher (particularly of Dickens) in the colleges and universities, and absolutely refuses to teach any "creative writing" or poetry writing courses. He has refused several offers of "poet in residence" positions, when it involved such teaching; always to the astonishment of the department heads. He is married, and now divorced, with two sons. He has a wild streak in him that makes him a very ambiguous, even frightening, figure in the eyes of the academics. The reason for that uneasiness in their eyes is this: he went to Kenyon College (where John Crowe Ransom was) on a scholarship, and thereby escaped from the steelmill town. Later he took a Ph.D. at the University of Washington where Theodore Roethke was. He began writing poems in the accepted, iambic, traditional manner, which was everywhere in the 1950's, and by many such people was considered the very best in the country in this traditional sort of poetry. Suddenly he renounced the whole thing, and began to write an utterly different sort of poetry, made of mingled streams of savagery and tranquillity. This upset the academic poets considerably, and they still haven't recovered.
I hope all is well with you! I have written to Bonniers for your books (the one I was reading belonged to the Univ. of Minn library, and I don't have it here in Europe with me), and so I hope to send you a new translation of one of your poems soon.
with very best wishes,
Dear Robert Bly,
Thanks for your very welcome letter, and for the poems! I'd better reply right away before three months have suddenly gone by. Naturally I too have begun to write a poem about unanswered letters (with the title "Not to Worry, I'll Write Soon") — it's the insidious old telepathy at work again. But the poem never did come out anywhere; the lines I want to keep were about something completely different, namely the snails that sail forth so majestically in the August night.
For the moment I find myself in a lovely and unaccustomed position. I started my vacation yesterday. I've dreamed about that vacation so much that I'd begun to believe it would never come. I'm the only one of the so-called higher officials who hasn't been away from the INSTITUTION this summer, I've had to sit here "for the sake of continuity." And this institution has resembled Cyprus. Accordingly I haven't had the time or strength to write anything. And just when it looked as if I could, the editor of a collection of Auden's poetry called and barked like a watchdog because I haven't delivered any of the translations of Auden I promised. At night the baby cries. Yes! THE BABY CRIES. It went well, happily. Paula was born in the hospital at Linköping at the beginning of July and was entirely as she should be, despite all the damned uterine complications. It turned out to be a lightning-fast birth that had already started in the car. Twenty minutes after we got to the hospital the baby was born. So it was a happy summer in spite of everything.
I've taken my Saab out of the stable and driven to Kolmården to be alone for a couple of days and have time to catch up with myself. (Kolmården is a woodsy tract between Ostergötland and Södermanland.) I'm sitting in an inn, writing this.
You put some questions in your letter. I think you should let go of the ambition to do some sort of complete Swedish anthology. If you call a book "20 SWEDISH POEMS" you've only promised to display exactly 20 SWEDISH POEMS: twenty Swedish poems which I, Robert Bly, have found and which I think are so good that I want to translate them. How one can translate a poem one dislikes I don't know. Let it be your anthology. It's not possible anyway to give a representative picture of twentieth-century Swedish poetry in twenty poems. Gullberg should be included for example: he rhymes and seems almost impossible to translate. Eddegren isn't a big name here, but if you think he's good then translate him. Martinson should suit you and there's an endless number of poems to choose among. Come over soon and we'll go through several kilos of poems. I probably like Martinson best of all the Swedish poets now living. It's hard to say how much of his greatness lies in linguistic nuances that can't be translated. But a poet from Minnesota ought to have a decent chance.
Some of your comments about my translation of "Snowfall" etc. arise from a groundless apprehension. PÅ SJON means "at sea" or "on the sea" ["på havet"] in everyday Swedish. That last phrase sounds "literary" and not entirely natural. It's like this: SJO sometimes means lake, sometimes sea. If you say "en sjö" it always refers to a lake. If you say "sjön" it can also mean the ocean, particularly in such expressions as "på sjön" or "till sjöss" (cf. Eng. sea). Ordinary people, pilots and fishermen for example, don't use the word "sea" ["hav"] at all. You should bear this in mind when you read Swedish texts.
STRÅNA is an awkward, powerful word, entirely in the same class as CORNSTALKS. No, I don't want to use "majsstänglarna" [corn + stalks] by reason of the fact that it brings an element of exoticism into (the Swedish) poem. Majs [corn] is something the Swedish reader has seen Disney's cartoon characters gnawing on or possibly gnawed on themselves from tin cans. What makes translating SNOWFALL so worthwhile is that the poem will strike Swedes as completely natural — a good reader knows right away that this isn't an interesting exotic product by some American but I have experienced this mystery for myself.
BLEKNAR BORT means, exactly, FADE AWAY. If you like we can write TONAR BORT but that sounds a little bit "literary." But I think it's unnecessary. One must have a certain faith in the public's gifts of comprehension.
FARTYG [ship] should perhaps be changed. Not to "stomme" [framework], which God forbid, but to SKROV [hull], maybe FARTYGSSKROV [ship + hull].
I'll translate some more of your poems, at least 4–5. Preferably more. I hope in fact that Bonniers (our great, omnipotent publisher) will bring out an American anthology sooner or later — it's time to be able to read Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Bly, Wright, Wilbur, Levertov and probably some others in a plump selection. Simpson disappointed me a little with his latest book, despite several good pieces. "Redwoods," which would be right up my alley, won't work because of the tree itself, which is wholly exotic (cf. my argument above).
To thank you for the three poems (of which especially "Watching Television" gets me going) I'm sending you three unpublished ones of mine. "About History" is probably to some extent influenced by my work with "the poetry of the Sixties." An attempt to write speechlines, non-rhetorical ones, and not to flinch from the political, the historical. The problem has occupied me for a long time: to write about the reality of the events surrounding us without falling into the dreary rhetorical tradition that possesses even good poets the instant they touch on anything political. They drape themselves in an attitude instead of giving form to things. It's not just a question of taste. Rhetorical attitudes are treason.
Are you coming here before or after the presidential election? That's going to be a terrible night. I mean, it's not enough that Johnson will win, he has to win by a landslide. The ghosts must be decisively defeated. I read with nervousness and astonishment in Newsweek a fairly thorough overview of the situation in state after state. Wyoming for instance is considered "SAFE" for Barry. It's said of some other state (Maine, I think) that people there have always been Republicans and they'll go right on being Republicans even if they're against the current candidate. That's what's so incomprehensible to a European. The same men who would have voted for Nelson Rockefeller if he were the candidate, are now working and voting for Goldwater. What is a Republican? What is a Democrat? This is the secret motive for my visit to the U.S. — to try to comprehend such things. My translators (especially Eric Sellin) are organizing a few readings for me as well so that I'll be able to earn my keep (at the university and the YMCA, no, sorry, it was the YMHA). I leave around April 1.
Once again, come and visit Sweden! Monica, Marie and Paula send greetings.
Your pen pal Tomas T.
Excerpted from Airmail by Robert Bly, Tomas Tranströmer, Thomas R. Smith. Copyright © 2013 Robert Bly. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Table of Contents
Crossways: Pages from a Literary Friendship vii
A Note on the Translations and Their Presentation xxiii
The Letters 3
Appendix 1 Letters 415
Appendix 2 Poems 421
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