The letters that passed between two great poets over 25 years are essential reading for anyone interested in making poetry
At first glance the friendship between Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, whose transatlantic correspondence has been published in English as the compulsively readable Airmail, is a surprising one. These two great poets of the 60s generation differ from each other not only poetically but in their lives, as their letters reveal.
Tranströmer worked as a psychologist in Sweden's public health and prison services. Yet this profession is rarely evident in his writing, except perhaps as a pervasive emotional intelligence. (It does make a couple of off-stage appearances: in "Allegro", as the tiring day from which the narrator recovers by playing Haydn, and in "Loneliness" when he is forced to make a dangerous winter commute.) Airmail reveals how often his approach went against the grain of Swedish literary consensus. In 1967, he tells Bly: "One should preferably be a card-carrying Marxist. Instead, suspect elements of old-fashioned individualism, including religiosity, have been detected" in his work by hostile critics.
Bly on the other hand, is a poet-activist. Today, he has outlived his notoriety as author of the pioneering men's movement book, Iron John, and these letters remind us of earlier, wider engagement: writing political verse, founding and editing the magazine series that started as The Fifties and ended as The Seventies, publishing other poets' collections and, during the Vietnam war, organising "read-ins" and other protest events.
A shared outrage at American foreign policy in south-east Asia was clearly important to this friendship, which started in 1964 when a magazine subscription from Tranströmer arrived on the very day that Bly had driven for three hours to find his book in the Minnesota University library. Repeatedly, in the early letters, Tranströmer reacts with emotion to world news, and to American domestic politics, about which he seems strikingly well‑informed: "Naturally the Oregon primary was a bad blow; I was unhappy as a wet dog all the next day," he writes in June 1966. He grieves again when the tanks roll into Prague in 1968, as the cold war intensifies in Europe.
Bly also embraces his Scandinavian roots, which he calls "European". The reader can't help but speculate whether this friendship with, and advocacy of, Tranströmer is at least in part a way to explore this aspect of himself. He visits the ancestral home in Norway, "old Bleie, whose stones have been stained by Bleie-feet for ten thousand years or so", on trips that also allowed him to meet the Tranströmers and visit their summer house on the island of Runmarö.
After all, this is a friendship forged by two youngish family men, both of them passionate about poetry, both leading socially committed lives in that era of new beginnings when it was possible to feel, as Bly says in December 1965, "How wonderful to live in a time when something fresh can be written!" There is a powerful sense of mutual recognition as each, in his own language, tries to forge a new poetry.
In 2001 a version of this correspondence was a literary bestseller in Swedish but, as Thomas R Smith notes in his introduction, the enlarged English edition had to wait until Tranströmer won the Nobel prize in 2011. Yet it is a book of real importance, much of it taken up with the friends' discussions as they translate each other. "More about Swedish pronouns in the next message …" Tranströmer promises in November 1970. Asking for clarification, elaborating nuance, they create a unique close reading of work that is, in both cases, a major presence in the international canon. Indeed, Bly's translations feature in Tranströmer's Nobel citation.
Around these discussions a web of literary relationships – with other poets, translators, editors and publishers – gradually forms. By the early 70s, Tranströmer's refusal to be a member of any political party enabled him to travel behind the iron curtain, making semi-official cultural contacts which displayed a sure eye for literary excellence.
Perhaps inevitably, there are fewer letters in later years, and those from spring 1971 onwards are written entirely in English. There is a "wonderful treasury of gossip" – May Swenson "is very anti-man", Donald Hall "looks exactly like the old photographs of Tennyson" – and pragmatic discussion of tours, funding and prizes. The friends tease even as they find ways to help each other: "I heard that someone went up to John Updike in the airport the other day and asked if he were Tomas Tranströmer […] I went into a rug shop in Santa Barbara and the rug merchant asked me if I were Steve Martin."
Meanwhile, children grow up and leave home, Solzhenitsyn goes into exile, and on the international reading circuit the friends start to miss each other more than they coincide. Finally, in 1990, comes Tranströmer's stroke: nearly a quarter of a century later, he has not regained the power of speech, and communicates in public by playing the piano, with one hand. It is the end of the letters; but not of a writing life well lived. Testament to the possibilities of that life, this is a generous, intimate book. It should be required reading for everyone interested in poems and the making of poetry.
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