Poetry News

Special Delivery: The Guardian Reviews Airmail

By Harriet Staff


Incoming! It's the letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer! This weekend The Guardian reviewed Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, edited by Thomas R. Smith and published by Bloodaxe Books.

Looks to be a good 'un! See whatcha think:

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.

& read more at The Guardian.