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When in 2011, Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, many people in the poetry world thought this was long overdue. Many, myself included, would describe him as "the greatest living poet in any language." One of the reasons that this reputation has come about amongst non-Swedish readers who read English is in no small measure due to translation work done by Robert Bly (see Half-Finished Heaven, The: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer). One should perhaps also add that Transtromer has returned the compliment by translating Bly into Swedish. Bly, himself, is a significant American poet in his own right, has been strongly influenced by his translating of much poetry from other traditions to those in the English language. Thus there is considerable interest here in this correspondence between these poet-translators who over the years became friends.

The correspondence begins with letters from Bly, and his then wife, over interest in a magazine they were running in the sixties. There's an interesting story there of Bly having been to a university library to borrow a book in Swedish of Transtromer's poetry. On returning, Bly found a letter from the Swede had arrived in his post. As Bly is influenced by Jung, no doubt, he sees this as synchronicity. Transtromer, then working as a psychologist, was also probably aware of this idea, as some of the letters show he knows Jungian ideas. But, whilst not hostile, he does show he is less enthusiastic about them, even teasing Bly for "Jungian Fundamentalism" in one letter.

This immediately shows up both similarities of the two men. Both have a strong interest in psychological matters, and many of the letters centre on psychological speculations especially with regard to politics. The Swede shows an acute awareness of American current affairs of the time he is writing. But there is a difference in temperament. Bly is more inclined to rhetorical flourishes, while Transtromer is more cautious and records sometimes being irritated by calls in his country for him to commit to political causes and write overtly political poems.

This difference does not seem to affect the poets' relationship, which grows through the correspondence. Some letters show that they have met up between the writing. Their relationship becomes affectionate with frequent pieces of family news, and discussions of other poets work right up to the final letter when the correspondence stops in the early Nineties because Transtomer had a stroke which inhibited his writing. Yet, the letters reveal much about both poets human side that is less prominent in their poems, their humour, warmth and affection. There are also some interesting sidelights on particularly Bly's political activities at anti-Vietnam War protests. The most interesting one for me was of one when Bly is arrested with several other prominent American poets at one such event, and in the cells they ended up singing Hindu mantras together.

Yet for all the human colour, I suspect the main interest in these letters is the correspondence over poetry. The introduction advises that this volume may be best appreciated with a copy of Bly's translations of Transtromer mentioned above. The volume is easily available even for UK readers. A copy of some of Bly's books of poetry might also be of use, though at present there is no UK edition of these. There are however a couple of several reproductions of relevant poems and translations as an appendix when they have been extensively discussed in the letters. These provide interesting insights into the translator's and poet's art of selecting the right work in a poem. There are also some interesting thoughts on the prose poem, which at the time of the letters being written was a less accepted form in English language poetry.

All in all, like many letters, this will be of interest to readers of both poets providing insights into their work, and the matter that is forged into poetry. A lively and illuminating read.
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on 1 August 2013
When I was young, growing up on a council estate, I saw older women as food shopping machines. There were no supermarkets so they visited ten different shops until they could carry no more and their only pleasure was to bump into someone in a similar position for a chat before going home to cook and then start the process again the following day (this was the fifties and sixties, and the sixties is a period covered by this book along with the seventies).
Without prying you could piece together their conversations. First the important stuff, people who were seriously ill, who had married who, but then, formalities over, the bags dropped to the floor and gossip ensued.
So it is with Airmail... Will you be interested in the sense given to words in the two poets work as they attempt to translate each other's poems from Swedish to American English and vice versa? Or more interested in the gossip that comes after, discussing criticism, other poets, the war in Vietnam and the peace marches (and poetry vigils)?
If you are lucky you will enjoy both.
This lovely book is in no way a novel but has been edited to show actual correspondence between the two poets in an era when e mail did not exist and long letters were the order of the day. I am intrigued to know why both poets kept the letters they received as, obviously, if both of them hadn't then the book could not exist. We will never know other than to feel that perhaps each prized their received letters more than I, for example, did mine.
Consider the following as a taste of conversation on the sense and meaning behind a single word in a poem (Tomas to Robert);-
"From An African Diary - sounds so good in your English version that I wonder if it wasn't conceived in English from the outset and the Swedish text isn't a kind of translation. One thing in Swedish however, has caused a misunderstanding. HOTORG ARTIST is something special that you don't know about. Hotorget is a square in Stockholm where formerly (and maybe also now) bad art used to be sold cheap. The sort of landscapes with pines and red cottages, portraits of gypsy women, sunsets. It refers in other words to mass-produced, conventional art. HOTARG ARTIST, in other words, is the same as the German Kitschmaler. Kitsch would be the German word, but what is the English?"
I guess the English would now be Kitsch, borrowed from the German, but how is a Swede to know that? Is kitsch a word used in American English?
Returning to my two lady shoppers exchanging important notes and then trivia, consider from later on in the book and Tomas talking of his cultural trip to Hungary and Czechoslovakia;-
"They were desperately eager to keep some link with the rest of Europe so I suddenly felt the ridiculous character of the Swedish Institute, Cultural Exchange and such things disappear. I hope to be used some way in the future contacts. Sweden is in a position that gives opportunity to do something. Very little but something. My family is all right. Emma is very active; dancing, playing the flute, riding (she is mad about horses)."
This is not an inexpensive book and is, probably, not your usual taste in reading, nor would it have been mine. I could not say it was a "can't put down book" as I read it in small chunks. Partly this was so that I could digest what had just been read, partly because the book is written in chunks and partly because I didn't want the book to end. For me it was not only an introduction to the minds of poets it was also new to me for being about an American and Swedish poet. You see I am from Wales in the U.K. and have been brought up on Dylan Thomas, R S Thomas etc. etc.
A life changer, memory jogger, excellently written book to keep forever.
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on 14 December 2014
I'm currently a bit over half way through this book, which has been a delightful bedtime companion for about a week now. Hats off to Bloodaxe for their presentation, for the generous spacing, clear print and good paper quality that allow the words to breathe so easily.
"Airmail" is absorbing and extremely enjoyable simply as the story of the developing relationship of two highly intelligent, highly articulate, sympathetic men, their daily lives and their emotional and intellectual responses in a fraught period of time as they reach across the cultural gap between Sweden and America. I think it would make a compelling human story on this level even if you had no particular interest in the poetry of Bly or Transtromer or in the issues of translation.
If like me you're compelled to enjoy Transtromer's wonderful, reticent and deeply strange poetry only in English translation there's also an intense interest in the detailed commentary on Bly's (and sometimes other people's) attempts to render Transtromer into English, and vice versa. Both poets, particularly Transtromer, comment in very precise detail on nuances of meaning and association in their words that they don't feel the other has quite picked up. In an age when poets don't talk easily about their intentions this is revelatory.
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