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Airmail: the Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer Paperback – 27 Jun 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 504 pages
  • Publisher: Bloodaxe Books Ltd; First UK edition edition (27 Jun. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1852249951
  • ISBN-13: 978-1852249953
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.2 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 947,049 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


...a book of real importance...this is a generous, intimate book. It should be required reading for everyone interested in poems and the making of poetry. --Fiona Sampson, Guardian

I spent early summer days with Airmail: The Letters of Tomas Tranströmer and Robert Bly. In March 1964 Bly drove across Minnesota to borrow Tranströmer's latest collection from a library. On his return he found a letter from the Swedish poet. With this coincidence began 26 years of letters. It's an elegant, humorous and illuminating collection. --Mary O'Donoghue, Irish Times, Books of the Year 2013

About the Author

Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011.

He was born in 1931 in Stockholm, where he grew up, but spent many long summers on the island of Runmarö in the nearby archipelago, evoking that landscape in his early work, which draws on the aesthetic tradition of Swedish nature poetry. His later poetry is more personal, open and relaxed, often reflecting his broad interests: travel, music, painting, archaeology and natural sciences.

He is Scandinavia's best-known and most influential contemporary poet. His books sell thousands of copies in Sweden, and his work has been translated into over 50 languages, with substantial or complete editions of his work published in over 20 languages.

Tranströmer started writing poetry while at the oppressive Sodra Latin Grammar School (its atmosphere caught by Ingmar Bergman in Alf Sjöberg's Frenzy, which was filmed there, the young Tomas amongst the pupils). But he was devouring books on all subjects, especially geography, with daily visits to the local library, where he worked his way through most of the non-fiction shelves. However, this bookish adolescence was shadowed by the war, by his parents' divorce and the absence of his father, and at 15 he experienced a winter of psychological crisis. He published his first collection, 17 Poems, in 1954, at the age of 23.

After studying psychology at the University of Stockholm, he worked at its Psychotechnological Institute, and in 1960 became a psychologist at Roxtuna, a young offenders institution. From the mid-1960s he divided his time between his writing and his work as a psychologist, and in 1965 moved with his family to Vasterås, where he spent the rest of his working life. In 1990, a year after the publication of his tenth book of poems, Transtromer suffered a stroke, which deprived him of most of his speech and partly inhibited movement on his right-hand side. Swedish composers have since written several left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play.

Since his stroke, he has published a short book of 'autobiographical chapters', Memories Look at Me (1993) and a new collection, The Sad Gondola (1996), both included in Robin Fulton's translation of his Bloodaxe New Collected Poems (1997). In 2004 he published The Great Enigma, a slim volume containing five short poems and a group of 45 even smaller haiku-type poems. These were added to the New Collected Poems to form Transtromer's first collected edition to appear in the States, licensed by Bloodaxe Books to New Directions in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. That edition was published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK as the latest revised and expanded edition of New Collected Poems in 2010.

Tranströmer has also translated other poets into Swedish, including Robert Bly and Hungary's János Pilinszky. Before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011, he had won many other international awards for his poetry, including the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in the US, the Bonner Award for Poetry, Germany's Petrarch Prize, the Bellman Prize, the Swedish Academy's Nordic Prize, and the August Prize. In 1997 the city of Vasterås established a special Tranströmer Prize. In 2007, he received a special Lifetime Recognition Award given by the trustees of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, which also awards the annual Griffin Poetry Prize.

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By Graham Mummery TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 1 July 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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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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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.
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