Letters from a quarter century of correspondence between the acclaimed American poet and the Swedish Nobel Prize winner.
In 1964, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer reached out to American poet Robert Bly and began a correspondence that would last for twenty-five years. Both in their thirties, they had a fair share of success between them, but it would be a few more years until Bly won the National Book Award for Poetry and a few more decades before Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On that occasion, Christopher Benfey wrote in The New Republic: “For me, a Nobel for Tranströmer, well deserved, is also a Nobel for his close friend, translator, and collaborator Robert Bly.” Their correspondence and friendship spanned not only their epic successes, but also their setbacks, daily concerns, family stories, and shared jokes.
—Conversation published courtesy of Graywolf Press
I’m writing in Swedish this time to keep you in practice. Thanks for a long and shimmering letter! But the letter with the long Vietnam poem has gotten lost in transit. Probably it’s been hijacked by someone and has flown to Cuba. I don’t know what “Field” is either. Is it a contraction of “Snowy Fields”? How fantastic it must be to travel around the whole U.S.A. and storm against the administration and give public readings. And then disappear into the wilderness to do nothing for a thousand years. Politician and Guru in the same person, traveling together like Laurel and Hardy.
By surface mail (since I’m poor and stingy) I’m now sending my German translation and Ekelöf’s posthumous book—he wrote it while he was dying of lung cancer. The good thing about the German translation is that Michael Hamburger wrote a letter to me (after 3 years) in which he started to intimate something about the possibility of my being invited to England. He asked me to send the best English, translations I had and I then discovered that I haven’t got any copies of the translations we did together on Runmarö. Can you send a few of the best?
I’m an idiot! I forgot about Pilinszky’s address! But I’ll very likely get a letter from him and will make a note of the address then. He speaks French and German very well, not English.
Tomas Tranströmer was born on April 15, 1931. The exact moment I don’t know. For God’s sake, drop astrology! We have enough misfortunes threatening us as it is.
I’ll write again soon but am sending a new poem. The word “sisu” probably isn’t in your dictionary. It’s Finnish and is used mostly in the context of sports, especially when describing Finnish athletes. It means something like “tenacity.”
The family sends best wishes. We long to see you all again someday, go sailing around the world! In any case it’s good that you exist.
undated (postmarked January 13, 1970)
I answer your letter soon! Meanwhile I send you copies of some trans-
lations right away!
FIELD is the name of the best new poetry magazine—out of Oberlin—which has 3 of your poems in the first issue, you are as popular in Oberlin as Sophia Loren! I’ve told them to send you copies. They told me they had sent you a check too. Did that arrive?
16 Jan, ’70
I found a letter of yours with two poems and a translation of the Barn in Devon!
So I’ll answer a couple of questions there while I am at my “writing-machine,” as you Europeans call it.
This was a stone barn I found while walking in far south England, where there are these marvellous green hills that simply plunge straight into the Atlantic! They roll about a bit like a woman’s stomach and then down they go! I really think the sense of a woman’s stomach must have been in my head even then, because the barn had an overwhelming feeling of a place where we prepare to return to life again, rest a bit before we return to the womb and are born.
In “järteckan” I wanted to suggest that the hoofmarks in heavy dung outside the door are not to be taken as a symbol that the body is filthy, or that life is rotten; they are no symbol of fleshly evil.
The “doors” are those wooden separations, that cattlemen use when they are separating cows into two bunches: two men stand behind it, one man behind each end, and either move it in front of the cow’s nose as he comes up, discouraging him to go back, or open it suddenly so the cow goes through. They are easy to lift, usually about eight or ten feet long. They usually have fresh wood showing somewhere, since they are leaned against walls, and knocked down by the cows later, one of whom always steps on it, and cracks off a piece.
Anyway, the “gate” or whatever you call it, looked so useful, so humble, so lacking in egotism, that it was holy, like an altar. (I’m thinking mainly of those small table-altars on which the Buddhists set their flowers and incense and Buddha-statues.)
“Flopping down” suggests the way a cow lies down, without thinking of manners or whether anyone is watching: it’s a wonderful sight.
The stones that make up the walls of the barn evidently turn at night into the walls of the womb, dark, and to the infant, invisible.
I have just started with “Preludier,” but I have a couple of questions already. The pronouns in “Tvä sanningar” are difficult for me. In the second stanza, does “den” imply a human being, or one of the two “sanningar” mentioned in the stanza before? I’m not sure I understand the third line of the second stanza, “Vad some helst, etc.”
I don’t understand “det” in “Och det är en bat.”
Does the fourth stanza take place completely away from the boat landing—in a house in the middle of the woods, for example—or does it take place near the water?
Does this boat hook hit any of the dancers? (I know what you’ll say: “Why I really don’t know!”)
The poem about your old apartment and your mother’s apartment is very moving at the end. The telescope, the Quaker thought, and the doves cooing are marvellous.
In that poem, I wonder if you could give me a literal English version of the second sentence—“rader sorg” throws me into confusion.
I’ve done a new version of the rocket-shaver poem! Will send it soon. We think a lot about rockets over here—must have to do with the American virility-complex. Shaving of course is a clear reference to castration-desire—Freud told me that only yesterday. I use the old blade- razor myself—Aaaaaaaaaah! (Of course if your shaving poem is really a castration poem, it makes the pilot’s remark more sensible: “You’re seeing this for the last time!”)
(By the way, I still have one question on that poem: “I kamerans barndom.” Does that mean the early days of the camera when everyone had to hold still for so long; or does it refer to the way children pose so stiffly for photographs?)
Give my love to your beautiful, good, and desirable wife, och flickorna . . .
(be careful with those razor poems)
Den Norske Medicine-Man
20 Jan, ’70
I’ve enjoyed your Hen Poem! The seam to the Africa scene may be a little too prominent—I’m not sure. I’ll have to read it ten more times. Also when you say “ette minne” it sounds like the world-traveller bragging. (Naturally those of us who haven’t been to Africa are envious, and hate to have you reminding us of it.) Couldn’t that scene be a dream, instead of memory? (We all have dreams!)
“Enligit reglerna”—does that mean “according to the rules”?
I’m not sure how to understand two phrases particularly: “sanninger fran 1912,” and “ett balansnummer.”
But I like it very much! It is eerie, and mysterious, and all the hen section is true to hens. I love hens, and I get terribly cross if writers don’t get true hendom into their hen-lines. You have done beautifully!
Field should come soon. It is 40 below here this morning. I am working hard. How lazy I am! That must be a Capricorn failing . . . or maybe a Norwegian-no-longer-having-to-grub-out-trees-in-the-cold-rain-failing. There’s no doubt, the Norwegians have got it too good over here. I’ve got to do more work! It’s a disgrace! One book every five years . . . laziness!
Your slothful friend,
“The Teeth Mother Naked At Last” has come and I’m knocked out. It is incredibly strong, it’s as if Walt Whitman had been with you, whispering in your ear to give you strength to write on. I’ve read large parts of the poem before in various versions but this compilation is superior. (Except the beginning of section II with the Roman knives—I can imagine that the version in The Light Around The Body is lying underneath and providing resonance.) The poem lives both in its details and as a whole. Most remarkable is VI since it is so naively direct and yet strikes so deeply into the soul. But after this you can’t write anything else about Viet Nam. This poem has the character of ULTIMATE, LAST, FINAL STATEMENT. The strangest thing about the poem is that in its incredible bitterness and sorrow it makes the reader feel such love for life, the earth, everything that moves. Strange. Lucky for you that you live protected by snowstorms and all those miles of prairie in Minnesota, so that fame won’t get to be too trying. It must be dreadful to fall into the clutches of that great American fame, all the microphones being thrust at you etc. How do you deal with it? DO YOU HAVE A STOMACH OF THE RIGHT SIZE BY NOW? WHEN A PERSON GETS FAMOUS HE DEVELOPS HIS STOMACH AS AN ACT OF SELF-PROTECTION.
I’ve just driven Emma to the stables and seen to it that she got her favorite horse, a black pony by the name of Sotha. The children ride round and round on the sawdust for almost nothing. Monica is home doing homework. She’s actually begun to study so she can apply to nursing school in a year or so. Svärmor (mother-in-law) is living in the house for the time being to watch the kids when we’re both away. I am somewhat over-excited, owing to the fact that I’m getting ready for a new trip at the expense of the Swedish Institute. Monica says that trips behind THE IRON CURTAIN give me the opportunity to develop the latent paranoia I have. I CAN SMELL A TRAP AT A FAR DISTANCE.
Thanks for the transcriptions of the poetry translations! When I made copies to send to Hamburger I discovered something that’s probably a mistake. In “Night Duty” section II you write “The language marches imperfect step with the boots” but in Swedish it goes “the language marches in step with the boots”—should be “in perfect step.” What I mean of course is that voices on the radio and in politics and public life in general speak a language that marches all too well with the executioners and therefore I, we, must seek a new language that does not collaborate with the executioners.
No. 2 of “Preludes” should go more or less like this in rough translation:
Two truths walk towards one another. One (of the truths) comes
from the outside and one from the inside
(and at the place) where they meet you have a chance to catch sight of
But he (the person, the one) who sees what is going to happen cries
“Anything! (May anything happen, I can take anything except that)
if only I escape knowing myself.”
What it means is of course—you have the truth of your inner world (you Robert must understand that) and there is the truth of the outer world. When there is a confrontation of the two your true character is exposed, at this confrontation you get a glimpse of “WHO I AM.” And most people are afraid of that, they want to have the two worlds apart. They can take a lot of suffering, build endlessly defense mechanisms and barriers, even risk their life to escape knowing themselves. “Vadsomhelst” is a typical Swedish colloquialism. “Vadsomhelst, if only my boy gets well” says a mother in desperation to the doctor, for example. It’s a contraction of something much longer, for example “Anything [Vad som helst] would be better than not
to . . .” Or “I can stand anything [vad som helst] except not to . . .”
[Editor’s note: The following seems to be a continuation, though something may be missing.]
And there is a boat trying to put in (trying to land), trying exactly along here. It will try thousands of times. From the darkness of the wood comes a boat-hook, pushed in through the open window, in among the party guests who have been dancing until they were are warm (getting warm by dancing) eller warmed up by dancing . . . The boathook is something totally foreign in the party milieu, it’s something from another world, perhaps from Gallilee, it’s frightening, a bit comical also, it’s religious. I don’t know whether these modern party guests are struck by it, maybe I’m the only one who actually sees it come shooting mysteriously in through the window (as if a boat were floating out in the darkness of the forest, trying to land).
The apartment where I lived most part of my life is going to be evacuated. Is it now empty of everything. The anchor has let go (has got free, has loosened lost its grip—on the bottom of the sea)—although there still is (a state of) mourning, it is the lightest flat in the whole city. The truth does not need furniture etc. “råder” means “prevails.” You know it is shortly after a death and I am mourning but at the same time a lightness is experienced. You have to leave all this, what is of value is transformed in a sort of light perhaps. For the last time I see my old apartment just as naked as it was when I saw it the first time: blown out, empty. Light only, memories are vanishing . . .
From the other poem [“The Open Window”]: “I kamerans barndon” means the early days of camera when we had to sit still for many seconds to get pictured. This is a beautiful expression in Swedish—we often say “the childhood of the car” etc., it gives an atmosphere of tenderness to these technical things. I have never heard the expression “the childhood of the atomic bomb” but it could be possible. In Swedish.
I went through The Teeth-mother together with Monica this afternoon. (a prima vista translation) The words I did not know I replaced with my own inventions, I read aloud. We were very moved. The only thing I am skeptical about is the title.
(Monica has large front teeth but she is definitely not a teeth-mother.)
About the Hen poem (its title is now “Upprätt”—“upright”). The African memory is authentic—I have been to Chad and I must tell it! Few Swedes have been there. (I have longed for such a long time to tell it.) I am glad you have the right sense for hens. I had 4 hens last summer. “Enligt reglerna” is “according to the rules”—the poultry house is a society with strict rules, and the poor birds follow them in an almost neurotic rigidity. They are our sisters. —“sannigar från 1912” is simply “truths of 1912,” those years before World War I, when ladies had large hats with (ostrich) plumes, bourgeois rules etc. “Balansnummer” is “balancing act.” The poem is partly a protest-poem against the prevailing mood in Swedish intellectual life. What I say is that finding the truth, being honest etc. is a difficult individualistic act of balance, you have to put off the rhetoric, all slogans and mustaches and prejudices and . . . Just like being before Death. (But I did not introduce Charon in the poem.)
Thank you for telling the Field people to send their magazine (it has not arrived yet) For some strange reason I am always published in NR 1 issues. Are you starting a whole plantation of magazines around U.S.A.? I like to be present in the babyhood of a magazine. Tell Carol the kindest greetings from us. Give everyone a royal HUG [KLEMM], as it’s certainly called in Norway. Your confused
Editing Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer occasioned a certain amount of literary detective work in identifying and joining sundered fragments of the correspondence adrift in the welter of primary documents. The long letter from Tranströmer dated January 30, 1970, detailing various translation questions regarding Tranströmer’s volume Mörkerseende (rendered by Bly as Night Vision), is a prime example. My reconstruction is an informed guess, born of repeatedly turning over and over, both figuratively and literally, the constituent fragments.
The dated Swedish letter, translated by Judith Moffett and Lars-Håkan Svensson, is incomplete, breaking off with “Or I can stand anything except not to…” The fragment beginning “And there is a boat” is originally in English, and first appeared in the literary journal Ironwood in 1979. Moffett and Svensson also translated the paragraph beginning “The boathook is something totally foreign.”
At this relatively early point in the two poets’ correspondence, it wasn’t unusual for Tranströmer to alternate between Swedish and English, though soon afterward he would write exclusively in his friend’s language.
—Thomas R. Smith, Editor, Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer (2013, Graywolf Press)
Excerpt from Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer copyright © 2013 by Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer. Used in arrangement with the Georges Borchardt Agency, Inc., and Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Robert Bly is the author of more than fifty works of poetry, translations, essays, anthologies, and cultural criticism. His poetry collection The Light Around the Body received the National Book Award, and he has been honored with many prizes and recognitions, including the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in poetry. He lives in Minneapolis.
Tomas Tranströmer is the author of a dozen books of poetry and a brief prose memoir. His poetry has been translated into more than fifty languages, and in English his poetry appears in Robert Bly’s translations in The Half-Finished Heaven. Tranströmer received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011. He lives in Stockholm.