blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
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Unlikely Magic
on Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer

spacer Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer

When Words in Air, the collected correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2008, it was greeted ecstatically. Although readers had seen many of the letters in Bishop’s wonderfully abundant selection of correspondence gathered in a 1994 volume entitled One Art, and readers had been offered a similarly comprehensive selection of Lowell’s letters a few years later, Words in Air, masterfully edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, made a far greater impression than either of the previous volumes, not least because it allowed us to see, letter by letter, the intricacies and nuances of one of the greatest literary correspondences in the language—great because of the profoundly serious mutual respect which the two writers maintained for one another, great because we see how frequently and productively Lowell and Bishop influenced one another as poets. It is also delightful because of those secondary but very essential reasons why we delve into a creative writer’s correspondence—we get an unvarnished and immediate sense of the author’s day-to-day existence; we are privy to unguarded and quirky information we almost never get in poems themselves or in writers’ interviews; last (but not least), we get some juicy gossip, and Lowell and Bishop were nothing if not inveterate gossips. Like most gossip, some of the tidbits the pair exchanges are funny but deeply unjust—Lowell’s send-up of the pomposity and socially clueless behavior of his onetime teacher, Richard Eberhart, once a poet of considerable repute, surely puts the final nail in the coffin of Eberhart’s literary reputation. (“Eberhart had a good poem, I think, in the last book.”) On the other hand, Lowell’s similarly gossipy description to Bishop of an “utterly spooky” visit to John Berryman as he struggles almost dementedly with his Dream Songs and a marriage to a much younger wife, soon veers from comedy to pathos—not unlike a good many of the Dream Songs themselves. And then there’s the myriad of little things that the letters reveal which serve to deepen our appreciation of the two writers. Doesn’t it seem utterly characteristic of Bishop to want to foist recordings of the great Delta bluesman Robert Johnson on Lowell? And it surely comes as no surprise that the imperious Lowell doesn’t seem to share her taste. There are also the stark recitations by both writers of their mental breakdowns, their struggles with alcohol, and their heart-wrenching accounts of loss—losses galore, in fact. These can range from lengthy and relentless letters by the bipolar Lowell that seem even to the most untutored layman as evidence of a manic episode gearing up—they’re like seeing the prelude to a train wreck you know cannot be avoided—to Bishop’s sadly affectless descriptions of the circumstances and aftermath of the suicide of her great love, Lota de Macedo Soares.

And it goes without saying the Lowell/Bishop letters would not be the extraordinary document that they are had it not been for the sheer unlikeliness (a much favored Bishop word) of their friendship. In one corner stands the gregarious, macho, charismatic, and cutthroatedly ambitious Lowell, the most admired poet of his time, who struggled mightily with his work but never doubted its importance; he writes and rewrites well over a thousand pages of poetry. In the other corner, there’s Bishop: sickly all her life, painfully shy, an orphan, an outsider, very out about her gayness but also painfully aware of the danger that entailed during an era when the DSM listed homosexuality as a disease. For most of her life she dwells far from the centers of American literary culture—in Key West, and later, for many years, in Brazil. She writes and rewrites (and then re-rewrites) slightly over two hundred pages of poetry that she feels are complete. Many of the greatest literary friendships are forged because opposites attract—think of Boswell and Johnson, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound—but the Bishop/Lowell friendship is perhaps the most unlikely of all.

But there’s another reason—a stranger and more problematic one and one that is furthermore quite melancholic—for why the Bishop/Lowell letters so fascinate us. They may well be one of the last great correspondences in literary history. For we all know that letter writing is a dead art. Handwritten letters exist mainly in the form of sympathy cards, as inserts in the Christmas Hallmarks of the middle class, or as missives penned by elderly aunts who never bothered to uncarton the laptops they got from their kids as birthday gifts. Last year, I took an informal survey of my undergraduate students—over half of the students in each of the four classes I queried had never, not once, been inside a post office. (No wonder the postal service is in such dire financial straits). We email, we tweet, we text, but I would propose that these activities are akin to letter writing no more than domestic dogs are akin to wolves, or Bill O’Reilly is akin to an actual journalist. During a recent AWP convention, the greatly estimable poet Frank Bidart offered some affecting reminiscences of Bishop and Lowell, and few people knew the pair better. As Lowell’s amanuensis, Bidart shepherded the elder poet through the madly concentrated process of composing his final four books, and became an equally indispensable friend to Bishop during her final years. The tone of Bidart’s presentation was querulous and pensive, but at its end, as if he felt obligated to close on an upbeat note, Bidart announced that great literary correspondences will continue to thrive—all thanks to email and social media. I wish I could agree, for it seems to me that a literary correspondence of the sort conducted by Bishop and Lowell can’t be read without a profound sense of its elegiac nature. The letters exist on paper, and not in the cloud. They are typed on manual Underwoods or Olivettis or carefully incised into those gossamer blue little origami contraptions known as airmail letters. They are rendered with the care of the hand as it slides over paper, or the fingers as they press down on reluctant typewriter keys. And they are as likely as not to be rewritten rather than merely dashed off—it’s said that Rilke often composed four drafts of a letter before finally deciding it was ready to send. When I think of Words in Air, I see envelopes of flimsy light blue, with dark blue and red checkered borders, squiggly postmarks that could double as cuneiform or Chinese characters, and of course they are adorned with ever-so-exotic foreign stamps. I see a letter that took days to write, and weeks to make its way from Pernambuco to New York, lodged in a mailbag on a lower deck of a tramp steamer. I see something so strange and unlikely as to be magical, something that belongs in a Cornell box and not a mailbox. And thus the Bishop/Lowell correspondence seems to exist in the cusp between a time when letters served as a chief form of intimate dialogue and a time when they became a form of elegy—a memorial to a particular sort of human exchange that will not exist in anything like its pure mode again.

It is thus a bittersweet experience to hold in my hands Graywolf’s newly published Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, for the collection is in many respects uncannily similar to Words in Air. Here too we have a record of an extraordinary literary dialogue between two quite formidable poets, the Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, and the American poet, translator and all-around gadfly, Robert Bly. Like Words in Air, the Tranströmer/Bly correspondence seems an artifact from an earlier era of technological and literary culture, something which the production team at Graywolf has chosen to underscore thanks to its cover collage, which is inspired by the old-fashioned international airmail envelopes which prompted my earlier flight of nostalgia. (Excuse the pun, dear reader.) Photos of Bly and Tranströmer appear in tiny rectangles, like a series of commemorative postage stamps; there’s a trace of a postmark and a tiny cartoon of the two poets, based on a drawing by Tranströmer’s wife, Monica. And the title of the book is printed in cursive—not the sort of awkward scribble that is the product of those rare occasions when an X-er or a Millennial attempts to write in that mode, but the clear and forceful lettering of what used to be called “penmanship.” Open the inside cover, and you’ll see a facsimile of one of Bly’s letters to Tranströmer—his handwriting is forceful, unfussy, and elegant. Open the back cover, and you’ll find a similar facsimile of a letter by Tranströmer to Bly. Here as well—to paraphrase Lowell—the eyes can see what the hand has done, for Tranströmer, too, forms his letters with painstaking care. We don’t think of the Palmer Method, but of calligraphy.

Like Words in Air, Airmail is a remarkable literary exchange. Conducted over three decades, sometimes in Swedish, but mainly in English, the self-portraits of the two poets, as they emerge over the years, are in many respects as fully-formed and as astonishing as those of Lowell and Bishop. There’s another uncanny parallel between the two books, for the Tranströmer/Bly friendship is a highly unlikely pairing. Bly, with his characteristic (or is it infamous?) bravado, grandiosity, and boundless energy—the poet who for almost half a century nearly terrorized the literary establishment with his desire to jettison the academic formalism of the New Critics and replace it with surrealism and a crackpot moonshine distilled from Jung, a smattering of neuroscience, discredited anthropological theories and various forms of New Ageism—seems to be playing the Lowell role. Tranströmer, on the other hand, gentlemanly where Bly is brusque, whimsical and wryly observant where Bly pontificates, deeply learned but never showy about it, a trained scientist rather than a self-appointed one, acts the part of Bishop. The letters begin in 1964, shortly after each writer has independently discovered the other’s work, and conclude in 1990, after Tranströmer suffers a debilitating stroke. The parallels between Words in Air and Airmail are so numerous as to be the occasion for a quite lengthy essay. But it’s important to mention at least one. Although the immensity of Bly’s industriousness and ego are legendary, he seems very early on in his correspondence with Tranströmer to realize that the Swedish poet is the greater maker. Thus, much as Lowell does when it dawns on him that Bishop’s talents may be even more considerable than his own, Bly adopts a very transparent strategy when dealing with his literary friend. He will allow himself to be influenced—considerably influenced—by Tranströmer’s methods (surely not an easy task when you’re Robert Bly), and he will ceaselessly promote his friend’s writing and literary reputation. As a consequence, Bly will almost single-handedly enable Tranströmer—a poet whose working methods are so astringent as to allow him to only write two or three poems a year, a poet writing in one of the more obscure European languages, a poet who for most of his career must work a taxing day job as a child psychologist—to become regarded as one of contemporary literature’s foremost figures. These letters testify abundantly to the simple fact that were it not for Bly there would be no Tranströmer, much in the way that without Ezra Pound there would be no T.S. Eliot—and much in the way that without Robert Lowell, there would be no Elizabeth Bishop.

Above all, Airmail is a bracing story of literary enablement. Yes, poets crave audiences, but perhaps they crave literary friendships—abiding and intimate literary friendships—even more than they crave a readership. In the case of Lowell and Bishop, the friendship takes the form of a long distance literary salon comprised of career advice, gossip, and sometimes abject confession. In the case of Bly and Tranströmer, the friendship is based upon something else entirely—a decades-long struggle on the part of both writers to get Tranströmer’s poems to sound the way they should in English translation. True, Tranströmer translated Bly, James Wright, and other contemporary American poets into Swedish, and Tranströmer often seeks Bly’s advice in this task. But the most interesting pages of Airmail focus on the two writers’ efforts to make Tranströmer’s poems speak American. This process involves much more than consulting Swedish-English dictionaries; it includes some wackily pedantic discussions of word choice, and lengthy dialogues on the meaning of some of Tranströmer’s famously mysterious metaphors (some of which so baffle Bly that Tranströmer resorts to making drawings in order to explain himself). Also, because so many of the Tranströmer poems that Bly seeks to bring into English are very fresh products of the Swedish poet’s pen, the  exchanges often seem as much about revision as translation. When Tranströmer sends Bly a version of one of his signature poems, “The Open Window,” he wants to know if it might sound better in first person than in third. Granted, much of the time the discussions sound like something you’d hear in a poetry workshop—albeit one taking place on the slopes of Parnassus rather than on a seminar table. Above all, the letters never sound specialized or arcane. Even when the pair are discussing minutiae, it’s always much more lively than simple shoptalk. Here’s Tranströmer telling Bly about the title of the poem that the latter will eventually decide to translate as “Night Vision: “As for ‘Mörkerseende,’ it is a technical term for the ability to see in darkness. An Englishman told me that the word should be ‘dark vision’—that sounds very pathetic to me. ‘Dark adaptation’ sounds more like the Swedish. The ‘mörkerseende’ develops when you get used to the dark, after half an hour outside the lamps it is beginning to function at its best. Don’t smoke when driving in the dark, nicotine impairs your morkerseende etc.” Like so many discussions of poetic composition, the dialogue between the two poets as it unfolds through the book’s pages finally comes down to deciding what constitutes le mot juste. Needless to say, this is an endlessly vexing topic, but when you read Bly and Tranströmer as they worry at it—doggedly, with the trancelike concentration of physicists chalking theorems on a blackboard—the process of finding the right word somehow seems a pleasure rather a curse. We’re reminded again—and how often we need such reminding—that words are about what Barthes called their “crackle” and “caress” and not their mere meaning.

Airmail also offers less rarefied pleasures. For all his bombast, Bly’s effort to purge contemporary poetry of cant was never less than heroic, and Tranströmer’s queries to him about the state of American po-biz occasions more than a few delicious zingers. Robert Lowell writes “like a bad evangelical preacher.” Carolyn Kizer, with her “cynical Washington smile,” is “rumored to be a mistress of Pres. Johnson’s.” And as for W.S. Merwin, he “radiates psychic cold, like an extremely literate lieutenant.” And May Swenson, who also elects to translate Tranströmer poetry, gets singled out for special condemnation as “a poetess of very dubious ability whom I know fairly well.” The best Bly can manage to say about her versions is that “[s]ometimes she goes two whole lines without 16th century English coming in.” Tranströmer is of course infinitely more restrained in his assessments of his Swedish contemporaries, but the letters offer a clear explanation as to why it took the Swedes so damn long to offer the Nobel Prize to one of their own, and to recognize that one of the last century’s most significant poets happened to be dwelling on the shores of their fjords. During the sixties, a time when the Nordic literary establishment—just like the rest of Europe—was dominated by poetasting Marxists and armchair Maoists, Tranströmer’s descriptive acuity and searching explorations of the inner life seemed decidedly reactionary. One critic famously characterized him as a “buzzard poet,” coasting the thermals in search of metaphors much in the way a buzzard scouts for carrion. The reviewers seem especially infuriated by Tranströmer’s desire to allow a degree of introspection into his poetry, and the aesthetically blinkered ad hominem outrage of their assessments bring to mind Byron accusing Keats of “mental masturbation . . . always frigging his Imagination.” Here’s a bemused but clearly exasperated Tranströmer reporting to Bly on a review by one Björn Håkansson:

The headline of his contribution was “The Solitary Picture Collector” (which has certain associations with somebody who collects pornographic pictures). He moralized quite powerfully. My poetry strolled through the world “like a well-heeled tourist. But are we what it wishes to find? No, not us. It wants to find pictures; pictures for a solitude that is populated with pictures. If one of us gets to be there too, it’s as a blob of color.” . . . and later “If one sees only the general in the individual and in history only things and conditions, one legitimizes a passive, contemplative attitude toward the world around oneself, which perhaps provides a yearning experience of amazing distance and cosmic peace but at the cost of all motivation to engage in events and change the world.” The whole thing culminated in an accusation that I was legitimizing the idea that “the world might be contemplated in a poem.” As you notice, I very nearly fell victim to the Cultural Revolution there! Generally speaking, the young Marxists in Sweden have little tolerance for poetry. One should show decency and stop writing.

Of course, while the Europeans were burying their noses in their Little Red Books, the Americans were inflicting their cluster bombs, napalm, Agent Orange, and every conceivable other ordinance on the Vietnamese. And Bly was one of the earliest and most spirited critics of Johnson and Nixon’s war. Bly’s reports of his antiwar activities bristle with the same sort of rage that animates the best of his anti-Vietnam War poetry. (Think of the snarling satire of “Counting Small-Boned Bodies.”) Here’s his description of a “Napalm Poetry Reading” in New York:

There was tremendous emotion in the audience. Several times when I read comments from State Dept spokesmen—the State Dept is trying to keep the burned children out of this country, and will not give them visas even to be treated by plastic surgeons here so far—the audience hissed with anger at the State Dept.

However, Bly—ever the raconteur—is also able to make the antiwar protests sound like great fun, even when they involve being arrested. After Bly is “hauled away with Doctor Spock” and Galway Kinnell, we’re given an account of a party in the holding tank that brings to mind those surreal musical numbers from Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock:

[W]e were processed, etc. and then tossed into a cell—who should be there but Allen Ginsberg! There were 10 or 12 18 and 19 year old kids in the cell too. When Galway and I came in, they said, Now all the poets are here! Let’s have a poetry reading! So we did, and sang mantras with Allen for a while. Allen had brought his Hindu bells to jail with him, and we all had a great time, singing and chanting.

But there’s more, much more, to these letters, and in pointing out some of their manifold delights as literary documents, I fear I have done insufficient justice to their deeply humane and deeply compelling record of the joy, heartbreak, and travail of which any lifelong friendship is composed (however literary or nonliterary, however unlikely). We hear of the poets’ children growing and leaving home, of the collapse of Bly’s first marriage and a new beginning with his second. We get reports of reading tours—and even for figures of international stature like Tranströmer and Bly, life on the road sounds distinctly unglamorous, a bit like the labors of Willy Loman as he lugs his cases of samples from town to town. We hear of Tranströmer working at a dead-end job as a shrink in a reform school, and hear him grousing about the Swedes’ mind-bogglingly oppressive tax rates. But Bly and Tranströmer are first and foremost visionaries—and regular guys second. There’s no better evidence of this than the closing of Tranströmer’s final letter to Bly, written in 1990, shortly before the stroke that all but ended his career as a poet:

I must tell you a strange episode. In the beginning of February I visited Oslo, for one day and one night. In the morning I hurried to the Oslo railway station—and there—I saw—YOU. Or rather, an old relative of yours. It must have been one of your Bleie relatives. I passed very near, but the person did not show any sign of recognition, so I stopped my impulse to run and greet him, You, or whoever it was, I was tempted to ask the man if he was a relative of yours. But it was too early in the morning for such an attack. Perhaps it was your apparition? But he looked 5 years older than you. Perhaps you have a shamanisitic method to fly to the Oslo railroad station now and then and relax for a couple of minutes while you are sleeping in Minnesota, or lecturing mankind somewhere . . .

Quite a loopy reverie, this. But also a fitting sort of coda to the volume. When last we see him, the spirit-self of Robert Bly has left his body, taken a solo flight across the Atlantic, and touched down in the Oslo train station. Mind you, Bly himself may not even be aware that he has undertaken this bizarre hejira. But Tranströmer, whose supernatural powers are at least equivalent to those of Bly, is right there on the station platform to witness and report the miracle—the sort of miracle which, for Tranströmer, has always seemed a very everyday experience.

On a more mundane level, kudos are due to Thomas R. Smith for his skillful editing of the collection and his superb introduction, as well as to Graywolf for finding the means to replicate so convincingly the cartoons, drawings, and doodles with which the two poets occasionally livened up their already very lively exchanges. Smith has also had the good fortune to discover in one of the letters a previously unknown Tranströmer poem, which Bly later translates. Entitled “Conflict,” it may not rank among Tranströmer’s best efforts, but it ends with one of those hauntingly gnomic images that keep us returning to Tranströmer’s work. It’s also, fittingly, something of a poem about friendship—the speaker and a companion have argued about politics, long into the night. Here’s the poem in its entirety:

After a political argument or wrangle, I become lonesome.
An empty chair opens out into the night sky.
There is no way back. My friend leaves the house.
A heavy moving van rumbles by on the road.
My eyes rest there like wide-awake stones.  end

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