Nearly 50 years of trans-Atlantic correspondence between two titans of contemporary poetry.
Bly (Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, 2011, etc.), the much-honored American poet, and Tranströmer (The Great Enigma, 2004, etc.), the Swedish 2011 Nobel Laureate, began corresponding in 1964. Both can write the language of the other, so much of their correspondence deals with the intricacies of translation (each was translating the other’s work). Readers will find amusing, even touching, the attempts of each poet to explain linguistic nuances, both sometimes employing rough drawings to clarify. Evident throughout, too, is a profound mutual respect. There is also something quaint about the correspondence. Both men complain about their typewriters, about snail mail and about letters crossing—or arriving late. The two men share political leanings, as well—evident in their mutual love for Joan Baez and their opposition to a procession of American presidents—especially Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Another shared attitude is their disdain for critics. Lack of money for poets and poetry bothers both, and personal matters occupy more space as the years progress. Bly’s infidelity and divorce occasion a small crack in the relationship. They talk of other poets, as well. James Wright and Donald Hall come off well. May Swenson does not—though there is an amusing story about her literally popping Hall’s balloon. The burden of the correspondence shifts back and forth, one writing more than the other, and the letters gradually diminish in number as the digital age asserts itself. There’s playfulness, too. Bly signs some letters “Coleridge”—and “Your faithful blockhead.”
The love of language, poetry, family and friends, all on display in eloquent handwritten or typed letters redolent of a bygone era.