Men of Letters
A Nobel Prize, a National Book Award,
and a friendship for the ages
In 1964, Robert Bly was living in Madison, Minnesota, publishing poets from across the world. Tomas Tranströmer, a psychologist by training, was igniting Sweden with his poetic insights into the mind. The two men, destined to win a National Book Award (Bly in 1968) and a Nobel Prize (Tranströmer in 2011), began corresponding. Bly, in Minneapolis, is now 86 and dealing with Alzheimer’s. Tranströmer suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. A new book, Airmail ($30, Graywolf), compiles nearly 300 of their letters. We asked Bly to reflect on the friendship.
What attracted you to Tomas’s work?
I loved the way he could speak so calmly, as if talking to a friend, and nevertheless put in his opinions about weighty subjects. He was (and is) a genius with the image and had a better friendship with it than any American poet I was acquainted with at that time.
Do you have a favorite poem of his?
My favorite poem of Tomas’s is, I think, “The Scattered Congregation.” The second stanza says, Inside the church, pillars and vaulting / white as plaster / like the cast around the broken arm of faith. Another stanza says, But the church bells have gone underground. / They’re hanging in the sewage pipes. / Whenever we take a step, they ring. That’s amazing; we all know that the church bells are not as much alive inside of us as they were, but he says they’re still there. It’s a brilliant metaphor.
Tomas has a background in psychology. How does this come through in his poetry?
He’s always ready to see a friend turn his back and disappear, so reading him is like listening to two people at once. One minute he’s there, the next minute he’s in Australia.
You and Tomas joked about who would receive a Nobel Prize. Were you concerned that good work was going unnoticed?
Well, the Nobel Prize is always a little like an apple held at the end of a long stick. We’ve received a lot of attention—as much as we deserve—so there’s no complaining.
Excerpts from Airmail
Bly appraising the hip poets in 1964: “Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov…those three are genuine. Ginsberg is very intelligent, but considerably less a poet than someone like Snyder. The rest of the people are nightmarish.”
Tranströmer on Nixon’s resignation: “I think everyone who voted for [Nixon] should go to jail for three minutes (of silence).”