Literary Pen Pals

Robert Bly first met Tomas Tranströmer in a letter. He was living in Madison, Minnesota, at the time, in 1964. And as it happens, on the day the letter arrived, he was in Minneapolis, searching for a copy of Tranströmer’s latest work.

A friendship was struck, first in letters and then in person. Over the next 50 years, as the two men accumulated accolades (a National Book Award for Bly, a Nobel Prize for Tranströmer), they continued to write each other about their lives and work and politics. Here, a few excerpts from Airmail (Graywolf, $35), a new book featuring 290 of their letters and the poems, in various states of completion, being sent back and forth.

Roxtuna, October 30, 1965

Dear Robert,
The other day I finally had that roll of film we took last summer developed. I must say the portrait of you came out well—you’ll have it as soon as I get another print made. The sight of the Minnesota man’s red face exalted with genius made a torrent of questions grow within us like a drumroll: WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU? (And what has become of America—that’s something else I’d like to know.)

Aug [March] 18, 66

Dear Tomas,
Herewith a few notes on the Three Presidents: When he says, “I ate the Cubans with a straw” he implies that they are so spineless, so weak, so soft that he could suck them all up inside a straw—he wouldn’t even need teeth to eat them. Typical American superiority complex toward the South Americans or Spanish-Americans. … The strange thing about Kennedy is was that he was able to evade American anti-intellectualism, American anti-communism, and he did it by being curiously fluid—he didn’t fight with the rocks, he just flowed around them and reformed on the other side.

Västerås 22-8-74

Dear Robert,
Another of your fads, the brain-philosophy, had a fantastic confirmation lately—the last months of President Nixon, the reptile brain fighting long after the battle was lost. The whole tape story also has something to do with reptile thinking, the need to roll up, to protect oneself with winding things.

January 10, 1988

Dear Tomas,
Thank you for your lovely letter. I have been writing an essay on the naïve male and I think you must qualify for one with your heart-wrenching tale of being sorry for two Poles whom you unmercifully pressed against in the train corridor. They probably have a girlfriend now ,working at the Swedish embassy getting the names and photographs of other Swedes coming to Poland.

To learn more about their friendship, read “Men of Letters.”