Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bly and Tranströmer: Letters

I stopped down at the American Swedish Institute on Tuesday night to attend a book release party for Airmail: The Correspondence of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer. The real parties were going on elsewhere, of course, before and after the reading, but the public had been invited to listen in as Bly read a few letters on stage. 

Roland Thorstensson, a professor of Swedish at Gustavus Adolphus College, served as a stand-in for Tranströmer, who wasn’t present, and in any case can no longer speak since suffering a stroke in 1990. We were told during the introductions that Thorstensson has been involved with Bly and Tranströmer’s literary adventures for decades. In any case, he read wonderfully, with a rich, slow, confident delivery full of the droll humor that seemed to be the common tone of the epistolary exchanges.

Bly’s reading was more erratic. He has a lovely reading voice himself, and he milked some of the earliest letters in the book for their abrupt and vivid imagery. In one letter he describes poet James Wright sulking around  the Bly farmstead near Madison, MN, like “a stone with hair.”

But at some point Bly seemed to tire, or grow bored with the material at hand. With microphone held carelessly away from his mouth, he rushed through a few of the letters as if hurrying on to find the good parts. Near the end of the program he returned to form and sent a cheerful “take that” grimace to the audience after reading what must be some of his favorite Tranströmer stanzas:

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Perhaps he was tired. Jeff Shotts, senior editor of Graywolf Press, had given a longish introduction, and the book’s editor, Thomas R. Smith, followed with an even longer one. Both speeches were interesting; all the same, it was painful to watch Bly shifting uneasily in his chair up on stage like Olivier in Othello. I suppose he’s used to such things.

The most interesting revelation of the evening was that Smith had begun the project a decade ago and then dropped it. I wonder why? It was only revived after Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in 2011.

And the letters themselves? To judge from the small sampling I heard, they contain flashes of brilliance, numerous passages of historic interest, and quite a few merely rhetorical pleasantries. Volumes of correspondence are typically like that. Considering how outspoken Bly tends to be, I’ll bet this one is far better than most.

In the end, the evening was a success, and many of the 300-odd women and men in attendance lined up afterward to get their signed copies of the book. I left feeling I’d gotten a small taste of the Bly that has been much more “present” at other recent events—for example, the reading he gave at Blue Mound last fall.

For a hearty blast of vintage Bly commentary, check out this report of a translating seminar he gave at Stanford in 2008.

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