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Woodworking: Readers: Don't pass up this book of letters

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Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I'm concerned about all the tweeting and blogging and electronic means of communication that goes on these days.

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It's dangerous because everyone seems to be doing it while driving high-powered automobiles, but that's not my worry.

I wonder about what will happen to the time-honored art of letter writing.

Apparently, I'm not alone.

Recently Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, gave a speech at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.

She told a packed audience that she was grateful that her subjects were avid letter writers, letters from which she could draw evidence of their thinking.

So I'm happy to report that some folks still write letters and publishers print them.

Here in River Falls we're fortunate to have a skilled editor who knows how to put such letters together in such a way as to attract national and international attention.

Such an editor is Thomas R. Smith, a River Falls poet and biographer who has garnered lots of attention for a book he edited, "Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer."

Hold on! Don't stop here!

This is a book not only for poets, but also any reader interested in what two of this era's most successful poets think, talk and write about when their guards are down.

In a brilliant introduction, Smith explains how the young poet Robert Bly in 1964 drove 150 miles from his farm in Madison, Minn., to Minneapolis, so he could check out "The Half-Finished Heaven," a new book by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, whose work Bly admired.

When he returned to Madison, what should he find but a letter from Transtromer, the first Bly would receive from the Swede?

But not the last.

For 25 years, during which time they would become more and more famous, the Swede and the Minnesotan exchanged friendly letters, hundreds of them.

Smith, a long-time assistant to Bly, has culled these with great skill, making them accessible to those unacquainted with either poet.

The new book contains almost 300 letters, plus poems by both poets, some translated by Bly, that have never been published. (Their correspondence ended when Transtromer suffered a stroke in 1990.)

Whether you're a poet or not, these letters are a joy to read.

Bly and Transtromer create nicknames for themselves, gossiped about goings-on in the literary world, and took jabs at critics and the fuddy-duddies of academia. They also give their views on politics and the state of the world.

Transtromer comments on the intricacies of the American political process with great sophistication (he roots for Eugene McCarthy for president) and Bly envies the attention poets and their poetry are given in the Swedish press.

And they translate each other's work.

The years pass.

Bly wins the National Book Award in 1968 for "The Light Around the Body." Transtromer works as a psychologist at a prison for boys in Roxtuna, Sweden.

Thomas R. Smith gets into the act and collects poems by both poets and their letters.

First, a Swedish edition of the letters becomes a bestseller in Sweden in 2001.

Transtromer wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, only the second Swede to do so.

Smith digs around in his files and finds his earlier research gathering dust and finds a publisher in Graywolf, the prestigious Twin Cities literary press.

"Airmail," which came out this year, has attracted much interest, even in the U.S. press, not known for its interest in literature.

And Smith finds himself at galas, like the April 2 party at the Swedish Institute that kicked off the book.

Or finding his subject written about by Christopher Benfey in The New Republic: "For me, a Nobel for Transtromer, well deserved, is also a Nobel for his close friend, translator and collaborator Robert Bly."

So maybe all is not lost for those who like to write and read letters.

I just read a prescient remark by Robert Wilensky, a computer scientist, who said, "We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire work of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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