The poetry of earth is never dead.
–Tomas Tranströmer, Östersjöar
I was deeply saddened to learn of the March 19 passing of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in Stockholm at the age of 83. He was one of my very favorite poets, and in tribute to his memory I am including here an essay I first posted on October 16, 2010 on my literary blog, Epiphanies in the Rue Sansregret, at a time when Tranströmer was on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He finally received the long-awaited honor in 2011.
In fact, Tranströmer had been a candidate for the prize for over a decade, and each year his fellow Swedes (and so many more of us) anxiously awaited the decision by the Swedish Academy, whose headquarters were just a short distance from Tranströmer’s apartment in Stockholm. And each year we were disappointed while recognizing the honor bestowed on another deserving writer. Unfortunately for myself and others, he did not win in 2010, the prize going to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Still, I think my sentiments expressed in 2010 continued to ring true the following year when Tranströmer was finally recognized by the Swedish Academy "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." So many of us who had come to respect Tranströmer and his work were deeply gratified. The late Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Prize in 1995, perhaps said it best. “Everybody was hoping for that. For years.” He was the first poet in almost two decades to be so honored, and the first Swede since 1974, the year I first met Tranströmer, in Tucson of all places, and began to read his poetry in earnest.
Here is the original 2010 posting. I will conclude with a few more recent thoughts in the wake of the honor presented by the Swedish Academy.
“A Tip of the Hat to Tomas Tranströmer”
Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret, October 16, 2010
Earlier this month British bookmakers offered Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps Sweden’s most noted poet, as a 5/1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him ahead of three other poets ranked at 8/1 - Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis - as well as the Paraguayan playwright Nestor Amarilla. Tranströmer, born in Stockholm in 1931 has, in addition to his career as a noted poet, critic and translator, worked as a psychologist providing vocational guidance to Sweden’s incarcerated juvenile offenders. This year is not the first time that he has been on the bookies’ shortlist for this prestigious honor. I welcomed this news but suspected that Tranströmer would not win since last year’s laureate was a European - the Romanian-born German novelist, poet and essayist, Herta Müller. One hopes that geopolitics would not influence the judges, but it does. A Hispanic writer had not won since 1998, when José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and playwright who passed away in June, took home the Nobel laurels. But when you think about it, no Swede - no Scandinavian - has won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1974 when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, both members of the Swedish Academy, shared the prize. So I was not surprised when the Academy anointed Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa as this year’s winner. He was not the bookmakers choice - his chances were listed as 45/1 - but there can be little argument that Llosa is deserving of the honor.
I will admit that I was pulling for Tranströmer. I have been reading his poetry since I was first introduced to it in English translation almost 40 years ago. Robert Bly, his longtime friend and translator, writing in the introduction to his 1980 translation of Tranströmer’s Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers (1978)], has perhaps captured the essence of Tranströmer’s importance and appeal to readers. His “poems are a luminous example of the ability of poetry that inhabits one culture to travel to another culture and arrive.” I felt an immediate connection to his poems when I first heard him read in the spring of 1974 when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.
I was working on a Master’s degree in German Literature at the time and had been involved with the University’s Ruth Stephan’s Poetry Center since my arrival in Tucson. I was especially drawn to its venerable reading series and the small poetry library located in a house donated by Ms. Stephan (a second donated residence, a small cottage, housed the noted poets visiting the Center). Tranströmer came to Tucson in late February 1974 to give a campus reading. He was also interviewed for the new student literary magazine, Window Rock, which also reprinted a couple of his more recent poems. I was there that evening sitting in the front row. Admittedly, I knew very little about the poet and his work when he took to the stage. He came before us as a relatively new presence and voice. Although he rose to prominence as a promising new voice in his native Sweden in 1954 with the publication of 17 dikter [17 Poems], at the age of 23, it was not until the early 1970s, with the publication of Robert Bly’s translation of 20 Poems (1970), and May Swenson’s translations in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), that English-speaking readers were first introduced to the work of this fine Swedish poet. I read some of these translations prior to that evening, especially after hearing Swenson read in Tucson the previous month when she offered effusive praise for Tranströmer’s poetry. I cannot say that I fully understood them, but I was nevertheless intrigued as I felt he was a new and important poetic voice. There was an inborn authority underlying ever word, every phrase.
Now the evening star burns through cloud.
Trees, fences and houses grow, grow larger
with the dark’s soundless, steepening fall.
And under the star is outlined clear and clearer
the other, secret landscape that lives
the life of contour on night’s X-ray plate.
A shadow draws its sled between the houses,
[“Epilogue,” from 17 dikter, translated by May Swenson]
What I recall from the poems read that evening, and what I have taken from all of his poetry I have read since, is Tranströmer’s very strong sense of place, even when it tends toward the surrealistic at times - Sweden, of course (he has continued to reside in Västerås near Stockholm), but more particularly the islands of Södermalm and Runmarö and the east-central coastal archipelago of his ancestors where Tranströmer spent the summers during his youth. The audience was enwrapped from start to finish and I left that evening a convert.
Tranströmer’s long poem Östersjöar was published in the autumn of 1974, and Samuel Charters acclaimed English translation Baltics was brought out by the Berkeley publisher Oyez in 1975. I read it as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy (which, I recall, was not very easy). It provided entree into an entirely new understanding of Tranströmer’s poetics and use of metaphor, and I agree with the poet Bill Coyle who later wrote that this collection “ is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually.” Again, the strong sense of place - the Stockholm Archipelago, and the Baltic Sea.
In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
forest you’re out on the open sea.
“The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment,” Coyle writes, “with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.” The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, and this long poem reflects the geopolitical realities of the Baltic region and their impact on the poet and his work.
Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no man’s
and break against the stone.
Transtömer returned to Tucson in November 1975 for a reading at which he presented Baltics in its entirety. I had an opportunity to speak with the poet at some length afterwards and he graciously inscribed my copy of the Charters translation of Baltics as well as my copy (one of 600) of the inaugural 1974 number of Window Rock with it’s interview of the poet and the reprints of two of his poems. I went home that evening with a deeper admiration for the poet and his work, but also a better understanding of the plight of these small nations so close to the poet’s native Baltic Archipelago yet suffering under the oppressive Soviet thumb.
And now: the stretch of open water, without doors, the open
that grow broader and broader
the farther you stretch out.
[. . . ]
But it’s a long way to Liepaja.
Baltics came up a few years later, in the autumn of 1979, when I had an opportunity to discuss Tranströmer’s poetry and the plight of the Baltic states with the noted Estonian poet Ivar Ivask (1927-1992), and the Lithuanian historian Vitas S. Vardys (1924-1993) . We shared dinner at the faculty club at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma, and my long conversation with Ivask, who was then the editor-in-chief of World Literature Today and the founder of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which Tranströmer would win in 1990, opened my eyes to other approaches to the poem, including those by Baltic writers in exile.
Tranströmer’s English speaking audience has continued to grow as has his influence on other poets. His work in translation appeared in Robert Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: - Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer (1975). Bly’s translation of Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers, 1978] appeared in 1980, and an entire issue of Michael Cuddihy’s fine journal, Ironwood 13, was devoted to Tranströmer in 1979 (published in Tucson, by the way). Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, containing the work of several of his noted translators and edited by Robert Haas, was published in 1987, and New Collected Poems, translated by Robert Fulton, appeared in 1997. This volume was greatly expanded in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems which represents the first time all of Tranströmer’s poems to date have been available in one volume in English.
I have been lucky to hear Tranströmer read two other times. First, at an evening reading in Stockholm, in the spring of 1985. I had a free evening in the city and it was a treat to hear selections of Östersjöar and other poems read in the original Swedish. Tranströmer was treated like a rock star yet he remained the same humble man I first encountered a decade earlier in Tucson. The last time was here in Washington, DC, when Tranströmer read at the Folger Library, in April 1986. The poet and his poetry had reached a new and recognizable maturity, yet his inner voice, and the voice by which he shared his poems in Stockholm and Washington, were still recognizable from that first time I heard him read in Tucson in 1974. Both, etched by new experiences, remained, spare, clear, and quiet - the benchmarks of his poetry through the years..
Thankfully, Tranströmer at age 79 remains a major poetic voice in the world. Sadly, however, his own voice has been largely silenced by a stroke he suffered in 1990, an event foretold years earlier toward the end of Baltics.
Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be said,
there aren’t any words but maybe a style . . .
[. . .]
Then comes the stroke: right side paralysis and aphasia, can only
grasp short phrases, says wrong words
Can, as a result of this, not be touched by advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he still composes in his own style,
he becomes a medical sensation for the time he has left to live.
Despite the cruel silence imposed upon him, Tomas Tranströmer continues to practice his craft and sharing it with the world. We are certainly thankful for his insights and his ability to help us recognize and transcend the boundaries that encompass us all.
This past December I received an unexpected note from James Wine, a longtime American friend of Tranströmer who now resides in Stockholm, recalling our mutual attendance at the poet’s 1986 reading at the Folger Library when Wine and his wife, who were living here at the time, played host to Tranströmer and his wife during their visit. Wine had recently come across my 2010 posting online and shared it with the poet.
Wine, who is also a partner in Longwalks Productions AB, a creative arts company based in Stockholm with the goal of “making poetry work in the world,” introduced me to “Östersjöar - en dikt av Tomas Tranströmer,” his half-hour remake of a 1993 film first broadcast on Swedish television in 1994. Filmed in Sweden, in the “wonderful labyrinth of islands and water” of the Stockholm Archipelago and on Gotland, Wine states that the remaking of the original film gave him and his partners an opportunity “to dig deeper into the poem, find more authentic materials, lift up passages with fresh perspectives, bringing the imagery to an entirely new level, and all the while maintaining the same distance and character of the original experiment in 1993.” As part of “Den kan vara alles,” a multi-year film project, it also promoted the idea of “allemannsrātten,” the Swedish belief that everyone has a rightful access to nature. Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove calls the film “a marvelous piece . . . it almost manages to bring the smell of the sea into the living room.” Wine provided me with an opportunity to view the new version of the film online and this only reenforced the fact that Tranströmer’s words and music will be missed terribly, that the special place on the bookshelf will never expand.
Robert Bly, a prominent translator of Tranströmer, noted that when the poet began to craft his early poems in the 1950s, it was still possible to write a nature poem in which nothing technological entered. As his career progressed, however, it was not so easy to separate the two, as we see in his 1974 long poem Östersjöar [Baltics] and the mingling of maritime life in that wonderful labyrinth of forested islands and water in his native Stockholm Archipelago. We marvel that the poetry of earth is never truly dead.
The American poet and critic Stephen Burt tells us: “More than most poets, Tranströmer survives translation, since his effects so often come from metaphors, images and situations. Other effects come from silence, from negative space: Few readers object to the brevity of his best-known poems.”
Tranströmer was a hugely popular figure in his home country; an American critic referred to him as “Sweden’s Robert Frost.” The woods are lovely, dark and deep; he has shared his music and words, and earned his sleep.
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