Congratulations Poetry! Congratulations Tomas!


Tomas Tranströmer

by Magdalena Slyk

After I had been studying Swedish for three years, and had begun to read an increasing amount of Swedish literature, I encountered the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer. At first, I found that it was not easy to read and understand all the different images present in one and the same poem, but I grew more and more fascinated by the person who was capable of seeing the whole world through all the small details.

Later, when I started reading Tomas Tranströmer’s writings again, I turned to Memories Look at Me: A Memoir, written in prose. It is quite a short book about his childhood and adolescent years at school in Stockholm, which ends exactly when he begins to write poetry. What stands out is how exceptionally detailed the descriptions are: the reader can imagine every situation and every feeling felt by the little boy. He describes the very early memories from his childhood; school, visits to different museums, war, summers he spent on the island of Runmarö, as well as his interests in entomology (it is worth noting that Tranströmer has in his possession some very rare specimens of various insects).

One particular chapter describes the young Tranströmer’s internal transformation: the little boy who grew up and begun to show more and more of an interest in classical poetry, and who eventually began to write. His literary debut in 1954, 17 poems was a successful one, so much so that it became one of the most acclaimed literary debuts of the decade. After this, he began to publish collections of poetry almost every four years, and has authored 227 poems in 13 books in total. The latest, The Great Enigma is almost his shortest collection (save for Fängelse (Prison) which includes only nine haiku), but the range of poetry in The Great Enigma is wide: he writes poems both long and short, he writes classically inspired poems, modern poems, prose poems and haiku.

Tranströmer ends his memoirs with an account of his interest in classical poetry, such as that of Horace. Though it was the fashion of his contemporaries to rather discourage the use of metrics and rhymes, Tranströmer’s first collection contained a number of classically inspired forms such as Sapphic and Alcaic meter. And yet, it was still the same boy who looked at the world and saw all the big and the small things and was able to bring them together and give them a new, unsuspected meaning.

However, this is not to say that Tranströmer was against the grain of his contemporaries. When he made his debut in the 1950s, Swedish literature was dominated by modernism and also surrealism, impressionism, New Criticism and Eliot’s theory on the objective correlative. Tranströmer was indeed interested in these theories; he read extensively on Eliot, Pound, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Amongst Swedish poets he showed an appreciation of Ekelöf and especially Thoursie. 17 poems, his debut, was described as a volume which followed the current trends and his writings were deemed to be objective.

Tranströmer himself highlights that his first volume is almost entirely devoid of the personal pronoun “I”, but nonetheless it is very egocentric. As later readings of Tranströmer’s work showed, the lyrical subject in his literary output manifested in various ways and not necessarily as the first person pronoun. The variety in presenting the lyrical subject is what makes Tranströmer’s poems more universal: a reader more easily identifies with the lyrical subject thanks to stylistic means such as rhetorical questions and interjected sentences, often in parentheses.

In later volumes we meet the subject playing the role of a traveler, a dreamer, a member of a bigger group or just a subject hidden in pronouns in third person singular, as he or man. It is a subject who observes the world around, spotting nature’s phenomena and the small details of an ordinary life, meditating on various psychological or emotional issues. This subject enjoys life, loves nature but also art and music. But at the same time, he is aware of passing time, and also aware of evil and suffering in the world. It is fascinating how the poet is capable of describing human life in its smallest details and by using various metrical forms. He is capable of writing about death employing as his medium both haiku as well as longer prose forms.

It is also worth noting the Biblical and ancient inspirations in Tranströmer’s poems. Tranströmer is often described as a mystic while his poems are described as “a place of epiphanic experiences”. In my opinion, what is especially interesting is the way Tranströmer uses Biblical quotations married with scenes taken from everyday life. Comparing the voice of a nightingale in “The Nightingale in Badelunda” (“Näktergalen I Badelunda”, 1989) to the voice of a cock makes one think about crowing of a cock when St. Peter thrice denies Jesus. The allusion to the Gospel of Matthew is apparent in the poem as well. In a similar way Tranströmer employs ancient motifs:

The nightingale’s voice rises without wavering to the side, it is as penetrating as a cock-crow, but beautiful and free of vanity. I was in prison and it visited me. I was sick and it visited me.

The poem “Winter’s Gaze” (“Vinterns blick”, 1983) is similar to Demeter and Persephone, from classical Greek mythology, and finds its parallel in the everyday life of a inhabitant of a big city. The poems opens with the description of a blooming cherry tree which echoes the part of her life that Persephone used to spend with her mother, while the descent to underworld suggests the passing of Persephone to Hades:

I lean like a ladder and with my face
reach into the second floor of the cherry tree.
I’m inside the bell of colours, it chimes with sunlight.
I polish off the swarthy red berries faster than four magpies.

At once, after this joyously sunny opening, the tone darkens:
A sudden chill, from a great distance, meets me.
The moment blackens
and remains like an axe-cut in a tree-trunk.

Another thing worth mentioning is the openness of Tranströmer’s poems that does not limit their messages only to the written text but uses “the final opening”. Used mostly in the last line of his poem, it is as if the author encourages an attempt at reading the message in the implied but not uttered words.

Tranströmer also takes an interest in the other arts, especially music. In an interview given in 1983, he said that the art that he valued most was music, followed by painting and only at the end, literature. Music is present in Tranströmer’s poetry as allusions to composers such as Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg as well as musical notation, as in the poem “C-dur”. One can also find in Tranströmer’s poems repetitions, refrains so typical for musical compositions.

Presently, music in particular has become again a very important means of communication for the poet, and it can be even said that it has now superseded the written word. After the stroke he suffered in 1990, Tomas Tranströmer now writes considerably less, with his last two volumes containing poems based on earlier sketches and notes. However, thanks to discipline and a lot of practice he has perfected his piano playing, and plays only compositions written for left-handed pianists. He also has his own bibliography of piano literature including many compositions written especially for him.

Regardless of passing times and changing fashions in literature, Tomas Tranströmer has been consistent both in his style and topics of his poems. Certainly, Tranströmer’s poetry was influenced both by the small details of everyday life and big important events on a world scale. It is this consistency that makes his poetry interesting and noteworthy. It may on face value give an impression of being a blend of trivial thoughts and images, but it deserves closer attention since the message is very often concealed between the lines. Finding the sense of the poem may require giving it a deeper thought: in the same way that the subject is not always presents itself to the reader.

Today, Tomas Tranströmer is a poet whose writings have been translated in more than 60 languages, and he has been named as one of the first poetry candidates for the Noble Prize for almost 20 years. On the 6th of October Peter Englund, who announced this year’s winner of this prestigious award, made many Swedes very happy. This feeling was shared by many poets and friends of Tomas Tranströmer all over the world. At last!

About the Author:

Magdalena Slyk was born in Poland in 1976. She is a teacher and translator at Uppsala University, Sweden. Her dissertation, on Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry and prose, “VEM är jag?”. Det lyriskasubjektet och dess förklädnader i Tomas Tranströmersförfattarskap. (“WHO am I?” The lyrical subject and its disguises inTomas Tranströmer’s poetry and prose), was published in 2010.