There’s nothing quite like a Nobel announcement for showing up the arts media at their sour and ignorant worst. Reactions to Tomas Tranströmer’s 2011 win of the literature prize ranged from a flat “Who?” in the New York Times to the suggestion, repeated in several places, that giving the award to a Swedish poet amounted to insider trading on the part of the Swedish Academy. One British paper offered ‘Ten Things You Never Knew About the Poet You Never Knew’, but then rather spoiled the joke by confirming that Tranströmer is translated into some fifty languages, so no real excuse for not knowing him.
A further nine things to bring us up to speed might include that he was born in 1931, and raised by his divorced schoolteacher mother; that he began writing poetry in his teens and published his first book 17 dikter in 1954; that he trained as a psychologist and worked in that capacity at the Roxtuna borstal, writing poetry on the side; that he is a skilled pianist who has performed internationally; that in Sweden he is known as the “buzzard poet” for his seeming ability to view the world from aloft, though lest this implies indifference to human suffering he did also take part in a poetry reading outside the stricken Bhopal plant in 1984 to show solidarity with victims of a devastating explosion and chemical leak; that he suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him partially paralysed and speechless, but still able to write verse (and to play one-handed piano). One American paper even managed to imply that giving such a large prize to a sick old man who couldn’t even say thank you let alone deliver a rousing acceptance speech was, well, a bit of a waste.
In truth, Tranströmer is one of the more deserving literature laureates of recent years and of unimpeachably “ideal” intention, as the Nobel citation prescribes. He has long been available in English, translated by the Scottish poet Robin Fulton, who has lived in Scandinavia for many years (and in Ameri-can, translated by his friend Robert Bly). The Bloodaxe New Collected Poems, published in 1997 with a beautiful snow-angel cover, is set for update and republication in response to the Nobel award.
There is, then, no ground for controversy over the Academy’s choice. It is, after all, nearly forty years since a Swedish writer was so recognised. Admittedly, in 1974 there was some consternation over the giving of the literature prize to two Swedes, Eyvind John-son and Harry Martinson, who served on the Nobel committee and who were preferred to that year’s favourite Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow (who won two years later) and that eternal also-ran Graham Greene. Cries of “fix” led to Martinson’s declining to speak at the award ceremony, and later attempting suicide with a pair of scissors. Ever since, commentators have routinely stated that neither writer was known outside his native country, this despite the fact that Martin-son’s strange, beautiful Nasslörna blomma, published in 1935, was at once translated into English, though inaccurately and misleadingly titled Flowering Nettle.
One of the further confirmations of Tranströmer’s fitness for the Nobel Prize is how readily – one oughtn’t to say ‘easily’ – he translates. Unlike, say, Per Lagerkvist, whose verse depends rather largely on specific cadences and resonances in the Swedish language, Tranströmer’s language has a glassy transparency. The imagery is pin-sharp and plainly stated, but it is also heavily metaphorical. Even when Tranströmer tries to convey a kind of synaesthesia in the 1996 collection Sorgegondolen (The Sad Gondola), the first book since the devastating stroke (which may explain the disruption of the senses), he does so with a sensuous immediacy to which everyone can relate. Could there be a better evocation of the lovely strangeness of being in the dark in not-quite-summer than these lines from ‘A Page of the Night-Book’:
I stepped ashore one May night
in the cool moonshine
where grass and flowers were grey but the scent green.
Or how about the chilly snapshots of ‘Six Winters’ from the earlier collection För levande och döda (For Living and Dead), published immediately before his illness: ‘3 / One wartime winter when I lay sick / a huge icicle grew outside the window. / Neighbour and harpoon, unexplained memory. 4 / Ice hangs down from the roof-edge. Icicles: the upside-down gothic. / Abstract cattle, udders of glass, and unforgettably, 6 / Tonight, snow-haze, moonlight. The moonlight jellyfish itself / is floating before us. Our smiles / on the way home. Bewitched avenue.’
Interestingly, for a poet who so consistently overturns the natural or familiar relationship between realms, perhaps from growing up in a country where summer is all light and winter all dark, where water is solid or the air continentally hot, Tranströmer has always reversed the usual imagery that applies to any coming into consciousness. Where most of us describe wakening as rising, and fresh awareness as a coming to the surface, Tranströmer almost invariably describes them in terms of a downward plunge, an immersion in reality. He creates striking effects with these reversals, as in the prose ‘Madrigal’, also from För levande och döda, which begins ‘I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go’. It is difficult not to read that as a reference to his own vast but lightly worn reading. He talks later in the same poem about graduating from ‘a university of oblivion’, forgetfulness in a world in which the usual moral compass has reversed its magnetism: ‘The most serious crimes will remain unsolved in spite of the efforts of many policemen.’
Perhaps as a reminder that even internationally read and appreciated authors are not necessarily read in quite the same way at home, almost every British commentator referred to the plain, almost pictorial nature of Tranströmer’s verse, while all the Swedish friends I spoke to after the Nobel announcement concentrated on his use of dream and metaphor. Saxophonist Mats Gustafs-son e-mailed an excited reaction ‘rockin’!!!’ finally after all the years a focus on a writer that can express real complex situations/ images in such a precise way, without overdoing anything’. This is spot on. There is no ‘metaphysical’ strain about Tranströmer’s use of metaphor, which always seems con-substantial (a good Lutheran concept) with the thing or state it is intended to describe.
The Swedes’ nickname for him is certainly not intended to imply a lofty disregard or a lack of interest in unaesthetic nitty-gritty. Again, he is a poet whose close focus does not militate against expansiveness. In the title poem of Sorgegondolen (and most people will have picked up the pianistic echo), there is a confident cosmopolitanism and culture:
Two old men, father-in-law and son-in- law, Liszt and Wagner, are staying by the Grand Canal
together with the restless woman who married King Midas
the man who transforms everything he touches into Wagner.
This is typical, not just for its mix of subject matter, real-life and mythical, music and place, but for the way that long, protracted first line leads us to expect prose and straightforwardness, only to be thrown off by the change of key and “poetic” metre of the second. His music is, always, a complex music, folkish at root but filled with improvisatory complexities. Small wonder that jazz musicians have been attracted to a jazz-playing poet. Another saxophonist, Jan Garbarek, has a record with a Tranströmer title, It’s OK To Listen To The Grey Voice. In that same e-mail Gustafsson reminded me of Tranströmer’s poetic definition of music as a house of glass on a rocky slope that remains unbroken even as the rocks fly through.
It works as a self-definition as well. Trans-trömer doesn’t offer too many aids to reading of his work or personality. There is in the poetry a typically Scandinavian opposition between seemingly empty landscapes and seemingly busy, but actually empty interiors. Think of all those Swedish canvases in which a whole blank landscape seems to be gathered round one tiny human light, signifying habitation, and how often people in Swedish paintings are shown from the rear, faceless but looking outward. Tranströmer makes some reference to this (or strictly to landscape-with-figures) in one of his rare long poems Östersjöar (Baltics) from 1974. In a prose poem from Sorgegondolen he seems to liken himself to the cuckoo that summers in Sweden and winters in Zaire: ‘I am no longer so fond of making journeys. But the journey visits me.’ It is poem about ageing and about narrowing personal horizons. ‘Always there is more happening than we can bear. There is nothing to be surprised at. These thoughts bear me as faithfully as Susi and Chuma bore Livingstone’s embalmed body right through Africa.’ Amazing! The only more explicit attempt to pin down his own nature comes in a chapter of memoirs appended to the collected poems in which, contrary to the usual Freudian “iceberg” model of the mind (which Tranströmer would of course be familiar with) he likens himself and his life and his way of processing experience to the course and composition of a comet, whose nucleus, the famous ‘dirty snowball’, is relatively insignificant but whose tail stretches across the sky, gas and dust illuminated by cosmic energy and unending movement. That is Tranströmer.