Tomas Gösta Tranströmer (born Stockholm, April 15, 1931 – died Stockholm, March 26, 2015 ) was born in a working-class part of Stockholm to Gösta Tranströmer, a journalist, and Helmy Westberg, a teacher. His parents divorced in 1934. He attended Södra Latin High School and then took degrees (BA Psychology, MS Psychology, Ph.D. Psychology) at Stockholm University, finishing his course work and final degree in 1956. While he attended university he also studied history, literature, poetry and the history of religion.
In 1958 he married Monica Bladh from Stockholm, who worked as a nurse. Tranströmer would then spend the majority of his professional life working in state institutions in small Swedish towns, including Linkoping and Vasteras. He also worked at an institution for juvenile offenders and later at a state-funded labor organization, where he helped disabled people choose careers and counseled parole offenders and patients in drug rehabilitation.
Tranströmer surprised the Swedish literary community by publishing his first book of poetry, 17 Dikter (Seventeen Poems), in 1954 while still a student in his Ph.D. program at Stockholm University. 17 Dikter included only seventeen poems and yet the poems were surprisingly accomplished for a writer of just 23 years. For the next sixteen years, he would average four years between the publication of his first four books, as his composition process was slow and methodical. While each book was more accomplished, he remained a marvel of economy, both in the finished written product and pace of publishing.
In response to the more conservative language and poetic forms of the poets of Sweden during his early years as a beginning writer, Tranströmer decided to adopt a simpler style and language that was more consistent with his personality and outlook. At the same time, Tranströmer’s poems were sophisticated in a way that the poetry of Sweden of the past had not been. Tranströmer wrote about the dualities of the inner and outer worlds we each carry within us in our journey through life, the small moments in a life when a window of perception magically opens. Throughout his writing career Tranströmer has possessed an uncanny depth of perception, wisdom, and understanding of the world. Perhaps his studies and work in the field of psychology combined with his love of the landscape outside of the city where he spent many summers as a boy with his grandfather in the forests and islands. He was also able to see through the mind’s natural window with a native instinct that enables him to connections between the wildness of the internal human mind (the unconscious) and the unpredictable nature of a global village where there is turmoil andconstant change.
From Sweden Tranströmer first corresponded with American writer Robert Bly in Minnesota (USA) in 1964. They later met and Bly would become the central figure in introducing his poetry from Swedish to English for readers worldwide. Although Tranströmer would have many translators of his poetry, it was Bly with whom Tranströmer no doubt found the most affinity as they both shared an interest in explorations of deep image poetry. Having met in the 1960s, Bly and Tranströmer’s relationship would carry them through the next five decades until Tranströmer’s death in March of 2015.
In a conversation with Monica Transtromer when last I visited with her in Stockholm in 2007, Monica remembered the first time they met Bly in the 1960s. She likened the relationship of the two men during those years to young schoolboys, inflamed by the passion of their explorations in the new global modernism of poetry. Both Bly and Tomas shared Nordic heritage, as Robert was born of emigre Norwegians in Minnesota. Bly would become the most reliable ally of Tomas, his dear friend and translator, translating the best-known collections of Tranströmer books. Bly was essential in helping establish the reputation of Tranströmer in English in America and throughout the world.
Bly’s first published book of translations of Tranströmer’s poetry was Twenty Poems, Seventies Press (Madison, MN), 1970. He soon followed with more book translations of Tranströmer: Night Vision, Lillabulero Press (Northwood Narrows, NH), 1971; Elegy: Some October Notes (limited edition), Sceptre Press (Rushden, Northamptonshire, England), 1973; Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets – Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Transtromer, Beacon Press (Boston, MA ), 1975; Truth Barriers, Sierra Books (San Francisco, CA), 1980; The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, Greywolf Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2011; Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer (Minneapolis, MN), 2014.
Numerous collections of Tranströmer’s poetry by other translators include Windows and Stones, translated by May Swenson, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1972, an International Poetry Forum Selection and runner-up for the National Book Award for translation; Selected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Ardis (Ann Arbor, MI), 1981; The Blue House: Four Prose Poems, translated by Göran Malmqvist, Houston, Thunder City Press (Texas), 1987, funded by the Swedish Consulate of New York City; Selected Poems 1954 – 1986, edited by Robert Hass, The Ecco Press (New York City), 1987; The Deleted World, versions by Robin Robertson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York City, NY), 2006; The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, New Directions Books (New York City, NY, 2006); For The Living And The Dead, translated by John F. Deane, Tavern Books (Salt Lake City, UT) , 2012; Baltics, translated by Samuel Charters, Tavern Books (Salt Lake City, UT), 2012.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Tranströmer’s honors include the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, the Aftonbladets Literary Prize, the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Oevralids Prize, the Petrarch Prize in Germany, the Swedish Award from International Poetry Forum, and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize.
Tranströmer suffered a severe medical stroke in 1990, and after several of excellent medical attention and therapy he emerged back into life. He was still confined to a wheelchair but he began to make a few public appearances
as he reengaged with life in his beloved Sweden. After a six-year absence from the publishing he published his collection Sorgegondolen, translated into English as The Grief Gondola by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, Green Integer Books (Los Angeles, CA), 2010. He also published Memories Look At Me: A Memoir, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions Books, 2011), a book that focused on his childhood in Stockholm.
On March 26, 2015, Tomas Tranströmer passed away at home in Stockholm with Monica at his bedside after a brief illness. He was 83 years old.