The Mystique of Tomas Tranströmer



November 5, 2011, 4:01 AM IST


Once in a sterile while, there happen those rare untethered moments when one is catapulted from the humdrum to a sublime plane. I had just invoked the name of Tomas Tranströmer vis-à-vis another piece of writing when my son rang to tell me that Tranströmer had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and I hit the ceiling.

My mind immediately went back to The World Poetry Festival (Vagarth) held at Bharat Bhavan, in Bhopal in 1989, where I first met Tranströmer. I still remember his sonorous voice reading, inter-alia, from his oeuvre, the lines: “Each man is a half-open door leading to a room for all,” which set the key-note for the Festival. He had later inscribed these words in my souvenir copy.

Three-way engagement

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer is a writer, poet and translator acclaimed as one of the most important Scandinavian writers since World War II. He has published 15 collections of poetry and has been translated into over 60 languages. He worked as a psychologist until 1990. He also plays the piano and there is a constant cross-flow and symbiosis between all three engagements.

Among Tranströmer’s many awards are the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, The Petrarca-Pries in Germany, The Golden Wreath of The Struga Poetry Evenings, and the Swedish Award from International Poetry Forum.In 2007, Tranströmer received a special Lifetime Recognition Award given by the trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence in Poetry. His crowning glory has been the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2011.

It is a measure of his humanism that he visited the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 long before Vagarth. His empathy for the human condition comes across even in a casual encounter.

Tall, imposing, with an arresting personality, Tranströmer strides the international scene like a colossus. There is a heightened awareness in his poetry, a state of sharpened perception. The outstanding characteristic of all his writing is a keenly visualised sense of all his poems.

Sense of rhythm

“I love images,” he says. “I have abstract images also; my memory is very visual too.” This is clear from these lines: “The lake is a window into the earth.” “I put on my sun-glasses, The birdsong darkens.” “…their most secret thoughts meet and flow into each other/As when two colours meet and flow into each other on the wet paper of a school-boy’s painting.”

Tranströmer has an innate sense of rhythm and, in the original Swedish, his poems have an unmistakeable music of their own, which ties up with his love of music.

Though he is deprecating about being called a mystic or religious poet, he does “respond to reality in such a way that I look on existence as a great mystery, and at certain moments, this mystery carries a strong charge, and it is often in such a context that I write. So that these poems are all the time pointing to a greater context: one that is incomprehensible to our everyday reason. Although it begins in something very concrete.”

The Hindu

The Beauty Of Stillness


Nobel Literature Winner Tomas Tranströmer

by John Freeman

October 6, 2011

Paula Tranströmer/AP

Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature October 6


Like a glass-blower by a wintry sea, Tomas Tranströmer has been slowly and painstakingly making poems in his native Stockholm since the early 1950s. In his debut work, the modestly titled Seventeen Poems, published when Tranströmer was just 23, the Swedish poet imagined Thoreau in the woods, “disappearing deep in his inner greenness/artful and hopeful.”

A private man in his work and life, Tranströmer has been following Thoreau’s example for 50 years. He will have more difficulty doing that after today’s announcement that he is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In truth, though, Tranströmer is far from obscure. Since the 1960s, when his work first began to appear in English — translated by Robert Bly, Robert Hass, May Swenson and others — he has been one of the most regularly translated European poets. On this, the morning of the prize, Tranströmer has already been translated into over 50 languages.

Read full review

Wonderful Centipedes



Wonderful Centipedes: The Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer

Posted October 12, 2011
Franz Schubert’s handwritten sheet music

by Niklas Schiöler


The opening lines of Tomas Tranströmer’s poem ”Schubertiana” from 1978 are:

In the evening darkness at a place outside New York, an outlook where
you can perceive eight million people’s homes in
a single glance.
The giant city there is a long flickering drift, a spiral galaxy
from the side.

But soon, after the snapshots of the grim and chilly human conditions of the giant city, the first part of the poem ends with these relief-giving lines:

I know too – without statistics – that Schubert’s being played in
some room there and for someone the tones at this moment
are more real than anything else.

A radically different scene is depicted, and suddenly the attention is directed differently; a detail dashes in which makes everything else insignificant. The zooming-in catches a spark of life in the middle of the concrete urban landscape.

It is later on in the poem, that after having enumerated some of daily life’s inevitable worries, a stunning image appears. The music makes us, the poem whispers in our ears, believe in something different, something more urgent and important – and Schubert’s string music escorts us a part of the way there.

Like when the light goes out on the stairs and the hand follows –
with confidence – the blind banister that finds its way in the

Thus, the invisible becomes concrete and the hidden truths become discernible. It is a vision that interprets the world.

Perhaps it is this curious view of life, shaped with such visual exactness, and at the same time, with quiet matter-of-factness, that draws ever more readers to Tranströmer. His poetic investigation of the complex human identity, as well as his construction of bridges between nature, history and the dead never results in structured patterns or in loud-voiced confessions. His poetry is a tranquil affirmation of few words.

The lure of existential secrets, the sensibility to our inner sources of energy, is invoked by Tranströmer’s concreteness. No sweeping statements, no abstractions. By recording the particulars of the physical world, wider connections can be perceptible and the liberating insights can emerge.

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Review of Sorrow Gondola




The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Tranströmer

by M. Zobel on Sep 11, 2011 • 1:32 pm

“What Tranströmer expresses so eloquently in these lines is the idea that our lives are fleeting in relation to our history—the “cold sphinx, / empty arenas”—and even more so in relation to “Light and silent constellations. / The cold sea.” We are ultimately condemned to silence and have to make do with “the small script of the grass / and the laughter from cellars.”

 Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola (Green Integer, 2010), translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, depicts the poet’s own speechlessness caused by a stroke in 1990, while depicting the lives and works of important figures in art, such as the composers Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner. Along with the themes of silence and music, the collection takes its name from Liszt’s work La lugubre gondola, which was inspired by Wagner’s sickness and death in Venice. Due to the magnificent work of translators McGriff and Grassl, Tranströmer’s voice itself becomes the “sorrow gondola” that is rowing down the millennia-old canals of history and art.

 The potential for music and utterance represents the gift and the burden of the artist faced with speechlessness, as the opening poem “April and Silence” exemplifies: “I’m carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.” Allusions to Greek mythology, the Bible, and more recent historical events, such as WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union (which coincides with Tranströmer’s stroke), expand the burden of unique talents to the burden of being in power. The lines, “Earrings [that] dangle like the sword above Damocles,” a “King Midas / … who turns everything he touches into Wagner,” and a “Jesus [who holds] up a coin / with Tiberius in profile / a profile without love / power in circulation” aptly express this weight, shared by the poet, for “what happens is always more than we can carry.”

Read full review

A Swedish master of mysticism leaves the reader spellbound home

New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer – review

A Swedish master of mysticism leaves the reader spellbound

Illustration by Clifford Harper/ by Clifford Harper/

New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 2011

Mystical poetry: the phrase conjures fridge-magnet platitudes and joss sticks. But the mysticism of Tomas Tranströmer is grounded firmly in close observation of both the natural world and human psychology (he has worked as a psychologist all his life). He does not present his poems as nuggets of wisdom to be pondered: instead, they tend to chart a progression from concrete reality to a heightened state of awareness, as in “Winter’s Gaze”:

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.

Nothing could be more traditionally “poetic” than to contemplate the changing of the seasons in terms of changing emotional states; but simply by manipulating the timeframe – by having winter arrive with surreal speed – Tranströmer allows us to apprehend both from a fresh perspective.

Tranströmer is that rare thing: a non-English-language poet who has been fully accepted into British and US poetry in his own lifetime. In the 60s he became associated with Robert Bly and the Deep Image school of US poetry, and in the early 90s (after the publication of the first edition of this book) many UK poets caught on. More recently, Robin Robertson translated a selection of his poems in The Deleted World, and hopefully this new volume of Robin Fulton’s translations (which includes Tranströmer’s most recent work as well as some previously uncollected haiku and a prose memoir) will confirm a third wave of interest in this poet’s work.

Read the full review at The Guardian.UK