An Afternoon With
Tranströmer In Stockholm
Tranströmer wins Nobel Prize for Literature: Monica and Tomas Tranströmer meet newspaper and TV reporters at their home in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 6, 2011, the day of the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement.
Steven Ford Brown
Editor’s note: Steven Ford Brown traveled in February 2007 to Stockholm, Sweden for a Residency at the Swedish Writer’s Union. During his time in the city, Brown spent an afternoon with Monica and Tomas Tranströmer at their home.
I first met Tomas Tranströmer in 1983 in Texas when he came to a university to lecture. I was a university graduate Creative Writing Program student, and the Department had an excellent lecture series of visiting writers. Students in the program did not know who Tranströmer was, as his reputation was primarily in Europe. I nominated myself to pick him up at the airport. He arrived at the airport with his wife Monica. During the trip to the university, we discussed his forthcoming week-long visit. As we talked, we discovered a mutual connection with writer Robert Bly as I had met him in the 1970s and published a profile feature on his poetry in a literary magazine. The Tranströmers were delighted as their close relationship with Bly dated back to the 1960s.
Monica and Tomas’s arrival on campus coincided that week with the visit of Howard Moss, Poetry Editor of The New Yorker magazine. Ambition is very much an American trait, and most of the writing students chose to spend time with Moss on the chance he might choose their work for publication. That left the Tranströmers alone to me for the week, so I gave them a guided tour of the city. We lunched at an Asian restaurant and visited a music store where Tomas could buy sheet music for piano to add to his growing library at home. Since childhood, Tomas had played piano, and he was as talented with music as he was with poetry. The rest of the week included a poetry workshop and individual meetings with students. He concluded his residency with a public reading before an enthusiastic audience.
Det Blå huset (The Blue House), Tomas Tranströmer,
Thunder City Press, 1987
As we talked during the week, I gave him several books published by Ford-Brown & Co., Publishers, and Thunder City Press, two publishing companies I owned. Writers I had published included American writers Andrew Glaze, Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Dave Smith, and Paul Zimmer. I had also published Winter Night: Prose Poems, a beautifully designed book of translations from the German of Austrian poet George Trakl. Before the week finished and Tomas was to depart, he asked if I would publish an American edition of a book of his poetry translated from Swedish to English. The book he suggested would be a small selection of prose poems from a book published in Sweden. I said yes, and the result was a bilingual (Swedish to English) chapbook, titled Det Blå huset (The Blue House). It included the original Swedish prose poems and translations to English by Göran Malmqvist, a prominent Swedish writer, literary critic, Nobel jurist for the Literature Prize, and friend of Tranströmer.
The Swedish Consulate in New York City provided a cultural arts grant to my publishing company to pay for publication. The book itself was typeset in English in America and Swedish text typeset in Sweden. David Chorlton, an Englishman who had lived in Vienna, Austria, before moving to the United States to live in Phoenix, Arizona, designed the cover in beautiful blue watercolors. Printed as a limited edition of 1,000 copies, I sent 250 copies to Tomas in Stockholm. Tomas liked his frequent American literary tours and wanted a small cache of books to give away as a gift to new people he enjoyed meeting in his travels through the American landscape from New York City to San Francisco and places in between.
Tom Jönsthövel, Amsterdam, Netherlands
In 2010, Tom Jönsthövel, my Dutch friend from Amsterdam, Netherlands, visited Boston, Massachusetts, where I lived. We had previously met and found we had synergy in our particular creative interests: filmmaking, international literature, and music. During this particular visit, we discussed a project for the forthcoming The Official Tomas Tranströmer website. I was fond of The Blue House book’s title poem and suggested we develop a video poem concept for distribution via Youtube. Tom held a degree as a Ph.D. in Engineering from Delft University in the Netherlands. Recognized as a musician and filmmaker in Europe, Tom asked friend, actress-singer Louise Korthals, to read the poem for video production in Amsterdam. Tom composed the soundtrack music and filmed and edited the video.
Dutch actress and singer Louise Korthals
of Amsterdam, Netherlands
“The Blue House”
It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.
It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush. from the inside.
On the other side is open terrain. Formerly a garden, now wilderness. A still surf of weed, pagodas of weed, an unfurling body of text, Upanishades of weed, a Viking fleet of weed, dragon heads, lances, an empire of weed.
Above the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang, thrown again and again. It is related to someone who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse issues from him, a thought, a thought of will: “create. . .draw. ..” In order to escape his destiny in time.
The house resembles a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness which grew forth because someone prematurely renounced the charge of being a child. Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea, and wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.
It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.
A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel that plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.
“The Blue House” by Tomas Tranströmer from The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist of Sweden, published by Thunder City Press. English translation Copyright © 1987 by Göran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I corresponded sporadically with Monica and Tomas after they left. I would not see Tomas again until 1988 after I moved from Texas to Boston, Massachusetts. In Cambridge, I was invited to be a member and Board member of the New England Poetry Club, founded in 1915 at Harvard University by Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell. After its founding, The Poetry Club quickly became one of the most prominent literary institutions in New England, sponsoring a monthly poetry reading series, now the oldest continuous reading series in the United States. Within a year of joining the Board, I used my previous non-profit grant writing experience to write a successful request of $5,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., to support the reading series. The NEA grant included a stipend and travel expenses to bring Tomas Tranströmer from Sweden to Cambridge for a reading.
Tranströmer read to a large audience in a seminar room at Harvard University in Cambridge. More than 300 people filled seats and lined walls as he read. In reading, Tomas provided explanations of his poems and used his dry sense of humor to add levity. And then there were the poems: the beautiful, luminous, remarkable poems.
The after-party was at the Cambridge home of Diana Der Hovanessian, President of the Poetry Club. I made my way through the party to Tomas. He remarked how strange it was to have previously seen me in the flat, dry landscape of Texas and now again in New England’s snowy landscape. He was in robust health and engaged with the party people.
A year after Tranströmer’s visit to Cambridge, I encountered Diana Der Hovanessian in Harvard Square. She told me Tomas had suffered a severe medical stroke in Stockholm. The details were unclear. This stunning news was a shock. I knew he was a man in his late 50s and had lived a healthy lifestyle. Details began to emerge over the next year.
After a decade of employment in administration in the European Banks Department of a private investment firm in Boston’s Financial District, I left in 2006 to visit and live in various European cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, and Paris.
I spent six months living in the Netherlands in an apartment in Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein area, a district of the city where the painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) had established his painting studio and career. Today Rembrandt is known only by his first name as the wunderkind 17th-century artist who became one of the most famous painters of Europe. It should be noted that Rembrandt was also an integral member of the Dutch Golden Age of Painting (1581 – 1672 ) that included Johannes Vermeer, Bartholomeus van der Heist, Pieter de Hooch, Paulus Potter, and Hendrick Corneliszoon van Vliet.
Close to my apartment was the Rembrandt Museum and Anne Frank Museum on the Prinsengracht Canal, named for the Prince of Orange, that runs parallel to the Keizersgracht in central Amsterdam. The Van Gogh Museum was nearby in the Museum Square in Amsterdam South.
After six months of living in Amsterdam, I departed from the Netherlands via the main airport at Schipol and flew to Barcelona in northeastern Spain. Founded as a city by the Romans in the 15th century, Barcelona is the Catalonia region’s capital city. With a population of 4.8 million, it is the fifth-largest city in the European Union.
La Basílica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
In Barcelona I rented an apartment in the Eixample District from a Catalan school teacher who was fluent in English. The location of the apartment was ten blocks from the Basílica de la Sagrada Família. The stunning Roman Catholic minor basilica began construction in 1882 from a design by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. In 1984 UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated Sagrada Família as a World Heritage Site. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church in the Roman Catholic faith and proclaimed it a minor basilica. A major basilica church, of which there are only four in the diocese of Rome, Italy, is an essential part of the global network of major and minor basilicas of the network of Catholic churches, totaling 1,810 worldwide.
While in Barcelona, I obtained a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm, Sweden. In February 2007, I flew from Barcelona to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. I took a train into the city center and taxied to an older part of Stockholm to a four-story building that included an apartment owned by the Swedish Writer’s Union.
The Writer’s Union, first established in 1893, is the central professional organization for writers and literary translators in Sweden. The Charter of the Union “safeguards the economic and moral interests of the members by defending the freedom of expression and of the press, and keeping up to date with copyright stipulations and the laws regulating copyright” in accordance with the laws of the country of Sweden and The European Union. The office of the Union is in Stockholm, as a “Writers’ House” on Drottninggatan in the city center. The building also houses an international guest apartment with rooms for visiting writers and translators.
I found the director waiting for me in a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor. The apartment was spacious with large windows, private bedrooms, a kitchen, and a common area. I was the first to arrive and would share the flat with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a charming young Russian woman named Anya from Moscow. She taught at a university and translated fiction by Cheever, Faulkner, and Vonnegut into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.
Swedish Writers Union, Stockholm, Sweden
Settled in Stockholm, I called Monica and arranged a meeting at the Tranströmer residence. Located on the southeast harbor seaside 10 miles from the Swedish Writer’s Union, I entered the building and took an ancient, creaky lift with an ornamental iron gate to the seventh floor. The apartment itself was spacious and charming. Through large windows oriented to the harbor, I could see ferries full of passengers departing to Finland.
Greeting Tomas in the living room, he became animated and happy to see me. I could see, however, the effects of the stroke. Paralyzed on the right side of his body, he was unable to speak. Monica assisted him in communicating with me as Tomas gestured with his left hand and silently mouthed words to her in Swedish.
I presented him with a recent book, Century of the Death of the Rose, my translation from the Spanish of Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade. I knew he would be sympathetic to the style of poetry. His eyes lit up as he directed Monica to retrieve a magazine from his study. The Danish literary magazine Bogens Verden, published in Copenhagen, featured his photos on the cover. The entire issue was devoted to his life and work in celebration of his 75th birthday. With his left hand, he directed me to a page. The text was in Danish, but there was a separate list in English of his top ten favorite poets and their poems. What a surprise! My poet Carrera Andrade was on the list. The list also included Robert Bly, T.S. Eliot, French poet Paul Eluard, W.S. Merwin, and other important poets of the past century. The magazine also included numerous literary articles and details of his long literary career.
Special Tranströmer Issue (2006), Copenhagen, Denmark
I mention this gift book of Jorge Carrera Andrade to Tomas only in that his readings in world literature were more extensive than one might imagine. In the 1960s when books from different parts of the world traveled slowly, it would be unusual for a Swedish writer to know of a Spanish writer from a very distant country like Ecuador. Ecuador is a small country in northwestern Latin America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, and the Galápagos Islands and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Remarkably, Tomas found access to the poetry of Jorge Carrera Andrade from six poems translated to English in an anthology, Modern European Poetry, edited by Willis Barnstone (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), which was available at that time in Europe.
Carrera Andrade had already lived on and off for decades on the Atlantic coast of France as Chancellor of the Ecuadorian consulate in Marseilles and then Consul General in Le Havre. He later served as a Permanent Representative for Ecuador at the founding of the United Nations in 1947 in New York City, Ambassador to France in Paris, and principal contributor to management at UNESCO, also in Paris. With a French wife and fluent in French, as well as a translator of French poet Pierre Reverdy into Spanish for book publication, Carrera Andrade was seen by some in French and global literary circles as more European than Latin American. Carrera Andrade in Europe was Ecuadorian and remained so throughout his life in every country he traveled to in service to his native country as a diplomat and writer.
(New York: Bantam Books, 1966)
We moved into the dining room and with strong tea in porcelain cups and delicate pastries on a silver platter, we had a small party. Then Tomas beautifully played piano with his left hand. Without the ability to speak, the piano was another way he could communicate to me he was still here on earth, still alive, and still vibrant. His musical powers were complete and now concentrated in his left hand. Although the right side of his body suffered the most powerful blow from the stroke and his right arm and hand were now helpless, he could still walk slowly with a cane and was insistent he not be helped. He had spent part of his career as a psychologist helping accident and stroke victims with their disabilities, so he was unusually well prepared to deal with this transformative act to his body.
Tranströmer plays piano at home in Stockholm, March 2015
In the musical world, there is a genre of piano compositions written for one hand. The innovation in creating such compositions evolved from the handicaps of pianists who had lost a left or right arm or hand. The Austrian Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, but he resumed a musical career by commissioning several composers to write scores for piano that required only the use of the left hand. French composer Maurice Ravel gifted his original score, “Concerto for the Left Hand,” to Wittgenstein. The opus had its premiere on January 5, 1932, in Vienna, Austria, with Wittgenstein as a soloist performing with Robert Heger and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
Austrian concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein
The commissioned music score for piano for the left hand was not limited to just Wittgenstein. The Czech violinist Otakar Hollmann lost the use of his right hand in World War I and switched from violin to continue a musical career playing piano with his left hand. Numerous prominent composers also produced original music scores and arrangements for pianists with handicaps. Composers who took up the challenge included Lithuanian Leopold Godowsky, Frederic Mompou Dencausse (a Catalan from Barcelona, Spain), German Richard Strauss, Mexican Manuel Ponce, the Russian Sergei Prokofiev.
Despite his handicap as a result of his stroke, Tomas continued as an accomplished pianist and often performed piano concerts in Sweden. He recorded a compact disc of readings of poetry -the poetry recorded before his stroke- with his performances on the piano of well-known compositions for left hand by notable composers. The complete recordings are included on a compact disc Klangen sager att friheten finns (The Sound is a Declaration of Freedom), Bonniers Forlag, 2002.
The Sound is a Declaration of Freedom
The Swedish afternoon outside grew late. The windows of the apartment gathered the darkness into itself. I thought of lines from “The Couple,” a Tranströmer poem: “They switch off the light and its white shade/glimmers for a moment before dissolving / like a tablet in a glass of darkness.”
Tomas left the room to go to the bedroom to rest. Monica and I moved to the kitchen. She opened a closet to reveal a large stack of books. They were all the Tranströmer books of that time translated from Swedish into sixty other languages. The time of our meeting was exciting because new books had just been translated and published in Arabic and Chinese. There were five copies of my own The Blue House in the stack. There were additional books translated into French, Hebrew, Italian, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, and many other languages. We sat and talked. We talked about Sam and Ann Charters, Americans and old friends of theirs, who had moved to Sweden to escape the politicization of the American culture during the Vietnam War. Our conversation moved to Robert Bly, now also in his seventies, and she 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 modernism of poetry.
Robert Bly and Tranströmer together in the 1970s
Swedish poetry to an American in the 1960s was an exotic if they ever even thought of it. The hip college crowd and cultural intellectuals of the era knew the films of Ingmar Bergman and novels, plays, and poetry of August Strindberg, but no one knew anything about Swedish poetry. Then Bly began translating and presenting the poetry of Tranströmer to English language audiences. Along with his essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” on the concept of deep image poetry, and his translations of Juan Ramón Jiménez, Kabir, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Francis Ponge, Rainer Maria Rilke, Tranströmer, and César Vallejo, he was creating a powerful new presence for world poetry in translation on the American poetry scene.
Beacon Press of Boston (first edition 1975)
In 1975 Boston’s Beacon Press published Bly’s edition of Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Tranströmer. The book was immediately influential by introducing several generations of poets that demonstrated the lineage of modernism in Swedish poetry. Bly translated and published early American editions of Tranströmer English poetry collections, including Twenty Poems, Night Vision, Truth Barriers, and The Half-Finished Heaven. In 1979, Ironwood, a literary magazine in Tucson, Arizona, published a special issue on Tranströmer with essays by prominent American and Swedish writers.
Over the next four decades, an increasing number of translators published Tranströmer books in America, Australia, China, Europe, and United Kingdom. He also became popular on the American poetry reading circuit. One of the jokes Tomas told me was he was being paid so much money by American institutions and universities he had to visit Swedish tax officials to ask how to do his taxes. He was not used to the celebrity he suddenly had in America. His popularity was so strong he could lecture and read on the East Coast in Boston, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, move on to several universities in the Midwest, and then schedule West Coast appearances in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Bookstore in Stockholm
I had developed a friendly relationship with Anya at the Swedish Writer’s Union and as I prepared to depart from Stockholm she had offered her e-mail and suggested we stay in touch for possible future literary events in America, Europe, or Moscow. On my way to the airport, I stopped at a Bookseller to look for a French Edition of Tranströmer’s Selected Poems published by Éditions Gallimard in Paris. An elderly man who spoke good English owned this little bookstore crowded with books from Europe and Russia. Walking around I ran my hand over the spines of books on shelves, and the titles glowed under my fingers as my imagination took flight in the French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish sections. I imagined voices of Carlos Bousoño, Günter Grass, Victor Hugo, Milan Kundera, Anna Szymborska, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famous writers of Europe and Russia, calling out to me through time and history! Paying for three books I wanted, I discovered later I dropped the slip of paper with name and e-mail of Anya as I pulled my credit card out. Anya visited the same bookstore on her way to fly back to Moscow. She later emailed and explained the bookseller found the slip of paper with her name and e-mail on the floor and held it for my return. The bookseller remembering the e-mail with her name and recognizing the same on her credit card gave the e-mail slip to her. She e-mailed to continue contact and update me on the John Cheever short story she was translating. When traveling on long trips through several countries, I always hope for a little fun with unexpected connections with interesting people along the way.
As the plane took off from Arlanda Airport, I thought of how I had enjoyed the company of the Tranströmers in three landscapes on two continents over twenty-five years. It was reassuring to know despite misfortune, Tomas was in good spirits and still vibrant. Every day he wrote and practiced piano, and Monica was a constant loving presence at his side.
When last I saw Tomas, I understood he had insisted on not the defeat of disability, but the embrace of the victory of an active and continuing life. He still performed piano concerts and readings, although he would now have Monica, an actor, or fellow poet read for him.
In Boston Day of the Nobel Prize Announcement
October 6, 2011, 6:31 a.m.
Seal of City of Boston, Massachusetts
The Nobel Prize For Literature Medal
Gambling in the United Kingdom has been a recreational activity for three centuries, and the British will bet on almost anything. In book mad London, the betting parlors on an annual basis post odds on the potential nominees and winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As recently as October 5, 2011, the odds at Ladbrokes, the leading London betting parlor, to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature were on either Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) or Tranströmer. This morning in the few hours before notification of the winner, it looked as if the odds had swung to Bob Dylan or Haruki Murakami. Several European newspapers were reporting online Bob Dylan. The news came early this morning: It’s Tranströmer! The Nobel announcement on European television was thirty-six seconds long. The Secretary of the Nobel Committee in reporting Tranströmer as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature referred to Tranströmer’s “luminous poems that show us all a new window of reality.”
Tranströmer Nobel citation in Swedish
The international press reacts to announcement of Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize
Tomas Tranströmer is one of the few poets today to have a global readership. Translations of his poetry into Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, Macedonian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Spanish, and Vietnamese are popular in those countries. An idea or image in a line of poetry by Tranströmer translates very well into the Arabic or Chinese heart and mind. Imagine a room of college students in Brazil, Croatia, Indonesia, Israel, Russia or Thailand debating the meaning of “After a Death,” a well-known Tranströmer poem written after the death of John F. Kennedy.
Chinese edition of the Tranströmer Collected Poems
A Tranströmer poem will indeed include windows and striking images of perception that communicate across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers. Thus he has become a populist poet, a traditional role in global societies that has declined in a modern world tied together by technology. Among scholars and the general reading public in countries such as China, Egypt, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, there is still great respect for poetry and its tradition. In the West, we have given ourselves over to technology. We are wired into the grid twenty-four hours a day. Against a daily backdrop of a blizzard of words and images from global news, the internet, and social media, we need natural impulses to resurface to help return us to a connection to the natural world. The flickering screens of cell phones, tablets, and computers consume us. Imagine a rail station anywhere in the world with hundreds of people waiting with cell phones and holding them up in the air fishing for a connection to the great digital river in the in the sky. In this digital age, the images of poetry have lost their attraction. In today’s contemporary fast paced cultural life the end of leisure reading poetry has been reduced in its essence to a digital Twitter version of yesterday’s haiku.
Tomas Tranströmer is an international literary figure of great stature. With translations of his poetry in more than sixty languages, he is the most widely read poet in our lifetime. He has helped bring Sweden to the world and the world to Sweden. His poetry offers opportunities to see things in new ways, to view ourselves against the backdrop of cities and landscapes, the inner and outer worlds in which we simultaneously live. His poetry speaks to us of what it is to live, love, and thrive as a human being in this troubled world.
The King of Sweden presents the Nobel Prize to Tranströmer
Reprinted from the blog Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, October 15, 2011, Copyright © 2011 by Steven Ford Brown. Used with permission of Ibbetson Street Press.