Monica and Tomas Tranströmer meet newspaper and TV reporters at their home in Stockholm, Sweden October 6, 2011, day of the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement.
In February 2007, Steven Ford Brown traveled from Barcelona, Spain to Stockholm for a Residency at the Swedish Writer’s Union in the city center. 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 student and the Department had an excellent lecture series of visiting writers: Ai, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Marvin Bell, Lorna Dee Cervantes, William Gass, William Matthews, George Plimpton, and Ntozake Shange. Students in the program did not know who Tranströmer was as his reputation was primarily in Europe. I nominated myself to pick Tomas and his wife Monica up at the airport. During the car trip to campus, 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.
The arrival of Monica and Tomas on campus coincided 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 spent time with Moss on the chance he might choose their work for publication. That left the Tranströmers alone to me for a week so I gave them a guided tour of the city. We 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.
As I talked with Tomas during the week, I gave him several books published by Ford-Brown & Co., Publishers and Thunder City Press, two publishing companies I owned. Over a decade, I had published literary work by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, Argentine Enrique Anderson Imbert (Department Chairman and Professor of Hispanic Literature at Harvard University), Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winner Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The list of writers published also included American writers Mark Doty, Andrew Glaze, Pulitzer Prize poet Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Dave Smith, and Paul Zimmer. A beautiful edition of Winter Night: Prose Poems, translations from the German language of Austrian poet Georg Trakl, also caught his eye. 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 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) book, 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 Stockholm. 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 300 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.
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 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 already had a reputation for his work as a musician and filmmaker in Europe, but he also held a degree as a Ph.D. in Engineering from Delft University in the Netherlands. Tom asked a friend, Dutch actress-singer Louise Korthals, to read the poem for video production in Amsterdam. KInd enough to contribute to the project, Korthals is well known in the Netherlands for her music performances, television appearances, and theater roles. Tom filmed and edited raw footage of the video and composed the soundtrack music. Posted to YouTube “The Blue House” video immediately drew thousands of views. Note: Tom Jönsthövel now lives and works in Oslo, Norway.
“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. Video of “The Blue House” copyright © 2011, 2021 by The Lion Publishing Group LLP and Estate of Tomas Tranströmer for United States and Europe.
I corresponded with Monica and Tomas in Sweden 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 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 reading series that is 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 from Sweden to Cambridge for a reading.
Tranströmer read to a large audience in a seminar room at Harvard University in Cambridge. More than 200 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 in a restaurant in Harvard Square. She told me she had received news from Sweden 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 later.
After a decade of employment in administration in the European Banks Department of a private investment firm in Boston’s Financial District, I resigned and departed Boston in late 2006 to visit and live in various European cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, and Stockholm.
I spent six months living in the Netherlands in an apartment in Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein, a district of the city where painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) first established his painting studio. 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 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 by train at Centraal Station to Barcelona, Spain. Located on the coast of northeastern Spain, the city was founded by the Romans in the 15th century. Barcelona is the capital city of the Catalonian region of Spain. With a population of 1.6 million, it is the second-largest city (after Madrid) in Spain, and the seventh-largest city in the European Union.
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 Basílica de la Sagrada Família, the stunning Roman Catholic minor basilica that 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 as 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, totalling 1,810 worldwide.
While in Barcelona, I obtained a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm. In February 2007, I flew from Barcelona to Sweden’s Arlanda Airport. A train into the city center and taxi to an older part of Stockholm delivered me to a four-story building that included an apartment owned by the Writer’s Union.
The Swedish Writer’s Union, first established in 1893, is the central professional organization for literary translators and writers in Sweden. The Charter of the Union “safeguards the economic and moral interests of the members by defending freedom of expression of journalists, media, and press by ensuring compliance with stipulations and laws regulating copyright” according to requirements of the country of Sweden and the European Union. The office of the Writers Union is in Stockholm on Drottninggatan in the city center. The building also houses a guest apartment with rooms for visiting translators and writers.
I found the director waiting in a three-bedroom apartment on the second 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 John Cheever, William Faulkner, and Kurt Vonnegut into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.
Settled in at the Writer’s Union in Stockholm, I called Monica and arranged a meeting at the Tranströmer residence. Located on the southeast harbor seaside 10 miles away from the 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 a ferry with 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 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 featured his photos on the cover. Published in Copenhagen in 2006, 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 American poets Robert Bly, T.S. Eliot, W.S. Merwin, French poet Paul Eluard, and several other prominent European poets of the past century. The magazine included numerous literary articles, an interview, poems from his long literary career, and photographs.
In 1929 Carrera Andrade was posted on the Mediterranean Sea coast of France as Chancellor of the Ecuadorian Consulate in Marseille. He then moved from southern France to begin a four year appointment as Consul General in the Port City of Le Havre on the English Channel. He left France to serve as Consul General in Yokohama, Japan from 1938 to 1940. As World War II expanded across Asia and the European continent, Carrera Andrade transferred from Japan to San Francisco, California, where he served as Consul General to the United States with ties to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.
He later served as 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 at UNESCO, also in Paris. It should be noted Carrera Andrade was among the United Nations Representatives in 1948 that signed the first worldwide Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a result of the massive abuses of ordinary citizens in Europe and rest of the world caught up in the maelstrom of the Second World War.
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. Due to Carrera Andrade’s complete thirty year immersion in French cultural and political life as a diplomat and writer, Barnstone also thought of him as European. .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.
I moved with Monica and Tomas into the dining room and continued our conversation. 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 committed to his life and music. 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. Still, his life was filled with difficulties, and he required physical assistance and often the use of a wheelchair to move through life.
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. As a result of World War I in Europe (1914 – 1918), there was an extraordinary increase in the number and kinds of wounds of combatants. The introduction of modern mechanized weapons (airplanes, machine guns, land mines, tanks) and close hand-to-hand combat increased the number and severity of wounds of surviving soldiers. A musician before the war in Vienna, Austria, Paul Wittgenstein’s right arm was badly wounded in the bitter battle of Galicia, Ukraine (also known as the Battle of Lemberg). Captured by the Russian army, his right arm was amputated at the shoulder in a hospital in a prisoner of war camp in Osten, Siberia.
After the war Wittgenstein not only trained himself to play piano with one hand, “he devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations, that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.” (Wikipedia).
Taking the initiative, Wittgenstein commissioned and paid several noted composers to write scores for piano for only the left hand. This required the composer to convert the two-handed score to one for 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. In Vienna on February 19, 1935, Wittgenstein played at the Premier of “The Schmidt Concerto for Left-hand.” In 1941 he immigrated with his wife and two children to the United States and became a citizen. He died in New York City in 1961.
The commissioned score for piano for the left hand was not just limited to Wittgenstein. The Czech violinist Otakar Holimann 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 Frenchman Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Lithuanian Leopold Godowsky, Frederic Mompou Dencausse (a Catalan from Barcelona), German Richard Strauss, Manuel Ponce of Mexico, and 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.
As I talked with Monica and Tomas the Swedish afternoon grew late. The windows of the apartment were gathering darkness into its rooms. 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 book in the stack. There were additional books translated into 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 the Tranströmers, who had moved to Arsta, Sweden, to escape the politicization of America during the Vietnam War. Sam was best known in life for his work as a record collector of American blues and jazz, as well as an authoritative researcher and writer on the subjects. He also actively participated in the 1960s as a musician and producer in the studio for numerous recording sessions for distribution as pressed to vinyl records. It is perfectly right to suggest that Charters was a genius as his creative range covered too many subjects to mention here. In Sweden he is known for his translation from the Swedish of Baltics (1974), a long poem written by Tranströmer dedicated to his grandfather and his experiences as a sea captain in the Stockholm archipelago. Ann Charters was known for her books and photography of the Beat Generation. As one of the most prolific and true biographers of the central members of The Beat Generation, her books include biographies of Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes, and Jack Kerouac.
Our conversation moved to Robert Bly, now also in his seventies, and 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.
Swedish poetry to an American in the 1960s was an exotic they never even thought about. 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 Rolf Jacobsen (Norway), Juan Ramón Jiménez (Spain), Kabir (India), Antonio Machado (Spain), Rainer Maria Rilke (Austria-Hungary), Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden), and César Vallejo (Peru), he was creating a powerful new presence for world poetry in translation on the American poetry scene.
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 edited by Michael Cuddihy in Tucson, Arizona, published a special issue on the life and literary work of Tranströmer in 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 Seattle, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
I had developed a friendly relationship with Anya at the Swedish Writer’s Union, and as I prepared to depart from Stockholm she offered her email and suggested we stay in touch for possible future literary events in America, Europe, or Moscow. On my way to Arlanda Airport, I stopped at Drottninggatans Bok & Bild bookstore to look for a French Edition of Tranströmer’s Poèmes sélectionnés (Selected Poems), published by Éditions Gallimard in Paris. An elderly man who spoke English owned the bookstore crowded with books from Europe and Russia. Moving through the literary section, I ran my finger over spines of shelved books and titles glowed as my imagination took flight in the music of the Czech, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish languages. I imagined voices of Gloria Fuertes, Günter Grass, Victor Hugo, Milan Kundera, Anna Swir, and Leo Tolstoy, famous writers of Europe and Russia, calling out to me through history and time!
Paying for three books, I discovered later I dropped the slip of paper with Anya’s name and email as I pulled out my credit card. Two weeks later Anya visited the same bookstore on her way back to Russia. She later emailed and explained the bookseller found my slip of paper on the floor and held it. The bookseller seeing her name from her credit card as the same from the slip returned it to her. A month later, she continued contact to update me on her translation of the John Cheever short story she was translating in Moscow.
From my college years, I remember well those films where two people meet by romantic coincidence in a magical European city. In 1956 American actor and dancer Gene Kelly starred in An American in Paris!, a memorable movie that after the end of World War II reignited on screen the magic of Paris as one of the most romantic cities of the world. Before I even visited Europe, there was for me a beautiful music of mystery about the continent. Even the names of cities tripped off the tongue: Brussels, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Vienna. Then I began to travel in Europe and flew to a few select cities, made friends of the cities and a few strangers, in Paris got slightly inebriated with a local Frenchman in a Left Bank café (a centuries old tradition for foreigners), stood under intense sunlight from the glass roof of the Musée d’Orsay (a former Beaux-Arts railway station converted to a museum on the bank of the Seine River) before I moved into the galleries to fall in love with glorious paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gustav Klimt, Henri Rousseau, anf Georges Seurat.
The Seine River from the Eiffel Tower veers towards The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile on the left bank and is embraced by the Louvre Museum and on the right bank by Musée d’Orsay, as if the two museums were jewels connected in an embrace of the river by a beautiful bracelet. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is one kilometer downriver from the museums. The National Library of France (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), the largest and oldest library in Europe, has a collection of 40 million books, 5,000 Ancient Greek manuscripts, and contemporary manuscripts of French writers Apollinaire, Collette, Diderot, Proust, and Sarte. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a distance of four kilometers from the Musée d’Orsay and Louvre Museums.
My trip to Stockholm was the end of this trip to Europe. A visit with Monica and Tomas had been especially meaningful as they had become friends in both my life and imagination. At the Writer’s Union, before I left I shared a conversation with Anya about our mutual interest in the American and Russian writers of our reading histories. As we talked on a bench in the garden, the sky and world around us expanded as literary angels looked down upon us and listened to our conversation. The sky above was busy towing its infinite, luminous blue cargo of birds, clouds, human dreams, and sunlight towards the end of day. We said goodbye and separated in two different directions: I would return to America and Anya back to Moscow. Inspired by the fullness of this trip on the way to the airport, I suddenly wanted to sneak aboard a train and continue on a night trip to Portugal, to Lisbon to enjoy more Europe! Not less, but more Europe.
As the plane took off from Arlanda Airport to America, I thought of how I first met the Tranströmers in 1983 at a university in Texas and then again in 1990 in Boston when Tomas read at Harvard University. From America, I flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Amsterdam, took trains to Paris and Barcelona, and then flew across the European continent to Sweden. This journey in 2007 included travel of five thousand miles, six cities, two continents, and covered twenty-seven years, ending in Stockholm, a city only five hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. At the top of the world, I could see forever into the future and everything that had come before. I had come here to this Swedish city to simply close a circle with the Tranströmers, as this would be the final visit to Europe for years still to come.
It was reassuring to know despite medical misfortune, Tomas was still strong, 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.
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 Coral, 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 (at 2:51 PM Swedish time, 8:51 AM Boston time) 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.”
Tomas Tranströmer is one of the few poets today to have a global readership. Translations of his poetry into sixty global languages are popular in those countries. An idea or image in a line of poetry by Tranströmer translates very well into the Arabic, Chinese, Greek, or Hebrew heart and mind. Imagine a room of college students in Brazil, Croatia, Indonesia, or Thailand debating the meaning of “After a Death,” a well-known Tranströmer poem written after the death of John F. Kennedy.
A Tranströmer poem will indeed include windows and striking images of perception that communicate across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers. He is 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 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. On outdoor train platforms for high-speed bullet trains, hundreds of passengers hold high cell phones fishing for an internet cloud connection. In this digital age, the staggering flood of images and text have overwhelmed all other forms of communication. Consider that in this era, Twitter is the digital 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.
Copyright © 2011, 2021 by Steven Ford Brown.
All rights reserved.