Photo of Tomas Tranströmer from publisher Albert Bonniers Forlag
Editor’s note: Steven Ford Brown traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, in February 2007, 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. Tomas Tranströmer received the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature on October 6, 2011.
By Steven Ford Brown
I first met Monica and Tomas in 1983 in Texas. I had left my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a graduate writing program and nominated myself to pick them up at the airport. We immediately had a connection, since I had met Robert Bly in the 1970s and published a profile feature on his poetry in a literary magazine I edited for the English Department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Tranströmers were delighted as their close relationship with Bly dated back to the 1960s.
The arrival of Monica and Tomas on campus coincided that week with the visit of Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker. 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 reading before an enthusiastic audience.
Aware I was a publisher, he asked if I would publish a small selection of prose poems for an American book from one of his books published in Sweden. I said yes, and the result was a beautifully designed 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 Blue House, Thunder City Press, 1987
At the airport, as the plane lifted into blue skies toward Europe, I thought of Tomas as good and kind, gentle in his way, perceptive as in his poetry. The connection and love I saw between Monica and Tomas made it impossible over the years to think of one without the other.
Illustrated in striking blue watercolors by artist and poet David Chorlton of Arizona, the Cultural Office of the Swedish Consulate in New York City provided funds for publication of The Blue House. I mailed five hundred copies to Tomas in Stockholm, and he gave signed copies away to new friends he met and liked on his next American reading tour.
In 2010, Tom Jönsthövel, my Dutch friend, visited Boston from Amsterdam, Netherlands. I had a particular fondness for the title poem of The Blue House book and suggested we develop a concept for a video poem for distribution via Youtube. Tom was not only a Ph.D. in engineering from Delft University in the Netherlands but also recognized as a musician and filmmaker in Europe. After returning to Amsterdam, Tom asked a friend, actress-singer Louise Korthals, to perform a reading of the poem for video production. Tom composed the soundtrack music and filmed and edited the video.
Dutch actress and singer Louise Korthals in 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 a 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 which 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, 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 ten years later. Soon after I moved from Texas to Boston, I became 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, the Poetry Club sponsored a regular reading series, the oldest continuous one in the country. Within a year of joining the Board, I used my previous grant writing experience to write a successful grant of $5,000 to the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., for support of the reading series. The NEA grant included a stipend and travel expenses to bring Tomas Tranströmer from Sweden to Boston for an appearance in Cambridge.
Tranströmer read to a large audience in one of the seminar rooms at Harvard University. More than 300 people filled seats and lined the 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, and he remarked how strange it was to have previously seen me in the flat, dry landscape of Texas, and here again in the snowy landscape of New England. He was in robust health and engaged with the party people.
Some years after Tranströmer’s visit to Cambridge, I encountered Diana Der-Hovanessian in Harvard Square, and she told me Tomas had suffered a stroke. 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.
In 2006 I resigned from employment at a private investment firm in Boston’s Financial District and left to live in various European cities: Amsterdam, London, Paris. Flights then within the European Union were cheap: $100 American to fly from London to Rome. After spending six months living in Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein area, I flew to Barcelona and rented an apartment from a young Catalan school teacher who was fluent in English. The location of the apartment was ten blocks from the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, a stunning Roman Catholic minor basilica that began construction in 1882 from a design by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.
La Basílica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
While in Barcelona, I obtained a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm, and in February 2007, traveled from Barcelona to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. From the airport, I took a train into the center of the city and then taxied to an older part of Stockholm to a four-story building that included an apartment owned by the Union. I found the director waiting for me in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. It was nicely appointed with private bedrooms, a kitchen, and common area. I would share with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a young, attractive Russian woman from Moscow, who 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
Once settled, I called Monica and arranged a meeting at their apartment. The Tranströmer residence was in an older building and included an ancient, creaky elevator with an ornamental iron gate. The apartment itself was spacious and charming. Through large windows oriented to the harbor, we could see the ferries as they departed to Finland.
When I walked into the room, Tomas became animated. I could see, however, the effects of the stroke. He was paralyzed on most of the right side of his body.. He possessed very little speech. He somehow communicated with Monica and she translated for me.
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 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 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.
Special Tranströmer Issue (2006), published in 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 might seem strange a Swedish writer would know of a writer from a distant country like Ecuador. Ecuador is a small country in northwestern South America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, and the Galápagos Islands and Pacific Ocean to the west. Remarkably, Tomas found access to the poetry of Jorge Carrera Andrade 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 in France as Chancellor of the Ecuadorian consulate in Marseilles, Consul General in Le Havre, 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.
With strong tea in porcelain cups and delicate pastries on a polished silver platter, we had a small party. Then Tomas beautifully played piano. With minimal speech, 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 still complete and now focused 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 sheet music evolved from 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 January 1932 in Vienna, Austria, with Wittgenstein as a soloist performing with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
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 Austrian Franz Liszt, Frederic Mompou Dencausse (a Catalan from Barcelona, Spain), the Russians Sergei Prokofiev and Alexander Scriabin, and German Richard Strauss.
Despite his handicap as a result of his stroke, Tranströmer 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 piano of well-known compositions for piano 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.
Austrian concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein
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 to go to his study. Monica and I moved to the kitchen. She opened a closet to reveal a large collection of books. They were all the Tranströmer books translated from Swedish into some 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. We sat and talked. 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.
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, Tomas 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, and Truth Barriers. In 1979, Ironwood, a literary magazine in 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 and the U.K., as he became popular on the U.S. university reading circuit. One of the jokes Tomas told me was he was being paid so much money by American 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.
As I departed Sweden, 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 spirit and still vibrant. Every day he wrote and practiced piano, and Monica was a constant loving presence at his side.
When last I saw him, 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.
October 6, 2011, 6:31 a.m. Boston
Day of the Nobel Prize announcement
Tranströmer Nobel citation in Swedish
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, 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 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, referred to Tranströmer’s “luminous poems that show us all a new window of reality.”
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, Macedonian, Portuguese, 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 Collected Poems
A typical 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, 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 and computers consume us. In this digital age, the images of poetry have lost their attraction. 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.
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.