Tranströmer Biography

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Tomas Gösta Tranströmer (April 15, 1931 – March 26, 2015) was born in a Stockholm, Sweden working-class neighborhood to Gösta Tranströmer, a journalist, and Helmy Westerberg, a teacher. He attended and graduated from Södra Latin High School and received degrees (BA in Psychology, MS in Psychology, and Ph.D. in Psychology) from Stockholm University in 1956. While attending university, he also studied history, literature, poetry, and religion.


Monica and Tomas

In 1958 he married Monica Bladh, a nurse with a degree from the University of Stockholm. Rather than stay in the busy city they grew up in, Monica and Tomas spent the majority of their professional lives working in small Swedish towns, including Linköping and Västerås. Tomas worked at an institution for juvenile offenders, a state-funded labor organization that assisted disabled people, counseled young parole offenders, and patients in drug rehabilitation.


17 Dikter, 1954

Tomas surprised the Swedish literary community by publishing his first book of poetry, 17 Dikter (Seventeen Poems), in 1954 while still a student in his Ph.D. program at Stockholm University.  The poems of 17 Dikter were remarkably accomplished for a writer of just 23 years. For the next sixteen years, he would average four years between publication of his first four books, as his composition process was slow and methodical. While each book was more accomplished, he remained a marvel of economy, both in finished written product and pace of publishing.

In response to the conservative language and poetic forms of Swedish poets during his early years in the 1950s and ’60s, as a beginning writer Tranströmer decided to adopt a style and language more consistent with his personality and outlook. At the same time, his poems were sophisticated in a way Swedish poetry of the past had not been. Tranströmer wrote about the dualities of the inner and outer worlds we each carry within as we journey through life. His poetry quietly reveals small moments in life when a window of dream and perception magically opens. Throughout his writing career Tranströmer has possessed an uncanny depth of perception, wisdom, and understanding of the world around him.

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Tomas and grandfather Karl Helmer Westerberg, island of Runmarö, 1930s

His work as a psychologist, combined with his love of the expansive natural forest landscapes of Sweden and Baltic Sea allowed him more freedom of thought.  As a boy, he spent summers with his grandfather Carl Helmer Westerberg who worked as a ship’s pilot on the island of Runmarö.

Revelations appear in his poems that connect the undisciplined wildness of the unconscious to the disciplined citizen-writer-poet that allows him to hot wire a strange beauty into a poetic line. Tranströmer is always calm among the chaos of the world.  There is a meditative religious impulse that reverberates throughout his poetry. He is a careful wordsmith intellectual and instinctive in reaching out as far as he can for the rare beauty that alights on a tree branch just as the world is waking up. That means each day has much more to share.  In closing consider this line from “After A Death”: “It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat/ but often the shadow seems more real than the body.”


Robert Bly with Tranströmer in Minnesota

Tranströmer first corresponded from Sweden by mail in 1964 with American writer Robert Bly in Minnesota (USA). As they communicated back and forth, Bly and Tomas began to develop a theory of poetry as an instrument of “deep poetry.” Rather than the laconic poetry of flowery poets that filled anthologies with love poetry in commercial bookstores in the shopping malls, they were both looking within for the powerful search lights of the soul that would highlight the ghostly and real figures that sometimes inhabit our dreams and the real world.

Bly would become a central figure in introducing Tranströmer’s poetry in translation from Swedish to English for readers world-wide. Although Tranströmer would have many translators of his poetry, it was Bly with whom Tranströmer found the most affinity as they both shared a Nordic heritage from Norway and Sweden. Both men had a similar interest in leaving behind the provincial literatures of their two countries to launch their boats to sail across oceans in search of a new language in poetry that reflected the growing universal nature of the changing modern world. By the late 1980s planet Earth was growing by leaps and bounds to interconnect across the vast distances the new digital revolution of the internet as new poetic voices in different languages emerged from many different countries.

Having met in the 1960s when Bly traveled to Oslo, Norway on a Fulbright fellowship the Tranströmer relationship would carry them through as close friends for the next five decades until Tranströmer’s death in March of 2015.

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The Half-Finished Heaven, 2011

Bly’s first published book of translations of Tranströmer’s poetry was Twenty Poems, Seventies Press (Madison, MN), 1970. He soon followed with more book translations of Tranströmer: Night Vision, Lillabulero Press (Northwood Narrows, NH), 1971; Elegy: Some October Notes (limited edition), Sceptre Press (Rushden, Northamptonshire, England), 1973; Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Transtromer, Beacon Press (Boston, MA ), 1975; Truth Barriers, Sierra Books (San Francisco, CA), 1980; The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, Greywolf Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2011; Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, (Greywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN), 2014.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Tranströmer’s literary honors include the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry (Canada), the Aftonbladets Literary Prize (Sweden), the Bonnier Award for Poetry(Sweden), the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (from World Literature Today, a literary magazine at the university of Oklahoma), the Petrarch Prize (Germany), the Swedish Award from the International Poetry Forum (University of Pittsburgh), and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize.

Tranströmer suffered a severe medical stroke in 1990, and after years of excellent medical attention and therapy, he emerged back into life.  Still confined to a wheelchair, he began to make a few public appearances in Sweden and America to receive prestigious awards. After a six-year absence from publishing, he published a new book of poetry translated into English as The Grief Gondola by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, Green Integer Books (Los Angeles, CA), 2010. He also published Memories Look At Me: A Memoir, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions Books, 2011), a book that focused on his childhood in Stockholm.

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Tranströmer’s memoir of childhood, 2011

After a brief illness on March 26, 2015, Tomas Tranströmer passed away at home in Stockholm with Monica and his two daughters, Emma and Paula, at his bedside.  He was 83 years old.