When the Swedish Academy announced Tomas Tranströmer as the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was, first as an admirer and then as one of the poet’s translators, thrilled beyond measure. Not only is Tomas Tranströmer one of the finest and most distinct poets of his generation, he is one of the world’s most beloved poets. These two qualities (genius and popularity) are rarely bedfellows. His books appear in hundreds of editions in nearly sixty languages, and his devoted translators are spread across every inch of the globe. Behind his fellow Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, he is the 20th and now 21st century’s most translated poet. I mention Neruda to offer something of a counterpoint, for Neruda wrote and published thousands of pages of poetry during his lifetime, and his numerous posthumous volumes comprise nearly a thousand more. What Tranströmer has to offer as a Nobel Laureate is something entirely more subtle. Since the publication of his first book, 17 Poems, in 1954, Tomas Tranströmer has set his own quiet course. He was born in 1931 and raised by his single mother in Stockholm’s historically working-class Södermalm neighborhood. He was formally educated in psychology at Stockholm University and worked for several years as a psychologist in youth prisons. He is a well-respected amateur concert pianist and a noted entomologist—the insects he collected and preserved as a young boy on the island of Runmarö in Stockholm’s archipelago are detailed in the book Tomas Tranströmer’s Boyhood Insect Collection from Runmarö by the noted naturalist Fredrik Sjöberg. To see these wooden cases full of insects (exquisitely and methodically arranged), which are still housed in his family’s summer home on Runmarö, is to see into the poet’s belief that there is a great mystery between man and nature, a “great enigma” (to borrow the title of the poet’s most recent full-length collection).
His “career” as a poet, though I hesitate to use such an institutional term, has been that of the expansive minimalist. In terms of publications he has a dozen slim books, none of which contain more than twenty poems. For those who judge art based on output, Tranströmer is sure to disappoint. But for those looking to consider art on its own terms, look no further than the methodical, quiet body of work that Tranströmer has been making since his early 20s. Like Andrei Tarkovsky or Arvo Pärt, Tranströmer has few works, each a distillation of a master image-maker and devotee of silence. I fell in love with Tranströmer’s poetry, like many Americans, through Samuel Charters’ translation of the book-length poem Baltics, which appeared with the incredible (but now defunct) Oyez press in Berkeley, California, in 1975. Here is the first stanza of the second section of Baltics in Charters’ translation:
The wind walks in the pine forest. It sighs heavily, lightly.
In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
forest you’re out on the open sea.
The old woman hated the sighing in the trees, her face hardened
in melancholy when the wind rose:
“You have to think of those out there in the boats.”
But she also heard something else in the sighing, as I do,
(We’re walking together. She’s been dead for thirty years.)
It sighs yes and no, understanding and misunderstanding.
It sighs three children healthy, one in the sanitarium and two
The broad current that blows some flames into life and blows
others out. Conditions.
It sighs: Save me, Lord, the waters are come unto my soul.
You walk around listening for a long time, finally reaching the
point where the boundaries begin to open out
where everything becomes boundaries. An open square sunk in
darkness. People streaming out of the dimly lit buildings
around it. A murmuring.
In this book-length poem, Tranströmer creates a literal and figurative landscape where his family history becomes the psychological, perhaps even the spiritual, history of the poet himself. Time, geography, a family, an island, a country, the labor of seamanship—these elements, and so many more, show a voice whose multiplicities and conjunctions intertwine to resemble something like the layers of a symphony, a symphony of narrative, of the minimal, the liminal, the image, collisions, and fragments.
What turned me from an inspired reader into a translator of Tranströmer’s work is a poem that I consider to be one of the finest ever written, “April and Silence,” which appeared in The Sorrow Gondola, the first collection Tranströmer published after he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with virtually no speech and a partially paralyzed right side:
Spring lies deserted.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
All that shines
are yellow flowers.
I’m carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.
The only thing I want to say
gleams out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnshop.
Why this poem?—allow me borrow some of Charles Simic’s words to explain: “The short poem is a wonder of nature. Epics grow unreadable, empires collapse, languages and cultures die, but there are short, anonymous Egyptian poems, for instance, that have been around as long as the pyramids.... The short poem rejects preamble and summary. It’s about all and everything, the metaphysics of a few words surrounded by much silence.” Poetry at its best is an art that can offer a reader an entire universe of meaning and experience in a small, concise space, a space that opens forever outward into all of the complexities and contradictions of human existence, a space that becomes a sort of eternal moment.
Tranströmer has certainly, and quite rightly, been called a “world poet,” but he’s undeniably a Swedish poet as well as a European poet. The impossibly dark winter days, the still Swedish landscapes, the images of water (there are some 20,000 or 200,000 islands in Sweden, depending on how one defines an island), the ecstasy of summer’s return—these tones and images permeate his poems. Like all Europeans who came of age during the second world war, Tranströmer, and in turn his poetry, is haunted with the impenetrable events that devastated an entire generation. That said, Tranströmer is not a poet to write explicitly about place or the postwar psyche; rather, his poems summon images that haunt by gesture and allusion. Below is my translation of “Two Cities.” Reading this poem, one can’t help but think of Sweden’s wartime neutrality, and the range of complex emotions that one might feel looking out over the waters, knowing that the countries in the distance were occupied or under siege:
On each side of the strait, two cities
one blacked out, occupied by the enemy.
In the other the lamps are burning.
The bright shore hypnotizes the dark one.
I swim out in a trance
on the glittering dark waters.
A low tuba-blast pushes into me.
It’s a friend’s voice, Take your grave and go.
Literary genius takes many forms, defying both definition and categorization. For many, Tomas Tranströmer has been such an artist, a writer whose concision transcends language and geography, a poet who believes the known and unknowable universe can exist in a few carefully placed images and leaps of imagination. More important than being added to some sort of literary canon, what the Nobel Prize will offer Tranströmer is a level of recognition that will give a truly unique body of work to a new generation of readers and translators.
Michael McGriff’s books include Home Burial, Dismantling the Hills, To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry and Translations of David Wevill, and a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. He is the founding editor of Tavern Books, a not-for-profit publisher dedicated to poetry in translation and literary reprints.