Roundtable

An Artist in the North

A personal reflection on the work of Tomas Tranströmer.

By Celia Farber

Friday, October 14, 2011

 Swedish poet and Nobel Prize laureate Tomas Tranströmer, 2012. Photograph by Ulla Montan/Albert Bonniers Förlag.

The phone rang in the Stockholm apartment of Tomas and Monica Tranströmer, announcing that after eighteen consecutive years of being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 80-year-old poet had won. In the Swedish Academy’s press room, as soon as Tranströmer’s name was uttered—in fact, as soon as the first “T” sounded—the room erupted in joyous screams and applause. There is a difference between writers and poets who are respected, and those who are deeply loved.

Monica—Tranströmer’s wife of fifty years and his voice to the world since he lost his own after a stroke in 1990—opened the door with a big smile and invited in the press just a couple of minutes after receiving the call. Speaking tenderly to him she said, “Tomas, do you understand what all this is about?”

“No,” he said slowly, and everybody laughed. (“No” is one of about four or five words the reluctant and almost entirely mute icon can say, and it doesn’t always mean “no,” which Monica understands.)

With disarming and kind Swedish manners, she explained to the press crowding the flat that Tomas, as they know, can’t talk, and also that they’d only gotten the call three minutes before “you all came crashing in.” The two were in utter shock and had nothing prepared to say. “You’d think after coming so close for so many years we’d have a lot to say, but no, it’s the opposite.”

“Tomas,” she said gingerly, “if I may attempt to say something for you…I imagine what you feel is a combination of joy and…terror, is that right?”

Neeeej,” he said.

“No? It feels rather safe then, does it? You feel safe.”

Jaaa,” said Tranströmer.

“Good,” said Monica, beaming, and the talk turned to what they would eat for their celebration dinner—a quintessentially Swedish concern.

“Fish,” said Monica, her eyes sparkling. “That much we know.”

 

A “deep metaphor” poet, one of the first Swedish modernists, yet schooled in the verses of Catullus and Horace, Tranströmer, has never allowed his work to be weighed down by politics, popular sentiments, or “style.” His poetic space owes more to natural science than to literature—a contemplative objectivity of both self and world; a lens fixed between the interior and the exterior, which he classifies as The Truth Barrier, the title of a collection which includes some of his most famous work.

In a poem called “Preludes,” from the collection Seeing In The Dark, as in so many of Tranströmer’s poems, the theme is not “truth” but the elusive processes involved in grasping it, especially if we only look outward at the world, and not inward at the same time:

          Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves           from outside
                    and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.

          He who notices what is happening cries despairingly: “Stop!
                    Whatever you like, if only I avoid knowing myself.”

If this all sounds wooly and vague, it is anything but. In the information age, Tomas Tranströmer’s adherence to the core idea that reality can never be trapped, caught, or fixed, seems increasingly urgent.

In “Baltics,” he notes jellyfish losing their form when out of water, “…as when an indescribable truth is lifted out of silence and formulated to an inert mass, but they are untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.”

It is a rare reversal of the intellectual tradition of knowingness, and no small wonder Tranströmer, who spent his career as a psychologist for delinquent youth, side-stepped the literary world deftly all through his career, always working a normal job to support his family.

In his 1993 autobiographical prose essay “Minnena Ser Mig” (“The Memories See Me,”) he charmingly dismantles all notions that he raised himself up as a poet. A single child, he was a devoted bug collector, amateur zoologist, and visitor of natural history museums. “The scientific method I was closest to was the Linnean: discover, collect, examine.”

“I was out on endless expeditions,” he writes. “I moved in the great mystery. I learnt that the ground was alive, that there was an infinite world of creeping and flying things living their own rich life without paying the least regard to us.”

One of his strongest memories is of being shamed by a stern librarian for trying to borrow—at too young an age—a book called The Animals of Scandinavia: A History Of Their Migration. (“Out of the question. I blushed. I was furious. I would never forgive her!”) Another time a respected but feared teacher arrived in class with a big mushroom—a Russula aerugina—and set it on his desk. Tranströmer reports it was “both liberating and shocking to have caught a glimpse of his private life. We knew now that Målle gathered mushrooms!” This is about as self-revealing Swedes as of Tranströmer’s generation tend to get.

But the telling line for those seeking clues to Tranströmer’s literary flight path comes in a single deft blow in his autobiography: “Once given the free run of the library I devoted my attention mostly to non-fiction. I left literature to its fate.”

 

Over the decades, Tranströmer has risen and risen not only for what he puts into his poetry but for what he has so steadfastly kept out: recrimination, political fire, self-pity of any kind. He is probably the most mild and forgiving writer who has ever received the prize. It is as if he has done away with the very wound that has seemed to fester at the heart of the literary world, forever. “There is one who is good. There is one who can see all without hating,” he writes in one poem, presumably a reference to a Christ, unmentionable in secular Sweden, but perhaps just as applicable to Tranströmer’s own role of as an innocent in the tortured, envy-driven world of literature.

In Tranströmer there is no fear of the borders between reality, dream, waking-dream, life, or death. It’s all one symphony of sound, melody, metaphor, perception, imagination, or maybe—as I believe—a true portal to other realms.

His persistent yet reassuring alienation is evident in the first line of the first poem, “Prelude,” from his 1954 debut collection, “Waking is a parachute jump from the dream.” With a few exceptions, he avoids the word “I” altogether in his first poems and introduces himself as “the traveler.”

Slightly critical of the pretensions of his debut collection, his later poetry becomes more intimate, warm, generous, and finally so gripping as to virtually transcend whatever it is we believe we mean when we say “poetry.” By the 1970s, he began to transmit something so pure and radiant it seems to dissolve all linguistic self-consciousness—the very skins of poetry.

Everything in poetry that seems to want to separate the poet from the meanings he gleans, or put distance between himself and the reader—everything lofty—is blessedly missing. He is reassuring and uplifting, even about death. In one poem he calls it “the real party,” likening the hue of violet wild flowers to an ecstatic invitation from the underworld. In another, he calmly states, “At long last, when space is black, a plane will come. The passengers will see the cities beneath them glittering like the gold of the Goths.” When asked in an interview if his fear of death, which afflicted him when he was younger, was still with him, he said simply, “No.”

In one often quoted stanza from his poem “Leaflet,” included in his 1989 collection For the Living and the Dead, he actually uses an exclamation mark to drive home the Tranströmerian view of death, supplanting Ingmar Bergman’s dark vision, which earned Sweden a bad rap for half-a-century:

          We living nails hammered down in society!

          One day we shall loosen from everything.
          We shall feel death’s air under our wings
          And become milder and wilder than here.

His poetry seems to work directly on the senses, to wake you up to wonder, often by allowing the mechanical world to come alive just as nature does, in mystical symbiosis. In the short poem “Homewards,” from Tranströmer’s stunning 1978 collection The Truth-Barrier, you get the essence of Tranströmer in all its strange, innocent beauty:

          A telephone call poured out in the night and glittered over the countryside
          and in the suburbs.
          Afterwards I slept uneasily in the hotel bed.
          I was like the needle in a compass carried through the forest by an          
          orienteer with a thumping heart.