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Tomas Tranströmer (1931-)


Swedish poet, psychologist, and translator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011. Tranströmer has occupied an influential position in Swedish literature from the 1950s. In the English-speaking world he is perhaps the best-known modern Scandinavian poet. Typical for Tranströmer's work is surrealistic imagery – a stamp is seen as a magic carpet, the shadows of the trees are black numbers, and a crowd of people makes a rough-surfaced mirror. Often called a poet's poet, his translators include such names as J. Bernlef, Caj Westerberg, Robert Bly, Bei Dao, Joseph Brodsky, and Czeslaw Milosz.

"Musiken är ett glashus på sluttningen
där stenarna flyger, stenarna rullar.
Och stenarna rullar tvärs igenom
men varje ruta förbli hel."

(in 'Allegro')

Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm, the son Gösta Tranströmer, a journalist, and Helmy (née Westberg), an elementary school teacher, the daughter of a ferryman. After his parents divorced Tranströmer saw his father rarely. In his childhood during WW II, Tranströmer spent many summers on the island of Runmarö. Sweden was neutral in the war, but Tranströmer has recalled in an interview being "the most militant supporter of the allies."  Later his poetry collection Östersjöar (1974, Baltic) and memoir Minnena ser mig (1993) Tranströmer returned to the landscape of the archipelago. 

Before becoming interested in music and painting, Tranströmer was fascinated by archaeology and natural sciences and he also dreamed of living the life of an explorer. His heroed were Livingston and Stanley. In 1951 Tranströmer visited Iceland together with a friend from school. With the money he had earned from his first collection of poems, he went to Greece and Turkey.

While studying at the Södra Latin School, Tranströmer started to read and write poetry. Some of these early pieces were composed in iambic and Alcaic meter. In 1956 he received a degree in psychology from the University of Stockholm. He then worked for the Psychotechnological Institute at the university, and in 1960 he was employed as a psychologist at Roxtuna, an institution for juvenile offenders.

From the mid-1960s Tranströmer divided his time between his writing and the daily work. In 1965 he moved with his wife Monica and children to Västerås, a city about sixty miles west of Stockholm. From 1980 he was a psychologist for Arbetsmarknadsinstitutet, a labor organization institute. He helped persons with pyschological problems develop work abilities and counselled parole offenders and those in drug rehabilitation.

Tranströmer made his debut as a poet at the age of twenty-three with 17 dikter (1954). It included poems written in blank verse. While writing this collection, Tranströmer listened to Sibelius. All the poems echo subconscious images from the music. The poem 'C-dur'  from Den halvfärdiga himlen (1962) was inspited by Sibelius's third symphony: "En musik gjorde sig lös / och gick i yrande snö / med långa steg. / Allting på vandring mot ton C." With his Finnish translator Caj Westerberg he has also visited the composer's home, Ainola.

Later Tranströmer have experimented with metre, although he has used free verse in most of his work. Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) took up themes from Tranströmer's travels in different parts of the world  –  the Balkans, Spain, Africa, and the United States. The latter work also included a portrait of the composer Edward Grieg. In 'Izmir klockan tre' (from Hemligheter på vägen) a beggar carries another without legs on his back, and in 'Oklahoma' (from Klanger och spår) the passing cars in dark, with their lights on, turn into flying saucers. 'A Man from Benin' referred to an art work which Tranströmer saw at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna.

Tranströmer's poems are often built around his own experience, around a single, deceptively plain image that opens doors to psychological insights and metaphysical interpretations. Mörkseende (1970) explored the poet's personal life, and the conflict between technology and nature. Stigar (1973) consisted of Tranströmer's own poems and translations of poems by Robert Bly and by János Pilinszky. Bly and Robin Fulton have translated much of Tranströmer's work into English. In 2001 the publishing company Bonniers celebrated the poet's 70-year birthday with Air mail, a selection of correspondence between these two writers from 1964 to 1990.

Tranströmer once said, that Baltics was his "most consistent attempt to write music." The landscape and its conflicting elements, like the battle between the sea and and land, present confronting forces in Tranströmer's poems – freedom and control of speech, nature and human influence on it. Especially his poems about the Baltic archipelago in Östersjöar reflect political conditions of the area. In the 1970s the Baltic countries were still part of the Soviet Union, and when Tranströmer visited Latvia and Estonia in 1970, he felt himself like a person in an early Graham Greene story. 

Movement and change is part of Tranströmer's poetic landscape, although his visions of "cosmic peace" have been criticized by radical writers. Tranströmer has said that he is interested in politics more in a human way than in an ideological way. ('An Interview with Tomas Tranströmer' by Tam Lin Neville and Linda Horvath, Painted Bridge Quarterly, Translation Issue, Number 40-41, 1990) In 'Out in the Open' he wrote: "The people who do death's errands don't shy from / daylight. / They rule from glass offices. They mill about in the bright / sun. / They lean forward over a table, and throw a look / to the side." (tr. Robert Bly) 'To Friends Behind a Frontier' in Stigar referred to censorship in a totalitarian state: "Read between the lines. We'll meet in 200 years / when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten / and can at last sleep, become trilobites."  (tr. Robin Fulton, in The Great Enigma, 2006)

In 1990, at the age of 59, Tranströmer suffered from a stroke, which affected his ability to talk, read, and move. He had published in the previous year his tenth collection, För levande och döda (For the Living and the Dead). Tranströmer did not regain use of his right hand, but he could to write and play piano with his left hand. His ability to speak was limited to 20 words or fewer. After a silence as a writer, Tranströmer returned with Sorgegondolen (1996, grief gondola), which took its title from Franz Listz's two piano pieces. Listz composed them at the time when his son-on-law Richard Wagner died. The book sold 30 000 copies in Sweden. Tranströmer's musical interests are prominent in many collections – he is an accomplished amateur musician, playing piano and organ. In Sorgegondolen the poet acknowledged the limits of his expression, in which the words and all he wants to say 'glimmer just out of reach like a silver in a pawnshop,' ("Det enda jag vill säga / glimmar utom räckhåll / som silvret / hos pantlånaren.") Many of the haiku in Den stora gåtan (2004) dealt with the theme of death. "Death bends over me," he noted.

Tranströmer's first remark on being informed of the Nobel Prize was, "now the worst has happened." His other awards include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1990, the Bonner Award for Poetry, Germany's Petrarch Prize, Bellman Prize, The Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize, and August Prize. In 1997 the city of Västerås established a special Tranströmer Prize. Tranströmer's work has been translated into over sixty languages, including Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian and English. His translator into Chinese, Bei Dao, took the title of his essay 'Blue House' from Tranströmer's country home, where they listened together a Bach piece played by Glenn Gold.

For further reading: Tomas Tranströmer: ett diktarporträtt by Staffan Bergsten (2011); 'Pohjalasti ja yölentäjä', ed. Caj Westerberg, Parnasso (2/2002); Stjärnhimlen genom avloppsgallret by Magnus Ringgren (2001); Tomas Tranströmer: en bibliografi, andra delen by Lennart Karlström (2001); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Tomas Tranströmer: en bibliografi by Lennart Karlström (1990); Den trösterika gåtan by Staffan Bergsten (1989); Resans formler: en studie i Tomas Tranströmers poesi by Kjell Espmark (1983); Forays into Swedish Poetry by L. Gustafsson (1978) - Suom.: Tranströmerilta on Eeva-Liisa Manner julkaissut kokoelmassaan Kuolleet vedet (1997) kymmenen runon valikoiman. Brita Polttila on kääntänyt kokoelman Eläville ja kuolleille (1990). Kootut runot 1954-2000, suomentajana Caj Westerberg, ilmestyi 2001 Tammen kustantamana.

Selected works:

  • 17 dikter, 1954
  • Sorgegondolen, 1996
  • 17 dikter, 1956
  • Hemligheter på vägen, 1958
  • Den halvfärdiga himlen, 1962
  • Fifteen Poems, 1966
  • Klanger och spår, 1966
  • Kvartett, 1967
  • Mörkerseende, 1970
    - Night Vision (translated by Robert Bly, 1972)
  • Twenty Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, 1970 (translated by Robert Bly)
  • Windows & Stones: Selected Poems, 1972 (translated by May Swenson with Leif Sjöberg)
  • Stigar, 1973
  • Östersjöar, 1974
    - Baltics (translated by Samuel Charters, 1975)
  • Selected Poems: Paavo Haavikko, Tomas Tranströmer, 1974 (translated by Anselm Hollo & Robin Fulton)
  • Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer, 1975 (translated by Robert Bly)
  • Sanningsbarriären, 1978
    - Truth Barriers (translated by Robert Bly, 1980)
    - Totuuden kynnys; Surugondoli (suom. Caj Westerberg, 1997)
  • Dikter 1954-1978 (i serien Den svenska lyriken), 1979
  • Modern Swedish Poetry in Translation, 1979 (translated by A. Hollo and G. Harding)
  • PS, 1980
  • How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins, 1980 (translated by Robin Fulton)
  • Selected poems, 1981 (translated by Robin Fulton)
  • Det vilda torget, 1983
    - The Wild Marketplace = Det vilda torget (translated by John F. Deane, 1985)
  • Collected Poems, 1987 (translated by Robin Fulton)
  • Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 (edited by Robert Hass, translated by Robert Bly et al.)
  • The Blue House = Det blå huset, 1987 (translated by Göran Malmqvist)
  • För levande och döda, 1989
    - For the Living and the Dead (translated by John F. Deane, 1994)
    - Eläville ja kuolleille (suom. Brita Polttila, 1990)
  • Tikkuja = Stickor = Sticks, 1992 (translated by Brita Polttila; Robin Fulton)
  • Minnena ser mig, 1993
    - Memories Look at Me: A Memoir (translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton, 2011) 
  • Sorgegondolen, 1996
    - Sorgegondolen = Sorrow Gondola (translated by Robin Fulton, 1997)
    - Totuuden kynnys; Surugondoli (suom. Caj Westerberg, 1997)
  • Dikter 1954-1989, 1997
  • New Collected Poems, 1997 (translated by Robin Fulton)
  • Dikter: från 17 dikter till För levande och döda, 1997
  • Samlade dikter, 1954-1996, 2000
    - Kootut runot 1954-2000 (suom. Caj Westerberg, 2001)
  • Selected Poems, 1954-1986, 2000 (translated by Robin Fulton)
  • Fängelse: Nio Haikudikter Från Hällby Ungdomsfängelse (1959), 2001
    - Prison: Nine Haiku from Hällby Prison (1959) = Fängelse: nio haikudikter från Hällby ungdomsfängelse (1959) (postscript by Jonas Ellerström; translated by Malena Mörling, 2011) 
  • Air mail: brev 1964-1990, 2001 (with Robert Bly, sammanställd av Torbjörn Schmidt)
    - Air Mail: 1964-1990 (translated by Robert Bly, 2012) 
  • The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, 2001 (chosen and translated by Robert Bly)
  • Den stora gåtan, 2004 - Den stora gåtan = The Great Enigma = Apar rahasya (Bengali translation: Gajendra Kumar Ghose; English translation: Robin Fulton, 2006)
  • The Deleted World, 2006 (new versions, translated by Robin Robertson)
  • Klangen säger att friheten finns, 2010
  • Dikter och prosa 1954-2004, 2010
  • Inspired Notes: Poems of Tomas Tranströmer: Compromising Poems from the Two Volymes: The Wild Marketplace and For the Living and the Dead, 2011 (translated by John F. Deane)
  • The Deleted World, 2011 (new versions in English by Robin Robertson)
  • New Collected Poems, 2011(translated by Robin Fulton; rev. expanded ed.)
  • Tomas Tranströmers ungdomsdikter, 2011 (2nd ed., edited by Jonas Ellerström)
    - Tomas Tranströmer’s First Poems, 2011 (with a commentary by Jonas Ellerström; translated by Malena Mörling. Notes from the land of lap fever: an essay by Tomas Tranströmer; translated by Malena Mörling) 

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