“A fresh access to reality”: the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee justified its decision with the simple statement “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” English translations of several of Tranströmer’s poems  can be found on the Poetry Foundation website and a Tom Sleigh’s reflection on the his work from the perspective of “deep image” is accessible through Poets.org. Sleigh makes the apt observation, “The true marker of Tranströmer’s poetry is not deep image’s desire for unmediated process or the current fascination with stylistic bricolage, process ‘liberated’ from its historical origins. His intention isn’t to suppress or outmaneuver the shocks of experience for the sake of primal purity or a portentous, knowing tone, but to make the poem a place where these shocks can occur. . . . Tranströmer’s sense of the continuity between history and our private fates sets up what Baudelaire called ‘correspondance’ in which ‘the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness’ vibrate with and against the specific social conditions we are born into.”

Tranströmer’s poetry has been translated into more than sixty languages. A number of translators, including Robin Fulton, Robert Bly, Michael McGriff, and Mikaela Grassl have carried his poetry into English. Here is one of his shorter poems translated by Robert Bly titled “After a Death,” which appeared in yesterday’s edition of  Galleycat.

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Transtörmer is known for his wide-ranging interests and social commitment. During the same years that he forged a career as a poet, he was also employed as a trained psychologist, a position that brought him close to the personal realities of  disabled people, juvenile offenders, and drug addicts. In addition to his writing and his work as a psychologist, he has somehow found time and energy to maintain enduring friendships and collaborations with fellow poets and publishers around the world and polish his considerable skills as a pianist. In 1990, Transtörmer  suffered a stroke that affected his speech and left him without the use of  his right arm; nevertheless, he retrained himself to play with only his left hand. Galleycat reports that the poet intends to play a selection of left-hand piano pieces at the Nobel ceremony ceremony in December in lieu of presenting a traditional acceptance speech. The Nobel.org website features a digital guest book where poetry lovers around the world can offer their congratulations to the new Nobel laureate. The greetings expressed by well-wishers on this site constitute their own charmingly offbeat poetry.