Tranströmer becomes the eighth European to win the world’s premier literary award in the past 10 years, following the German novelist Herta Müller in 2009, the French writer JMG le Clézio in 2008 and the British novelist Doris Lessing in 2007.
Sweden’s most famous poet becomes the 104th literature laureate, and is the first poet to take the laurels since Poland’s Wislawa Szymborska in 1996. Praised by the judges for his “condensed translucent images”, which give us “fresh access to reality”, Tranströmer’s surreal explorations of the inner world and its relation to the jagged landscape of his native country have been translated into more than 50 languages.
Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, admitted that the choice of a Swede could be seen as controversial internationally but said that it hadn’t happened for almost 40 years; in 1974, Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson took the prize jointly.
“It’s not that we spread them around on Swedes each and every year,” said Englund. “We have been quite thoughtful about this. We have not been rash in choosing a Swede.”
The Scottish poet Robin Fulton, who translated the volume New Collected Poems and has worked on Tranströmer’s writing for years, said: “In some sense the win was expected – it’s looking back on a life’s work. He’s terribly famous already, just about as famous as a poet could be. Some writers become famous after they get the Nobel – he was famous before.”
The poet Robin Robertson, who wrote versions of Tranströmer’s poems for the collection The Deleted World, said: “Readers of Tomas Tranströmer had almost given up any hope that this extraordinary poet might ever be recognised by his own country and receive the Nobel prize.”
He called the decision “a happy end to a long wait: joy with awash of relief. Tranströmer is not only Scandinavia’s most important poet, he is a writer of world stature – and that has finally been publicly acknowledged.”
Fulton said: “Some poets use their own language so densely they won’t translate at all. Tranströmer is not one of these. In many ways the language he uses is relatively unadventurous and simple [but] he gives people unusual images [which are] sometimes very surprising and give the reader a shock. That should be what poets do.”
Although Englund said that Tranströmer’s production had been “sparse – you could fit it into a not too large pocket book, all of it” – he praised the poet’s “exquisite” language. “He is writing about the big questions – death, history, memory, nature. Human beings are sort of the prism where all these great entities meet and it makes us important. You can never feel small after reading the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer.” Born in Stockholm in 1931 and raised by his mother, a teacher, Tranströmer studied at the University of Stockholm and worked as a psychologist at an institution for young offenders.
His first collection of poetry, 17 Dikter (17 Poems), was published in 1954, while he was still at college. He has since reflected on his travels in the Balkans, Spain and Africa, and examined the troubled history of the Baltic region through the conflict between sea and land.
He suffered a stroke in 1990 that affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write, with his collection Sorgegondolen (The Sorrow Gondola) going on to sell 30,000 copies on its publication in 1996. At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand. “He is very gifted,” said Fulton. “He has hardly any words, though. His wife communicates for him.”
Tranströmer has described his poems as “meeting places”, where dark and light, interior and exterior collide to give a sudden connection with the world, history or ourselves. According to the poet: “The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”
Metaphysical and personal
Tomas Tranströmer is Scandinavia’s best-known and most influential contemporary poet. Go into any bookshop in his native Sweden, and if they have any poetry at all on their shelves, you can be sure to find the collected Tranströmer, sometimes the only living poet to share space with the Swedish and European classics. A comparable figure in the English-speaking world would be Seamus Heaney (who has written on Tranströmer).
To win the Nobel prize, a writer has to have a readership in many parts of the world, and Tranströmer has been translated into 50 languages. One of the reasons he has been taken up by so many poets, translators and readers is that his poetry is universal and particular, metaphysical and personal.
There has also been a mistaken sense that he’s an easy poet to translate. In fact, his poetry is highly musical and multilayered, with each word or phrase having particular resonances for Swedish readers – sometimes many associations coming together in his particular choice of words.
His early work was rooted in the landscape of the island where he spent his summers in childhood, drawing on the tradition of Swedish nature poetry.
His later work is more personal, open end relaxed, reflecting his broad interests: travel, music, painting, archaeology and natural sciences.
He has become known as a “buzzard poet”, a term coined by a fellow-poet Lasse Söderberg to express how he views the world from a height, in a mystic dimension, while bringing every detail of the natural world into sharp focus. His poems are often explorations of the borderland between sleep and waking, between the conscious and unconscious states.
Neil Astley (editor of Bloodaxe Books, which most recently published Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems) @ the guardian
Poems by Tomas Transtromer @ poets.org
After a Death
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.
translated by Robert Bly
Men in overalls the same color as earth rise from a ditch. It's a transitional place, in stalemate, neither country nor city. Construction cranes on the horizon want to take the big leap, but the clocks are against it. Concrete piping scattered around laps at the light with cold tongues. Auto-body shops occupy old barns. Stones throw shadows as sharp as objects on the moon surface. And these sites keep on getting bigger like the land bought with Judas' silver: "a potter's field for burying strangers."