I first encountered Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry – or I should say, snippets of it – in 1994, via an album by Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The album title, It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice, and all the tracks on the record were named after quotes from poems by Tomas Tranströmer.
The connection between the music and the titles seemed nebulous, but intriguing. It would be years before I opened a collection of Tranströmer’s poetry and found some of the poems that had inspired Jan Garbarek.
Now Tranströmer has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: the citation reads, ‘through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality’. Writing in The Guardian in 2006, Robin Robertson encapsulated his life:
Tranströmer is not only Scandinavia’s greatest living poet, but also widely regarded as one of our most important contemporary international writers. Born in April 1931, an only child, his parents divorced when he was three years old and he was brought up by his mother within the educated working class of Stockholm: a social democratic system infused with the traditional Lutheran ethics of moral compassion and generosity. After graduating he took up a career in psychology, working in a young offenders’ institute in Linköping. In 1965 he moved with his wife Monica and their daughters, Paula and Emma, to Västerås, a small town west of Stockholm, where he continued his work with juvenile delinquents, convicts, drug addicts and the physically handicapped. It was during this time that his poetry began to reach its full maturity and an international audience, being translated into more than 40 languages and bringing him a host of awards.
In 1990, however, his life was changed irrevocably by his stroke. While his disability did not end his writing career, it did impair his ability to communicate, and the Tranströmers now live in an apartment in the Södermalm district of Stockholm, near where Tomas lived as a young boy and overlooking the sea-lanes where his grandfather worked as a pilot, guiding the ships through the Stockholm archipelago.
Tranströmer started writing poetry while a student, and published his first collection, Seventeen Poems at the age of 23. A love for nature and music has infused his writing and his poems have, over the decades, became darker, filled with existential questions, death and disease. The stroke in 1990 came a year after the publication of his tenth book of poems and deprived him of most of his speech and partly inhibited movement on his right-hand side. He plays the piano (which informs the imagery of some of his poems) and Swedish composers have since written left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play:
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.
I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.
Conferring the Nobel on Tranströmer has provoked some criticism. For example, this put-down by Will Skidelsky appeared on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog after the result was announced:
Although I am ashamed to admit to knowing almost nothing about Scandinavia’s leading poet, whose books are regular bestsellers in his homeland, this does seem to be something of a regular occurrence with the Nobel. The committee makes a habit of bestowing its laurels on respected, worthy, but often fairly obscure writers who, even after they are anointed, don’t exactly go on to become household names.
No doubt this attitude partly reflects my provincialism. It’s true that British literary culture is shockingly closed to writers from those parts of the world which don’t happen to speak the same language as we do. We translate far fewer titles than most other European countries, and publishers that specialise in literature in translation – fortunately there are some – struggle to get attention for their books.
But the Nobel committee, if you look at the winners since the prize began in 1901, has an atrocious record for recognising real greatness. It’s worth remembering that as prize decisions go, this one is pretty easy. You don’t have to spot a talented writer early on in his or her career or pick out a particular book. As long as you get ‘em before they die, there really isn’t a time limit. And with these advantages, who have the committee overlooked down the years? The list is a roll-call of genius: Tolstoy, James, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Larkin, Salinger and Munro to name a few.
Well, I can see his arguments about eurocentrism and the missed greats (interestingly, though all Skidelsky’s examples are writers in the English language!). But whether or not great writers have been missed, the issue would remain as to Tranströmer ‘s own stature as a poet. That’s not for me to judge – my knowledge and understanding of poetry is pretty limited – however, after being led to them by titles on a jazz album, I have found much to savour and appreciate in his haunting poems.
Tranströmer has been called a ‘buzzard poet’ because his poems seem to observe the world from a great height, as if in a mystic or trancelike dimension, whilst also bringing precise details of the natural world into sharp focus:
2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.
As when someone has gone into a dream so deep
he’ll never remember having been there
when he comes back to to his room.
As when someone has gone into an illness so deep
everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,
cold and tiny at the horizon
The train is standing quite still.
2 a.m.: bright moonlight, few stars.
- ‘Tracks’ (1958)
His poems often inhabit the border between sleep and waking, between conscious and unconscious states. In a poem from his first collection published in 1954, ‘Prelude’, there is the striking image of the waking person falling towards the earth, sinking towards a bright, sunlit world:
Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveller
sinks toward the green zone of morning.
Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark
he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees,
their swaying underground lamps. But above ground
there’s greenery — a tropical flood of it — with
lifted arms, listening
to the beat of an invisible pump. And he
sinks toward summer, is lowered
in it’s dazzling crater, down
through shafts of green damp ages
trembling under the sun’s turbine. Then it’s checked,
this straight-down journey through the moment, and the wings spread
to the osprey’s repose above rushing waters.
The bronze-age trumpet’s
hovers above the bottomless depths.
In day’s first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
The traveller is standing under a tree. After
the crash through death’s turbulence, shall
a great light unfold above his head?
In the poem, The Name (1970), a driver has pulled over to the side of the road to catch some sleep on a long journey. He wakes in a panic, unable at first to recall his own identity. Relief comes after an instant, ‘My name comes like an angel':
I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at
the side of the road. I curl up in the back seat and sleep. For how long?
Hours. Darkness had come on.
Suddenly I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide-awake, but it
doesn’t help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in
a back seat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who?
At last my life returns. My name comes like an angel. Outside the walls
a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora overture) and the rescuing
footsteps come smartly down the overlong stairway. It is I! It is I!
But impossible to forget the fifteen second struggle in the hell of oblivion,
a few metres from the main road, where the traffic glides past with its
Many of Tranströmer’s poems seem to be concerned with powerful elements in our lives that seem indefinable or beyond conscious control. In ‘Alone’ (1966), his reflections are triggered by the memory of a near-death experience:
One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.
My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.
The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.
Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.
I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.
In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.
To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.
The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.
I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.
Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.
‘Further In’, from Tranströmer’s 1973 collection Paths, is one of several poems that contrast city and forest:
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon’s scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
words in invisible ink
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it…
Similarly, ‘On the Outskirts of Work’ (1966) explores the borderline between ‘the planet Work’ and ‘the moon of leisure’, the veneer of civilisation and the ‘underground’ of nature:
In the middle of work
we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,
for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only
by the thin civilisation of the telephone wires.
The moon of leisure circles the planet Work
with its mass and weight. – That’s how they want it.
When we are on the way home the ground pricks up its ears.
The underground listens to us via the grass-blades.
Even in this working day there is a private calm.
As in a smoky inland area where a canal flows:
THE BOAT appears unexpectedly in the traffic
or glides out behind the factory, a white vagabond.
One Sunday I walk past an unpainted new building
standing before a grey wet surface.
It is half finished. The wood has the same light colour
as the skin on someone bathing.
Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.
Robin Robertson has translated Tranströmer’s poetry into English, and on Saturday he wrote in The Guardian:
The landscape of Tranströmer’s poetry – the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters – is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. The master-poet of anxiety, of stress, he explores the vulnerability of the human in the face of the irrational – intrigued by polarities and how we respond to finding ourselves amid epiphanies, at pivotal points, at the fulcrum of a moment:
The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low,
throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.
A man crouches over something in the field.
The shadow reaches him.
For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.
I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches.
Sometimes it seems like a snapshot
- ‘Out in the Open’
Some have suggested that Tranströmer poses fewer problems for the translator, since he writes in a pure Swedish without frills or elaborate cultural references that outsiders would struggle to comprehend. However, in The New Yorker, Robin Robertson disputed this:
Tomas Tranströmer is a complex poet to translate. His exquisite compression and vividly cinematic imagery are instantly attractive, but the elemental sparseness of his language can often be rendered as colourless and bland. The supple rhythms of the original poems are hard to replicate and, equally, the plosive musicality of Swedish words like “domkyrkoklocklang” lose all their aural resonance when they become a “peal of cathedral bells.” His empty, numinous landscape is comfortably familiar to Northern poets, but his metaphysical parsing of that landscape into minimal Swedish can often prove too challenging.
I found this interesting, given my first encounter with Tranströmer on the sleeve of that Garbarek album. There, one of the tracks was entitled ‘It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice’. This turns out to be a line from the poem, ‘After a Long Drought’. But in the translation by Robin Fulton for the Bloodaxe edition, New Collected Poems, this comes out as:
The summer evening is grey.
The rain steals down from the sky
and lands quietly as if
it had to overpower someone sleeping.
The water-rings jostle on the bay’s surface
and that is the only surface there is -
the other is height and depth
soar and sink.
shoot up and end in long hollow signal-drums.
Gone are the cities and the sun.
The thunder’s in the tall grass.
It’s possible to ring up the mirage island.
It’s possible to hear the grey voice.
Iron-ore is honey for the thunder.
It’s possible to live with one’s code.
It seems to me that there’s a world of difference between ‘It’s O.K.’ and ‘It’s possible’.
Another track on the Jan Garbarek album was ‘Mission: To Be Where I Am'; this is a line from ‘The Outpost’ which reads in part:
Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role – I am the place
where creation is working itself out.
- Guide to the imagery in Tranströmer ‘s poetry: Some Landscapes blog