The sky over Beijing on an October morning in 2008 was the color of a bruise, a livid yellow-brown that, my friends explained, was a sandstorm off the Gobi Desert, plus inversion, plus smoke from the coal that heats and powers the city, plus automobile exhaust. Visibility was minimal. You could make out cars going by in the street and barely make out figures walking on the opposite sidewalk. They looked like people wading through morning haze in a T’ang dynasty poem. It seemed a metaphor for contemporary China: the Gobi desert for the vastness of it, the coal smoke for the industrial revolution, phase one, and the carbon dioxide for the industrial revolution, phase two.
By the next morning a wind had come up, a light rain had passed through, and the sky was pure azure. From our slight elevation in the north of the city we looked out over crisp blue air and high clouds, the sprawl of endless neighborhoods, and, hovering over them, a forest of cranes—Beijing transforming itself. In the interim, I’d sat in an auditorium listening to a poetry reading, in Chinese and English, and seen the premiere of a new Chinese film. Both were so surprising that they made the suddenly transformed weather also seem like a metaphor.
The film, 24 City, directed by Jia Zhange Ke and written by him and a poet named Zhai Yongming, tells the story of the closing of a factory in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. The factory, a dinosaur of the planned economy, was situated in an immense, paternalistic company town where thousands of people had worked at jobs and lived their lives, performing the tasks involved in fabricating airplane engines and refrigerators. The combination of long, slow pans of empty buildings, the animated faces of the storytellers, the way their stories made a fifty-year history of their country, the sudden, meditative cuts to spaces of silence in which objects spoke, made for a sense of elegy and wonder at the shapes lives take and the way people live inside the worlds given to them—a mix which also gave the film a terrific sense of aesthetic risk and surprise.
Zhai Yongming, the poet who had cowritten the film, was born in 1955 in Chengdu, so she was writing about a world that she was familiar with. I knew that she had been sent away for two years of rural reeducation during the Cultural Revolution, and that she had published her first book of poems, a work about the lives of women, in 1984. That was about the time that a new generation of poets appeared in China who had broken with the official aesthetic line of the Communist Party. Critics, disapproving of their militant subjectivity, labeled them the “Misty School,” and many of them went into exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But they were a clear sign that Chinese poetry had come alive, and settling in to hear another generation of poets, I had no idea what to expect.
The reading consisted of one live and surprising voice after another. The poets, men and women, ranged in age from their late thirties to early fifties. They belonged, as did Zhai Yongming, to what critics were calling the New Generation. All of them seemed to me interesting, and—the most surprising thing about them—interesting in different ways. Over the years I’d attended a few international literary gatherings at which Chinese poets had read their work. In those years, in the 1980s and 1990s, you did not, in the first place, know whether the poets you were hearing were the actual poets, given the People’s Republic’s tight control of its public culture, but you did know that, if they were the actual poets, they were nevertheless writing in some utterly opaque code. Poets from around the world—from Vietnam and the Netherlands and Brazil and Canada, quite different from one another, coming from quite distinct literary traditions—were part of the same conversation. They were trying to invent in language, trying to say what life was like for them, to bear witness to it, to find fresh ways of embodying the experiences of thinking and feeling and living among others. That was what I was suddenly hearing in Beijing—that familiar, exhilarating sound, not so much of poetry, but of the power of the project of poetry. It felt like something very alive and new was stirring in China.
December 7, 2011, 4:59 pm
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
English-language admirers of Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet who will receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature in a ceremony in Stockholm on Saturday, will soon have to make room on their shelves for another book.
On Monday Graywolf Press acquired the rights to “Air Mail: The Correspondence of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer,” a collection of some 200 letters tentatively scheduled for publication in early 2013.
The book, already a best seller in Sweden, will contain the full correspondence between the two poets, starting in 1964, when Mr. Bly began publishing Mr. Transtromer in his journal The Sixties, and ending in 1990, when a stroke left Mr. Transtromer paralyzed on the right side, complicating his ability to write and speak.
The letters “range across all kinds of subjects,” Jeffrey Shotts, the editor who acquired the book, said in an email. ”Poetry, of course, and the back and forth of translation, critical reception of Transtromer’s work in the United States, politics in Sweden and the United States, the Vietnam War, travel plans, literary gossip, and even Transtromer becoming Bly’s son’s godfather. It is a remarkable portrait of a long-standing (and ongoing) literary friendship.”
By Colin Cheney| Posted Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011, at 3:20 PM ET
Photo by JESSICA GOW/AFP/Getty Images
Not to be confused with the Michael Bay franchise, the 80-year-old Swedish psychologist and poet Tomas Tranströmer, just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, writes surreal, imagistic poems that explore his fascinations with the music of memory and nature. If you want to get to know his work, here are a few good entry points:
1. Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954 – 1986. Edited by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, this selection of over 100 poems provides perhaps the best introduction to Tranströmer. Here, the poems are Englished by twelve different translators, including Hass; it’s a good way to figure out whose translations make you feel closest to the ‘real’ Tranströmer.
2. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. This 2006 collection of Robin Fulton’s clear-eyed and spare translations will give you the most complete picture of the arc of Tranströmer’s career. It’s also one of the only readily available books that shows how the poems were originally collected in Swedish. The Great Enigma includes everything from the astonishing teenage lyrics published in 1952 (17 Poems), to the haunting Baltics, to the late poems of The Sad Gondola.
Produced by Albert Bonniers förlag, Sweden’s oldest (established 1937) and most prestigious publisher (Bonniers is the Swedish publisher of the new Steve Jobs biography) as a Youtube video channel to promote their authors, this brief video captures Tomas Transtromer in images with his grandfather, mother and wife Monica. A brief but eloquent congratulatory video celebrating the Nobel Prize for Tomas Tranströmer.
The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Tranströmer
by M. Zobel on Sep 11, 2011 • 1:32 pm
“What Tranströmer expresses so eloquently in these lines is the idea that our lives are fleeting in relation to our history—the “cold sphinx, / empty arenas”—and even more so in relation to “Light and silent constellations. / The cold sea.” We are ultimately condemned to silence and have to make do with “the small script of the grass / and the laughter from cellars.”
Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola (Green Integer, 2010), translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, depicts the poet’s own speechlessness caused by a stroke in 1990, while depicting the lives and works of important figures in art, such as the composers Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner. Along with the themes of silence and music, the collection takes its name from Liszt’s work La lugubre gondola, which was inspired by Wagner’s sickness and death in Venice. Due to the magnificent work of translators McGriff and Grassl, Tranströmer’s voice itself becomes the “sorrow gondola” that is rowing down the millennia-old canals of history and art.
The potential for music and utterance represents the gift and the burden of the artist faced with speechlessness, as the opening poem “April and Silence” exemplifies: “I’m carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.” Allusions to Greek mythology, the Bible, and more recent historical events, such as WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union (which coincides with Tranströmer’s stroke), expand the burden of unique talents to the burden of being in power. The lines, “Earrings [that] dangle like the sword above Damocles,” a “King Midas / … who turns everything he touches into Wagner,” and a “Jesus [who holds] up a coin / with Tiberius in profile / a profile without love / power in circulation” aptly express this weight, shared by the poet, for “what happens is always more than we can carry.”