In Praise of Tranströmer the Transformer—and His Translator, Robert Bly

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  • Christopher Benfey

  • October 7, 2011 | 12:00 am

“Tranströmer!” Of course, I knew immediately what the email message meant. After years of waiting among the also-rans, and amid speculation that this was the year for an Arab poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature to honor the Arab Spring, or maybe, a late-breaking rumor, that Bob Dylan was the bettors’ choice, a Swede was named to win the Swedish prize.

Tomas Tranströmer: The name always makes me think of some kind of giant transformer, sending out signals from his redoubt in the snowy fields west of Stockholm. He is said to be a respected psychologist there—someone who has worked in a juvenile prison and cares for convicts and drug addicts—and an amateur pianist. Until a recent stroke, he also wrote poems. Those poems are well known to American readers in the poetry world, if such a world can be said to exist. He still plays the piano, with one hand.

Every poet has a distinctive music. Here is the closing stanza of Tranströmer’s poem on Vermeer:

The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
and whispers:
“I am not empty, I am open.”

I told my emailing friend, himself a Scandinavian “by background,” as we say, that I’d always suspected he had invented Tranströmer. Not at all, he responded, “Tranströmer invented us.” A typical Northern sally of wit, I thought, as I walked the dog on a sunny and crisp fall morning in New England, crossing the stubble fields into the dark woods. But then I thought, hey, what if he’s right?

For me, a Nobel for Tranströmer, well deserved, is also a Nobel for his close friend, translator, and collaborator Robert Bly. Bly! I can’t even begin to calculate how much I owe, in all things literary and spiritual, to Robert Bly. I don’t mean the Bly of later years, the prophet of Iron John and the Men’s Movement, though I can’t say I’m unmoved by his lament for the fathers, now that I’m one myself. I don’t mean the ecstatic Bly who performs Kabir with some mysterious rhythm instrument in hand, chanting and dancing and making his serape flap like wings. But I can’t say I mind that either. The truth is, I love Robert Bly.

Read full article at New Republic

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