Reviewed by Paul Binding
Friday, 27 May 2011
New Collected Poems, By Tomas Tranströmer, trans. Robin Fulton
Bloodaxe £12, 254pp.
Sweden is a beached/unrigged ship” (“Sverige är ett uppdraget,/avtacklat skepp”) declared Tranströmer in the Epilogue to his 17 Poems (1951). The image pays tribute to Sweden’s geographical shape and size, to its indissoluble relationship to the Baltic, and to its long proud isolationism. Presenting his country initially in deep winter, the poet then moves on to its seasonal transformations, to its interplay of nature and humanity, and to the incursions of history.
Motifs which haunt the later work of the country’s now most famous poet appear already: birds, the bright and the dark sides of the self, the omnipresent dead, the conceivably present God. Yet 17 Poems was published when the author was 23. That he had unusual and intense experience to draw on for poems so startlingly original, independent and stylistically mature is made clear in the fascinating sequence of autobiographical prose-pieces written after his disabling stroke, Memories Look at Me (1993), included in this definitive New Collected Poems.
The 80th Birthday Celebration of the Renowned Swedish Poetry Master Tomas Tranströmer
April 11, 2011 by Nina Cheng
Tomas Tranströmer has been a master and leading the trend of poetry in recent history. Being a prolific poet, his works have been translated into over eighty languages, and been honored as the common treasure that shared by the world.
In 1999, when Anna, the founder of TCG Nordica as much as a poet herself, proposed to name after him a soon to be established cultural center located in Kunming the capital city in the China’s southwestern border, the poet happily approved. In the spring of 2001, he visited the T ’coffee, the predecessor of TCG Nordica.
The letters in TCG Nordica: T is the initial for the renowned Swedish poetry master Tomas Tranströmer, authorized to be used for special purpose by the poet in 1999; C is for the English word Culture; G is for the English word Galley; Nordica is the English word for the Nordic. With all of them combined, it means a cultural center bridging China and the Nordic for equal exchanges with cultures and arts being the focus points.
Just like what Li Li, a translator, said, “There are but few modern poets like the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer who can pen the poetry in a fashion that is so succinct, accurate, exquisite and brilliant.”
“Poetry is something from the inside. He is the good buddy of the dream. It is difficult to set apart what is intellectual and what is not from that which can not be separated from the inside. That’s what the poetry intends to get. It’s not one or the other. Generally, my works refuse to follow normal rational analysis; I want to give the readers more liberty to enjoy themselves.” As he said, you can find in his poetry the very word that touches your heart, in a way that is subtle, unaffected, metaphorical as well as imagery. With peaceful words, the inner world and intense emotions are explicitly revealed.
Anchor in the Shadows
The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton. New Directions Books, 2006.
As Reviewed By:
Every year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches, partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath, hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since. There’s also the unfortunate fact that the choice of recipient often seems guided as much by politics as by literary considerations. Tranströmer is not an apolitical poet, but there is nothing about him—no confinement by the state, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky, no sense that he speaks for his people, like Heaney or Walcott, no rabid opposition to the United States, as with Pinter—to excite the more narrowly political. Still, Tranströmer has hardly languished in obscurity. Since 1975, when Robert Bly included him, along with Gunar Ekelöf and the aforementioned Harry Martinsson in the anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness (the title is taken from Tranströmer’s poem “Elegy”), his reputation has been steadily on the rise. Today he is widely recognized as one of the best poets alive, largely on the strength of translations of his work into fifty languages. In addition to Bly, May Swenson, Rika Lesser, Don Coles, John F. Deane, Samuel Charters, and Robin Robertson have all produced English versions of Tranströmer’s quietly startling poems. While the quality of these efforts has varied considerably, the poet’s voice—subdued, austere, rueful, kind—has come through relatively intact. Robin Fulton, a Scottish poet long resident in Norway, has been one of Tranströmer’s most tireless translators and advocates, and his new collection, The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems represents the first time all of the poet’s work has been available in one volume in English.
Too Much of the Air: Tomas Tranströmer
by Tom Sleigh
My first glimpse of Tomas Tranströmer was many years ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts as he ducked his head under the metal lip of a twelve-seater plane’s exit door, then stepped hesitantly down the stairs to firm ground. He seemed a little shaken, his long face blanched, his features reminding me, when I think of it now, of the circus horse in a late Bonnard painting: gentle, wary, potentially sad. “I don’t mind large planes or middle-sized planes (his English was slightly gutteral, his intonations lilting in a mild brogue), but small planes—you feel too much of the air under you.” That remark, direct, plainspoken, but also flirting with the metaphysical, has seemed over the years a keyhole into his work: a void; a sense of hovering above that void; the nerves registering each tremor with precision; the mind fighting back the body’s accelerating fear.
The reception of his poems thirty years ago is now part of American literary history: serviceably and widely translated from the Swedish, they were talked about by many of his English-speaking admirers in terms of “deep image.” It’s hard to recall how passionate poets were about this notion, which fuzzily suggested that poetry could state absolute truths if only the images poets evoked welled up from deep enough sources uncontaminated by history and the follies of reason. Such an idea’s devotion to poetry as an autonomous category, unbeholden to social uses of speech, still holds a deep appeal, a linguistic Eden of primal power. But it ignores what poetry most wants to do—or at least the poetry that I most want to read—which is to confront the reader with a world of private thoughts and feelings as contingent as the sudden anxiety a passenger might feel in his journey over the abyss while registering each bump and dip as an utterly objective, historically determined shock.
Much contemporary poetry feels a little mannerist, extreme rhetoric pretending to be bumps and dips, or willed obscurity masquerading as the abyss. Naive or simplistic as its premises might be, at least “deep image” expressed a powerful yearning for a state of conviction that didn’t flatten out, on close reading, into a studied set of stylistic maneuvers—as if style were anything less than the quality of perception. In the 70s, Tranströmer’s poems were treated as proof and example of the vaguely Jungian tenets of deep image, and soon became subsumed by the style of the day—a surrealism that smacked of automatic writing, whose imagery was drawn from elemental antinomies: light/dark, stone/water, fire/ice.
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THE POETRY OF TOMAS TRANSTROMER
The Swedish landscape is rather more austere than the richly flowered and variegated landscape to be found in most parts of Britain, where chalk, limestone and other, softer, rocks allow a greater profusion of topographical shapes and plant varieties to flourish. Much of Sweden struggles to survive on granite, outcrops of which can be seen in many of that country’s towns and cities, unexpectedly thrust to the surface, and a constant reminder of how much geology still shapes destiny. Such outcrops also produce a proliferation of islands and skerries around the coast, notably just outside Stockholm where there are more than 17,000 islands in the archipelago, many of them inhabited, at least during the summer months. Yet even with its more restricted flora and fauna, the Scandinavian landscape is perhaps even more beautiful and haunting. ‘Fjords make philosophers of us all,” Ibsen once wrote, about his native Norway.
Like many others, I first became aware of the Scandinavian life and culture through the films of Ingmar Bergman, and the austerities of his landscapes and characters struck a chord, or perhaps more accurately suggested a range of emotions and aspirations unavailable in English culture at the time. (The transitory happiness of the Baltic island idyll in Bergman’s 1953 film, Summer with Monika, has recently been evoked again in the English publication of Tove Jannsson’s exquisite The Summer Book. This was originally written in 1972, and the translation by Thomas Teal has already been reprinted four times in Britain in 2003, its first year of publication. Jannsson, most famous for her children’s books, is Finnish of course, though her summer island is also in the Baltic.)
Partly as a result of these early influences, I have been a fairly frequent visitor to Scandinavia over the years, and find that the landscape and culture there continue to exert a particular spell, in unexpected, and almost Utopian ways especially for someone as urban as myself. Just one telling example of the cultural difference between Sweden and Britain is that their phrase for the welfare state is folkhemmet, ‘the people’s home’. While always on the lookout for Swedish literature in translation, and finding much of great interest and enjoyment, there is one writer who it seems to me should be regarded as one of the greatest and most distinctive voices in European literature: the poet, Tomas Transtromer. Fortunately Bloodaxe Books have recently expanded and re-published Transtromer’s New Collected Poems (2002), ably translated by Robin Fulton, and a book to keep close by, whatever the topography,and whatever the weather.
Poet in the forest: Tomas Tranströmer
by Dave Bonta
I’m still reading the new translation of the collected works of Tomas Tranströmer, the great contemporary Swedish poet — a good companion on cold winter mornings. Tranströmer isn’t a very prolific poet, so it’s possible to fit his complete poetic output, as well as a prose memoir, into one volume of a little over 250 pages. But these poems really bear re-reading, so one doesn’t feel in the least bit cheated. In fact, as the back-cover blurb points out, Tranströmer has been translated into fifty languages, and “perhaps no other poet since Pablo Neruda has had such an international presence in his own lifetime.” The comparison is an interesting one, though, since Neruda sometimes wrote as much in one year as Tranströmer has written in a lifetime!
The worldviews of the two poets also differ tremendously: contrast Neruda’s hatred of religion with Tranströmer’s great (albeit reticent) respect for spiritual experience. But one thing their poetry does have in common is a rich vocabulary of images from the natural world. Both are or were competent amateur naturalists; in the work of both, non-human beings are presences worthy of poetic treatment in their own right; and both men spent part of their lives on islands, which they seemed to regard as their truest homes — Isla Negra for Neruda, and Runmarö for Tranströmer. But whereas I tend to think of Neruda as a poet of the ocean and the shore who sometimes also wrote about forests, I’m beginning to think of Tranströmer as a forest poet, whether or not that forest is surrounded, as in a few of his poems, by the Baltic Sea.
I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time with this new translation to be able to engage in serious literary criticism — and in any case, one ought to know the source language if one wants to make any sort of authoritative pronouncements about a work of literature. This is just one reader’s appreciation, an excuse to share some of my favorite finds from the book so far. My copy of The Great Enigma bristles with bookmarks — a veritable forest of little white slips.
Both the first and the last poems in the book, spanning fifty years, pivot on tree or forest imagery. Here’s how Tranströmer began “Prelude,” from 17 Poems, originally published in 1954:
Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler
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 aboveground
there’s greenery — a tropical flood of it — with
lifted arms, listening