Tomas Tranströmer is a poet of international distinction. Born in Stockholm in 1931, he won the prestigious Bonnier Prize in Poetry in 1983 and in 1981, West Germany’s Petrarch Prize. Selected Poems 1954-1988 (in translation) was published in the United States by Ecco Press in 1987 (this is the edition referred to below).
This interview took place on April 7,1989 in Linda Horvath’s high-rise apartment overlooking Indianapolis. (Transtomer had read at Butler University the night before.) Except where the meaning was unclear, I have left his English as it was to give a sense of its charm and of his slow, thoughtful speaking style. He had the air of a solitary, but of a rare sort, one who is also relaxed, open, and pleased to be with people. Like the balance he recommends here between playfulness and ambition, his manner was light (a lot of laughter), and also serious. As we talked I felt we were in the open air, somewhere with a lot of breathing space. This is like the climate in his poems.
When I met Tranströmer last Spring, I was finishing an MFA program which was both a time of exhilaration and disillusionment for me. Talking with Tranströmer I felt myself reconnected to the fluid, unterritorial roots of poetry. Now half a year later, it has been a privilege to go over this interview slowly, word by word. The process of transcribing has been a luxury rather than a task.
Tan Lin Neville
Horvath: I wanted to ask if you feel yourself part of a literary tradition that is definable, that you feel you share with the translators? I guess I’m getting at a sense of kinship with Bly, Swenson, Fulton, and your other translators.
Tranströmer: Well, of course. it’s an enormous tradition you could call Modernism in poetry. But there might be something more specific. The first poet who really took an interest in me here was Robert Bly. I think that was because he was working in the same direction as I was. He had been to Norway and had read Scandinavian writers and so on and he wanted to introduce to Americans an attitude to nature that’s very characteristic of Scandinavian poetry. The writing in Silence in the Snowy Fields (a book by Bly) for instance is something I feel very familiar with. His poems are completely American but have something I could identify with very much when I first met him. So the experience of being translated by someone who is working in the same way as you do yourself is very encouraging, an experience not everyone has with translators.
I’m lucky because I’ve been translated by poets who happen to know some Swedish, but it’s not so common with a small language like Swedish—it’s more common that you are in the hands of a specialist in the language who might have very little interest or feeling for poetry.
Neville: You mentioned last night that you’ve been translated so much that it’s changed the nature of your Swedish, that your Swedish is no longer as Swedish as it was when you began? Is that right?
Tranströmer: Well, the woman who made the introduction, quoted me as saying that.
Neville: Would you agree?
Tranströmer: It’s difficult for me to know because of its taking place on a not too conscious level. I think even the most solitary writer has a sort of audience in mind. It’s a sort of invisible audience that he might not be aware of but it is somewhere in his mind and I have often thought that this consists of close friends, people who understand you very well. But I think after a while if you have that wonderful experience of meeting other cultures and being read abroad, those people become part of your audience in a way that influences you. It’s a sad fact that so many of our best Swedish poets are untranslatable because the structure of their writing comes too close to the structure of the Swedish language and this makes them almost impossible to translate. And other poets can be translated easily. It’s the same in all languages.
Horvath: Have you been in touch enough recently to know if the other Eastern European countries are experiencing some of the freedom of Glasnost?
Tranströmer: Oh yes, yes. I mean there is one country that is the worst in the world—Romania, which is moving in another direction. But especially important for us are the Baltic parts of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and here there is a fantastic change. I was in Latvia and Estonia in 1970. It was really closed. Sometimes you felt like a person in an early Graham Greene story.
These countries mean a lot to me and many Swedes. We have a lot of exiles coming across the border from the Baltics and we are very aware of what is going on there. There has been fantastic change in the last years, especially the last year, the last month.
Neville: I’d like to go back to this question of audience for a minute. What do you think of the audience for poetry we have in this country? As I see it it’s very self-enclosed, airless, and self-conscious. A poet is almost always writing for other poets and students of poetry. I wondered if this is true in Sweden?
Tranströmer: Well, the difference is that here poetry readings and so on are mainly the business of universities and in Sweden it is more in the libraries. They arrange readings and if you come to a place like Indianapolis, you would probably go to the library to read and there you would meet people of all ages and backgrounds.
Neville: So the audience is more mixed and broader?
Tranströmer: Yes. Here you have a class of young people who all support each other. They all write themselves and probably go together to a reading and so on. But in the audience in a place like Uppsala there would be people coming from very different places, perhaps very solitary people who happen to read poetry, which is not everybody of course.
Neville: But they’re not all teachers and students?
Tranströmer: Some of them are. Of course we also have readings at universities but they are not organized as part of the education but because the students have their own literary clubs. What else is different? I can say that the Swedish audience is rather reluctant to show feelings. They sit traditionally rather quiet and they don’t show facial expressions, they don’t sigh or laugh or shout. They think that’s good behavior not to show emotion. This can be frustrating at times. You don’t know if people are bored or enthusiastic. Here the reactions come much more openly. But in the U.S. it is different by region also. The Midwest is perhaps the least expressive.
Horvath: I think your first book was published when you were twenty-two. I was wondering if you feel that you have gone through different stages of development since then?
Tranströmer: I hope so…(laughs) but it’s difficult to judge. Often what critics say when I’ve published a new book is that it’s the same stuff or that I develop very slowly. They find a continuum. They look at my first book and find similar things I wrote there that now reappear. But for me, there’s an enormous difference.
Horvath: What made me ask is that reading the Selected Poems, I felt that your poems became more complex over time.
Tranströmer: That might be true but at the language level I was more complex when I started out. This doesn’t come forward in translation but the earlier poems were more compressed and I used more traditional meters, more than I do now. I think these early poems are more difficult to translate. What you get in English translation is a simplified version. But the later poems are easier to translate, on the language level at least. One difference…I hate to talk about form and content, but let’s do that (laughs). For me the content in the later poems is more complex because they contain more experience. I am fifty-seven now and there is a great difference between a man who is twenty-two and one who is fifty-seven. The whole life, society, all these things are, one way or another, in the later poems. In the first book I was very young and had an intense relation to nature and childhood. But it was a limited outer world. But now there are all these things I have been through.
Horvath: One of the things that attracts me so much to your work is your global awareness. But I get a feeling of your sense of the agony of the world. In “Sketch in October” I was very struck by the image of mushrooms like “the fingers, stretching up for help, of someone who has long sobbed to himself in the darkness down there.” I had the feeling of the urgency for peace. And yet the poems are not political, they’re human. Could you comment?
Tranströmer: You said some nice things, I don’t want to disturb…(laughs). Yes, I grew up during World War II, which was an enormously strong experience for me. Although Sweden was neutral, it was surrounded by German occupation—Norway was occupied, Denmark was occupied. Sweden was independent but at the same time isolated. People in Sweden were divided—some were for the allies, some were for the Germans. These were strong tensions I felt very much as a child. My parents were divorced and my mother and I lived together. I had relatives that were very close. They were all very much anti-Hitler and I was the most militant supporter of the allies. I was a little boy who was like a little professor, not as children should be. I lectured people all the time. But I read the newspapers and I followed the war intensely.
I had a dream of becoming an explorer. Our heroes were Livingston and Stanley, people like that. In my imagination I was always going to Africa and other parts of the world. But in reality I was staying in Stockholm and in summers we went to the Archipelago, to the islands, which was my paradise. After the war of course I wanted to go abroad and see the world. My mother had never been abroad in her whole life but I wanted to go. In 1951 I visited Iceland, together with a friend from school. That was a strong experience. When we came back, I was not exactly poor but I had no money. In 1954 my first book was published and I got a prize. I used the money to go to the Orient—Turkey, the Near East, which at that time were not tourist countries at all, especially Turkey was not. It was a real adventure to me. Nowadays young people go with a bag on their back as I did but it’s so common now.
Meeting this world was a very strong experience for me and there are some poems from that time in my second book. There is one called “Siesta” and one called “Izmir at Three O’clock.” In ’54 I was in Turkey and Greece, in ’55 in Italy and Yugoslavia, in ’56 in Morocco, Spain and Portugal. And I have been traveling since then. But nowadays I go when I’m invited, when I have something to do. I am very interested in the politics but more in a human way than in an ideological way.
Neville: I don’t get the feeling from your poems that you think of yourself as a wanderer. You’re quite rooted in Sweden, its weather, etc. Would you agree with that?
Tranströmer: I think I’m rooted in the landscape, sights, experiences… You mentioned weather. That’s very important for us who write poetry and for all of us in Sweden. The very strange lights. We are so far North but because of the gulf stream, the climate is rather mild…but the lights are arctic, which is the only place in the world where that takes place. We have these summers that are completely light and the winters that are too dark.
Neville: Yes. long and dark. You have some wonderful summer poems. The feeling of the relief of summer is very strong. You mentioned earlier that when you were younger the primary thing was a very strong relationship to the exterior and nature in Sweden. I was struck in your poems that, though they are very much structured on the inner life, or self, there is still a very exterior quality, and actually there are very few interiors in your poems. The poem “Vermeer” is one of the few I can think of where you are actually inside, in a studio and a tavern. But, I think it’s in “Elegy,” even when you walk into a room, your attention is immediately drawn out of the room, to the window, or to the alley and its traffic. Could you talk about this? It struck me as unusual that your interest is interior but your perception is always outward.
Tranströmer: That probably is the way inspiration works for me—the feeling of being in two places at the same time… 0r of being aware that you are in a place that seems very closed but that actually everything is open. Well, this is vague but it has to do with the whole inspiration that makes a poem for me.
Neville: Well, I was curious—what was it in your background that enabled you to escape the pitfalls of withdrawal, solipsism, alienation?
Tranströmer: (long pause) I had a very good mother (laughter).
Neville: I was hoping you’d say that.
Tranströmer: Yes, we were very close. She was an elementary school teacher. And I had wonderful grandparents—a ship pilot and his wife. Very old people, very close to me. Yes, there was a basic support from the closest relatives. At the same time I was very solitary. I was an only child and they encouraged me all the time to develop my interests. I think often little boys with special interests are discouraged because parents want them to be normal and to be like other children and play and so on.
I was so often as a child hurt by the tactless grown-ups who didn’t recognize me as the adult I felt like. They treated me like a child and I was insulted by this. But the people that were close to me, the most important people, they were always tolerating my personality very much. School was difficult, of course. Some teachers I loved and some I didn’t like at all. In general I think my childhood wasn’t easy but it was not too bad. When I was eleven and twelve I developed a very strong interest in collecting insects. Biology has always been very important to me. I collected beetles especially, I had a large collection. I was out all the time with a butterfly net.
Neville: You have a lot of butterflies in your poems but I don’t think of too many beetles or other insects.
Horvath: ” The Golden Wasp”?
Tranströmer: I think I have a beetle in here—I must have. “On the humming electricity-post a beetle is sitting in the sun. Beneath the shining wing-covers, its wings are folded up ingeniously as a parachute packed by an expert.” (“The Clearing”) There’s one beetle!
Well you know if you run around collecting insects and looking at everything in nature, it’s a rather happy existence. This is also sort of a Swedish tradition from Linnaeus. Nature is not only a place for moods, it is a place where you do research. The beauty of nature—shells, insects, birds, came to me as a child. I didn’t recognize it as beauty because I thought I was a scientist (laughs). But it got into me anyway.
Horvath: Did you have other special interests?
Tranströmer: Yes, I was very interested in history. I read a lot in history which I still do. And when I was thirteen and fourteen music became very important. I developed fanatic interest in music which I still keep.
Neville: And you play yourself?
Tranströmer: Yes, I was looking to see if you had a piano….
Horvath: I wonder how you arrive at the striking images you have in your poems?
Tranströmer: The images themselves often come spontaneously. But when I work on one, I try to make it as clear as possible for the reader. Like when you dream, things like that come to you all the time.
Horvath: Do you try to stay in touch with your dreams?
Tranströmer: Yes, sometimes. I dream a lot but unfortunately, I forget everything very quickly.
Horvath: So you don’t wake yourself up at night to write them down?
Tranströmer: No, I don’t have the character to do that—I want to sleep (laughs). But it has happened that dreams have been so strong that I could continue them. They have become poems.
Horvath: When the images come to you around a certain cluster of feelings then you have to work with them to make them clear to others…?
Tranströmer: Sometimes. Sometimes an image comes in one piece around a definite center with the words that really belong to it. But sometimes it comes as an image without words and then I have to work with words.
Horvath: So a lot of your process is the subconscious coming out rather than saying, “I’m going to sit down and write a poem about this.”
Tranströmer: Yes, everything is from inside, from the subconscious. It’s the source of everything. I have a lot of equipment with which to take care of what’s been given to me from the deeper parts but I never order myself to write about something. I’ve tried to do that. When I was working in a prison for young people as a psychologist, I wanted to write about this experience, I wrote a very ambitious poem but I was not satisfied with it, with the poem which originated from this ambition. In the end, the only things which I could accept were a certain few lines that came along with the unreal and ambitious poem about the poor boys in the prison. That poem is called “On The Outskirts of Work.” “In the middle of work/we start longing fiercely for wide greenery/for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only/by the thin civilization of telephone wires.” It was only lines like this that remained from a long, serious and very ambitious poem about prison. So I cannot really decide what to write, it has to come.
Horvath: Do you have to get yourself in a certain setting, a certain frame of mind, to enable the poems to come?
Tranströmer: It’s never easy for me but when it’s possible, a sort of playful mood which at the same time is serious. You must be in a sort of balance between play and ambition—it is very difficult to have this balance. And also it’s very helpful to have plenty of time which I don’t have. I mean on a trip like this one… Of course, if I had the character I could sit down in the hotel room and say, I will do nothing all day, just sit here. But I can’t do that. People are calling and I’m invited to parties, and so on. And in an airplane I’m either bored or scared and I don’t feel in the right mood for writing. Trains are much better, long trains….
Neville: And car rides. You have several wonderful poems in cars, “Downpour in the Interior,” and “Tracks,” among others.
Tranströmer: Yes, but I have a very ambivalent feeling for cars. In a way I’m against cars because they destroy a lot of things but at the same time I must say it’s wonderful to have a car, to transport yourself into nature.
Neville: I wanted to ask you about prose poems. I believe in them and write them myself but many people think they’re flabby and don’t want to be bothered with them. I would like to hear your comments. What do they give you that you don’t get from writing poems?
Tranströmer: Well, it’s an old tradition in Europe, especially in France. And when I started to write them in the late 1940′s one of the most important books was an anthology called Nineteen Modern French Poets. There were a lot of prose poems by Rene Char, Eliade, Reverdy, people like that, and so for me it was quite natural, it was nothing new. I had a good friend in school, immensely gifted. He published his book when he was thirty. And that was a book of prose poems, very much like Max Jacob, sort of wild surrealist prose poetry. So for me it has always been something familiar, there from the beginning. But my own published prose poem was rather late. My mother had died and I wrote about coming to her apartment and standing in front of the bookcase. (“The Bookcase”)
Neville: What is the difference in the mode of expression between poetry and prose?
Tranströmer: I often know from the beginning if this is prose or this is verse. In my latest book, published two weeks ago, there are seventeen poems, two of them are prose poems. One is here I think (in the Selected Poems). It’s called ‘The Nightingale in Badelunda.” The other one I read yesterday, it’s called “Madrigal.” These two are very short. But prose poems give you a sort of fluency.
This is another parallel I have with Bly. He published his book of prose poems about the same time I started to write them. We were both interested in Francis Ponge. His prose poems are characterized by a sort of intense, nearsighted view of things or of nature. They are very inspiring, though you don’t have to do it the way Ponge does it. You and I probably have the same experience of it—there’s a sort of freedom, to go into details, to digress.
Horvath: So you don’t rework prose poems?
Tranströmer: Sometimes I do. There’s one prose poem, I think I worked for years and years with it. But it is prose—it’s called “Below Freezing.” (Reads):
We are at a party that doesn’t love us. Finally, the
party lets the mask fall and shows what it is: a shunting
station for freight cars. In the fog cold giants stand on
the tracks. A scribble of chalk on the car doors.
One can’t say it out loud, but there is a lot of repressed
and so on. This is a sort of pessimistic description of Sweden, among other things.
Neville: Is that the poem which ends with children huddled waiting for the school bus? I like that one very much.
Tranströmer: This was the poem Bei Dao (Chinese poet) liked the most
Neville: Yes, China is very much like the landscape in that poem, very drab, minimalist and utilitarian. “Standing Up” is one of my favorites, a much happier, lighter prose poem.
Tranströmer: That’s an early one for me and it’s very documentary because when our children were small we had chickens in the summer… (almost inaudibly) I sometimes think I should return to this.
Neville: Did that also take place at your old family home in the Baltics?
Tranströmer: Yes, and there is a hat from the early part of the century, so that also is true. (Reads from the poem) “I stopped, holding the hen in my hands. Strange, she didn’t really feel living: rigid, dry, an old white plume-ridden lady’s hat that shrieked out the truths of 1912.” So that was a real hat that we had in the house. (laughs)
Neville: Do your children have the same feeling about “the blue house” that you do? Or is their feeling different, being in another generation?
Tranströmer: It is becoming more the same. As they get older, they value it more. The oldest is twenty-eight now, the youngest is twenty-four. And they are very fond of the Islands. So I feel very safe that they will not sell it.
Horvath: One thing we didn’t touch on is the religious influence in your poems. I sensed a spiritual impulse there, but one which wasn’t attached to any theology. I wondered whether you had some particular childhood religious training?
Tranströmer: Yes, my mother again. She was a very…If I say “pious” woman, it will give the wrong associations, of a severe old-fashioned person. But she was not, she had a very childlike and good relation to God, absolutely. She was religious in a very positive way. When I was a child of course I was very skeptical. I believed in the natural sciences, in the 19th century way, you know, where everything is mechanistic. And I was not confirmed when I was fifteen. Almost everyone of my generation was, but I rejected that. I don’t believe in doing this and my mother accepted that hesitation. But a few years after I became very much engaged in religion. At first, when it came time for confirmation, I was a non-believer. And a few years later I was a believer.
But this is something which develops in your life. I have very little to do with the church. I love the buildings, the feeling you get. I often go into them. But I am not a member of a church in a sociological way, so to say. If I belonged to a group, the religious group that I feel strongest about are the Quakers. But in Sweden that is a very exclusive group, you almost have to be a saint to enter. I am trying to work this out. I mean, before I die I want to come to certain solutions.
Neville: ‘The Golden Wasp” is such a strong statement against institutionalized religion. What do you do then? Do you read a lot on your own? The Bible?
Tranströmer: Actually, I’m part of a group of people that are making new translations of the Bible. My job is to work with the sounds…. But if religion were not so important to me I wouldn’t be so desperate about these fundamentalist people. Because I feel it’s a perversion of the things I love. I saw a TV film about the People’s Temple, Jim Jones. I was thinking of that when I wrote, ‘The divine brushes against a man and lights a flame/but then draws back./Why?” (” The Golden Wasp”, Ironwood, Vol. 16) Because that group started very well, I think, it was a positive religious group in San Francisco. And then after a while it developed into this sort of terror organization where everyone obeys the leader and all that. And I’ve heard Oral Roberts, he was on a lot when I visited America in 1986. We are starting to have some of these preachers in Sweden.
Horvath: There’s something frightening about them, the power they have over people.
Tranströmer: And all the money that’s involved.
Horvath: Has psychology replaced religion at all for you?
Tranströmer: No, I don’t think so. Well, it’s a very complicated question. Psychology is sometimes close to religion but it depends on the psychologist, on how he looks at things. Psychologists of the 20th century are rather suspicious of religion and try to explain it away. But some are not. I mean the Jungian way of handling psychology is much more open to religion.
Horvath: Are you part of that school?
Tranströmer: No, I’m not part of any school, I’m very eclectic, a synchronist. But there are influences, definitely. The Jungian ideas are in the air.
Horvath: I was curious about the place of the ego in your poems. I mean I had to read quite a way before I came to an “I.”
Tranströmer: Well, this is true of my first book. In the first part, I really was afraid of using “I.” But the “I” comes a little more in the second book and it grew and it’s one of the differences between earlier poems and later poems—the late ones are full of “I” ‘s. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the earlier poems have less ego in them, just that I was shy to talk about myself. Often I used “he” in my “middle period” (laughs). ‘”When he came down to the street after the rendezvous, and the air was swirling with snow.” (“C Major”) The “he” was me of course. But now I don’t hesitate to say “I.” But that was an ambition I had, that you shouldn’t be too visible as a person. But now I think it’s more honest to use “I.” After all you are writing from your own experience and writing to show that.
(Fran Quinn, who directs the reading series at Butler, and Jim Powell/ director of the Indianapolis Writers Center, came in just as the interview was ending.)
Quinn: There’s one more thing I’d like to throw in here. You mentioned last night about your creative writing group in Uppsala, the fact that you started it and now you have some questions about whether or not that was the right direction to go in?
Tranströmer: I have an ambiguous feeling for creative writing education. I don’t think it’s possible to have a teacher teaching you to write poems. There’s something strange in this idea. But what a teacher can do is create an atmosphere where students can, as friends and at the same time as very sharp critics, have a relation that is favorable to developing writing. That’s how it was for me when I was beginning to write. I had friends who were also writing and we were helping each other very much I think because you need the sort of audience that can look at your writing in a friendly way but at the same time as a reader and not as a friend only. When you begin writing you are so involved in your own inspirations, you cannot possibly understand how a reader could not have the same attitude. So it’s very helpful when you meet readers directly and they tell you their reactions. The problem of writing is to do the work from inside out. But also the problem is that everything that goes into a text must be understandable to a reader who comes to it from a completely different attitude, with cold eyes and without any inspiration at all. And this is a little shocking at first to a young poet because you take it for granted that others are as inspired as you are. And so, things like that you can learn from a group of friendly, and at the same time, objective people. But you cannot learn it from a teacher, because a teacher is an authority, someone you have to be submissive to. It’s your peers that you learn from. And the teacher’s job is to create the atmosphere where this is possible. And to inspire the whole circus (laughs).
Quinn: Do you keep in touch with friends that you worked with when you were young?
Tranströmer: Yes, but… Well, it’s one of the bad things that come with age. Some of these people have stopped writing completely. Others have become rather neglected writers. And I have become rather famous and that disturbs the relationship very much. It’s not a disturbance at all when we meet as human beings and so on but as soon as we start talking about writing it’s almost impossible to re-establish this wonderful situation when we were all equals and we were all very hopeful and generous. After thirty-five years a hierarchy is established already which is not a right thing to start with.
Horvath: Do you find that it’s harder for them to read your work and critique it, and to accept what you say when you critique theirs, you being the authority.
Tranströmer: No, I stay out of the whole business. My wife is my best critic. She knows me so well, she can detect if something’s false. Also, a lot of things can be discovered when a poem is translated, during the process of translation. But sometimes when I find where the faults are, it’s too late (laughter).
Quinn: Do you ever change any of the poems you’ve had published?
Tranströmer: No, not when it has been printed in a Swedish book. There are poems in magazines that you cannot find in the same form in the book.
Quinn: I was thinking of Yeats on his deathbed rewriting his whole collected works.
Tranströmer: Oh no, I would hate to do that. Old poems are just like milestones that you have passed. I even have little impulse to read poems aloud which are too distant.
Quinn: Robert Bly recently in his selected works decided to rewrite a whole bunch of poems and I was just wondering whether you ever got ideas like this.
Tranströmer: Oh no, I think that’s a terrible idea (laughs).
Powell: How about burning things though? Borges went around for years burning up his early things.
Tranströmer: Burning is OK (laughter). But to start again with a poem you wrote twenty-five years ago- that’s a mad idea.
Tan Lin Neville: Journey Cake is Neville’s first full book of poetry. She is the recipient of a Master Artist Fellowship from the Indiana Arts Commission.
The interview with Tomas Tranströmer first appeared in Painted Bridge Quarterly, a literary journal in Philadelphia, in a special double issue Translation Issue, Number 40-41 in 1990. The interview is reprinted here by permission. Copyright © 1990 by Painted Bride Arts Center, Inc.