Interview with Tomas Tranströmer
By Jenny Morelli for Vi-magazine November 2007
English translation from Swedish by Martin Rundkvist. Copyright © 2007 Jenny Morelli and Vi-magazine; English translation copyright © 2007 by Martin Rundkvist.
Tomas Tranströmer’s poems translated by Robin Fulton (Copyright © 1987 by Robin Fulton) and Martin Rundkvist.
Connect to Jenny Morelli’s Blog at: morelli.se
“I’ve put worse things in the mailboxes of worse people”, I said loudly to myself as I slipped my poetry book Pertaining to Livestock into Tomas Tranströmer’s mailbox last summer. Spending a few days at the Swedish Writers’ Association’s summer house in the Stockholm archipelago, I learned that he lived not far off.
It did feel a little silly to drop an unsolicited book of poetry in the mailbox of a celebrated poet. It almost felt stalkerish, and thus my spoken mantra. But still, earlier that day the thought had sprouted as I lay on the jetty, listening to the radio, hearing a librarian tell me, “Water and music, they’re the bare necessities”. Those words got my courage up.
Tranströmer also got a letter where I told him I know his poem “Madrigal” by heart, the one ending “I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the washing-line”. And I told him I believe poetry – like water and music – is colored by the area it springs from. I was a little nervous that Tranströmer might find the poems of my youth too hard-boiled, flavored by the landscape I inhabited then. But I hoped he would get to hear “The Present is the Little Sister of Eternity” or “Verse for Grandpa”, pieces that speak to the heart. Tomas Tranströmer has suffered from aphasia for years, with speech and reading impediments. I knew that. I also know that his wife Monica often reads to him.
After a few weeks, I checked my answering machine. There was Monica Tranströmer, thanking me for the book and asking me to call her. Poetry had been read in the garden. Tranströmer had laughed and liked some of it!
And autumn comes. Tomas Tranströmer and painter Peter Frie are in the news with an art book, haikus and landscape paintings. And one day with a limpid sky and towering air I park my bicycle outside the red brick building where Tomas and Monica Tranströmer live. The murky stairs have burgundy walls and an old elevator takes me to the fifth floor. When Monica Tranströmer opens the apartment door I’m struck by intense daylight, reflecting off the coppery green roof outside the kitchen window. That’s some roof!
– Yes, Czeslaw Milosz also liked that roof, it reminded him of his childhood in Lithuania, she says. Behind her in the hallway is Tomas Tranströmer. He extends his left hand and then walks, supported by a cane, to an easy chair in the well-lit room, beside a lilac-blue hydrangea on a window sill. A sliver of the sea and the flaming treetops of Djurgården are visible between two buildings. Tranströmer’s right hand is folded onto his belly like the head of a bird or a fork in a branch. Monica heads for the kitchen, making espresso, arranging cookies on a plate.
I’ve seen this couple before. At least from a distance. In 1993 there was a Nordic Poetry Festival in New York, with poets from all Nordic countries, including of course the “Grand Old Swede” Tomas Tranströmer. I remember the moans of the Swedish intelligentsia when national TV interviewed me there. “Good lord, why are they interviewing her when there are so many great poets at the festival? Tranströmer is there!” But now Monica Tranströmer tells me that she did everything she could at the time to keep herself and Tomas away from the ravening media. In an interview from the 1980s the man tells literature scholar Matts Rying that he doesn’t enjoy playing the poet role the media expects of him.
We take a tray of coffee, cookies and chocolate to the living room. I’ve explained that I’m hard of hearing and need to sit near them to hear what they say. Monica immediately starts asking me about my strategies for hearing, which is mainly a question of seeing. You compensate. You form pictures in situations when everyone else is listening to conversation, you read lips and follow tone of voice.
“I carry within myself all my old faces like a tree has its growth rings. Their sum is my self.” Those are Tranströmer’s words, and now he’s sitting before me looking cozy in an armchair, with Monica as his interpreter. All he can say is “good”, “yes” and “no”, and he gestures and makes facial expressions. His speech is gone since a stroke in 1990, but he nevertheless communicates well. He registers what’s going on, he listens and participates. He’s present. Monica tells me that they have made many new friends in recent years. I can see that.
I ask the couple if I can interview them and write a portrait.
– Write about what? About us?
– Yes, about our conversation. And perhaps about loss, I say.
They need to think about it. What was it about again?
– Well, you two. About Tomas’s language and about poetry and about Peter Fries’s skies, I say.
– Could you maybe write a little about yourself as well? asks Monica.
– Yes, about yourself and your loss, the loss of hearing, she says.
I do the interview through meetings, a few telephone calls and some correspondence. Sometimes Monica helps Tomas answer questions, sometimes he responds for himself. When I write, “says Tomas,” in the following interview, I mean that he has read and approved these words.”
When Tomas Tranströmer suffered a stroke he was 59 years old, had made a name for himself internationally as a poet, traveled a lot, worked as a psychologist and was a member of the Swedish Bible Translation Commission.
What was it like? A catastrophe? Great loss?
– No, I rather enjoyed the first weeks at the hospital, says Tomas, or more accurately, does Tomas mime.
He had been working too much and carried a bad cold around. Now, finally, he got some rest. He listened to a lot of music and didn’t worry. His memory and thinking were unimpaired. He believed that speech and motor control over his right-hand side would return with time.
A long period of physical and speech-related rehabilitation followed, and gradually the realization dawned that it would be hard – or impossible – to regain speech. His right hand had also become immobile.
Now came a dark time. Music was probably what guided him out of the darkness. Above all, playing the piano with his left hand.
– It’s remarkable how a person adapts, says Monica.
And Tomas Tranströmer’s language isn’t entirely gone. He can write with his left hand and read a little. But it tires him, and usually Monica reads to him.
– You discover new aspects of the text that way, she says.
Tomas nods, and his right hand, the bird’s head, is on his lap.
– Our roles have changed, it used to be Tomas entertained and I was quiet.
Monica turns to him.
– And you were so good at it, Tomas! But I used to watch people in the room, how they reacted, what was happening wordlessly. Active people can’t see. Now it’s the other way around. I talk, I try to entertain. Tomas is the psychologist, and he’s much better than I was. He watches.
How does Tomas write, it can’t be easy?
– Yes, there’s a threshold to pass as he can only use his left hand now, says Monica.
Before, Monica was never part of the writing process, and she would never have dreamed of reading Tomas’s notes. But now she takes part. Tomas writes and Monica types. Tomas gets his text back, makes changes, approves the result and then continues working on it.
You worked 50% as a psychologist and were a writer the rest of the time. But how did you find gaps in your schedule to write in?
– It was a matter of routine. Particularly when you’ve become established as a writer there is a lot of work with correspondence, travel and reading other people’s manuscripts. But I used to take short drives, little excursions from everyday life. And on the island there was always time.
Monica, what is it like being married to a poet?
– Ha, now, I can’t really say since I have nothing to compare with. Tomas and I got married when I was 19 and he was 27. But maybe you mean what it’s like to live with an active artist when you are not one yourself?
– You have to respect each other’s integrity, and I think that applies to all couples, allowing your mate some private space.
When and how did you meet?
– A mutual acquaintance introduced us in 1957. We met again by chance in Stockholm’s Old Town and got married in 1958.
Is either of your daughters an artist?
– Both have a need for artistic expression. The older one went back to school to become a singer, and our second daughter is a nurse and a photographer.
Myself, I don’t find Tranströmer’s poetry “difficult”. Swedish Academy member Kristina Lugn wrote about The Sorrow Gondola that the poems “fell through her like music”. But there is this aura of solemnity in the media around your work and yourself. Do you pick it up too?
– No, I don’t feel that my poems are solemn or that my public persona would somehow be solemn, says Tomas.
Here’s a strange question: is there anything to be gained in losing speech?
– Losing speech means you can’t hide behind it anymore. You’re forced open. And maybe you could say that Tomas has gained music. When nothing obeys him any more, it’s a feeling of great freedom to find his left hand and eye and brain still working. He plays the piano a lot, says Monica.
I stand by the grand piano, listening for a while as Tomas plays, left hand only. He is completely focused, his hand moving rapidly across the keys. He’s playing an Impromptu by Reinhold Glière. I learn that there are about five hundred piano pieces written expressly for the left hand – but only about fifty for the right hand.
– Many pianists before Tomas have lost their right hands in wars and accidents, says Monica.
She fetches a miniature painting by Peter Frie. A German publisher has just put out a book of these paintings with Tranströmer’s haikus.
– At first glance, Peter’s pictures are very simple. But when you study them they are rich in detail, says Monica as we lean over the miniature landscape. The haikus are from Tranströmer’s The Great Enigma.
A great slow wind from
The library of the sea.
I can find rest here.
Art critic Joanna Persman wrote in Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet when the book’s contents were exhibited that “Tranströmer and Frie seem to share a feeling of calm, but also of sorrow. A landscape is a place for meditation to both of them.”
The autumn has arrived with a vengeance when Peter Frie, just out of surgery, arrives with his wife Britt Arnstedt by car to Stockholm. They are here to take the exhibition down, and once more I cycle up the hilly streets of Stockholm’s southern island. Monica offers me espresso. Photographer Louise Billgert is mounting lights on tripods as Tomas waits in an armchair to be photographed. I ask Peter what unites him and Tomas Tranströmer.
– Tomas expresses something in words that I try to express in painting. I work with timelessness, the time is unimportant in my landscapes. Anybody may have seen my skies and that light somewhere. And Tomas’s poetry works in the same way. They’re so open, they’re for anyone, and I want people who see my landscapes to make them their own, he says.
What does your collaboration with Peter mean to you, Tomas?
– Stimulation is the simple answer. And I feel at home in Peter’s pictures, says Tomas.
One of your poems is named “C Major”. I read it in school. I’m thinking that art can also fall into different keys. In what keys are you two playing today?
– All keys are important, gestures Tomas.
– My paintings are generally in minor keys, says Peter.
Peter Frie explains that his work process is extremely intense: he almost disappears into his landscapes for months upon end and then retreats when an exhibition comes up.
– By that time they’re not mine anymore, and Tomas has said something similar about his poems. The pictures are children who get sent off to fend for themselves. My volatile temperament directs my work – I’m sometimes really surprised when I see these harmonious paintings. They certainly weren’t made in a mood of harmony! says Peter.
– You’re temperamental too, Tomas, a real hair trigger sometimes, says Monica.
– What? Me? Never! says Tomas, eyes a-twinkle.
– Oh yes, you still are, says Monica. But maybe artists need a hot temperament to create tension and quality in their work. If there isn’t any tension, no darkness, you’ll just say “ah, that’s pretty” and walk on, shrugging.
– Right now I’m not actually longing for sunshine. I want some heavy dark autumn skies, portentous ones, says Peter.
Both Tranströmer and Frie are inspired by nature. To walk freely and far without encountering any fences or “Private property” signs. Finding new places, losing your way. Both love the Swedish “Everyman’s Right”, where trespassing is largely a concept unknown to the country’s laws. Nature should remain every man’s right.
– You might say that I have a sky archive and a woodland archive inside of me. I started collecting those files while picking mushrooms with my mother in the woods of Småland.
Tomas Tranströmer has known freedom and received much of his inspiration on the island of Runmarö. Monica recalls how he would take long walks in the woods in the summers and come home with his pockets full of notes.
– Tomas still likes the woods, but it isn’t the same anymore since he can’t roam freely, says Monica.
In Tomas Tranströmer’s autobiography Memories Look at Me, he relates his experiences as a psychologist at a correctional facility for teenage boys. He had to play tough to earn the boys’ respect. I tell him I can relate to that, you have to act really tough to make people listen. I tell him that many young people have the same feeling when they speak in public. You have to be really sharp to get a place at the table, sensitivity won’t do you any good. Tomas nods, he understands and mimes the way he used to play tough. Monica tells me that one of the boys Tomas once tried to help had contacted him after 36 years. She asked the man what Tomas had been like as a psychologist, and he didn’t reply, “though” – he described him as “distracted”. And I remember a stanza from Tomas’s poem “A Golden Wasp”, reciting it:
Those who cannot be anywhere but on their front.
Those who are never distracted.
Those who never open the wrong door and get a glimpse of the unidentified one.
Walk past them!
Tomas nods in affirmation.
Is it possible to form a poetic resistance today?
– Maybe by refusing to formulate the easiest answers. Maybe poetry’s role is to change our conventional modes of thought and search for dimensions within us that the commercial forces don’t really like.
What are you going to do in the near future?
– I have no idea.
If you were 20 now – what would you do?
– Well, who would you be if you were born in 1987? Brought up with daycare and shaped by a completely different culture, no mean teachers at Stockholm’s Southern Latin School? I guess I would still have been of an artistic bent, but most likely I’d have had another profession as well. Something with people, perhaps psychology again.
What’s a good way to clean out falsehoods and false notes from one’s writing?
– You need to give a text time to mature. Their qualities don’t become apparent immediately. Give them time and patience. “Truth” is a kind of contract with the reader. Spontaneity is all very good and well, but it doesn’t always find the way to truth.
Will you write more poetry? Or can a person be finished with poetry?
– You’re never finished with poetry.
My father-in-law, a scholar of literature, compares you to the Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. He says you also describe the “mystical all-sense” as “a verdant present”. He wonders if you still have these verdant moments.
– Interesting question! Yes, I did read Meister Eckhart in the 50s, as well as Augustine, and I was deeply influenced. Yes, I guess they’re in there somewhere. But I would never call myself a mystic. That’s far too pretentious. I do, however, still have “verdant” experiences. Not as often as before, and not as intense, but a sense of joy in nature, certainly!
Tomas Tranströmer shunned the epithet “mystic” already in the 70s. In a 1972 newspaper interview he says that “A mystic is someone who has seen God face to face. I’ve only seen his silhouette as he ran past me. And sometimes I’m not sure of that either.”
Regardless of the poet’s reservations, critics often describe his works in terms such as “epiphany” and “secular prayer”. And psychologist of religion Owe Wikström quotes several Tranströmer poems in a book titled (in Swedish) On the Stubborn Refusal of the Sacred to Disappear.
This stubborn refusal becomes very clear to me when I find myself at a book fair in the company of some young newspaper reporters, renowned for their sharp pens. Turns out the toughest of them all loves Tranströmer. I receive a text message on my cell phone: “In the middle of the woods is an unexpected clearing that can only be found by those who lose their way”. Tomas Tranströmer’s poems fly on.
On the day after our last interview, cycling to work, I think about his right hand and the tenderness it awakens. And about his solemn joy. And about not getting to hide behind language. And about green copper roofs that reflect light, and endless skies that seem simple at first glance. And that in the life of everyone is one great unresolved love. And that Monica assumed Tomas’s role and Tomas Monica’s. We are never completed, and that is as should be.
Name: Tomas Tranströmer
Profession: Psychologist and poet
Born in: 1931
Lives: Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden
Summer house: Runmarö, Stockholm archipelago
Family: Wife Monica, daughters Emma and Paula, grand-daughter Alice
In the news with: The book Stor och långsam vind (A Great Slow Wind) in collaboration with Peter Frie
Little-known claim to fame: Was an extra in Alf Sjöberg’s and Ingmar Bergman’s 1944 film Torment
Childhood hero: a wood-gas-poisoned caretaker, due to his “heroic closeness to dangerous machines”
Poetry available in: about 50 languages
Broke into print in: 1954
Selected books in English: For the Living and the Dead, The Sorrow Gondola, The Great Enigma, The Deleted World