Sunday, October 23, 2011


The sound says that freedom exists

Poet Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Generally I don't give a great deal of attention to who the Nobel or other such awards are given to -- such prizes and prestige seem far from the details and routines of my life and the lives of people I know. I was interested to hear the news about Tranströmer, however. His poetry has been deeply important to me since I first read him, in translation, more than 35 years ago.

I first read Transtromer's poems in the book Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, a selection of three Swedish poets -- Harry Martinson (himself also a Nobel laureate), Gunnar Ekelöf, and Tomas Tranströmer -- chosen and translated by Robert Bly, published 1975 by Beacon Press; the book includes the original Swedish of the poems. I liked the work of all three of the poets; I found myself immediately drawn to Tranströmer's poems in particular.

I find in Tranströmer's poems a quiet introspective quality, whether the ostensible subject matter of the poems is things and events in the exterior world or entirely the happenings of inner life. Tranströmer worked for many years as a psychologist, and the nature of such work makes a steady background presence in his poems, and sometimes emerges more explicitly. His poems are the poems of someone who spends much time listening to the collective psyche, and asking questions about what it means to be a human being in the modern world.

From the poem "Track" ("Spår"), in Friends, You Drank Some Darkness (from which the quoted passages here are taken, unless otherwise noted):

2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.

As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember that he was there
when he returns again to his room.

Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.

I live in a place (Minneapolis) known for cold winters; at the time of winter solstice here, the nights last about 15 and a half hours. Sweden, where Tranströmer has lived all his life, has a climate similar, if not identical, and is further north, and the winter nights are longer. Certainly I felt an affinity for the daily world that shows up in Tranströmer's poems when I first read his work. Minnesota and the surrounding region also has had a large history of immigration from the Scandinavian countries, and echoes persist here of the cultures of that part of the world. It was early spring when I first read Tranströmer's poems, and it continually struck me how the cool damp earth smell of the spring nights seemed to drift up from his poems as I read them.

There are stark winter days when the sea has links
to the mountain areas, hunched over in feathery grayness,
blue for a moment, then the waves for hours are like pale
lynxes, trying to get a grip on the gravelly shore. [...]

[...] (In the Far North the real lynx walks, with sharpened claws
and dream eyes. In the Far North where the day
lives in a pit night and day.

There the sole survivor sits by the furnace
of the Northern Lights, and listens to the music
coming from the men frozen to death.)

(From the poem "Sailor's Tale," "Skepparhistoria" in the original Swedish.)

Tranströmer's poems are not, for the most part, politically explicit in their content or subject matter, at least the the usual sense. But the realities of the world we live in are never far away, and the poems do move with evident conscience, even when the subject matter isn't obviously political in nature. I think, for instance, of some lines from his poem "Allegro" (the title is the same in Swedish):

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is green, lively and still.

The sound says that freedom exists
and that someone does not pay tax to Caesar.

(The translation of the above lines is based on Robert Bly's translation, however I've changed the word order in a couple of the lines to something that seems to me closer to the original Swedish.)

Or, similarly, these lines from the poem "The Scattered Congregation" ("Den Skingrade Församlingen"):

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith.

Inside the church there's a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.

The poem of Tranströmer's that spoke to me the most powerfully when I first read it was "After Someone's Death" ("Efter Någons Död"). The lines that follow here are more or less a hybrid of Bly's translation and a translation by Mary Hagen, a friend of many years who studied Swedish at the University of Minnesota. According to Robert Bly (in his comments in Friends, You Drank Some Darkness), Tranströmer wrote the poem after an uncle of his had died; it was also around the time of the assassination of John Kennedy, and (according to Bly) the two deaths became mingled as Tranströmer wrote the poem.

"One time there was a shock," writes Tranströmer, "that left after it a long, pale, shimmering comet's tail." He speaks in the poem of skiing slowly in winter sun, "through brush where a few leaves hang on."

They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
The subscribers' names swallowed up by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat.
But often the shadow feels more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Tomas Tranströmer's first book of poems, 17 Poems, was published in 1954. His first three books, published over a period of eight years, contained a total of 52 poems. "With many English and American poets," writes Robert Bly, "this is considered to be about six months' work. [...] The first seventeen poems were enough for him to be recognized by many critics as the finest poet of his generation." Tranströmer has continued to publish books of poems every few years; his books have tended to be small (not a large number of poems) by the typical standards of the publishing business in the United States.

I appreciated this approach when I first read Tranströmer; my own books of poems (the ones I've published so far, and most of the other completed manuscripts and works in progress) have mostly been of the length commonly called "chapbooks." I tend to avoid the term when I talk about books. My feeling is that a book of poems is full-length when it has enough poems in it.

Although I generally like Robert Bly's translations of Tranströmer, Bly seems to me now and then to stray a little further from the originals than I would prefer. For instance, in one of the passages quoted above, Tranströmer says (about leaves hanging on bushes in winter) "They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories./ The subscribers' names swallowed up by the cold." Bly translates the second line simply as "Names swallowed by the cold." This turns the specific literal description of Tranströmer's original into a somewhat larger metaphorical statement. It's a subtle difference, though I might not have made the choice Bly made there. I've come across a few other such examples in Bly's translations.

There are other translations of Tranströmer I've liked; I think in particular of Baltics (Swedish title Östersjöar) translated a number of years ago by Samuel Charters, published 1975 by Oyez Publications (and which I don't have in front of me at the moment). I also somewhat like the translations by May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg in the selection Windows & Stones (1972, U. of Pittsburgh Press), though at times they seem a bit timid to me. I have a similar feeling about the numerous translations that have been done by Robin Fulton.

Over time Transtromer's poems seem to me to have taken on a gradually greater transparent quality. Or maybe it's the world (both inner and outer world) he writes about in his poems that has become steadily more transparent. He writes about an apparently ordinary moment or scene, looking out a window, walking across a street, a bit of conversation, a painting or a piece of music, and I find a consistent sense that there is some large piece of closely related business going on below, deep within the earth, sometimes as a soft echo, and sometimes surfacing in great clarity.

From the poem "After a Long Dry Spell" (in the book The Half-Finished Heaven, another selection translated by Robert Bly, published 2001 by Graywolf Press; the book gives only the English translations, not the original Swedish):

Circles swam on the fjord's surface
and that is the only surface there is right now --
the rest is height and depth
to rise and to sink.

Two pine trunks
shoot up and continue in long hollow signal-drums.
Cities and the sun gone off.
In the high grass there is thunder.

It's all right to telephone the island that is a mirage.
It's all right to hear the gray voice.
To thunder iron ore is honey.
It's all right to live by your own code.

And this, from the poem "Street Crossing" (also in the selection The Half-Finished Heaven):

The street's massive life swirls around me;
it remembers nothing and desires nothing.
Far under the traffic, deep in the earth,
the unborn forest waits, still, for a thousand years.

It seems to me that the street can see me.
Its eyesight is so poor the sun itself
is a gray ball of yarn in black space.
But for a second I am lit. It sees me.

Some additional biographical information about Tomas Tranströmer, and a fuller list of his works published in Swedish and in translation, is in the website of the Svenska Akademien, here. The webpage at this link is in English.

My thanks also to blogger Thekla, who has published several insightful blogposts about Tranströmer this month in her blog Chamber of Secrets. The above link is to the main page of her blog; the blogposts about Tranströmer are dated October 18, October 17, October 16, and October 6, 2011.

That he was awarded the Nobel is what brought him to my attention, and for that I'm grateful, as I was not familiar with his work, which I'm now reading wherever I can find it.

Thank you for a fine appreciation of this marvelous poet, and for the additional links.
prI don't know if I am just too old now, or what, but it seemed to me that there was time when the translated poets were the gods . . . back in the 80s? Was it then that poets would fake translations to get into APR and make up connections to various strange pasts and lands? In any case, I found Transtromer in that era and have always loved him. I had not thought of him since though--
And it does seem that since then we have become very much more national in our view of poets . . .
Thanks for this wonderful post!
Nin, interesting comment. I don't think I recall any point when translated poets were the gods, or anything of that nature. There was, for sure, an explosion of poetry translation in the United States during the 1960's and 1970's and somewhat into the 1980's, after a relative drought of translation during the 1940's and 1950's (with a few important exceptions).

I don't remember hearing about any specific instances of poets faking translations to get into APR, though it did seem to me that a lot of the poetry in APR during the 1980's (or thereabouts) sounded like it had been translated from some generic eastern European language into some generic translatorese version of English.

If you know of any such instances of poets faking translations (particularly to get into APR), I'd be interested to know more. Inquiring minds want to know. :)

Maureen, thanks for your comment also.
Hello Lyle, thank you for bringing my attention to this post. It is wonderful to see Tranströmer from your perspective, both as a poet and a native speaker of English. Also I am quite touched by the fact that you have known and loved his poetry for about 35 years - longer than I have lived. :)

When I read Tranströmer in English I hear the Swedish ringing in the background, giving the poems a strange double timbre. For example in the end of the poem "After a long dry spell" ("Efter en lång torka") the original short lines are hard to translate into equally short sentences in English:

"Det går att ringa upp hägringens ö.
Det går att höra den gråa rösten.
Järnmalm är honung för åskan.
Det går att leva med sin kod."

Iron ore is honey to the thunder. I do believe you made a comment on liking that line once, in a previous post of mine where I compared a poem of Olav H. Hauge with one of Tranströmer's?

The climate we share, the darkness of the winters, the snow, the pine trees and firs, all this makes me feel some connection both to Tranströmer and you. You can't help but reflect on the weather when your life is so controlled by it, at least in the wintertime. And then the euforic sense you get when the days grow brighter and brighter until the sun is only down for a couple of hours during night. My own identity is certainly influenced by my surrounings, especially nature and climate.

I guess I listen to that gray voice.

Thanks again for leading me to this post!

I have just discovered your blog through a back door of a back door, so to speak. I like very much the way you write of Tranströmer and translation. I knew nothing of Tranströmer until a musician introduced me to him through means of a beautiful project he and others are working on. (Another back door of a back door.) Such a beautiful poet he is! I'm very glad to have found him, at last.
Hello, Thekla -- thanks for your comment. "Iron ore is honey to the thunder." Yes, I still am drawn into the weight and mystery of that line.

Susan, thanks for your comment as well.
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