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|Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015)|
Swedish poet, psychologist, and translator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011. Thomas Tranströmer occupied an influential position in Swedish literature from the 1950s. In the English-speaking world he is perhaps the best-known modern Scandinavian poet. Typical for Tranströmer's work is surrealistic imagery – a stamp is seen as a magic carpet, the shadows of the trees are black numbers, and a crowd of people makes a rough-surfaced mirror. Often called a poet's poet, his translators include such names as J. Bernlef, Caj Westerberg, Robert Bly, Bei Dao, Joseph Brodsky, and Czeslaw Milosz.
"Musiken är ett glashus på sluttningen
Och stenarna rullar tvärs igenom
Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm, the son Gösta Tranströmer, a journalist, and Helmy (née Westberg), an elementary school teacher, the daughter of a ferryman. After his parents divorced Tranströmer saw his father rarely. In his childhood during WW II, Tranströmer spent many summers on the island of Runmarö. Sweden was neutral in the war, but Tranströmer once recalled in an interview being "the most militant supporter of the allies." (An Interview with Tomas Tranströmer by Tam Lin Neville and Linda Horvat, Painted Bridge Quarterly, Number 40-41, 1990) Later his poetry collection Östersjöar (1974, Baltic) and memoir Minnena ser mig (1993) Tranströmer returned to the landscape of the archipelago.
school, Tranströmer was a good student. He began writing in childhood.
With an old typewriter, which he got as a Christmas gift, he thought of
writing a work that would be even larger than Alfred Brehm's Djurens liv (1920-31; 15 vols.) Before becoming
interested in music and
painting, Tranströmer was fascinated by archaeology and natural
sciences and he also dreamed of living the life of an explorer. His
heroes were Livingston and Stanley. The National Museum presented in
2013 a collection of insects which Tranströmer had collected in his
childhood. In his honour on the occasion of his 80th birthday, a rare
beetle discovered in Gotland was named after him.
In 1951 Tranströmer visited Iceland together with a friend from school. With the money he had earned from his first collection of poems, he went to Greece and Turkey. While studying at the Södra Latin School, Tranströmer started to read and write poetry. Some of these early pieces were composed in iambic and Alcaic meter. In 1956 he received a degree in psychology from the University of Stockholm. He then worked for the Psychotechnological Institute at the university, and in 1960 he was employed as a psychologist at Roxtuna, an institution for juvenile offenders.
From the mid-1960s Tranströmer divided his time between his writing and the daily work. In 1965 he moved with his wife Monica and children to Västerås, a city about sixty miles west of Stockholm. From 1980 he was a psychologist for Arbetsmarknadsinstitutet, a labor organization institute. He helped persons with pyschological problems develop work abilities and counselled parole offenders and those in drug rehabilitation.
Tranströmer made his debut as a poet at the age of
twenty-three with 17 dikter (1954). It included poems written
in blank verse. While writing this collection, Tranströmer listened to
Sibelius. All the poems echo subconscious images from the music. The
poem 'C-dur' from Den
halvfärdiga himlen (1962) was inspited by Sibelius's third
symphony: "En musik gjorde sig lös / och gick i yrande snö / med långa
steg. / Allting på vandring mot ton C." With his Finnish translator Caj
Westerberg he has also visited the composer's home, Ainola.
Later Tranströmer experimented with metre, although he used free verse in most of his work. Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) took up themes from Tranströmer's travels in different parts of the world – the Balkans, Spain, Africa, and the United States. The latter work also included a portrait of the composer Edward Grieg. In 'Izmir klockan tre' (from Hemligheter på vägen) a beggar carries another without legs on his back, and in 'Oklahoma' (from Klanger och spår) the passing cars in dark, with their lights on, turn into flying saucers. 'A Man from Benin' referred to an art work which Tranströmer saw at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna.
Tranströmer's poems are often built around his own experience,
around a single, deceptively plain image that opens doors to
psychological insights and metaphysical interpretations. Mörkseende
(1970) explored the poet's personal life, and the conflict
between technology and nature. Stigar (1973) consisted of
Tranströmer's own poems and translations of poems by Robert Bly and by
János Pilinszky. Bly and Robin Fulton have translated much of
Tranströmer's work into English. In 2001 the publishing company
Bonniers celebrated the poet's 70-year birthday with Air mail,
a selection of correspondence between these two writers from 1964 to
1990. Tranströmer welcomed Bly to Roxtuna in a letter dated 27-5-64,
saying: "I can pick you up at the station. So you'll be able to
recognize me, I will be wearing a green tail-coat, a false beard, and s
straw had, and reading Nixon's autobiography. Or perhaps some simpler
arrangement could be found."
Tranströmer once stated, that Baltics was his "most consistent attempt to write music." (The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, 2006, p. xvii) The landscape and its conflicting elements, like the battle between the sea and and land, present confronting forces in Tranströmer's poems – freedom and control of speech, nature and human influence on it. Especially his poems about the Baltic archipelago in Östersjöar reflect political conditions of the area. In the 1970s the Baltic countries were still part of the Soviet Union, and when Tranströmer visited Latvia and Estonia in 1970, he felt himself like a person in an early Graham Greene story.
Movement and change is part of Tranströmer's poetic landscape, although his visions of "cosmic peace" have been criticized by radical writers. Tranströmer has said that he is interested in politics more in a human way than in an ideological way. ('An Interview with Tomas Tranströmer' by Tam Lin Neville and Linda Horvath, Painted Bridge Quarterly, Translation Issue, Number 40-41, 1990) In 'Out in the Open' he wrote: "The people who do death's errands don't shy from / daylight. / They rule from glass offices. They mill about in the bright / sun. / They lean forward over a table, and throw a look / to the side." (tr. Robert Bly) 'To Friends Behind a Frontier' in Stigar referred to censorship in a totalitarian state: "Read between the lines. We'll meet in 200 years / when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten / and can at last sleep, become trilobites." (tr. Robin Fulton, in The Great Enigma, 2006)
In 1990, at the age of 59, Tranströmer suffered from a stroke, which affected his ability to talk, read, and move. He had published in the previous year his tenth collection, För levande och döda (For the Living and the Dead). Tranströmer did not regain use of his right hand, but he could to write and play piano with his left hand. His ability to speak was limited to 20 words or fewer. After a silence as a writer, Tranströmer returned with Sorgegondolen (1996, grief gondola), which took its title from Franz Listz's two piano pieces. Listz composed them at the time when his son-on-law Richard Wagner died. The book sold 30 000 copies in Sweden. Tranströmer's musical interests were prominent in many collections – he was an accomplished amateur musician, playing piano and organ. In Sorgegondolen the poet acknowledged the limits of his expression, in which the words and all he wants to say 'glimmer just out of reach like a silver in a pawnshop,' ("Det enda jag vill säga / glimmar utom räckhåll / som silvret / hos pantlånaren.") Many of the haiku in Den stora gåtan (2004) dealt with the theme of death. "Death bends over me," he noted.
Tranströmer's first remark on being informed of the Nobel
Prize was, "now the worst has happened." His other awards include the
Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1990, the Bonner Award
for Poetry, Germany's Petrarch Prize, Bellman Prize, The Swedish
Academy’s Nordic Prize, and August Prize. In 1997 the city of Västerås
established a special Tranströmer Prize. Tranströmer's work has been
translated into over sixty languages, including Dutch, Finnish,
Hungarian and English. His translator into Chinese, Bei Dao, took the title of his essay 'Blue
House' from Tranströmer's country home, where they listened together a
Bach piece played by Glenn Gold. Tranströmer died after a short illness
on 26 March, 2015, in Stockholm.
For further reading: Tranströmer och det politiska, edited by Gustav Borsgård (2020); Avbildning av inre landskap i Tomas Tranströmers lyrik by Inger Bierschenk (2017); Topology of the Ingrained Quality in a Poem by Tomas Tranströmer by Inger Bierschenk (2017); The Works of Tomas Tranströmer: the Universality of Poetry by Lim Lee Ching (2017); Tranströmer Internationa: [an intercontinental perspective on the poetry of Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer], edited by Kristian Carlsson (2013); Tomas Tranströmer: ett diktarporträtt by Staffan Bergsten (2011); 'Pohjalasti ja yölentäjä', ed. Caj Westerberg, Parnasso (2/2002); Tranströmerska insektsamlingen från Runmarö by Fredrik Sjöberg (2001; 2011); Stjärnhimlen genom avloppsgallret by Magnus Ringgren (2001); Tomas Tranströmer: en bibliografi, andra delen by Lennart Karlström (2001); Tomas Tranströmer: en bibliografi by Lennart Karlström (1990); Den trösterika gåtan by Staffan Bergsten (1989); Resans formler: en studie i Tomas Tranströmers poesi by Kjell Espmark (1983): 'Tranströmer, Tomas' by L.S. [Leif Sjöberg], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, edited by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Forays into Swedish Poetry by L. Gustafsson (1978) - Suom.: Tranströmerilta on Eeva-Liisa Manner julkaissut kokoelmassaan Kuolleet vedet (1997) kymmenen runon valikoiman. Brita Polttila on kääntänyt kokoelman Eläville ja kuolleille (1990). Kootut runot 1954-2000, suomentajana Caj Westerberg, ilmestyi 2001 Tammen kustantamana.