Thursday, 28 July 2011
Tomas Tranströmer at 80
Sweden's greatest living poet, Tomas Tranströmer, celebrated his 80th birthday in April of this year. To mark the occasion, Bloodaxe Books published a new expanded edition of his New Collected Poems, the award-winning definitive translation of all his poetry by Robin Fulton.
In Sweden, Daphne Records released Dagsmeja: Emma Tranströmer sjunger Tomas Tranströmer (Noon Thaw: Emma Tranströmer sings Tomas Tranströmer). This is a recording of settings of eighteen poems by Tranströmer performed by his daughter Emma Tranströmer, pianist Andreas Kreuger, guitarist David Härenstam and violinist Bernt Lysell. The main musical emphasis is on Fredrik Jakobsson, an outstandingly talented Swedish composer largely unknown to the general public. Emma also includes a couple of songs by the more established Maurice Karkoff, who recently completed two new Tranströmer settings, plus a few songs by Håkan Parkman, who died in a tragic drowning accident in August 1988, aged only 33.
The project began, Emma says, with the Dagsmeja concert performance at the Gävle Concert Hall in 2007. 'Dagsmeja is a tribute to my father, above all perhaps as a guide in the art of humane living, but also as reflected through his own poetry. Pianist Andreas Kreuger and I had a labour of love in finding the very music which felt perfectly fitting for the occasion.'
Three of the poems they chose for the concert and CD are printed below, with the translations by Robin Fulton from Tranströmer's New Collected Poems which accompany them in the CD booklet – this includes all the poems in the Swedish original with Fulton's translations, along with accounts of the project by Emma Tranströmer and by scholar Niklas Schiöler (who contributes a fascinating piece called 'Reading is listening' on Tranströmer and music). The CD cover shows J.M.W. Turner's painting Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), which hangs in the National Gallery in London. Tranströmer's poem 'A Sketch from 1844' pictures Turner making a sketch possibly featuring the same train.
A Sketch from 1844
William Turner’s face is weather-brown
he has set up his easel far out among the breakers.
We follow the silver-green cable down in the depths.
He wades out in the shelving kingdom of death.
A train rolls in. Come closer.
Rain, rain travels over us.
En skiss från 1844
William Turners ansikte är brunt av väder
han har sitt staffli längst ute bland bränningarna.
Vi följer den silvergröna kabeln ner i djupen.
Han vadar ut i det långgrunda dödsriket.
Ett tåg rullar in. Kom närmare.
Regn, regn färdas över oss.
[from The Wild-Market Square, 1983]
Från mars -79
Trött på alla som kommer med ord, ord men inget språk
for jag till den snötäckta ön.
Det vilda har inga ord
De oskrivna sidorna breder ut sig åt alla håll!
Jag stöter på spåren av rådjursklövar i snön.
Språk men inga ord.
From March 1979
Weary of all who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I come upon the tracks of deer’s hooves in the snow.
Language but no words.
[from The Wild-Market Square, 1983]
April och tystnad
Våren ligger öde.
Det sammetsmörka diket
krälar vid min sida
Det enda som lyser
är gula blommor.
Jag bärs i min skugga
som en fiol
i sin svarta låda.
Det enda jag vill säga
glimmar utom räckhåll
April and Silence
Spring lies desolate.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
The only thing that shines
is yellow ﬂowers.
I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.
The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnbroker’s.
[from The Sad Gondola, 1996]
About Tomas Tranströmer
Tomas Tranströmer has been called a ‘buzzard poet’ (by Lasse Söderberg) because his haunting, visionary poetry shows the world from a height, in a mystic dimension, but brings every detail of the natural world into sharp focus. His poems are often explorations of the borderland between sleep and waking, between the conscious and unconscious states.
He is Scandinavia’s best-known and most influential contemporary poet. His books sell thousands of copies in Sweden, and his work has been translated into 50 languages, with substantial or complete editions of his work published in 19 languages.
Tranströmer was born in 1931 in Stockholm, where he grew up, but spent many long summers on the island of Runmarö in the nearby archipelago, evoking that landscape in his early work, which draws on the aesthetic tradition of Swedish nature poetry. His later poetry is more personal, open and relaxed, often reﬂecting his broad interests: travel, music, painting, archaeology and natural sciences.
Many of his poems use compressed description and concentrate on a single distinct image as a catalyst for psychological insight and metaphysical interpretation. This acts as a meeting-point or threshold between conﬂicting elements or forces: sea and land, man and nature, freedom and control. His translator Robin Fulton has noted how such images ‘leap out from the page, so that the ﬁrst-time reader or listener has the feeling of being given something very tangible, at once’, which has made Tranströmer’s poetry amenable to translation into other languages. But while acknowledging Tranströmer’s view that ‘a poem can exist beneath or prior to a particular language and can therefore emerge in any number of tongues’, Fulton maintains that ‘the best versions of his poems are those he made himself in his own language’. Yet such is the power of Tranströmer’s ‘deep image’ poetry that several American poets have been inﬂuenced by his work, through translations by Robert Bly in particular.
Tranströmer started writing poetry while at the oppressive Södra Latin Grammar School (its atmosphere caught by Ingmar Bergman in Alf Sjöberg’s Frenzy, which was ﬁlmed there, the young Tomas amongst the pupils). But he was devouring books on all subjects, especially geography, with daily visits to the local library, where he worked his way through most of the non-ﬁction shelves. However, this bookish adolescence was shadowed by the war, by his parents’ divorce and the absence of his father, and at 15 he experienced a winter of psychological crisis (described in ‘Exorcism’, printed below). He published his ﬁrst collection, 17 Poems, in 1954, at the age of 23.
After studying psychology at the University of Stockholm, he worked at its Psychotechnological Institute, and in 1960 became a psychologist at Roxtuna, a young offenders institution. From the mid-1960s he divided his time between his writing and his work as a psychologist, and in 1965 moved with his family to Västerås, where he spent the rest of his working life.
Like the scientist-poet Miroslav Holub, Tranströmer sees no division between his own two ﬁelds, poetry and psychology. In an interview in 1973 he responded to Gunnar Harding’s question about how his writing related to his work as a psychologist:
'I believe there is a very close connection, though it can’t be seen. Everything one writes is an expression of a gathered experience. And the problems one meets in the world at large are present to a very great extent in what I write, though it doesn’t always show directly. But it’s close to hand, all the time.'
In 1990, a year after the publication of his tenth book of poems, Tranströmer suffered a stroke, which deprived him of most of his speech and partly inhibited movement on his right-hand side. Swedish composers have since written several left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play.
Since his stroke, he has published a short book of ‘autobiographical chapters’, Memories Look at Me (1993), and a new collection, The Sad Gondola (1996), both included in Robin Fulton’s translation of his New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1997), expanded from his 1987 Collected Poems from Bloodaxe. In 2004 he published The Great Enigma, a slim volume containing ﬁve short poems and a group of 45 even smaller haiku-type poems. These were added to the New Collected Poems to form Tranströmer’s ﬁrst collected edition to appear in the States, licensed by Bloodaxe Books to New Directions in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. That edition was published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK as the latest revised and expanded edition of New Collected Poems in 2011.
Tranströmer has also translated other poets into Swedish, including Robert Bly and Hungary’s János Pilinszky. In 1990 he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His other awards include the Bonnier Award for Poetry, Germany’s Petrarch Prize, the Bellman Prize, the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize, and the August Prize. In 1997 the city of Västerås established a special Tranströmer Prize. In 2007, he received a special Lifetime Recognition Award given by the trustees of the Grifﬁn Trust for Excellence in Poetry, which also awards the annual Grifﬁn Poetry Prize.
Tranströmer has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature on a number of occasions, most recently in 2010, as the Guardian reported, only for Mario Vargas Llosa to pip him at the post.
Robin Fulton has worked with Tranströmer on each of his collections as they have been published over many years, and his award-winning translation New Collected Poems is the most authoritative and comprehensive edition of his poetry published anywhere. It received a highly appreciative review from Paul Batchelor in The Guardian in June: 'Fulton is to be applauded for bringing into English a unique sensibility, a haunting voice, and images of such incisive clarity that they can permanently alter your perceptions.' To read the whole review, click on this link.
As well as complete translations of all his poetry collections, Tomas Tranströmer's New Collected Poems includes his 1993 prose memoir, Memories Look at Me, from which this autobiographical sketch is taken:
During the winter when I was 15 I was afﬂicted by a severe form of anxiety. I was trapped by a searchlight which radiated not light but darkness. I was caught each afternoon as twilight fell and not released from that terrible grip until next day dawned. I slept very little, I sat up in bed, usually with a thick book before me. I read several thick books in that period but I can’t say I really read them for they left no trace in my memory. The books were a pretext for leaving the light on.
It began in late autumn. One evening I’d gone to the cinema and seen Squandered Days, a ﬁlm about an alcoholic. He ﬁnishes in a state of delirium – a harrowing sequence which today I would perhaps ﬁnd rather childish. But not then.
As I lay down to sleep I reran the ﬁlm in my mind’s eye, as one does after being at the cinema.
Suddenly the atmosphere in the room was tense with dread. Something took total possession of me. Suddenly my body started shaking, especially my legs. I was a clockwork toy which had been wound up and now rattled and jumped helplessly. The cramps were quite beyond the control of my will, I had never experienced anything like this. I screamed for help and Mother came through. Gradually the cramps ebbed out. And did not return. But my dread intensiﬁed and from dusk to dawn would not leave me alone. The feeling that dominated my nights was the terror which Fritz Lang came near to catching in certain scenes of Dr Mabuse’s Testament, especially the opening scene – a print works where someone hides while the machines and everything else vibrate. I recognised myself in this immediately, although my nights were quieter.
The most important element in my existence was Illness. The world was a vast hospital. I saw before me human beings deformed in body and in soul. The light burned and tried to hold off the terrible faces but sometimes I would doze off, my eyelids would close, and the terrible faces would suddenly be closing in on me.
It all happened in silence, yet within the silence voices were endlessly busy. The wallpaper pattern made faces. Now and then the silence would be broken by a ticking in the walls. Produced by what? By whom? By me? The walls crackled because my sick thoughts wanted them to. So much the worse… Was I insane? Almost.
I was afraid of drifting into madness but in general I did not feel threatened by any kind of illness – it was scarcely a case of hypochondria – but it was rather the total power of illness that aroused terror. As in a ﬁlm where an innocuous apartment interior changes its character entirely when ominous music is heard, I now experienced the outer world quite differently because it included my awareness of that domination wielded by sickness. A few years previously I had wanted to be an explorer. Now I had pushed my way into an unknown country where I had never wanted to be. I had discovered an evil power. Or rather, the evil power had discovered me.
I read recently about some teenagers who lost all their joy in living because they became obsessed with the idea that AIDS had taken over the world. They would have understood me.
Mother had witnessed the cramps I suffered that evening in late autumn as my crisis began. But after that she had to be held outside it all. Everyone had to be excluded, what was going on was just too terrible to be talked about. I was surrounded by ghosts. I myself was a ghost. A ghost that walked to school every morning and sat through the lessons without revealing its secret. School had become a breathing space, my dread wasn’t the same there. It was my private life that was haunted. Everything was upside down.
At that time I was sceptical towards all forms of religion and I certainly said no prayers. If the crisis had arisen a few years later I would have been able to experience it as a revelation, something that would rouse me, like Siddhartha’s four encounters (with an old person, with a sick person, with a corpse, and with a begging monk). I would have managed to feel a little more sympathy for and a little less dread of the deformed and the sick who invaded my nocturnal consciousness. But then, caught in my dread, religiously coloured explanations were not available to me. No prayers, but attempts at exorcism by way of music. It was during that period I began to hammer at the piano in earnest.
And all the time I was growing. At the beginning of that autumn term I was one of the smallest in the class, but by its end I was one of the tallest. As if the dread I lived in were a kind of fertiliser helping the plant to shoot up.
Winter moved towards its end and the days lengthened. Now, miraculously, the darkness in my own life withdrew. It happened gradually and I was slow in realising fully what was happening. One spring evening I discovered that all my terrors were now marginal. I sat with some friends philosophising and smoking cigars. It was time to walk home through the pale spring night and I had no feeling at all of terrors waiting for me at home.
Still, it is something I have taken part in. Possibly my most important experience. But it came to an end. I thought it was Inferno but it was Purgatory.
All the English translations of poetry and prose by Tomas Tranströmer in this blog posting are by Robin Fulton from New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011).