Remembering Tomas Tranströmer: in the end, only music…

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Transcendental moments (Photo: Alexander Deriev/Ars Interpres Publications)

I was out of town yesterday, so I’m late posting my news is late, but I did want to note the passing of Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel-winning Swedish poet (we’ve written about him here and here).  I couldn’t put it better than this reader who commented on Facebook: “It goes without saying that I liked knowing that this man was somewhere on this planet, pen in hand.”

The New York Times obituary praised the “his shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity.” He died on Thursday, March 26, at 83 years old.

With a pared-down style and brusque, forthright diction, Mr. Tranströmer (pronounced TRAWN-stroh-mur) wrote in accessible language, though often in the service of ideas that were diaphanous and not easy to parse; he could be precisely observant one moment and veer toward surrealism the next.

“The typical Tranströmer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter,” the poet David Orr wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 2011. …

His poems often had transcendental moments that led some critics to consider him a religious poet or a mystic. In “Further In,” from the 1973 volume “Paths,” the quotidian and the unfathomable collide, in both the body of the poet and in the world.

He was trained as a psychologist, worked in state institutions with juvenile offenders, parole violators and the disabled. And he was also an accomplished pianist. After the 1990 stroke that left him unable to speak and unable to use his right and arm at the relatively young age of 59, he adapted to life as a lefty. Again from the New York Times:

Mr. Transtromer’s poetry production slowed after his stroke, but he took refuge in music, playing the piano with just his left hand. As a testament to his prominence in Sweden, several composers there wrote pieces for the left hand specifically for him.

He was also an amateur entomologist. The Swedish National Museum presented an exhibition of his childhood insect collection, and a Swedish scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it for him.

I dropped a line to my Stockholm correspondent Alexander Deriev to ask if he had any memories to share, and he wrote this: “Alas, I don’t have many personal memoirs of Tomas. I meet him only a few times and communicated mostly through his wife Monica Tranströmer. As you know after suffering a stroke in 1990 he was almost unable to speak (only through Monica). At that Fourth Ars Interpres poetry festival that I arranged in 2010 (a year before he was awarded Nobel Prize), Tomas played Joseph Haydn‘s ‘Allegro ur Sonat F dur’ and Reinhold Glière‘s ‘Impromptu for the left hand op 99’ together with Swedish-Italian pianist Lucia Negro. And two actors in his presence recited his poems in Swedish and English.” At any rate, Alexander contributed this photograph (above right) of the Swedish poet at the festival in 2010, the year before he won the Nobel. The Swedes were reluctant to name one of their own, anticipating charges of favoritism; he waited years for the award, although he is hugely popular in Sweden.

Below, two short poems, relatively early in his career: one on death and the other on music. And at the bottom, a youtube video Alexander shared with me. In the end, the poet spoke through music, unmediated by words.

After a Death

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside.  It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

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

– Translated by Robert Bly, from Bells and Tracks, 1966

Allegro

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

The keys are ready.  Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag.  The signal is:
“We do not surrender.  But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from The Half-Finished Heaven, 1962

Postscript on 3/30: No sooner posted than Artur Sebastian Rosman alerted me to this video below, produced by another Book Haven friend, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in Northumberland.


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