Posts Tagged ‘Tomas Tranströmer’

Berkeley poet Chana Bloch: “There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are.”

Saturday, December 19th, 2015
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Chana Bloch-Peg SkorpinskiWe’ve written about Berkeley poet Chana Bloch before (here), but it’s been a few years since I spoke with her at the university, so I was happy to get an update at the “Talking Writing” website. Poet and translator Bloch, who has just released a “new and selected” Swimming in the Rain this year, was a longtime professor at Oakland’s Mills College. This first question (or rather, a comment, really) caught my eye – I’m constantly chastising myself because I’m not the fastest, most prolific, most profound writer in the English-speaking world. Apparently I’m not alone. Then I was caught by her list of favored poets.

Excerpt from her Q&A with Carol Dorf:

TW: I’m a slow writer.

CB: Slow is not necessarily bad. There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are, though I must admit I’ve envied poets who are quicker, more prolific. I myself rarely stay with my early drafts. I tend to go over and over a poem—revising, distilling, trying to get at the essence.

TW: Most of your poems are brief lyrics. How do your longer sequence poems function compared with those that represent a single moment?

CB: I tend to write very short poems. Most of them fit on one page. Sometimes, a group of those poems asks to be stitched together. For example, I wrote a number of poems about my experience of ovarian cancer in 1986 that were then published in various journals. At some point, I realized that, by bringing them together in a sequence I called “In the Land of the Body” (from The Past Keeps Changing, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), I could offer differing perspectives on the experience: that of my then-husband, our children, the radiologist, the surgeon.

TW: Which poets have been especially important to you?

swimmingInTheRainCB: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Elizabeth Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, Gerard Manley Hopkins—not necessarily in that order.

George Herbert was an early influence. In grad school, I fell in love with his work. We made a very odd couple. I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a seventeenth-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me. There was a human depth in his poems that I found very appealing. He wrote about the self with an unsparing candor—about his irresolution, his inner contradictions. And I loved the music in his poetry.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and then a book—Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985)—about how he transforms the biblical sources in his poetry. Seeing him take a verse from the Bible and combine it with something from his life was like watching a mind in the very process of creation.

Read the whole thing here.

Remembering Tomas Tranströmer: in the end, only music…

Sunday, March 29th, 2015
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transtromer2

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.

We’re surprised, he’s scared: Mo Yan wins this year’s Nobel

Thursday, October 11th, 2012
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He doesn't look scared, anyway.

By now, everyone knows that China’s Mo Yan is the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  “Surprise,” because he made not even a ripple on Ladbroke’s long betting list, or in any conversations I’ve heard.   Not so much a surprise, however, given that the Swedes were bound to atone for giving last year’s award to their worthy countryman Tomas Tranströmer, by giving it this year to an African or Asian, or anyone far, far away from Stockholm.  But wasn’t the poet Bei Dao a perennial nominee?  The Nobel judges seem disinclined to give to poets two years in a row as well.  At any rate, Mo Yan was “overjoyed and scared” at the news.

Most of us are strangers to his writing, I suspect.  So  here is Ted Gioia‘s review of the author’s Republic of Wine a few years back.

And for his stories, here’s an excerpt from Frogs:

I have to admit that, though I did not make it public, I was personally opposed to my Aunty’s marriage plans. My father, my brothers and their wives shared my feelings. It simply wasn’t a good match in our view. Ever since we were small we’d looked forward to seeing Aunty find a husband. Her relationship with Wang Xiaoti had brought immense glory to the family, only to end ingloriously. Yang Lin was next, and while not nearly the ideal match that Wang would have provided, he was, after all, an official, which made him a passable candidate for marriage. Hell, she could have married Qin He, who was obsessed with her, and be better off than with Hao Dashou . . . we were by then assuming she’d wind up an old maid, and had made appropriate plans. We’d even discussed who would be her caregiver when she reached old age. But then, with no prior indication, she’d married Hao Dashou. Little Lion and I were living in Beijing then, and when we heard the news, we could hardly believe our ears. Once the preposterous reality set in, we were overcome by sadness.

Read the rest at Granta here.

Versions, adaptations, translations, plagiarism, and hogwash – more on Tranströmer

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
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The New York Review of Books is grumpy. Or at least a tad cynical.  Tim Parks comments on the Swedes picked a Swede, calling the selection of Tomas Tranströmer for the prestigious lit prize “a healthy decision in every way. Above all for the Nobel jury.”  The lifetime judges are “condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance.”  Picking someone they don’t have to read in translation is an inevitable temptation, the bottle of ibuprofen always on one’s desk.

Conclusion?

What a relief then from time to time to say, the hell with it and give it to a Swede, in this case the octogenarian acknowledged as his nation’s finest living poet and a man whose whole oeuvre, as Peter Englund charmingly remarks, could fit into a single slim paperback. A winner, in short, whom the whole jury can read in the original pure Swedish in just a few hours. Perhaps they needed a sabbatical. Not to mention the detail, not irrelevant in these times of crisis, that the $1.5-million-dollar prize will stay in Sweden.

But most healthy of all, a decision like this, which we all understand would never have been taken by say, an American jury, or a Nigerian jury, or perhaps above all a Norwegian jury, reminds us of the essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously. …

Meanwhile, the Times Literary Supplement blog considers calls the choice a brave one:  “The Nobel Academy already stood charged of Eurocentrism, making Tranströmer something of a defiant choice.”

In 1998, the TLS called  Tranströmer’s poetry “the work of a major, even a great, modern poet,” raving about the “icy Nordic romanticism of bleak forests, remote villages, and shorelines” where “half-smothered, the gods of summer / fumble in sea-mist.”

Controversy erupted in 2007 when Alan Brownjohn considered Robin Robertson‘s “versions” of the Swedish poet, and all hell broke lose.  The controversy is here.  Versions, adaptations, translations – what’s the difference?

Not a problem for this year’s Nobel judges in Stockholm:

Of course, the Swedish Nobel committee did not need to translate Tranströmer to consider him for this year’s laureateship. They chose him because “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”

 

Tomas Tranströmer: The dark horse who is no dark horse

Friday, October 7th, 2011
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Shrinking

So the Nobel Literature sweepstakes had a happy ending this year: By now, everyone knows that Tomas Tranströmer at last took home the prize.  It’s enormously gratifying that someone of this heft and stature has bagged the prize, but a lot of my friends and colleagues are saying:  “Who?”

It is, as the Associated Press noted, not really a surprise:

The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded Thursday to a psychologist who used his spare time to craft sparsely written poems about the mysteries of everyday life — commuting to work, watching the sun rise or waiting for nightfall.

Tomas Tranströmer, Sweden’s most famous poet, had been a favorite for the prize for so many years that even his countrymen had started to doubt whether he would ever win.

The Nobel judges are understandably reluctant to reward one of their own, a fellow Swede.

I’m not terrifically familiar with his oeuvre, though I like what I’ve I read so far.  Since I’m currently on the road, I took his The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems with me – one of those books I bought but never really had a chance to do much more than thumb through.

“His poems have a kind of stark, piercing inwardness that’s very striking,” said Robert Hass, who edited Transtromer’s “Selected Poems.”

“There are lots of poems written about driving back and forth to work, poems about dawn, poems about dusk. He gets those moments in life, those ordinary periods of change.”

So few of the articles have quoted any of his poetry.  So how about this, the last stanza of “Morning Birds”:

Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It grows, it takes my place.
It pushes me aside.
It throws me out of the nest.
The poem is ready.

 

 

Nobel prizewinner … Bob Dylan? What on earth is going on?

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011
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In Spain, 2010 (Photo: Vitoria Gasteiz)

Can you believe that Bob Dylan, who had fallen off the charts a few days ago, has now risen to #1 for this year’s Nobel Literature Prize?

He’s been given 5:1 odds, putting him ahead of Syrian poet Adonis, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the Hungarian writer Peter Nadas.

What is going on?  “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…”

The eminently worthy Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has fallen to #6.  Down Under poet Les Murray has climbed to #8.  Cormac McCarthy, last summer’s #1 heartthrob, has dropped to #12.  You can check out some of the other punters at Ladbrokes here.

Dylan has regularly figured at the bottom of the lists for years – like Communist Party candidate Gus Hall used to in the presidential elections.  But for no reason anyone knows, the songwriter shot to the top of the list overnight on Tuesday.  According to a Washington Post blog:

…overnight on Tuesday, Dylan’s odds jumped from 100/1 to 10/1. Wednesday, the site had his odds for winning at 5/1, beating out all other contenders. Ladbrookes reported that 80 percent of all bets in a 12-hour period went to Dylan.

Earlier this summer, the singer was nominated for the $50,000 Neustadt international prize for literature, often considered a precursor to the Nobel, losing to Indian-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry. He won a “special citation” Pulitzer in 2008.  Is he headed for better things?

Ladbrokes hopes not.  It said it would have “a significant five-figure payout” on its hands if Dylan wins the Nobel on Thursday, according to the Guardian:

“We’ve seen enough activity from the right people to suggest Dylan now has a huge chance this year. If he doesn’t make the shortlist at least there will be some seriously burnt fingers,” said spokesman Alex Donohue. “As Dylan said, money doesn’t talk, it swears. If he does the business there might be a few expletives from us as well.”

The Washington Post cited the lyrics of another song:

… could be the bettors are taking gambling advice from Dylan’s own songs: “Make your money while you can, before you have to stop, / For when you pull that dead man’s hand, your gamblin’ days are up.”

Postscript:  The new #2  is Algerian novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar.  Ever hear of her?  Someone is fooling with us …

And Vaclev Havel made it to #38 today, on his 75th birthday.

“As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.” – V.H.