"Once there was a shock that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail."
October 6, 2011 4:34 AM   Subscribe

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. His poetry has been translated into more than five dozen languages and is the living poet who has been translated most into English. He received the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2007, and the award page is a pretty extensive source of information. Below the cut I'll include a few of his poems that I've found online, but the best place to start is the poetry section of his website, where you'll also find an interview, video, audio and a list of English translations. Tom Slegh wrote an appreciation of Tranströmer and Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss him briefly on Poetry Fix, and read two of his poems.

Poems: Haiku, Outskirts, April and Silence, The Cuckoo, Landscape with Suns, Grief Gondola #2, 4 poems translated by Robert Bly [pdf], The Indoors Is Endless, November in the Former DDR, Loneliness, Further In and The Tree and Sky, and A Page of the Night Book.
posted by Kattullus (52 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Excellent work, well done.
posted by the_epicurean at 4:49 AM on October 6, 2011


"Once there was a shock that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail."

I would have preferred "A screaming comes across the sky"
posted by chavenet at 4:50 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


This makes more sense than Bob Dylan.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:53 AM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I assume Tranströmer composed all his poems in Swedish. Of the English translations of his work, have any been translated by the poet himself?
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 4:56 AM on October 6, 2011


This makes more sense than Bob Dylan.

Faint praise.
posted by pracowity at 4:57 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is it churlish of me to point out that "Haiku" is not, actually, haiku?

On the other hand, I liked:

A period of time
a few minutes long
fifty-eight years wide.


I am not entirely sure what he meant by it, but I like what I mean by it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:59 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


In the Swedish Tranströmer's haiku are 5/7/5. Though since many of them are without seasonal words, I suppose it would be more technically accurate to call them senryu. That said, quite a few of them evoke the seasons.
posted by Kattullus at 5:06 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


My first thought upon reading this thread, "woah, this guy's name is really Tomas Transformer?!?"
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:08 AM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I would have preferred "A screaming comes across the sky"

That's exactly how far I have made into GR!
posted by holdkris99 at 5:08 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


How do Swedes say his name? Something like Too-mahs Trahnz-Trehmehr?
posted by pracowity at 5:15 AM on October 6, 2011


Tranströmer, more than meets the eye. Tranströmer, poet in disguise.

that's all I got, sorry
posted by hellojed at 5:50 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've read the haiku as describing a moment of someone's passing.
How do germanophones perceive his name? "Ström" means "current" in German...
posted by hat_eater at 5:54 AM on October 6, 2011


Except it doesnt. Sorry.
posted by hat_eater at 5:56 AM on October 6, 2011


More than meets the eye.
posted by grubi at 5:58 AM on October 6, 2011


Is it churlish of me to point out that "Haiku" is not, actually, haiku?

It's worth pointing out that contemporary poets often use titles in a less than strictly literal manner.
posted by aught at 6:02 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was having lunch with three Swedish colleagues in Stockholm just a few hours ago and here is a nice little insight into the Swedish mentality:

Per (Looking at his phone) announces (I'm translating), "Hey, Tomas Tranströmer has been awarded the Nobel Prize."

Malin and Katarina look at each other and say almost in unison "How embarrassing for the committee."

The thinking being that a Swede should never think of himself or herself as better anyone and that for a Swedish committee to claim that a Swedish poet was worthy of a Nobel prize was the sort of self-congratulatory boasting which most Swedes abhor (unless it is sport or music, then quite OK.)
posted by three blind mice at 6:22 AM on October 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


That's hilarious, three blind mice.

The more I think about it, the weirder the literature prize seems to me. Literature is so language-based, and nobody can be fluent in every language there is. Is there really anyone who is qualified to determine who's the worthiest writer in the world?
posted by craichead at 6:31 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


A period of time
a few minutes long
fifty-eight years wide.

I am not entirely sure what he meant by it, but I like what I mean by it.


Tranströmer is interested in the space between things - the space between conscious and unconscious thought, the space between moments, the periods that stretch out into eternity. His work goes a long way in capturing what it feels like in those moments where time becomes elastic.
posted by stoneweaver at 6:33 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Read this post as: Swedish poet Tomas Transförmer
posted by Fizz at 6:48 AM on October 6, 2011


I agree, this is embarrasing. Swedes are naturally going to be most familiar with work emanating from Sweden, so the committe should be particularly careful not to overweight Swedish artists. The overrepresentation of Swedes as recipients of these prizes compared to the volume of work in the world, does not speak well of their judgement. Somehow I doubt they are qualified to evaluate the entire world's output with equal competence.
posted by VikingSword at 7:07 AM on October 6, 2011


How's this for good timing: my coworker's at Harvard's Woodberry Poetry Room just launched a gorgeous new site this morning, and among the recordings of poetry readings it includes a 1981 reading from Tomas Tranströmer. (Apologies in advance, a few other things on that page are Harvard-only for copyright reasons.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:10 AM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


You ever realize you've put in a grocer's apostrophe right as you click on the post button? Grrr.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:11 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you think, VikingSword? Looking at the list of past writers, the thing that strikes me the most is the dominance of Europe and/or people who write in English. There aren't a huge number of Swedish winners. I just wonder if there are people writing amazing stuff in Tamil or Shona, and there's no way for the Nobel folks to even have access to them.
posted by craichead at 7:16 AM on October 6, 2011


Is there really anyone who is qualified to determine who's the worthiest writer in the world?

Orson Scott Card?
posted by Fizz at 7:19 AM on October 6, 2011


Somehow I doubt they are qualified to evaluate the entire world's output with equal competence.

Somehow I doubt there's anyone, anywhere, who's qualified to do that.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:38 AM on October 6, 2011


Swedes are naturally going to be most familiar with work emanating from Sweden, so the committe should be particularly careful not to overweight Swedish artists. The overrepresentation of Swedes as recipients of these prizes compared to the volume of work in the world, does not speak well of their judgement.

The last Swedish writers who won did so in 1974. I think it's an odd choice, but I don't think it's because Swedish writers/artists are overrepresented.
posted by blucevalo at 7:39 AM on October 6, 2011


Yes, of course, the Western bias is an overarching problem, but the Swedish accent is an additional overlay springing from the same condition, and I think the stats bear this out.
posted by VikingSword at 7:44 AM on October 6, 2011


I am not entirely sure what he meant by it, but I like what I mean by it.

Well, yeah. That's, like, the whole point of reading most contemporary poetry.
posted by dersins at 8:07 AM on October 6, 2011


Is it churlish of me to point out that "Haiku" is not, actually, haiku?

Only in the sense that "haiku" is an English poetic form, whose rules must be obeyed in English, GenjiandProust.

The actual rules for Japanese haiku revolve on the number of on or morae used, not syllables - a rule which does not lend itself to literal translation into alphabetic languages.

You and I were taught otherwise, because 'on' are often syllables, and it makes for easier teaching to middle-school students - but ultimately, he has copied the essential thrust of haiku (IMO), and may have obeyed the non-Japanese syllabic rules in his own language anyway.

One could argue that some of his haiku lack the kireji ("cutting word") that separates and bridges two separate ideas, as in his second stanza of section I:
Thoughts stand unmoving
like the mosaic tiles
in the palace yard.

... but I doubt that's what you were referring to.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:15 AM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


The last Swedish writers who won did so in 1974.

And coincidentally enough, both of Swedish 1974 laureates (Eyvind Johnson and
Harry Martinson, if, for some unimaginable reason, you haven't heard of them) were actually on the Nobel prize selection panel - in a year when Borges, Nabokov and Graham Greene were all passed up for the prize.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:17 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Literary Saloon (as usual) has a nice collection of English-language reviews of his work and links to a few early reactions to his win. Autobots, roll out!
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:29 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interview with Peter Englund, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, about the decision to give the award to Tranströmer.
posted by Kattullus at 8:33 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


it includes a 1981 reading from Tomas Tranströmer

Thanks for this. It really makes a difference to hear a poet read their own work. Even if it's not their own language. Hearing both the Swedish & English translation side by side, in Tranströmer's voice, adds a lot of value.
posted by chavenet at 8:36 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think some of you are being a bit unfair. Is it really so terrible that the Swedes gave the Nobel to one of their own, 37 years after their last winner? We should all be so cosmopolitan.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:39 AM on October 6, 2011


The overrepresentation of Swedes as recipients of these prizes compared to the volume of work in the world, does not speak well of their judgement.

Comparing this choice to the incestuous embarrassments of the long-ago Nobels is silly. I don't even like Tranströmer all that much, but it seems to me that he's a completely legitimate and even unsurprising choice, a well-established poet with a major international reputation established for decades. I don't see any special reason to suspect he got extra credit for his nationality rather than because general audiences like contemplative nature and landscape poems maybe more than they should.
posted by RogerB at 8:51 AM on October 6, 2011


I love this post. It has everything I need about this guy. Thank you Kattullus.

However:

Was anyone else, like I was, excited to find a previously unknown to me poet winning a big prize, and then disappointed to be totally bored by the poetry?

It probably sounds much more agile in Swedish. I'll have to ask my friend Nina. But in translation, this all seems like very standard and quietly competent I'm a sad older man with reasonable things to complain about prose with line breaks, which appears in slightly diluted forms in journals all across the Mid-West.

Every once and awhile, as the judges say, there's a really lovely metaphor. But every poet or writer of any discipline should be capable of that. A parachute drop is a nice way to describe the journey from dreams into consciousness -- but that's why a body of work is worth a Nobel prize in poetry these days? Lorrie Moore equals one of this man's metaphors twice a page.

It could be possible that I Just Don't Get It. I'd really encourage people who are into this guy to point out what they love about some of his poems to me, I'm always receptive to that.

Who would I nominate for a poetry Nobel? That seems like the inevitable tacit question in response to my criticisms. Well, I only know anything (and it's a very little anything) about English-language poetry. But: Frederick Seidel, without reservation.
posted by liminalrampaste at 9:03 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


three blind mice, perhaps your company isn't that into literature? Because that's the first I've heard of any Swedes not celebrating this like a World Cup gold in football. Loud cheers all around here when Tranströmer's name was read out. And Twitter went mad.

He is a fantastic poet, by world standards, and absolutely worthy of the prize. Any accusations of Swedish bias are ridiculous.
posted by mr.marx at 10:26 AM on October 6, 2011


Here are some great pictures of Tranströmer right after getting the news. He doesn't talk anymore, due to a stroke, but his joy is wonderful to watch.
posted by mr.marx at 10:30 AM on October 6, 2011


Tranströmer for people in a hurry.
posted by mr.marx at 10:41 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here is a link to a Swede saying "Thomas Tranströmer".
posted by WalkingAround at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


mr. marx: much as I don't thus far dig his poetry, those photos are lovely -- in my rush to criticize his poetry, it was easy to forget that it was a really good day for one Swedish dude today. Which makes me happy.
posted by liminalrampaste at 10:49 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tranströmer had been overlooked so many times I thought he might not win in the end as too safe a choice. I also learnt of a translation I wasn't aware of, so good news all around. I had expected Adonis to be honest.

And more love for Ashbery, please.
posted by ersatz at 12:47 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Edit window... Adonis is honest afaik.
posted by ersatz at 12:49 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The overrepresentation of Swedes as recipients of these prizes

It's been 37 years since a Swede last won for literature. That said, especially early on, there was a clear propensity for Europeans, but in recent years, they have had a real reputation for choosing people of some international obscurity. IIRC when Naguib Mahfouz was selected, only one of his novels was in print in English, leading to some perplexity in media quarters.
posted by dhartung at 2:25 PM on October 6, 2011


I disagree that the Swedes have been tilting the pool table for themselves but eight of the last ten recipients have been European.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 2:36 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone have any thots about why they haven't given it to Adonis or Assia Djebar? (That said, i really love this guys work, maybe because I am Canadian, but the dense, northern coldness of much of his work is horribly familar. I tend to read him in Summer, for that reason.
posted by PinkMoose at 2:52 PM on October 6, 2011


... but I doubt that's what you were referring to.

My point was that the rules for haiku go beyond the syllabic (or moraeic, if you prefer), which I didn't think he was particularly following (even within the constraints of Swedish translated into English). But I dislike most Western "haiku" for the same reason; they take the structure for the whole, like people who write sonnets without paying attention to thematic structural traditions. You might as well write a four-line poem and call it a sestina.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:43 PM on October 6, 2011


>The thinking being that a Swede should never think of himself or herself as better anyone and that for a Swedish committee to claim that a Swedish poet was worthy of a Nobel prize was the sort of self-congratulatory boasting which most Swedes abhor (unless it is sport or music, then quite OK.)

See Jante Law, a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticizes individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.
posted by seawallrunner at 8:06 PM on October 6, 2011


Tomas Transformer wins poetry prize, turns into kick-ass Saab.
posted by xenophile at 8:16 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Teju Cole says Tranströmer ;"has for years now been one of my ports of refuge."
posted by villanelles at dawn at 10:15 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of the past prizes that went to Swedes were quite embarrassing. Heidenstam and Karlfeldt were national romantics, and that was the spirit in which they were rewarded. They were also members of the Swedish Academy at the time when they were rewarded*, and so were Lagerkvist, Martinson and Johnson.

The Academy is not any prize-awarding committee. It's more like a secret society, whose task is to maintain and evolve the high standard of the Swedish language. It predates the Nobel prize by more than a century, and its rules have hardly** changed since it was instated. The eighteen members ("De Aderton") are selected for life, and that really means until the day they die: Several members resigned their work in protest of the Academy failing to take a stand for Salman Rushdie when he was subject to a Fatwa. Another member resigned in protest of Jelinek's reward (although he had actually not taken part of the work in several years before that). These chairs are all empty until their absent owners pass away. Meetings take place behind closed doors and records are kept secret. Rewarding anyone from within such a small circle of people is of course very compromising, and at least the last time that happened (Martinson and Johnson) there was an outcry, nationally and internationally.

One could argue, as I'm sure they did at the time, that any great Swedish author should be on one of the Academy chairs, and if they weren't allowed to select their own, they practically wouldn't be allowed to pick any Swede. Notably, Tranströmer is not part of the Academy even though he has been a natural candidate for many years. Maybe he was asked and declined for other reasons, maybe they wanted their new members to have other profiles. But one can also speculate that they looked to other people precisely because he's been a candidate for the prize for a long time, and they neither wanted to repeat their mistakes of the past nor deprive him of the chance to win the prize justly.

Those past embarrassments are brought up in every Swedish newspaper column about this year's prize, but nobody seems to question that Tranströmer is a worthy laureate.

* Karlfeldt actually got it posthumously, after being the head of the Academy for many years. He had been nominated before but declined.
** Women were not allowed until 1914, when they changed the rules to include Selma Lagerlöf.
posted by springload at 4:27 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking about Tranströmer's appeal, and I think it's that his poems function like spiritual poetry for atheists, devotional words for those who aren't devoted to a higher power.
posted by Kattullus at 10:38 AM on October 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


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