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For Whom the Nobel Tolls: Tomas Tranströmer’s “The Blue House”

(Jessica Gow/AFP/Getty Images)

“The lines, like long, rolling ocean waves on a cold Baltic sea, create their own reasons, their own rhythm, their own understanding. Anaphora is used, as Whitman did, to summon us to the great historical pageant of life, of happenings beyond our immediate knowledge.”

Did the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer deserve the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature? Does anyone? One thinks of the case of Gabriel García Márquez, the talented Colombian novelist and author of the justly lionized One Hundred Years of Solitude. Perhaps one such work of epochal writing is enough to get over the bar. Yet having read multiple others of García Márquez’s books, I find some of them redundant, either warm-ups for his famous novel, with similar characters, themes, and situations, even identical ones, or close variations on a theme. May one even presume to challenge the great ones? My experience with Faulkner has been similar; many of his novels now feeling negligible or dated, even interchangeable, albeit he changed storytelling in America. Is that the criterion: influence on other writers? A Nobel Prize putatively represents a life’s work, and, in truth, most writers’ production fluctuates in quality and transcendence throughout that life. Some do experiment, change and mature reliably, ever questing, ever self-reinventing, not repeating themselves. Yet this phenomenon is rare. Further, the Nobel Prize in Literature, like the Peace Prize, not infrequently is awarded as much according to cultural and political criteria as aesthetic ones.

Which brings us back to Tranströmer. Unfamiliar with his work, I attacked The Blue House: Collected Works of Tomas Tranströmer, which was released with Copper Canyon Press in October of last year and translated by Patty Crane, with enthusiasm for the undiscovered. At times, I found the excitement I sought. Others, it was a slog. One wished in such a compendious volume for more scholarly context for understanding such a massive corpus (600 pages). Alas, poet Yuself Komunyakaa’s cursory, brief introduction fails to satisfy, studded with wan phrases such as “fantastical voyage,” “human nature plays out,” “a keeping of time and seasons,” affording only the formulaic approach to a book one expects from back-cover blurbs. This is despite Komunyakaa’s claim to having read this Swedish heavyweight for 50 years.

Yet I pressed dutifully on, seduced by the beautiful hardback edition, reasonably priced and of the highest quality, an object of art in itself. Tranströmer’s verse falls, like that of many modernist poets of the second half of the 20th century, halfway between “free verse” and a conventional and even mechanical attachment to tercets and quatrains. The earlier poems often feel prosaic, their more interesting features being occasional enjambment, and frequent, clustered consonance and assonance (viskar/svar/komma/själv). Translator Crane’s own ear is quite adept, coming up with sonically enticing phrases in English such as “Sky-thunder whispers” and “thunder strikes straight out of the stillness.” Reading the Swedish text aloud made me wish to be fluent in that language, but even without that advantage, it is clear that Tranströmer has a superb sense of sound.

What is missing in the earlier work is a feeling for the line, the lack of which is the general malady of much modern poetry, which “breaks the form” by dispensing with rhyme and meter, yet oddly adheres to a strange quasi-metrical stasis in which line integrity and end-stops make for a less than dynamic reading and emotional experience. Too often, the superb hearing of this ultimately great poet settles for middle of the road insights in staid lines.

“Rain hammers the car roofs.

Rumbles of thunder. Traffic slows to a crawl.

Headlights are in the midst of a summer day.”

Each line forms a complete sentence, making for a series of observations organized all too well, like the beginning of a short story. Further, the imagery here is lackadaisical, pedestrian. Even the more interesting stanzas of this poem read like straightforward statements of fact: “Up there lie cairns of stones/from the Iron Age, when this was a site/of tribal fights, a colder Congo.” Each line breaks off in the predictable grammatical place, as if the poet were breaking a sentence down logically into its prepositional phrases.

And yet this prolific poet’s middle period of composition yielded extraordinary writing. The centerpiece of these collected works is the 13-page poem “Baltics/Östersjöar,” divided into six parts, overall hundreds of lines in length. It is a feast of closely observed maritime detail, in long lines that, while they tend toward catalogs and everyday speech, rivet the reader-listener in long, Whitmanesque chains of phrases that teem with restrained sentiment. “Baltics” compares favorably with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or sections of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

“A new breath of wind and the place is desolate and still again.

A new breath of wind, murmuring about other shores.

It has to do with the war.

It has to do with places where citizens are under control,

where thoughts are built with emergency exits,

where a conversation between friends is really a test of what friendship means.

And when you’re together with those you don’t know so well. Control. A certain candor is all right

just don’t take your eyes off whatever’s wandering the edges of the conversation:

something dark, a dark stain.

Something that can drift in

and destroy everything. Don’t take your eyes off it!”

One overlooks his tendency to explain here because the lines, like long, rolling ocean waves on a cold Baltic sea, create their own reasons, their own rhythm, their own understanding. Anaphora is used, as Whitman did, to summon us to the great historical pageant of life, of happenings beyond our immediate knowledge. The reader is addressed directly, invited in, taken into confidence.  Even throwaway words like “something” have power in context. Something tremendous and inscrutable is happening right now, and it concerns you.

This is the Nobel-level poet, the one who redeems the chancy gesture of giving prizes in the first place. We can almost imagine him at the writing desk, the excitement he felt, knowing perhaps in that very moment he was composing something (yes, something) that would endure.

Tranströmer shows equal capability in some of his shorter lyrics, particularly those divided into multiple sections, separated by numbers, a manner in which he seems to mark the progression of thought through image, needing that external discipline for the encounter of his orderly mind with a disorderly world. Exemplary is “Six Winters.”

“1

In the black hotel, a child sleeps.

And outside: the winter night

where the wide-eyed dice roll.

 

2

An elite of dead has been petrified

in Katarina Cemetery

where the wind shakes in its armor from Svalbard.

 

3

One war-winter as I lay sick

an enormous icicle grew outside my window.

Neighbor and harpoon, memory without explanation.”

 

The poem sports the precision and economy of the short stories of the great Russian Isaac Babel, suggestive and seriocomic. In each line, a small mystery lurks. Assertion is achieved through image, as befits lyric. I could read one hundred such stanzas in a row and not lose interest. Here, the poet offers six only, with haiku-like restraint, leaving us wanting more, yet the poem reaches beautiful, tentative closure, in the semi-cryptic manner of classical Chinese poetry.

 

“6

Tonight snow-haze, moonlight. Moonlight’s jellyfish itself

is floating before us. Our smiles

on the way home. Bewitched passageway.”

 

I found myself wishing for a Selected Poems, as I gravitated to my personal favorites. Yet the value of the Collected Works of a Nobel Laureate is an endemic question, not specific to, nor the fault of, an individual publisher or translator. One can have nothing except admiration here for the collective effort involved in bringing off this tremendous volume of poetry, which is only to be commended. Tastes and preferences are particular, perhaps. And, in any case, having available such a superb rendering in English of Tranströmer’s verse is a boon for the ambitious poet, for academic study, and for the level-headed consideration of the man and his work taken as a whole. Now, if there were only a Nobel Prize for translators.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles and earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University. Contact Johnny at johnny@merionwest.com.

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