That should be the headline. Tomas Tranströmer, an 80-year-old “surrealist” or “mystical” poet from Stockholm, became the fourth Swedish writer to be recognized by the Swedish Academy with the Nobel Prize in literature. He was the first Swede to be honored since the novelists Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, two writers on every reader’s shelves, shared the prize in 1974. (The German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, who split the 1966 prize with Israeli novelist Sh. Y. Agnon, was living in Sweden at the time.)
More Swedish writers have now taken home the award than Italian (three), Spanish (three), Polish (two), Greek (two), Australian (one), or Indian (none), Canadian (none), or Dutch writers (none). Who knew that Sweden was a world power in literature? Tranströmer became the first poet in a decade and a half to win the Nobel Prize.
The poets say that he is something of a transnational figure. In a review of Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems published in the Guardian early this summer, Paul Batchelor calls him a “non-English-language poet who has been fully accepted into British and US poetry in his own lifetime.” In an essay on him at the Academy of American Poets’ website, Tom Sleigh says the reception of Tranströmer’s poetry in this country “is now part of American literary history.” Both of them mention that Tranströmer is associated with Robert Bly’s “Deep Image” movement. (For those of you keeping score at home, Bly’s “deep image” is not exactly the same as Jerome Rothenberg or Clayton Eshleman’s “deep image,” but is no less fuzzy in conceptual content.)
Bly explains helpfully that the “deep image” is a “geographical location in the psyche,” but the critic Kevin Bushnell seems to be on firmer ground in saying that it is “the first attempt in American poetry to incorporate fully the theories of Freud, Jung and other depth psychologists into the poet’s expression.” Tranströmer, a trained and practicing psychologist, would be attracted to such a conception for obvious reasons.
Tranströmer’s poems are serene and unfazed, even when describing the “terror” of an automobile accident as in “Alone” (translation by Robin Fulton):
One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars—
their lights—closed in.
My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.
The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew—there was space in them—
they grew as big as hospital buildings.
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked—a sharp clang—it
flew away in the darkness.
Then—stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.
I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.
In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.
To be always visible—to live
in a swarm of eyes—
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.
The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.
I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
—Without a programme.
Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.
“Antitheses such as isolation and society are brought together, generating a powerful field of force,” Batchelor says in his Guardian review, commenting on this poem. “The poem offers no explanation for its abrupt change of scene, and we soon learn that a Tranströmer poem can change with the speed of a dream.”
What else do we learn? Batchelor does not say, and I have no idea. Perhaps, as he implies, the learning is contained wholly within the poem, like a bird in a cage. Even when Tranströmer addresses an outside world, he is not likely to refer to it with any distinguishing exactness. Here is a poem called “November in the Former DDR,” although we never learn why the location is specified (translation, again, by Fulton):
The almighty cyclop’s-eye clouded over
and the grass shook itself in the coal dust.
Beaten black and blue by the night’s dreams
we board the train
that stops at every station
and lays eggs.
The clang of the church bells’ buckets
And someone’s inexorable cough
scolding everything and everyone.
A stone idol moves its lips:
it’s the city.
Ruled by iron-hard misunderstandings
among kiosk attendants butchers
metal-workers naval officers
iron-hard misunderstandings, academics!
How sore my eyes are!
They’ve been reading by the faint glimmer of the glow-worm lamps.
November offers caramels of granite.
Like world history
laughing at the wrong place.
But we hear the clang
of the church bells’ buckets fetching water
—is it Wednesday?—
so much for our Sundays!
Iron-hard misunderstandings, poets! How far we have drifted from a time when poetry was an art of reflection, measuring thought in exact units. Tranströmer’s award may explain why no poet has won the Nobel Prize in 15 years, and why the Swedish Academy, in an age in which poets no longer perform any public function, was at a loss when it came time to pick the greatest poet now writing, and settled for one of its own.