Aase Berg reads Tomas Tranströmer as Kitsch in Expressen

by on Oct.06, 2011

Aase Berg has a perceptive piece in Expressen, discussing Tranströmer’s position in contemporary Swedish poetry. Most of the critics (and un-critics) in Sweden seem mostly just thrilled that he got the Nobel, but Aase is actually thinking about the poetry a bit.

For one she notes that, contrary to most US reporting, Tranströmer’s poetry is not that important to contemporary Swedish poetry. It is, as I noted in my previous post, more beloved, “people’s poet.” His standing in poetry was first attacked in the 1960s for not being sufficiently political (as I wrote about here). And now he’s certainly not an influence on the language-ish “language materialists” who tend to be opposed to metaphors (I’ve translated Johan Jönson who’s one of the primary authors in this group). Tranströmer of course is most famous for his metaphors and “bildspråk” (image-langauge). Anyway, Berg notes that despite this she can appreciate his writing like this:

Hur gör man då för att läsa hans dikter så att de blir bruks- och samarbetspoesi i stället för bekräftelser på ett slags imponerad läsarlättja?
Jag har redan börjat betrakta Tranströmers poesi, rent internt i min hjärna, som kitsch. Det gör det mycket lättare för mig att kommunicera med den, eftersom jag uppfattar kitsch som något konstruktivt: banalitet och otippad intelligens i oväntad förening. Tanken på Tranströmers bilder som kitschiga ger mig möjlighet att associera vidare till andra bilder, i stället för att fastna i en bildmystik som annars kan kännas kvävande vattentät.
Jag tänker inte genihylla Tranströmer, jag tycker inte ens att han är Sveriges enda tänkbara Nobelpriskandidat, men jag tycker det är bra att hans poesi finns. Om jag inte hade tranströmerstuket att stångas mot skulle min poesivärld bli oändligt mycket fattigare.

Rough translation:

How then can one read Tranströmer’s poems so that they are useful collaborative poems, rather than proof of some kind of impressive accessibility? I have already begun to view Tranströmer’s poetry – purely internally, in my brain – as kitsch. That makes it easier for me to communicate with it because I see kitsch as something generative: banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union. The idea of Tranströmer’s images as kitschy allows me to associate to other images, instead of getting stuck in an image mysticism which may seem chokingly water-tight. I’m not going to celebrate Tranströmer as genius, I don’t think he’s Sweden’s only Nobel candidate, but I think it’s good that his poetry exists. If I didn’t have the Tranströmer heap to wrestle with, my world would be infinitely poorer.

14 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    I think Berg’s qualified praise is rather lovely. I’m not familiar with TT’s work but May Swenson translated some poems of his and I LOVVVVVVVVVVE her poems so indirectly I have a soft-spot for him.

  2. Michael Peverett

    Everyone has a soft spot for TT’s poems, and that definitely includes me. And that’s where the TT discussion begins: what is a soft spot, is it deliquescent like a boil? It is important to have a dialogue with these Wow-images, even if it is a dialogue full of gasps. “Kitsch” seems like a good way of putting the images on the table; a nice contrast with the exemplarily “refined” high-art references within the poems; Haydn and Schubert, never Liszt or Strauss.

    This is what happened the last time a Swede won the prize:
    Martinson, product of a broken working-class home, his health ruined at sea in his youth, grew steadily gloomier through the later part of his poetic career. The last straw was winning the Nobel Prize in 1974; or rather, the barrage of criticism that ensued (mainly within Sweden itself). In 1978 he attempted to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment (seppuku) with a pair of scissors. He was horribly injured and died a few days later.

  3. Johannes

    Interesting comment Michael. I’ve been thinking about Martinsson, someone who more obviously perhaps now strikes us as “kitsch,” or not properly Modernist – what with his rhymes, his sci-fi, his sailor’s songs. Which is of course why Aase Berg likes Martinson – and rewrote his sci-fi masterpiece Aniara as kitschy Dark Matter.


  4. Henry Gould

    Saying you have to read Transtromer as kitsch in order to enjoy it as poetry is like saying you have to think of sex in terms of pornography in order to understand love. There is probably a psychological explanation for this; maybe Transtromer would understand. Low self-esteem, maybe. The poems use pretty simple language and everyday imagery. It’s maybe the attitude toward life that is seen as a difficulty or barrier. The attitude is not arty.

  5. Johannes

    Henry, I thin your understanding of “kitsch” is less sophisticated/nuanced than the way Berg is using it. I’ll expand on this when I get some tie. I think your reading of Transtromer is interestingly in line with Berg’s statement about its “banality.” But I would say that hes very arty: very elaborate metaphors, visionary experiences. In some way they’re very arty. And indeed that’s why he’s been largely rejected by younger generations of Swedish poetry – b/c it’s too arty. And it’s in that context that Berg is writing – both to move away from the adulation of the general press and to re-assess, re-appreciate Transtromer’s work in a literary context where he has a very small role. /Johannes

  6. Matt Miller

    Berg’s attitude here seems annoyingly condescending and patronizing to me–“more avant-garde than thou”–as if she regards herself as so much more difficult and advanced that the only way she can possibly get pleasure from Tranströmer is to see his work as pop artifacts. Personally, I have admired his work for over a decade, and I never had to equate him with “kitsch” (such a trendy concept right now). But maybe I am just lost in translation.

  7. Johannes

    Like I wrote to Henry, Berg’s idea of “kitsch” is more complex than a “pop artifact.” The word “kitsch” has a very complex history and dynamic – having as much to do with poetry and romanticism as “pop artifact.” And, as I suggest in my own summary of the article, her stance is absolutely not “more avant-garde-than-thou” because unlike most Swedish poets of our generation, she doesn’t reject his work, she finds a way to read it, whereas most Swedish poets I know think he’s really passe. I think the problem here is that most people seem to be incapable of reading kitsch as anything other than a cheap insult (which it often is)./Johannes

  8. Matt Miller

    One man’s “kitsch” may be another woman’s very complex, nuanced, historicized, and theorized understanding of a concept-term, but doesn’t the responsibility for unpacking terms that have been developed away from their common meaning lie with the communicator, rather than the audience? “banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union” is better than nothing, but I am still not getting it–whose intelligence? What kind? Why “surprising”?

  9. Johannes

    I would say that it’s a provocative thing to call a prize-winner kitsch on the very day he wins the Nobel Prize, so if some folks – such as you and Henry – get offended I think that’s certainly expected. But I have to say, I would rather think about what kitsch means – in this context, in the context of Transtromer, and most importantly the in context of Berg’s work (she’s afterall a poet known for poems about, among other things, guinea pigs and Ikea furniture and a book in which she rewrote Harry Martinson’s sci-fi epic Aniara starring Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre) – in more evocative ways. It is also true that she writes a brief column for what amounts to USA Today; she’s not writing an academic essay; so it’s not really a detailed analysis. But it’s an evocative way of describing Transtromer, one that jives with what I’ve written so far as well as the comments from Kate and Janaka./Johannes

  10. Clayton Eshleman

    The translations of Transtromer by Bly and Fulton that I have read show him as a quite conventional writer who is often touchingly existential and occasionally moving in regard to emptiness and absence. The huge problem here is: are these translations accurate in a detailed way, or are they, as are all of Bly’s translations that I have studied once-over-lightly versions that sand off any edges or strangeness in the original, as his Vallejo translations most surely are (and I am on firm ground here since I can read them against the original Spanish). Were I a Nobel judge, I would have argued for Gary Snyder or Salman Rushdie this year.

  11. Johannes

    I am obviously ambivalent about absolute judgments about originality and conventionality, and clearly Aase’s kitsch comment complicate such divisions. But I think Transtromer – even in Bly’s somewhat macho translations – is a writer of very striking, beautiful poems. The best ones are more mystical than touching. One reason why he comes off as conventional is no doubt that he’s been incredibly influential around the world. For example, Bly and a lot of American poets in the 1960s. But also, Bei Dao loves Tranströmer’s work. In terms of influence, Snyder doesn’t come close. I also think Transtromer’s a better poet than Snyder, whose work I really can’t stand. As for Rushdie, didn’t he already win it? Or perhaps I’m thinking about Gunter Grass. One of those two won it. Besides, there hasn’t been a poet winning the thing in quite a while. Ashbery is probably the next in line among poets. It’s hard overall for me to think about who deserves and doesn’t deserve it because literary prizes are on the whole bullshit.


  12. Lucas

    I wonder, Clayton, if you’d find these Tranströmer translations, by Robert Archambeau and Lars-Håkan Svensson, and sharper than Bly’s (my guess is, probably):


    I certainly see the resonances with Bei Dao (can resonances be seen?).

    irregular Lucas

  13. Clayton Eshleman

    Johannes: we will have to agree to disagree on Snyder: I see him as a genuinely world poet via his connections with the San Francisco Renaissance, Buddhism, and ecology. He has also written a masterful middle-length poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End. He is exactly the kind of figure who should be honored internationally for his human reach.
    Lucas: Naw, fairly typical “western” attempts at, from my viewpoint, with a little Japanese, the impossible-to-imitate haiku. Too many “poetic gestures” and clumsy “realizations.” Cid Corman’s translation of Basho’s Okunohosomichi is the great model for the haiku in English, and some of Corman’s very short poems exercise an intelligent haiku sensibility. They show how much Corman learned from translating, with Susumu Kamaike, Basho.
    A compelling essay could be written on the extent to which the Nobel people botch the poetry awards (much more so, I think, than the novelists they give the award to). A couple of examples:
    A Czech named Jaroslav Seifert received it in 1984. Having never heard of the guy, and knowing something about Czech poetry via my work on Vladimir Holan–a magnificent poet–I did a little research and asked Michael Heim to translate a Seifert poem which I published in Sulfur #13, with a commentary.came up with an entry on Seifert which I published in Sulfur #13. This poem, a central one to Seifert’s work, according to Heim, was utterly pathetic. If the Nobel mogauls wanted a Czech, they should have given it to Holan earlier (he died in 1979). The difference between Seifert and Holan is the difference between night and day.
    In 1993, I believe, the award went to Derek Walcott. The first Caribbean Nobel in Literature should have gone to Aime Cesaire. This is not to knock Walcott who has produced a body of work that is accomplished but hardly unique–which I believe Cesaire’s poetry is. I have devoted many years to co-translating Cesaire, so it is easy to call me on being biased. But I have spent this amount of time with Cesaire because his poetry, like that of Holan’s, is unique, and displays the outer limit of what might be called represents a civil surrealism.

  14. Kent Johnson

    >Ashbery is probably the next in line among poets

    That would be great, if so, but Adonis has been on the short list for years. He was late in coming out and condemning the Assad regime, though, so that could hurt his chances. Politics is famously big with the Nobel, which is why Borges never got it.

    I fully agree with Clayton on Cesaire, and anyone who has not seen CE’s translations of the great poet needs to now.