by Johannes Goransson on Oct.06, 2011
Congratulations to Tomas Tranströmer who was awarded the Nobel Prize this morning. Certainly if any poet deserves it, its Tranströmer, who has been writing his mystical yet strangely affecting poetry since the 1950s. The fact that he’s Swedish and that in Sweden he’s become a kind of “people’s poet” (which is really weird since his poems are very mystical, it’s not the kind of attitude one tends to associate with populism) has probably counted against him over the years when it’s come to the Nobel Prize.
My favorite Tranströmer poem is probably “Till vänner bakom en gräns”:
Jag skrev så kargt till er. Men det jag inte fick skriva
svällde och svällde some ett gammaldags luftskepp
och gled bort till sist genom natthimlen.
Nu är brevet hos censorn. Han tänder sin lampa.
I skenet flyger mina ord upp som apor på ett galler
ruskar till, blir still, och visar tänderna!
Läs mellan raderna. Vi ska träffas om 200 år
då mikrofonerna i hotellets väggar är glömda
och äntligen får sova, bli ortocertiter.
To Friends Behind A Border
I wrote so sparsely to you. But what I couldn’t write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned zeppelin
and drifted at last through the night sky.
Now the letter is with the censor. He turns on his lamp.
In the glow my words fly up like monkeys on grille
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth!
Read between the lines. We are going to meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and finally get to sleep, become orthoceras.
Note: “orthoceras” are usually translated as the more general “trilobites.” But part of Tranströmer’s magic is the way he throws in strange metaphors (sometimes ridiculous, like the zeppelin) and words like orthoceras that are technical or anachronistic or in some other way opaque. It’s like the opacity of that word in some way reflects the functionlessness of the old microphones that become trilobites.
It’s impossible not to “get” Tranströmer, but it’s hard to write about him, in large part because it’s mystical poetry. I remember once when I was in a seminar on modern Swedish poetry at the U of Minnesota, Robert Bly burst in and started talking about Tranströmer. And the one thing I remember the most vividly was, talking about a poem in which the speaker becomes a kind of insect in the woods, that Tranströmer had actually had that experience, had suddenly become an insect in the woods. Or, for example in The Baltic poems, he actually communicated with his dead grandmother.
I’ll try to write something more in depth later if I have some time.
Oh, one more thing: I think this poem can be read as being about translation, and Tranströmer has done a lot of translation, particularly of east European writers, but also of sometime Montevidayo participant Bill Knott.