Mystical Populist: Tomas Tranströmer wins Nobel Prize

by 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.

(My translation:)

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.

Kyle Minor has found a couple of Transtromer’s translation of Knott.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Kate Marshall

    Your mention of the literalness with which Tranströmer talks of “becoming insect” or communicating with the dead seems an interesting way to think about the orthoceras here. I like the technical vocabulary — the pretty orthocera makes a much better fossilized microphone than a trilobite — but I agree that the word here seems to slow things down, or point to its own fossilization.

    In my seminar this week we ended a long discussion about object-oriented ontology by trying to look at insistently metaphoric fossils, such as those showing up in the alien wilderness of Cormac McCarthy, or even the trilobites of Breece D’J Pancake, or the rocks and relics of Cather. These are mostly inappropriate vehicles for thinking through, for example, Quentin Meillassoux’s idea of the “arche-fossil” in _After Finitude_, They are too “familiar”: “I will call the ‘arche-fossil’ or ‘fossil-matter’ not just materials indicating the traces of past life, according to the familiar sense of the term ‘fossil’, but materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life.” (After Finitude, p.10)

    Yet there is something in the gesture “become orthoceras” that to me gets at our problem with the scandalously figurative fossils. Although these things might be a bit closer to what Ian Bogost calls “weird objects” they gesture outside of themselves, to the fact of fossilization itself as that which seems to evade the terrestrial.

  2. Janaka

    I’ve admired Tranströmer’s poems for many years, but never knew much about his personal life–and therefore had not considered him a mystical poet. I agree with your classification, but I wonder what the criteria we set forth for that is–since I hadn’t considered him mystical based solely on his writing. Conversely, would you have considered him a mystical poet based solely on his experiences (if, say, he then wrote in a more traditionally populist style like Billy Collins)?

    Essentially, what makes a mystical poet? It seems that a person would 1.) Have to experience a state of consciousness beyond “normal” perception, and interact with Ur/Super/Sub natural entities, then 2.) Write about / from that experience in a fashion that attempts a mapping back into (as opposed to a recounting of) the experience , or some approximation thereof, for the reader.

    I’d be really interested in additions, amendments, and subtractions to this rough proposal toward a definition…

  3. Johannes

    If I can get a few minutes I’d like to think of a post that would incorporate Janaka’s and Kate’s comments as well as Aase’s article about Transtromer as kitsch. Seems like that might be an interesting intersection to think through. /Johannes

  4. The Modesto Kid

    Worthwhile reading on the subject of “what makes a mystical poet” is Judith Weissman’s Of Two Minds: Poets Who Hear Voices.

  5. Janaka

    Thanks–I’ll check it out!

  6. Coldfront » Tranströmer wins Nobel

    […] PTranströmer has been translated into over 50 languages and is widely read both in Sweden and around the globe. SPD (Small Press Distribution) released a limited number of signed Tranströmer’s broadsides and they sold out within hours. If interested, they still have unsigned Tranströmer’s broadsides available here. Also you can read up on Tranströmer on The Academy of American Poetry’s page here, Reuters article here, and for a more personal take definitely read what poet/translator Johannes Göransson has written for Montevidayo. […]

  7. Reports from the Plague Ground: The Gothic Threat of Art (Surrealism, Kitsch, Blake Butler, Aase Berg, Delillo, Tranströmer) - Montevidayo

    […] people discuss the humanity and accessibility of his poetry, Berg wants to make him kitschy, or, to bring in my initial reaction to the news of his award, turn him into orthoceras, something anachronistic, inhuman, but also something that, like kitsch, […]

  8. Kim

    I think speaking of Tranströmer as a “people’s poet” is slightly misguided and mostly derived from him having been the most viable Swedish Nobel candidate in recent years rather than his poetry being actually read with some kind of communal Swedish flourish. It is strange, yes, and maybe even mystical in the sense that dreams have that quality, but reading his poetry I never get a sense that the poems somehow reflect something outside the poem. If mystical, they are surprisingly void of any particular origin or direction.

    Perhaps this kind of containment is suffocating, but it is also, I would argue, potentially liberating and fulfilling if you submit to the imagery/bildspråk rather than look for a language-ish way out. I would agree with Berg’s assessment that Tranströmer has little to do with contemporary Swedish poetry but instead of using the word “kitsch” I would place him with a long-gone tradition of metaphor-heavy Swedish modernists/surrealists such as for instance Gunnar Ekelöf. Not too far removed since he has, after all, been writing poetry for more than 50 years.

  9. Johannes

    Hi Kim,

    Thanks for your insightful comment.

    By “people’s poet” I mean that he’s more beloved than actually being part of poetry discussions. His softcover “collected poems” for example tend to end up on the bestseller list when it’s updated. But at the same time, much of the poetry that is going on in Sweden tends to not have much to do with Transtromer.

    Berg’s point is precisely that she doesn’t want to “submit” to the images, the way you’re supposed to submit to Great Art (or “The Swedish Tradition), but rather create something more “collaborative” that she can work with. Again, Berg isn’t using kitsch negatively; she is afterall the poet who re-wrote the last Nobel laureate Harry Martinsson’s super-corny (and awesome!) “Aniara” as the sci-fi epic Mörk materia in the late 90s. Ie she “collaborated” with the Martinsson kitsch…

    Could you explain why you think it’s “potentially liberating and fulfilling” to talk about “bildspråk” of a Swedish tradition?

    I’m not so sure that is different from Berg’s take. Her own poetry is certainly saturated with “bildspråk” and in her recent book of essays there’s a great essay on how she finds metaphors (ie the good old imagery) interesting *as kitsch*.

    I don’t think kitsch suggests a “language-is way out.” If by “language-ish” you mean “språk materialist”, which like US language poetry tends to be very anti-kitsch in its rhetoric. (And anti-metaphor, anti-image.)


  10. Kim


    Thank you for your response!

    I seem to have been a bit quick in my reading of Berg here and drawn some hasted conclusions. She poses the question, quite personally, of how to read T. in a useful and collaborative way and I mostly got stuck on his “image mysticism” as “chokingly water-tight”.

    Which is what my “submit” comment was aimed at, that the suffocating can also be potentially liberating and fulfilling. By submitting to that image mysticism I don’t mean a passive appreciation of supposed Great Art but rather temporarily inhabiting the peculiar rooms that his poems offer.

    The modernist influence that I see in T. (not just a Swedish modernist influence but a general one) is partly the joining of high and low (banality?), general and specific. In the very first poem in the first collection (Preludium, 1954) “awaking is a parachute jump from the dream”, “tree root systems” have “swinging underground lamps” etc.

    Partly (and to me, the more interesting subject of discussion) is the containment of the images. Where the modernist to some extent looked to undermine the authoritative voice of High Art they did not completely (except perhaps in dada and surrealism) abandon poetic narrative. A similar containment of images can be found in Pound, Eliot and Marianne Moore, to mention some that might have survived the “stuffiness” of the modernist condition.

    In T. as in most modernist poetry the subject takes a backseat to the images/objects or at least there is a leveling of the playing field. Eastern form and thought seem to have similarly influenced both. T’s poetical journey seems to have followed in pursuit of this image and fittingly come to a kind of rest in haiku: a perfect union of image and containment. Or to use Berg’s definition of kitsch: banality and surprising intelligence. If you read even his earliest work it adheres to a similar tempo, they could easily have been written as haiku.

    What perhaps renders T’ as “passe” in the eyes of contemporary Swedish poetry might be his use poetic narrative that can be seen as somewhat old-fashioned. There is the sense, or at least that is my reading, of this kind of earnest omniscient narrator laboring behind the poems that can certainly be something of a turn-off. I, personally, consider them like rooms, or dreams, that presses upon me as the reader to “submit” to the poem’s particular and often peculiar logic. That is true of most poetry, I suppose, but more noticeable when the rooms often seem more closed off from the world than open.

    Take a poem like “Gogol”, that begins with the line: “Kavajen luggsliten som en vargflock” (approx. “The jacket well-worn like a pack of wolves”, though “sliten” can also be translated as “ripped” and offer a possible link to the wolves). We see the jacket, it’s well-worn-ripped-ness, and then we are asked to imagine it as a pack of wolves. Here is a rather other worldly logic at work which we are asked to accept at the very start of the poem.

    There is, for me, something liberating and fulfilling in accepting this logic, temporarily, and I don’t find it to be a passive activity as it simultaneously questions the logic by which I view reality. (I’m sorry for bypassing your question there but I’m not sure that I have anything worthwhile to say about “bildspråk” of a Swedish tradition other than what I have said already about the image as central to a modernist perspective.)

    I think, however, or maybe that is wishful thinking, that T. has the potential to survive the exuberance and stuffiness that renders a lot of modernist poetry irrelevant or even ridiculous (-ly awesome!). His use of exclamation always seem rather muted, his voice more calm than exalted. That even though he reflects poorly contemporary Swedish poetry (or contemporary poetry most everywhere) I still see him as edging his way out of the modernist experiment, picking up a thing or two in the post-modern, arriving somewhere at the outskirts of what we today call “modern”.

    Pending a definition of mystical poetry, I can only say that, like Janaka, I had not until now considered his poetry to be mystical, which to me suggests a kind of underlying spiritual component. It might be that my associations here are outdated. Dream-gazing might very well be just that, and he does seem to be quite occupied with the mapping of consciousness and memories.

    On a side note, I would argue that Bly’s translations have more of a tendency toward the “poetical” and can potentially inform a more “magical” or “mystical” reading of his poems than other translations. For me, for the most part, it is the non-poetic language, the banal, if you will, that timely intercepts his poems from becoming pure meditation.

    Sorry. This got very long-winded and probably off the point in many places, but I do appreciate the opportunity to converse about T’s work! So thank you.


  11. On Art, Sacrifice, Ecstasy, and Love - Montevidayo

    […] idea so I won’t spend too much time on it except to remind you that the new Nobel Prize winner, Tomas Tranströmer, claimed to have actually become an insect in the woods, and that Hannah Weiner claimed to have actually seen words. Must we bifurcate the concepts and […]

  12. Tobias

    I apologize for writing a comment on such an old post, but can’t one simply attribute the epithet “people’s poet” to the fact that his language is rather simple.

    Certainly readable and graspable by most.