Anchor in the Shadows: Bill Coyle on Tomas Tranströmer

(Editor’s Note: As it was announced today that Tomas Tranströmer had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the editors of the CPR thought it fitting to re-post this fine review of his work by Bill Coyle from 2009.)

Reviewed: The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton. New Directions Books, 2006.


Every year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches, partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath, hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since. There’s also the unfortunate fact that the choice of recipient often seems guided as much by politics as by literary considerations. Tranströmer is not an apolitical poet, but there is nothing about him—no confinement by the state, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky, no sense that he speaks for his people, like Heaney or Walcott, no rabid opposition to the United States, as with Pinter—to excite the more narrowly political. 

Still, Tranströmer has hardly languished in obscurity. Since 1975, when Robert Bly included him, along with Gunar Ekelöf and the aforementioned Harry Martinsson in the anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness (the title is taken from Tranströmer’s poem “Elegy”), his reputation has been steadily on the rise. Today he is widely recognized as one of the best poets alive, largely on the strength of translations of his work into more than fifty languages. In addition to Bly, May Swenson, Rika Lesser, Don Coles, John F. Deane, Samuel Charters, and Robin Robertson have all produced English versions of Tranströmer’s quietly startling poems. While the quality of these efforts has varied considerably, the poet’s voice—subdued, austere, rueful, kind—has come through relatively intact. Robin Fulton, a Scottish poet long resident in Norway, has been one of Tranströmer’s most tireless translators and advocates, and his new collection, The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems represents the first time all of the poet’s work has been available in one volume in English. 

What most distinguishes Tranströmer’s poetry is an almost preternatural knack for metaphor. This was obvious in his first book (1954) from the first lines of the first poem, “Prelude”: 

Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler
sinks toward the green zone of morning.

to these from “Streets in Shanghai” (1989)

I’m surrounded by signs I can’t interpret, I’m totally illiterate.
But I’ve paid what I should and have receipts for everything.
I’ve accumulated so many illegible receipts.
I’m an old tree with withered leaves that hang on and can’t fall to the earth.

And a puff of air from the sea makes all those receipts rustle.

to the first strophe of “Snow Is Falling” (2004):

The funerals keep coming
more and more of them
like the traffic signs
as we approach a city.

Each of the metaphors is startling and sheds new light on a common experience. At the same time, each seems, in retrospect, to emerge naturally from its subject, in part because the poet makes so little fuss about what he is doing, in part because his sly sense of humor leads us to lower our defenses. Tranströmer isn’t a comic poet, but he can be quite funny, albeit usually in the service of a serious point. When, in the poem “On the Outskirts of Work,” he says “The moon of leisure circles the planet Work / with its mass and weight,” this reader, at least, has to chuckle, albeit through gritted teeth. Or take the gallows humor (though “gallows” isn’t quite the word) in “Balakirev’s Dream,” which feels like a cross between The Seventh Seal and Life of Brian

He turned to the nearest sailor,
made signs despairingly and begged:

“Cross yourself, like me, cross yourself!”
The sailor stared sadly like a blind man,

stretched out his hands, sank his head—
he hung as if nailed in the air.                        

One of Tranströmer’s chief preoccupations is with the difficulty, or even impossibility, of communication. That’s not a surprising concern for a poet, particularly in the modern era, but Tranströmer is at once more obsessive and less hectoring on the subject than some others. Unlike many poets who share his reservations about language, he seldom embodies those difficulties by “problematizing” and dislocating everyday speech. In terms of syntax, he can be as straightforward as Billy Collins:

Weary of all who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I come upon the tracks of deer in the snow.
Language but no words.
(“From March 1979”) 

On a superficial level, this has similarities—the setting, especially—with the “deep image” school that Robert Bly inaugurated with Silence in the Snowy Fields. Indeed, Tranströmer has said that he recognized Bly as a kind of kindred spirit upon reading that book, and the two have been friends for decades. The differences are at least as important as the similarities, though. Bly shies away from editorial comment on the images in those poems, on the assumption that an explicated image is necessarily a limited or shallow one. Here, by way of contrast, Tranströmer provides a rather neat summary of what the deer tracks, at least in the context of the poem, mean. He doesn’t seem at all worried—nor need he be—that the last line will exhaust that image of tracks in snow. It doesn’t.

For an American reader of the above lines, it’s natural to think of the man in Frost’s “The Most of It,” and his desire for “counter-speech, original response.” The question at the end of that poem is whether or not the buck that vanishes into the brush constitutes such a response. Is the world intentional, or not? Only if it is can it be meaningful in the sense that language is. With his usual canny ambivalence, Frost refuses to point us in one direction or the other. Tranströmer is a Christian poet, though not a churchgoing one, and he answers that question in the affirmative. I suspect it’s one of the reasons—aside from temperament and sheer talent—for his facility with metaphor.  

There is also a political aspect to this concern with truth and words: Tranströmer returns often to the ways in which language is cheapened and perverted. In some cases his target is the sloganeering and advertising speech of the West—“Speed is power, / speed is power! / Play the game, the show must go on!” (“The Gallery”), or the negative consequences of American power, as when he walks through Washington D.C. and remarks on “White buildings in crematorium style/where the dream of the poor turns to ash” (“The Indoors Is Endless”). At least as often, though, he has considered the situation of those living behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in the Baltic countries (then Soviet republics) Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In his longest and perhaps greatest poem, Baltics (1974), he writes of

places where citizens are under control, where their thoughts are made with emergency exits,
what a conversation between friends really becomes a test of what friendship means.  

This context is part of what keeps Tranströmer’s writing on the difficulties of expression from ever seeming like mere shoptalk. The poet in a free society is free of many of the constraints that a dictatorship places on speech, but with that greater freedom comes responsibility: “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph,” Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, which Tranströmer has acknowledged as an important influence on Baltics. Writing is a matter of life and death, an act that defines the individual by at once articulating and effecting his relationship to others, to political structures, and to the non-human world: 

July 30th. The Strait has become eccentric—swarming with jellyfish today for the first time in years, they pump themselves forward calmly and patiently, they belong to the same line: Aurelia, they drift like flowers after a sea burial, if you take them out of the water their entire form vanishes, as when an indescribable truth is lifted out of silence and formulated into an inert mass, but they are untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.

August 2nd. Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something which can’t be said,
there are no words, but perhaps a style . . .

You can wake in the small hours
jot down a few words
on the nearest paper, a newsprint margin
(the words radiate meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words say nothing, scrawls, slips of the tongue.
Or fragments of the high nocturnal style that drew past? 

Baltics is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually. As the title implies, the poem is set in the Baltic Sea, on the island of Gotland, and in the Stockholm archipelago, where the poet has throughout his life retreated to his family’s summer cottage. The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment, with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.

The poem also constitutes a profound meditation on the nature of the human person. Immediately following the lines quoted above comes the story of a composer in an unnamed country, presumably behind the Iron Curtain, who is first praised by the authorities, then condemned, then, after his official “rehabilitation,” crippled by a stroke: 

. . . cerebral hemorrhage: paralysis on the right side with aphasia, can grasp only short phrases, says the wrong words.
Beyond the reach of elegy or execration.
But the music’s left, he keeps composing in his own style,
for the rest of his days he becomes a medical sensation.

He wrote music to texts he no longer understood—
in the same way
we express something through our lives
in the humming chorus full of mistaken words. 

Individual identity is sacred to Tranströmer, and he is repelled by anything—the state, the crowd, a church, that threatens to subsume it. The critic Staffan Bergsten has pointed out that while there are strains of mysticism in the poet’s work, it is never of the variety in which the self is simply dissolved in the divine. I wonder if Tranströmer’s professional experiences have also contributed to this reverence for the lower-cased self (as opposed to the Self of eastern metaphysics). He spent his working life as a psychologist, often counseling troubled youths, and he must know better than most how fragile and precious a thing a functional self is. Those moments in his poetry when he experiences its death are terrible and panic-inducing, as in “The Name”: 

I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at the side of the road. I curl up in the back seat and sleep. For how long? Hours. Dusk has fallen.

Suddenly I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide awake, but it doesn’t help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in a back seat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who?

At last my life returns. My name appears like an angel. Outside the walls a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora Overture) and the rescuing footsteps come down the overlong stairway. It is I! It is I!

But impossible to forget the fifteen-second struggle in the hell of oblivion, a few meters from the main road, where the traffic drives past with its lights on.   

The process of waking is perhaps as close as we come in our ordinary lives to the movement from non-being to being, and images of dreams, sleep, and waking are so common in Tranströmer’s work as to be almost omnipresent. For him the transitional states between sleep and waking, public and private, past and present, are so many entrances to what Robin Fulton calls “a central space,” a space onto which the individual person, in his or her depths, opens as well. It is out of that central space, that presence or absence, that the poems emerge, and to which they return. 

In a poem from the early 1980s, “Carillon,” the poet widens his perspective to include the suprahuman, a move that does not so much leave the human behind, as clarify its relative place in the scheme of things:

I lie on the bed with my arms outstretched
I am an anchor that has dug itself down and holds steady the huge shadow floating up there
the great unknown that I am a part of and which is certainly more important than me.  

Now that’s deep imagery. Stretched out in the form of an anchor, the speaker also resembles a cross, and, by implication, an inverted cross, like the one on which Peter, who didn’t judge himself worthy of dying in the same manner as Christ, was crucified. I wish that Fulton had ended the final line of his translation with the subjective form of the first person pronoun, I, as Tranströmer does in the Swedish, not simply because it would have been more correct to do so, but because it would have been another way to highlight the central importance of identity to this poet.

If there is a moving humility to the lines quoted, it is a relative, not an absolute, humility. If the speaker is less important than the great unknown, he is nevertheless its anchor here in the world of becoming, not so much by virtue of his poetic gifts, as by his status as a human being. In the poem “Romanesque Arches,” Tranströmer sketches with admirable economy the depths and heights contained with the human person: 

Inside the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
“Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
Blind with tears
I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,
and inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.  

Something can occasionally be gained in the translation—for example, the cascade of rhymes down the above lines—me, body, endlessly, be, Sabatini, endlessly—that has no equivalent in the original.

Tranströmer is a quiet poet, and in 1990 he got quieter in an all too literal sense, when, in what seemed the fulfillment of an unintentional prophecy made in Baltics, a stroke crippled his right side and deprived him of most of his ability to speak. He still plays the piano, albeit with one hand, and he still gives interviews and entertains visitors, though his wife Monica has to interpret his mumbled words. Parallel to this health crisis has been the poet’s movement toward shorter and shorter poems, a process which has presumably (though not necessarily) reached its limit in his most recent collection, Den stora gåtan (The Great Enigma), which consists almost entirely of haiku. Though these poems may be the logical result of Tranströmer’s development, and though they were widely praised in Sweden, where the poet is rightly revered, they are not his strongest work. Still, even this volume contains some gems, like “Snow is Falling,” from which I quoted earlier, and which reads, in its entirety: 

The funerals keep coming
more and more of them
like the traffic signs
as we approach a city.

Thousands of people gazing
in the land of long shadows.

A bridge builds itself
straight out in space.

In Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield defined the appreciation of poetry as an activity that produces “a felt change in consciousness,” and it is just such a change that Tranströmer, through his metaphorical readings of the world, produces time and again in the reader. He is not often compared with James Merrill—in fact, he may never have been, in many ways the two are as different as can be—but I can think of no other post-war American poet who can match him in this regard. To read him is to gain access to the world in a richer, more profound way, to be admitted, as he once put it, “to the real celebration, quiet as death.”

Robin Fulton deserves considerable credit for this labor of love, which has been ongoing for over thirty five years. The translations included in The Great Enigma are, for the most part, both readable—as I hope the quotations above demonstrate—and faithful. The introduction is succinct and helpful—particularly the suggestion that the reader not proceed in chronological order, since the poet’s earliest work is denser and less accessible than what followed. Excerpts from Tranströmer’s autobiographical prose and from letters that comment on specific poems provide helpful poetic, personal, and cultural context.

I do have several reservations, the first having to do with matters of poetic form. Tranströmer writes metrically far more often than most of his foreign readers might guess. Metrical poems predominate in his first volume, where they tend to be either in blank verse or Sapphics, and though the poet followed the general drift of European and American poetry toward free verse, he never abandoned meter altogether. It’s obvious that Fulton, in rendering the metrical poems, has tried to follow the meters of the originals when he thought it advisable, but the results are mixed. Poems that are in blank verse in the originals are only very roughly so in the translations, and the result is not always pleasing to the ear. In a few cases, Fulton dispenses with meter altogether, a procedure to which Tranströmer himself, in one of the letters cited here, gives his blessing. In others, he holds doggedly to the meter of the original, gracefulness be damned.

There are also a few inaccuracies here and there in the book, word choices that simply seem mistaken, as opposed to misguided. While I would hope that these are corrected in a future printing, they do not, for the most part, seriously mar the translations. One exception is the poem “Air Mail,” where Fulton renders the penultimate stanza like this:

Down here work goes slowly.
I ogle the clock often.
The tree-shadows are black ciphers
in the greedy silence.  

The Swedish word translated here as “ogle” is snegla, which in fact means, roughly, “to look at out of the corner of one’s eye.” The word translated as “ciphers” is, in the original, siffror, that is, “figures” or “numbers.” Now, at 4:15 on a Friday afternoon, I may well look at the clock in a way that could be described as “ogling.” By the same token, numerical figures might as well be ciphers, for all the sense I can usually make of them. Still, it’s hard not to read the above lines as a distortion, rather than a translation, of Tranströmer’s meaning.

A word about the physical volume in which the poems appear: I would have liked to have had the Swedish originals printed en face; Swedish and English are closely enough related languages that readers without a knowledge of the former might still have benefitted from the opportunity to compare the texts, especially in those not infrequent cases where the poet uses an English word or phrase. The title “Air Mail” for example, is identical in both the English and Swedish versions, while the phrase, “The show must go on,” which I quoted earlier, is in English in the original. I realize that this suggestion leaves me open to charges of insensitivity regarding the financial constraints under which publishers of poetry have to operate. I don’t wish to seem ungrateful: New Directions has done a service to the English speaking world by publishing the present volume.  

I began rereading Tranströmer’s work for this review on a train ride from Philadelphia to Boston. At one point I glanced up from the page to the small town we were passing through. Or rather, passing by, since there were signs—a taffy shop, a seafood shack, something about the broad swath of grass that separated the railroad tracks from the main street, combined with impressions from a few minutes earlier—that the ocean must be to our immediate right. And it was, battleship grey and choppy at high tide, and, thanks to the grade of the track, seemingly level with the windows across the aisle from me. To look up from the page just then was, fittingly enough, to find myself at a point in space and time uncannily like those I’d encountered in the poems. It was a dizzying, joyful moment, another glimpse of “the real celebration” for which I am grateful to this poet.

About Bill Coyle

Bill Coyle's poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including the Hudson Review, The New Criterion, the New Republic, and Poetry. He is a translator from the Swedish, and his versions of the poet Håkan Sandell have appeared in PN Review and Ars Interpres and are forthcoming in the anthology The Other Side of Landscape. Mr. Coyle teaches in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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One Comment

  1. Upon learning earlier today that Tomas Transtromer had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was that it had been more than a decade since the award had gone to a worthy poet. Indeed, in recent years, as Bill Coyle points out, Nobel prizes outside the hard sciences seemingly have been more frequently awarded on overtly political grounds than for actual achievement. While some might see an extra-literary rationale in this year’s Literature award (it’s hardly the first time that the Scandinavian judges have so lauded a Scandinavian writer), based strictly on its literary merits Transtromer’s poetry more than warrants the Nobel.

    My second thought was of Mr. Coyle’s fine and perceptive essay, which, when originally published here, prompted me to re-read Transtromer in a more attentive way than I had previously. In retrospect, Bill’s opening paragraph seems more than prescient; but knowing his readerly and critical instincts, I am not at all surprised at his judgment. I hope we may be able to read more of Bill’s own translations of Transtromer in due course.

    And, lastly, if I may offer a discreet reminder to the Nobel committee: Geoffrey Hill will be eighty years old next year.

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