Study Guide

Answers to Letters

by Thomas Transtromer

Answers to Letters Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

Breaking the Spell: Subversion in the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer

In a poem entitled “Galleriet” (The Gallery) Tomas Tranströmer records how, staying overnight at a motel, he is haunted by faces appearing on the wall. They have a dreamlike quality and impose themselves on him, demanding attention and compassion.

Jag låg över på ett motell vid E3.
I mitt rum där fanns en lukt som jag känt förut
bland de asiatiska samlingarna på ett museum

masker tibetanska japanska mot en ljus vägg.

som tränger fram genom glömskans vita vägg

I stayed overnight at a motel by the E3.
In my room a smell I’d felt before
in the oriental halls of a museum:

masks Tibetan Japanese on a pale wall.

But it’s not masks now, it’s faces

forcing through the white wall of oblivion (TSP, 140)

As in so many other poems, the poet has been following the flow of traffic, a figure he often uses to suggest socialization. When the flow is arrested, the realization erupts into consciousness that socialization imposes a role and makes life into a set of ritualized performances which allow only for a minimum of stylized movement.

I karriären rör vi oss stelt steg för steg
som i ett no-spel
med masker, skrikande sång: Jag, det är Jag!
Den som slogs ut
representeras av en hoprullad filt.

We move through our career stiffly, step by step,
it’s like a No play
white masks, high-pitched song: It’s me, it’s me!
The one who’s failed
is represented by a rolled-up blanket. (TSP, 142)

An inauthentic self masks the lack of true identity. This fabricated self is the individual’s prime commodity in a society governed by the laws of the market. It must be vociferously displayed and aggressively defended in the struggle for survival, not so much biological survival as social, since the good life is identified with a successful career and a failure in this respect cannot be compensated; it is beyond redemption: “The one who’s failed / is represented by a rolled-up blanket.” To improve one’s social status amounts to a “moral” obligation. It is as if, deprived of a spiritual dimension, we still strive to rise above ourselves and have replaced Plato’s ladder with social climbing.

Ours is a world in which, quite literally, time is money. People who work in the industrial and commercial machinery become caught up in the profit-making and time-saving frenzy and come to regard others as well as themselves in terms borrowed from economics. The self is no longer endowed with intrinsic value and becomes purely instrumental. It is treated like any other commodity. It has been reduced to what it can produced, accomplish, and achieve and is subject to the usual advertising process: the mask makes itself known with a “high-pitched song: It’s me, it’s me!”

Neither is it easy to keep the social world at bay; it has a way of invading even our leisure. The habit of time saving will not let itself be confined to the hours between nine and five, Tranströmer writes in an earlier poem: “Fritidens måne kretsar kring planeten Arbete / med dess massa och tyngd.—Det är så de vill ha det”; “The moon of leisure circles the planet Work / with its mass and weight.—It’s as they wish to have it.” The social role cannot be thrown off. The mask adheres to the bearer’s face; the professional persona invades all areas of life, narrowing our vision.

En man känner på världen med yrket som en
handske.
Han vilar en stund mitt på dagen och har lagt ifrån
sig handskarna på hyllan.
Där växer de plötsligt, breder ut sig
och mörklägger hela huset inifrån.

A man feels the world with his work like a glove.
He rests for a while at midday having laid aside the
gloves on the shelf.
There they suddenly grow, spread
and black out the whole house from inside. (TSP, 78)

The negation of the intrinsic value of human life has brought about a state of affairs where everyone is in bondage: “Välkommen till de autentiska gallerierna! / Välkommen till de autentiska galärerna! / De autentiska gallren!” (SD, 146); “Welcome to the authentic galleries! / Welcome to the authentic galleys! / The authentic grilles!” (TSP, 140).

From time to time criticism of the social machinery is voiced and someone exposes the general state of misery. Someone writes a book, acquires followers; committees are set up to investigate, memorandums and reports are issued. For a while the surface of things is ruffled by agitation; debates around dinner tables grow more intense. Then things go back to normal.

Hör samhällets mekaniska självförebråelser
stora fläktens röst
som den konstgjorda blåsten i gruvgångarna
sexhundra meter nere. (SD, 149)

Listen to society’s mechanical self-reproaches
the voice of the big fan
like the artificial wind in mine tunnels
six hundred meters down.

These self-reproaches must remain without effect, however, as every culture casts a spell in the shape of an ideology whose nature remains hidden from the insiders. Not only value but also perception is governed by a set of culturally shared conventional notions and ruling metaphors, and any change would require it change in vision: “Men vi ser de här händelserna från fel håll: ett stenröse istället för sfinxens ansikte” (D, 190); “But we see these events from the wrong angle; a heap of stones instead of the face of the sphinx.”

Our passionate striving for knowledge cancels out the mystery at the heart of existence. Skepticism imposes limitations of its own kind, whereas Tranströmer would want us at least to entertain the notion that things are different from the way they appear. Above all he wants us to be able to “see things from a fresh angle where everything is not already set according to the usual stereotypes” (TT). Of course, this is easier said than done, as any neurotic could testify. The insider is the last one to acknowledge his own blindness. Or, as Tranströmer writes in a poem from the early seventies:

Två sanningar närmar sig varann. En kommer
inifrån, en kommer utifrån
och där de möts har man en chans att få se sig
själv.
Den som märker vad som håller på att hända ropar
förtvivlat: “Stanna!
vad som helst, bara jag slipper känna mi själv.”

Two truths approach each other, one comes from
the inside and one from outside
where they meet there is a chance to get to know
oneself.
The one who notices what is about to happen cries
out: “Stop!
anything but getting to know myself.”

Common wisdom has it that poetry makes nothing happen. It does not send merchandise across the oceans, stop wars, or end poverty. Yet poetry can at times be efficacious in breaking spells and illusions. It can point to alternatives and illuminate spots of blindness. It can show the value of looking at an old problem from a new perspective. It can be a training ground for a flexible, playful, and, as far as it goes, unencumbered vision.

Such a motivation seems to underlie Tranströmer’s delight in reversals of perspective, imaginative solutions, invitations to look at contemporary reality “through the inverted periscope.” He loves to unsettle our conventional notions: set the static in violent motion, make what appears to be moving into something absolutely still.

Andas lugnt . . . En okänd blå materia är fastnaglad
vid stolarna.
Guldnitarna flög in med oerhörd hastighet
och tvärstannade
som om de aldrig varit annat än stillhet.

Breathe calmly . . . An unknown blue material is
nailed to the chair
The gold upholstery tacks flew in with unheard-of
speed
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been anything but stillness.

Or he puts together images made up of incongruous elements: “the Ship, / like the cloud weightless hanging in its space / And the water round its prow is motionless, / dead calm. And yet it’s storming!”

Where have we seen these incongruities before? Of course, the surrealists! The American poet Leslie Ullman once said that some of Tranströmer’s poems remind her of René Magritte’s paintings, and indeed they do. There is a similar clarity of vision and outline. There is a similar appearance of ordinariness in the details. There is the balanced composition. The greatest affinity, however, lies in the shuffling of conventional perceptions, the insistent breaking up of the automatism of associations. Where a bright blue sky makes us expect daytime, Magritte gives us lighted streetlamps in the lower part of the picture. Where “ship” makes us associate to weight and gravity, Tranströmer gives us levity and suspension in space, the incongruity of storm and dead calm in the same picture.

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(The entire section is 3838 words.)

Journey of Self-Discovery

The central metaphors in Tranströmer’s poem are the letters that the speaker desires to answer, from the initial letter that arrived twenty-six years before to the “unanswered letters” that “pile up” in the final stanza, but it is not entirely clear what these metaphors represent. They could, in part, be meant to signify a friend or lover, or the memory of such a person who has been lost or left behind. Or, given the fact that the initial letter is “in panic” and the speaker seems anxious to clear the clouds associated with the letters, Tranströmer may be implying that the letters signify unanswered questions about the world that have reemerged to haunt the speaker. Perhaps this is why they have become so pressing...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)

Tomas Tranströmer and The Memory

1. Tomas Tranströmer seems to me the best poet to appear in Sweden for some years. He comes from a long line of ship pilots who worked in and around the Stockholm Archipelago. He is at home on islands. His face is thin and angular, and the swift, spare countenance reminds one of Hans Christian Andersen’s or the young Kierkegaard’s. He has a strange genius for the image—images come up almost effortlessly. The images flow upward like water rising in stone lonely place, in the swamps, or deep fir woods.

Tranströmer’s poems, so vivid in English, show the ability of certain poetry to travel to another culture and actually arrive there. As Tranströmer said in a letter to the Hungarian poets, published in the...

(The entire section is 3019 words.)