Sweden in the Early 1980s
Swedish politics were preoccupied with questioning the policy of neutrality, which had been in place since World War II, after a Soviet submarine ran aground near a Swedish naval base in 1981. The early 1980s in Sweden were also marked by the reelection of the socialist Social Democratic Party, which had been in power for forty-four years when a coalition of non-socialist parties won the election of 1976. An economic downturn led to a Social Democrat victory in 1982, and a return to the policies of the Swedish “welfare” state, which places a large emphasis on redistribution of wealth and an extensive network of social services. Schools, universities, health care, pensions, and various economic support schemes in Sweden were funded entirely through taxation.
Swedish Poetry after World War II
Until the mid-1960s, Swedish poetry was predominantly associated with high modernism and “formalism,” or poetry that placed an emphasis on structure and style as opposed to content. T. S. Eliot was one of the most influential critics and poets to espouse this view and, although it was rapidly going out of fashion in the years following World War II, it remained popular in Sweden for some years. By the 1960s, however, a younger generation of poets was emerging with a tendency to focus on political content and a directly engaging style. As Joanna Bankier writes in her literary biography of Tranströmer,...
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“Answers to Letters” is a prose poem in five stanzas, which means that it consists of five sections, in this case much like paragraphs, with lines of text that are not intended to have specific line breaks. The poem, therefore, reads almost like a very short story; it does not require its reader to pause over each line or sound out a specific “meter,” or sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. Tranströmer maintains a careful rhythm of language, employs poetic techniques such as repetition, and balances each word carefully with those around it. But, because of the prose appearance of the text itself, each stanza appears to be a sort of independent thought written in the same prose style as one might use to answer a letter.
Metaphor and Simile
Tranströmer frequently uses the comparative devices of metaphor and simile, both of which are figures of speech that suggest a similarity between two objects or actions (although a simile is characterized by the use of the words “as” or “like”). As many critics have suggested, Tranströmer’s metaphors and similes do not merely serve as descriptive tools; they are often used to transform the reader’s experience of reality. They involve rapid shifts to ideas that may seem unrelated to the “tenor,” or the original source of the comparison.
This technique of liberal association, which often seems illogical, is an element of...
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Compare and Contrast
1980s: In Sweden, the environment and nuclear energy, along with questions over the Swedish policy of neutrality, are the major political issues of the day.
Today: Sweden is a member of the European Union (since 1995), but Swedish voters decline to join the common European currency in 2003, a vote that went ahead just days after the shocking assassination of Sweden’s foreign minister. Like the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister in 1986, investigators are unable to determine the motive of the killer.
1980s: In the United States, Ronald Reagan, a Republican and former actor, is president. The decade marks the advent of household computer technology and an atmosphere of economic conservatism.
Today: Republican George W. Bush is president of the United States, and the social agenda of the government is more conservative since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
1980s: The Social Democratic Party regains control in Sweden, and the country recovers from the economic downturn that marked the late 1970s. Sweden has a reputation as a country with one of the most extensive social service networks in the world.
Today: Sweden retains its extensive social service network and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. The Swedish economy is growing faster than others in most of Western Europe.
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Topics for Further Study
Tranströmer has had a lifelong interest in psychology, and he has worked for many years as a psychologist in Västerås, Sweden. How does “Answers to Letters” relate to the field of psychology? Can you find other examples of poems that reflect themes related to psychology in The Wild Market- Square in other collections of Tranströmer’s poetry? How do these poems bring out psychological ideas and how do psychological theories improve or change your understanding of them? Do some research into the theories of famous twentiethcentury psychologists such as Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung in order to construct your answer.
Robert Bly is Tranströmer’s friend and chief advocate in the United States. Read some of Bly’s poetry, such as This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979), and discuss the similarities and differences between Bly’s and Tranströmer’s poetry. Choose a poem of Bly’s to compare in depth with “Answers to Letters,” taking into account poetic technique and approaches to similar themes. Or, after reading some of Bly’s nonfiction essays and criticism in addition to selections of his poetry, explain why you think Bly might have developed such an interest in Tranströmer’s work.
One of the most important Swedish artists since World War II is the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Watch Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander (1982), as well as some of his earlier classics such as The Seventh...
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What Do I Read Next?
Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems (1997), translated by Robin Fulton, contains all of the poet’s major collections. From the elegant verse and striking imagery of 17 Poems to the diverse and challenging meditations in The Wild Market- Square (1983) and The Sad Gondola (1996), this book is the definitive source to explore after “Answers to Letters.”
This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979) is a collection of poetry by Tranströmer’s friend, translator, and enthusiast Robert Bly. Many of the poems in this volume, like “Answers to Letters,” offer a visionary meditation on the duality of consciousness.
André Breton: Selected Works (2003), edited by Mark Polizzotti, is an excellent introduction to the poetry of the famous surrealist author André Breton, including helpful biographical information and important selections from his prose.
Robert Bly’s American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity (1990) is a passionate work of nonfiction that articulates Bly’s theory of poetry and justifies his long-standing attack on many of the poets popular with the university elite.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1989) provides an important body of work by the famous twentieth-century Austrian writer, whose brilliant poetry ranges from mystical to philosophical to historical.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bankier, Joanna, “Tomas Tranströmer,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 257, Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers after World War II, edited by Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams, Gale, 2002, pp. 277–90.
Bly, Robert, “Tomas Tranströmer and ‘The Memory,’” in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 570–73.
Lenhart, Gary, “Hard Edge Fog,” in the American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, September–October 1987, p. 10.
Tranströmer, Tomas, “Answers to Letters,” in New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 1997, pp. 136–37.
Balakian, Anna, Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute, University of Chicago Press, 1986. Balakian offers a rewarding insight into the movement that, many critics would argue, has significantly influenced Tranströmer’s poetry.
Bly, Robert, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, Beacon, 1975. Bly’s theory of “leaping poetry” is a vital contribution to the critical understanding of Tranströmer and other post–World War II European poets popular in the United States.
Steene, Birgitta, “Vision and Reality in the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer,” in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, 1965, pp. 236–44. Steene offers a general analysis of Tranströmer’s techniques and themes. Although it was written...
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