If he were not Swedish, Tomas Tranströmer would have won the Nobel Prize in Literature by now. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a disproportionate number of Scandinavian writers were awarded the laurel, provoking charges of parochialism. Still, in the years immediately after World War II that trend continued. The decade of the 1960’s—the first in which no Scandinavian writer was chosen—marked a turning point. Only once in the forty years since 1955—in 1974, when two Swedish writers, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were cowinners—has the Nobel in Literature returned to Scandinavia. Clearly, being Swedish is now a liability.
There may be another reason, however, why Tranströmer—despite the enormous admiration of his peers—has not been recognized as one of the indisputably major poets of the postwar era. He has never centered himself in the literary world. Trained as a psychologist, he worked from 1960 to 1966 at a prison for boys, then began working with the occupationally handicapped. There is moreover a reticence and spareness to his work, perfectly embodied in the title of his first book, 17 Dikter (1954; 17 poems), published when he was twenty-three. HisSelected Poems: 1954-1986 is virtually a “complete poems” in English translation (only a handful of poems are missing), yet this book representing his lifework is quite modest in size.
Now readers have For the Living and the Dead. This new collection includes 34 poems (four of which appeared in Selected Poems, though two of those in versions by different translators) and—in the middle of the book—a brief, idiosyncratic memoir of childhood and adolescence, “Memories Look at Me.” Daniel Halperin, who edited the collection, remarks that for each poem included here, he was able to choose from among multiple translations. (One measure of Tranströmer’s impact is the extent to which his work has attracted gifted translators.)
Robert Bly, who was one of the first to bring Tranströmer into English, has observed that the images which appear in a given Tranströmer poem “come from widely separated sources in the psyche. His poems are a sort of railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building.” That is a marvelous insight. Again and again, Tranströmer’s poems record a deeper reality breaking through the surface of awareness.
Consider the first lines of the first poem in For the Living and the Dead, “The Forgotten Captain”:
We have many shadows. I was on the way home
in the September night when Y
climbed out of his grave after forty years
and kept me company.
The bulk of the poem evokes images of North Atlantic convoys during World War II, in which the captain of the title was mortally wounded, dying in a hospital in Cardiff, Wales. In the next-to-last stanza, however, there is a sudden shift:
The photo from the turn of the century shows a beach.
Standing there are six dressed up boys.
They have sailboats in their arms.
What serious expressions!
The boats that became life and death for some of them.
And to write about the dead
is also a game that gets heavy
with what is to come.
In many ways, this poem chosen by Halperin to open the collection sets the tone for the book as a whole. Many of the poems involve transactions with the dead; in many, there is a shifting between realms: from the present to the past, from everyday reality to dream. There are...
(The entire section is 1477 words.)