Tomas Tranströmer’s reputation rests primarily on his poetry. Minnena, ser mig (1993; Memories Look at Me: A Memoir, in For the Living and the Dead, 1995), prepared for Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series, offers the poet’s own insights into his work. In 2001, a volume of correspondence between Tranströmer and Robert Bly was published as Air Mail: Brev, 1964-1990.
In part because he is essentially a poet of images—an aspect of poetry which can be conveyed virtually without loss from one language to another—Tomas Tranströmer is the most widely translated contemporary Scandinavian poet, and his work has been highly influential abroad as well as in his native Sweden. He has been honored with the Bellman Prize (1966), the International Poetry Forum’s Swedish Award (1971), the Petrarch Prize (1981), and a lifetime subsidy from the Swedish government. In 1982, Tranströmer became a member of the Swedish Bible Commission to work on a translation of the Psalms. In 1983, he received the Bonnier Prize for Poetry; in 1988, the Pilot Prize; in 1990, the Nordic Council Prize as well as the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, seen as often a precursor to the Nobel Prize; in 1992, the Horst Bienek Prize; and in 1998, the Ján Smrek Prize.
A typical poem by Tranströmer is short, lyric, telegraphic, strongly imagistic, and autobiographical; his recurring themes include philosophical problems, music, dreams, awakenings, obstacles, frontiers, and especially nature. Yet, if his is a poetry informed by nature—by black-backed gulls and ants, forests and mountains, water and storms—the poet transcends his natural imagery in a flight of continual self-discovery. This is where he differs so radically from many of his Scandinavian predecessors: Tranströmer’s descriptive imagery is often merely the key through which the speaker achieves understanding of his specific situation. In the poem “Agitated Meditation,” Tranströmer depicts a storm’s effects and a “grey shark’s belly,” which logically leads to the ocean floor; this is followed by an algae-encrusted crutch, but the poem concludes with metaphysical precision: “He who/ wanders to the sea returns petrified.”
Tranströmer frequently achieves such shifts in perspective by a method that might be termed “transitionalism.” “Det öppna fönstret” (“The Open Window”) begins with a matter-of-fact, first-person narrative: “I shaved one morning standing/ by the open window/ on the second story.” This mundane, prosaic tone is sustained for several lines; the crucial transition occurs when the narrator’s electric razor, which has begun to hum with a “heavier and heavier whirr,” suddenly becomes a helicopter on which the narrator is a passenger. “Keep your eyes open!” the pilot shouts to him; “You’re seeing this for the last time!” The speaker looks down on the things of the Earth, houses and beetles and all, asking: “The small things I love, what do they amount to?” As he looks, he feels an increasing sense of urgency, and the poem concludes with the manifest need to see everything:
I didn’t know which way
to turn my head—
my sight was divided
like a horse’s.
“An Artist in the North”
This is Tranströmer’s favored method: a description of a physical situation metamorphosed into aphoristic reflections on spiritual or psychological states—a method exemplified in one of his finest poems, “En konstnär i norr” (“An Artist in the North”). The poem is a monologue spoken by the composer Edvard Grieg while on retreat in a small mountain hut. In the first three stanzas, Grieg recalls his past activities, including his triumphs as a conductor; now his only companions are a piano, the mountains, and a “peculiar light [that] leaks in directly from the trolls.” In this setting, Grieg admonishes himself to
Even more compact are a series of haikudikter (haikus) in four sections. Many poets have moved away from verbosity toward silence. Succinct, sparse, denuded poetic articulations reflect the mimalist aesthetic that view with the prolixity so typical of twentieth century fiction. Thus, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, or Bob Arnold prefer to leave the interpretive work to the reader’s imagination.
A precise development can be traced through many of Tranströmer’s books. His 17 Dikter consists primarily of brief lyrical pieces that depict local natural manifestations. Multiple and complex images, metaphors, and similes provide a strong poetic center. In his second and third volumes, Hemligheter på vägen (secrets on the road) and The Half-Finished Heaven, Tranströmer continues his lyric homage to nature but expands to an international perspective; here, one finds some narrative verse as well as pieces on music, dreams, and other themes. Telegraphic and imagistic, these are simple poems with complex messages. It is in Klanger och spår (resonance and tracks) and Night Vision...
Tranströmer is interested in translation—of both his own work and that of a host of international poets. He views the original creation of a poem as a translation form what could be called the ur-poem written in an ur-language. “Thus even the original version is a translation,” according to Tranströmer. His work has been translated into more than forty languages, including German, Dutch, Spanish, and Hungarian.
In Tranströmer’s work, one finds a diversity of interests, forms, and methods. His poetry is often insightful, striking in its richness of image and metaphor, but it can also be plodding, prosaic, and uninteresting. In an age of excruciating prolixity, Tranströmer is distinguished by the concision of his verse, reminiscent of Salvatore Quasimodo’s late lyrics. Only infrequently does this succinct quality result in obscurity, for Tranströmer’s verse, though at times oblique, is never deliberately arcane. One of the finest poets of his generation, Tranströmer has continued to grow, his later work confirming the earlier assessments. Robert Bly observes that his “poetry of silence and depths” has influenced many American...
Bankier, Joanna. “Breaking the Spell: Subversion in the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer.” World Literature Today 64, no. 4 (Autumn, 1990): 591. A discussion of several of Tranströmer’s poems that describe how socialization imposes a role and turns life into a set of ritualized performances that minimize stylized movement.
Bly, Robert. “Tomas Tranströmer and ‘The Memory.’” World Literature Today 64, no. 4 (Autumn, 1990): 570-573. A useful biocritical overview.
Fulton, Robin. Introduction to New Collected Poems, by Tomas Tranströmer. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Bloodaxe Books, 1997. An excellent brief biographical and analytical overview.