Tomas Tranströmer Biography

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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Tomas Tranströmer was born on April 15, 1931, in Stockholm, Sweden. His grandfather and other, more distant ancestors were ship pilots, and his father was a journalist. When Tranströmer was a child, his parents were divorced; from that time onward, he had a very close relationship with his mother, whose death, many years later, affected him greatly. From 1960 to 1965, he served as a psychologist at Roxtuna, a prison for juvenile offenders; since 1967, he has lived in Västerås, where, until 1990, he worked with disabled persons. This position allowed him to devote more time to his wife and two daughters, to playing the piano, and especially to writing.

In his early sixties, Tranströmer published memoirs of his early and adolescent years. Here one learns of his formative and familial school experiences, his interests in entomology and natural history, the war, the extreme anxiety that pervaded his life for a brief period, and the influence that museums and libraries have exercised on him.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tomas Gösta Tranströmer (TRAHNS-trur-mur) is widely regarded as Sweden’s best poet since World War II. He was born to Gösta and Helmy Tranströmer, who divorced when Tomas was only three, leaving him with a strong sense of the absence of a father figure. Tranströmer graduated from the University of Stockholm in 1956, married Monica Blach in 1958, and has raised two daughters. He has maintained a dual career as a psychologist and poet. Tranströmer worked at the Psychological Institute in Stockholm from 1957 to 1959, later worked in a boys’ reformatory in Roxtuna from 1960 to 1965, and subsequently worked as a special consultant and counselor for delinquent boys and people with disabilities in Vaesteraas.

Tranströmer’s career as a poet began when he was only sixteen and was quickly established by his first collection, 17 Dikter, published in 1954 when the poet was only twenty-three. This early work immediately identified Tranströmer as one who loves landscapes and specializes in joining images rarely associated with one another. He and others have called his work surrealistic, introducing the unreal or supernatural in the midst of the seemingly familiar.

Tranströmer’s second work, Hemligheter på vâgen, was inspired by the poet’s travels in the Balkans, Italy, and Turkey and by his experiences with the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya. With his third volume, Den halvfärdiga himlen, Tranströmer further developed the tensions in his poetry between the positive and the malevolent sides of life. Some of his best poems from this volume are those treating music, such as “Allegro,” “C Major,” and “Nocturne.” His fourth volume, Klanger och spår, continues to develop themes involving travel and music but utilizes looser poetic forms, sometimes shifting to a prose form. His next volume, Night Vision, confirmed his reputation among English-language readers as a significant contemporary poet. Since that time his work has come to be translated into thirty different languages, and he has been translated into English more than any other living Swedish poet.

Aside from several collections consisting primarily of previously published works, Tranströmer’s next major work was Baltics, translated skillfully by Samuel Charters, treating the life of his grandfather and other family members on an island off the east coast of Sweden. This lyrical narrative of life on the island demonstrates well the author’s ability to control and interweave images throughout a sequence of poems, making this book one of his finest poetic achievements to date.

His eighth major work, Truth Barriers, translated by Robert Bly, one of Tranströmer’s best translators, demonstrates well the range of his styles and use of images. In this work one finds the familiar references to places and music and art, but convictions are still refreshingly personal and new. For example, “Schubertiana” describes the reality that music creates, which is greater than the bustling business of New York City or any other place. As Bly did in Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets (1975), which includes a fine selection of Tranströmer’s poetry, he included the original Swedish version of the poems for reference.

Identifying the specific qualities of Tranströmer’s poetry that make it viable in Swedish as well as many other languages is not easy. His finely crafted style, his use of surprising images, and his love of nature, family, and art all play a prominent role. The lyrical qualities of his work sometimes remind one of Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Tranströmer’s love of music and his skill in playing the piano are evident in both the content and the style of his poetry. Furthermore, his religious sensibilities, while not entirely predictable or orthodox, are prominent and genuine, giving depth to his work. Finally, his work as a psychologist has caused him to look deeply into the nature of life.

Tranströmer has noted, “My poems are meeting places. Their intent is to make a sudden connection between aspects of reality that conventional languages and outlooks ordinarily keep apart.” He adds (in a letter to Hungarian poets), “What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be connection.” The gaps between his images are well placed and neatly used. Tomas Tranströmer’s career as a poet has been punctuated by important prizes such as the Petrarca Prize in 1981, the Bonniers Poetry Prize in 1983, the Grand Prize of the Nordic Council in 1989, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1990, the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy in 1991, and the Horst Bienik Prize of the Bayerische Akademie des Schönen Kunste in 1992 for his career achievements. His work is steadily gaining maturity and much-deserved recognition.