Meet Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer

Today is the 88th birthday of Tomas Tranströmer.

Tranströmer was one of Sweden’s leading poets of his generation and in 2011  he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer was raised by his mother Helmy, a schoolteacher, following her divorce from his father, Gösta Tranströmer, an editor. As a teenager, Tranströmer cultivated artistic interests. Music became essential to him; he began to play the piano, soon he started writing poetry. His first poems were published in student magazines during the late 1940s  and his first collection of poems, 17 Poems, was published in 1954.

With the publication of 17 Poems, Tranströmer was considered the leading Swedish poet of his generation. Tranströmer  graduated in 1956 from Stockholm University, as a psychologist with additional studies in history, religion and literature. From 1960 and 1966, Tranströmer split his time between working as a psychologist at the Roxtuna center for juvenile offenders and writing poetry.

In 1990 Tranströmer suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. He almost entirely lost his ability to speak. Since then, writing has taken him longer, although he has published some poetry collections and a memoir, Minnena ser mig, 1993 (Memories Look at Me, 2011). Tranströmer died in 2015 at the age of 84.

Raul da Gama. a musician based in Canada, had these poetic words to say about Tranströmer in his review of Bright Scythe – Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer Translated by Patty Crane:

Tranströmer is a poet as well as a pianist of grassroots Sweden. His lens describes its world in deeply natural terms. Pink skies, wet grass the elemental darkness and the vivid light of its northern sky. His poetry is redolent of ‘the rhythm of the seasons, and the palpable, atmospheric beauty of nature’. Tomas Tranströmer inherits the wind and like its wispy and visceral energy, he too becomes something elemental, yet not only of all that is Swedish, but all that is human nature as well. He moves, almost secretly into the nooks and crannies of human existence, as formless as the soul, feels it’s (humanity’s) quintessence palpably. His work becomes something magical to experience.

Minnesota Connection

The book Airmail is a collection of letters written between Tranströmer and Minnesota poet Robert Bly. According to the Hennepin County Library website:

One day in spring 1964, the young American poet Robert Bly left his rural farmhouse and drove 150 miles to the University of Minnesota library in Minneapolis to obtain the latest book by the young Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. When Bly returned home that evening with a copy of Tranströmer’s The Half-Finished Heaven, he found a letter waiting for him from its author.

With this remarkable coincidence as its beginning, what followed was a vibrant correspondence between two poets who would become essential contributors to global literature. Airmail collects more than 290 letters, written from 1964 until 1990, when Tranströmer suffered a stroke that has left him partially paralyzed and diminished his capacity to write.

Across their correspondence, the two poets are profoundly engaged with each other and with the larger world: the Vietnam War, European and American elections, and the struggles of affording a life as a writer. Airmail also illuminates the work of translation as Bly began to render Tranströmer’s poetry into English and Tranströmer began to translate Bly’s poetry into Swedish. Their collaboration quickly turned into a friendship that has lasted fifty years.

The Words of Tomas Tranströmer

Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark
a feeling as if crowds moved through the streets
in blindness and angst on the way to a miracle,
while I, invisible, remain standing still

Like the child who falls asleep afraid
listening to his heart’s steps.
Long, long, until morning slips its rays in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.

From his poem Kyrie

We always feel younger than we are. I carry inside myself my earlier faces, as a tree contains its rings. The sum of them is me. The mirror sees only my latest face, while I know all my previous ones.

I am carried in my shadow like a violin in its black case

Tomas Tranströmer  (2011). “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems”, p.249, New Directions Publishing

In the middle of life, death comes to take your measurements. The visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is being sewn on the sly.

Tomas Tranströmer (2014). “The Deleted World: Poems”, p.31, Macmillan

To learn more about Tomas Tranströmer go to these sources for this blog post:

The Poetry Foundation

The Nobel Prize