‘The Seen and Unseen In One Mix’: The Nobel Prize Winning Poetry of Tomas Transtromer

September 17, 2012

By Mike Heald

Although the American response to Tomas Transtromer winning the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, was, in certain quarters, a ‘who?’ and a ‘huh?’, as the Washington Post observed, the Literature Department here at Trinity’s Foundation Studies Program has long known of Transtromer’s quality, with several of his poems always present in our Poetry Anthology. ‘After Someone’s Death’ and ‘Espresso’ have been regular inclusions, for example. The latter is a natural choice for coffee-addicted Melbourne:

The black coffee they serve out of doors

among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations

filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

This extract displays that characteristic swoop of Transtromer from the mundane to the metaphysical. In ‘After Someone’s Death’, one of his major preoccupations – the way that we manifest as distinct selves, and yet have an acute knowledge of how we perform ourselves, and of how we will soon disperse back into the elements from which we emerged, is in evidence:

It is still beautiful to feel your heart throbbing.

But often the shadow feels more real than the body.

The samurai looks insignificant

beside his armour of black dragon-scales.

In a recent lecture by Stathis Gourgouris about the philosopher and polymath Cornelius Castoriadis, I was very much reminded of the central image of this poem, in which the Samurai’s costume has a more solid existence than the energy ephemerally inhabiting it. Gourgouris asserted that the universe, once it is desacralized in the way that Castoriadis’s thought enables, becomes ‘theatrical at its core’. And Costoriadis’s ideas seem acutely relevant to Transtromer’s work as a whole. He argued, for example, that religions stabilize a society’s sense of its meaningful existence by a double move of imagining a divine order, or God, and then occluding the human act of imaginative invention by attributing agency to the God so imagined. In this way, unassimilable otherness, which may otherwise threaten all social significance, is contained and masked. This seems a highly informative idea in relation to Transtromer’s poems, which appear to expose precisely this imagined nature of significance, and in so doing disturb us with a sense of the other, the abysmal – the ultimate groundlessness of human meaning. The poem ‘Winter’s Gaze’ may serve as an example of what I mean, the second stanza manifesting the moment when otherness intrudes:

I lean like a ladder and with my face

reach into the second floor of the cherry tree.

I’m inside the bell of colours, it chimes with sunlight.

I polish off the swarthy red berries faster than four magpies.

A sudden chill, from a great distance, meets me.

The moment blackens

and remains like an axe-cut in a tree-trunk.

Transtromer had been nominated for the Nobel Prize each and every year since 1995. Swedes had apparently begun to feel that Transtromer would never be chosen, because of the committee’s perceived wish to avoid charges of nationalism. When his name was finally announced, a cheer went up reminiscent of that which erupted as Sydney won hosting rights for the Olympic Games. The poet himself is now 81 years old. He suffered a stroke in 1990, as a result of which he can now only play his beloved piano with one hand, and can seldom speak. His wife generally speaks for him. One can’t help but think she understated the situation somewhat on his behalf, when she said that their celebration at winning the prize would be to have fish for dinner, surely not too remarkable an event in Swedish households.

Despite reports of American parochialism, it should be remembered that Robert Bly was one of the foremost  translators who delivered Transtromer’s poetry to English speaking audiences. Some of Bly’s own work outside of poetry has been roundly disparaged, notably his book about masculinity Iron John, upon which Martin Amis inflicted his characteristic caustic wit. To Transtromer’s work, however, Bly brought that penetrating and haunting sense of otherness for which his own poetry is justly famous, and also his panache for a disarming directness, an audacity of register-switching. The fit between the two poets is not difficult to see. Bly himself was pigeon-holed as a ‘Deep Image’ poet. In so far as this was defined as the creation of a private symbolism, Bly rejected this label, and he maintained his commitment to an accessibility of image in his renderings of Transtromer’s work.

The question of whether his poetry is religious has been answered by Transtromer as follows: ‘I look on existence as a great mystery and that at times, at certain moments, this mystery carries a strong charge, so that it does have a religious character, and it is often in such a context that I write.’  And with reference to the poem ‘In the Nile Delta’ in particular, a poem which deals with his reaction to visiting a place of great poverty, he writes:

My immediate reaction to this experience was of a religious nature and a trace of this can be seen in for instance the third to last line, in the words alluding to the Gospel account of the sick people around the pool in Bethesda – it was when the water stirred that the pool had its miracle-working power. [John 5.2] Many who are inimicable to religion kick blindly at things like this and think religion is a form of escapism…But I hope that the youngest generation of Christians…can show that their religious inspiration, on the contrary, gives them a chance of facing the problems directly and wanting to do something about them.

I was greatly interested in this poem after traveling recently to Vietnam. It seems to register the same kind of body-blow, or spirit-blow, that I experienced when confronted with the poverty and suffering there; as if one’s being is abruptly rendered distraught, scrabbling for answers. Here is the poem (the ‘young wife’ is based on Transtromer’s, not an Egyptian)

In the Nile Delta

The young wife wept over her food

in the hotel after a day in the city

where she saw the sick creep and huddle

and children bound to die of want.

She and her husband went to their room.

Sprinkled water to settle the dirt.

Lay on their separate beds with few words.

She fell in a deep sleep. He lay awake.

Out in the darkness a great noise ran past.

Murmers, tramping, cries, carts, songs.

All in want. Never came to a stop.

And he sank in sleep curled in a No.

A dream came. He was on a voyage.

In the grey water a movement swirled

And a voice said: ‘There is one who is good.

There is one who can see all without hating.


Transtromer is known as a poet who has a very attractive ‘surface’, if you like, of visual imagery. This becomes somewhat paradoxical when you consider that he is also noted for conveying a sense of what might be called the ‘unmanifest’, or the world beyond that which is apparent to us. Why doesn’t the visual, the ‘concrete’, act as a barrier to what may lie beyond the senses: how can it be a conduit? How can it be that we receive, to borrow a phrase from the Syrian poet Adonis’s introduction to Iraqi Kassem Hamady’s Arabic translations of Transtromer, ‘the seen and unseen in one mix’?

There are many possible answers to this puzzle, both on the ontological and the technical level. With regard to the former, we may say that the material world actually is numinous, and the poet is merely rendering that for us. Focusing the latter, we may exclaim ‘merely?!’ Transtromer must have developed a rare talent to capture in language both visual accuracy and spiritual resonance simultaneously. One enigmatic approach to this question is provided by Transtromer’s own lines from ‘Preludes’:

‘Two truths draw nearer each other. One comes from inside, one comes

from outside,

and when they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.’

There is no doubt that Transtromer is an exceptional imagist, but personally I don’t regard his haiku as highly as the longer poems, because the presence of idiom and changes of register possible in the extended syntax of the latter are a vital part of his impact. Such poems seem spontaneous and conversational, then startle us with profundity, whereas the haiku form, at least as it often appears in English, can be something of a one-trick pony,  whose attempt at significance can often seem more premeditated, and even precious.

One criticism of Transtromer’s Nobel triumph which is surely the most lacking in merit is that his body of work is relatively small. I recently read that the marvelous English poet James Fenton had occasion to fend off a similar charge, which he did by warning against poets churning out poetry too voluminously. As a macchiato might say: yes. There are many, many hours of contemplation contained in, or released by, a single Transtromer poem, and I commend his work to all those who value the unique contribution poetry can make to our awareness.

All translations of Transtromer’s work reproduced here are by Robin Fulton.

2 Responses to “‘The Seen and Unseen In One Mix’: The Nobel Prize Winning Poetry of Tomas Transtromer”

  1. Robin Fulton said

    Whose translations? They look like mine. Tomas is 81, not 85.
    And being “nominated” for a Nobel Prize doesn´t mean much, for the system doesn´t work that way; no-one outside the Swedish Academy knows whose name is near the top of the pool!

  2. jemitche said

    Hi Robin, We will amend the error you observe as soon as possible. Below is a response to your comment from our author, Mike Heald. Ed.

    Thanks Robin. Yes, I did use my beloved edition of Transtromer containing your translations. Steep Stairs tries to avoid footnotes, but I acknowledge that in the context of debate concerning variant translations, that fact could have been stated. The age mistake must have been a typo. Hope you enjoyed the interpretive side of the article.

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