Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize-winning collection, Selected Poems, discusses big concepts– God, heaven, existence– but does it through small, specific objects and simple words. With vivid imagery and scientific precision , Tranströmer brings the infinitude of uncertainty back to the familiar and natural.
After reading Selected Poems, I felt like I had experienced enough of Tranströmer’s beautiful poetry that I could, in some way, imitate it.
It’s harder than it looks.
What seem like effortless, concrete sentences with conventional punctuation suddenly become impossibly convoluted puzzles. The more you dissect Tranströmer, the more complicated he becomes– and the more brilliant.
In his poem, “The Four Temperaments,” which explores perpetuity and mortality, closes with the exclamation: “All the rolling wheels that contradict Death!” This is a good way to describe this collection– always moving, always questioning, always finding astonishing beauty in the ordinary.
Here are some things I learned from Tranströmer’s collection:
1. We should think about the way we think. Tranströmer, a psychologist by profession, focuses on the human mind in many of his poems, specifically consciousness. How do we wake up? What does it mean to lose feeling? How do perceptions shape our world? By discussing what we see and what we don’t, Tranströmer creates an eyes-wide-open world where some answers still escape our reach. One example from “Memories Watch Me:”
I must go out to the greenery that’s crammed
with memories that follow me with their eyes.
They are not visible, wholly dissolve
into background, perfect chameleons.
Here we see the physicality and indisputable tangibility of thoughts– and also, their ephemerality. This paradox reappears throughout the collection.
2. Consciousness is shaped by space. Most of these poems discuss physical space and physical divides, and in a larger sense, how they relate to human consciousness. People often talk about how environment shapes a person, but what they don’t talk about as much is how exterior conflict can be mirrored on the interior. Tranströmer even stretches this concept to a different level with his poem“Vermeer”:
And the emptiness turns its face to us
“I am not empty, I am open.”
This line complicates the limitations of consciousness even more by assigning thoughts to the void. Throughout the book, Tranströmer’s playfulness with the said and unsaid suggests that things aren’t always what they seem– that we are always surrounded by limitations. Those limitations of physical space define us, and we define ourselves through them.
3. Our understanding of ideas is limited by language. Tranströmer’s love of language is plain by the way he uses words. It’s clear that he also feels that some things simply can’t be explained with language, and that because language is what we have, there are severe limitations. Take this line from “Epilogue” for example:
God’s soul is like the Nile: it overflows
and dries up, with a rhythm reckoned variously
in all the texts throughout the ages.
This limitation of language, of course, becomes even more complicated in the Robert Hass translation, which struggles with the unique limitations of the English language, as well as the Swedish language.
4. Our understanding of ideas expands with language. Language is necessary, and everything is verbal, and we simply can’t give it up. Translation complicates things even further. There are millions of alternatives to get as close as possible to what you’re trying to convey. But you still come up short. This is explained beautifully in the closing of “The Blue House”:
We don’t really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route.
Language is expansive. Action is expansive. But ultimately, you make decisions about how you’re going to say something and how you’re going to do something, and all those possibilities are suspended. That’s a kind of tragedy that everyone has to live with.
“Nobel prize for literature goes to Tomas Tranströmer,” The Guardian:
To win the Nobel prize, a writer has to have a readership in many parts of the world, and Tranströmer has been translated into 50 languages. One of the reasons he has been taken up by so many poets, translators and readers is that his poetry is universal and particular, metaphysical and personal.
“Versions: Tomas Tranströmer’s Poems and the Art of Translation,” The New York Times:
This is exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory. The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.
The problem is, simple can be complicated.