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By Culturekiosque Staff

STOCKHOLM, 6 OCTOBER 2011 — This year's Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded  to the 80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.  In announcing the $1.5-million-award,  the Swedish Academy praised the poet, saying, "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality". 

Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm on 15 April 1931. His mother Helmy was a schoolteacher and his father Gösta Tranströmer a journalist. After graduating in 1950 from Södra Latin grammar school he studied literature, history and poetics, the history of religion, and psychology at Stockholm University – subjects he took for his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1956. After completed academic studies, he was employed as an assistant at the Institution for Psychometrics at Stockholm University in 1957. In the following year, he married Monica Bladh. Between 1960 and 1966, he worked as a psychologist at Roxtuna, a youth correctional facility near Linköping. In 1980 he took a position at the Labour Market Institute (Arbetsmarknadsinstitutet) in Västerås. In 1990 Tranströmer suffered a stroke that left him largely unable to speak.

After publishing poems in a number of journals, Tranströmer published in 1954 17 dikter (17 poems) – one of the most acclaimed literary debuts of the decade. Already apparent was the interest in nature and music that has informed a major part of his production. With the following collections – Hemligheter på vägen (1958; Secrets along the way), Den halvfärdiga himlen (1962; The Half-Finished Heaven, 2001) and Klanger och spår (1966; see Windows & Stones : Selected Poems, 1972) – he consolidated his standing among critics and other readers as one of the leading poets of his generation.

A suite, Östersjöar (1974; Baltics, 1975), gathers fragments of a family chronicle from Runmarö Island in the Stockholm archipelago, where his maternal grandfather was a pilot and where Tranströmer has spent many summers since boyhood. His reminiscences from growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s are collected in a memoir, Minnena ser mig (1993; see: Memories look at me in New Collected Poems, 1997).

Most of Tranströmer’s poetry collections are characterised by economy, concreteness and poignant metaphors. In his latest collections, Sorgegondolen (1996; The Sorrow Gondola, 1997) and Den stora gåtan (2004; The Great Enigma, 2006), Tranströmer has shifted towards an even smaller format and a higher degree of concentration.

Tranströmer was introduced in the United States by author Robert Bly as early as the 1960s. Since then, international interest in his poetry has grown and he has now been translated into more than sixty languages. Tranströmer has periodically published his own translations of poetry in other languages. A collection, entitled Tolkningar (Interpretations), was published in 1999.

Five Poems by Tomas Tranströmer 


I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn't pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag - it signifies:
"We don't give in. But want peace.'

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole. 


The Half-Finished Heaven

Despondency breaks off its course.
Anguish breaks off its course.
The vulture breaks off its flight.

The eager light streams out,
even the ghosts take a draught.

And our paintings see daylight,
our red beasts of the ice-age studios.

Everything begins to look around.
We walk in the sun in hundreds.

Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

The endless ground under us.

The water is shinig among the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.


Under Pressure

The blue sky's engine-drone is deafening.
We're living here on a shuddering work-site
where the ocean depths can suddenly open up -
shells and telephones hiss.

You can see beauty only from the side, hastily,
The dense grain on the field, many colours in a yellow stream.
The restless shadows in my head are drawn there.
They want to creep into the grain and turn to gold.

Darkness falls. At midnight I go to bed.
The smaller boat puts out from the larger boat.
You are alone on the water.
Societty's dark hull drifts further and further away.


Open and Closed Spaces

A man feels the world with his work like a glove.
He rests for a while at midday having laid aside the gloves on the shelf.
There they suddenly grow, spread
and black-out the whole house from inside.

The blacked-out house is away out among the winds of spring.
'Amnesty,' runs the whisper in the grass: 'amnesty.'
A boy sprints with an invisible line slanting up in the sky
where his wild dream of the future flies lika a kite bigger than the

Further north you can see from a summit the blue endless carpet of
             pine forest
where the cloud shadows
are standing still.
No, are flying.


The Nightingale in Badelunda

In the green midnight at the nightingale's northern limit. Heavy leaves hang in trance, the deaf cars race towards the neon-line. The nightingale's voice rises without wavering to the side, it is as penetrating as a cock-crow, but beautiful and free of vanity. I was in prison and it visited me. I was sick and it visited me. I didn't notice it then, but I do now. Time streams down from the sun and the moon and into all the tick-tock-thankful clocks. But right here there is no time. Only the nightingale's voice, the raw resonant notes that whet the night sky's gleaming scythe.


From Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton (Bloodaxe Books, 1997/2011)

Poem selected by Lars Rydquist, head librarian, Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy

Headline image: Tomas Tranströmer
Photo © Ulla Montan
Courtesy: Albert Bonniers Förlag

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