March 27, 2015

Tomas Transtromer

Tomas Tranströmer [Sweden]

Born April 15, 1931, Tomas Tranströmer attended secondary school at Stockholm's Södra Latin School, graduating from Stockholm University as a psychologist in 1956.

He began writing poetry at the age of thirteen, publishing his first collection of poems, 17 dikter (Seventeen Poems) in 1954. This work was followed four years later with Hemligheter på vägen (Secrets on the Way), which began a poetic career spanning six decades, and culminating in Őstersjöar (Baltics, 1974) and Sorgengondolen (The Sorrow Gondola of 1996). In 1993 he published an autobiography titled Minnena ser mig (The Memories Are Watching Me).

Influenced by Expressionist and Surrealist poetics, Tranströmer's work has been criticized for not dealing directing with political issues. But his concerns are the mythic and imaginative aspects of human life, influenced, in part, by his role as a psychologist and his work with juveniles in prisons.

In 1990 he suffered a stroke which affected his speech, but did not diminish his writing ability, and he has been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times. As one of Sweden's most notable poets, he has received numerous awards, including the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Oevalids Price, the Petrach Prize (Germany) and the Swedish Award from International Poetry Forum. In 2007 he received the distinguished Canadian award The Griffin Prize.

     Many of his works have been translated into English, most notably, The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton by New Directions in 2006 and The Sorrow Gondola, translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl by Green Integer in 2010 in a bilingual edition.
    Tranströmer died of a major heart attack on April 26, 2015, at the age of 83.
In 2011 the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.


17 dikter (1954); Den halvfaerdiga himlen (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1962); Klanger och spaar (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1966); Moerkerseende (Stockholm: Seelig, 1970); Stigar (with Robert Bly and Janos Pilinszky) (Stockholm: Författarfölaget, 1973); Östersjöar (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1975); Sanningsbarriäen (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1978); Dikter: 1954-1978 (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1979); Det vilda torget (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1983); För levande och döda (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1989); Sorgegondolen (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1996); Den stora gåtan (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2004)


Twenty Poems, trans. by Robert Bly (Seventies Press); Night Vision, trans. by Robert Bly (Lillabulero Press, 1971); Windows and Stones: Selected Poems, trans. by May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972); Elegy: Some October Notes, trans. by Robert Bly (Sceptre Press, 1973); Citoyens, trans. by Robin Fulton (Sceptre Press, 1974); Selected Poetry of Paavo Haavikko and Tomas Tranströmer (with Paavo Haavikko), trans. by Anselm Hollo (Penguin, 1974); Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets (with Harry Martinson and Gunnar Ekelöf), trans. by Robert Bly (Beacon Press, 1975); Baltics, trans. by Samuel Charters (Oyez, 1975); Truth Barriers: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, trans. by Robert Bly (Sierra Books, 1980); How Late the Autumn Night Novel Begins (Sceptre Press, 1980); The Wild Marketplace, trans. by John F. Dean (Dedalus, 1985); Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer: 1954-1986, trans. by Robert Bly (Ecco Press, 1987); Collected Poems, trans. by Robin Fulton (Bloodaxe Books, 1987; Dufour Editions, 1988); Four Swedish Poets: Lennart Sjögren, Eva Ström, Kjell Espmark, Tomas Tranströmer, trans. by Robin Fulton (Fredonia, New York: White Pine Press, 1990); The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, trans. by Robin Fulton (New York: New Directions, 2006); The Sorrow Gondola, trans. by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl [bilingual] (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2010)

Selections from The Sorrow Gondola
A Page from the Nightbook

One night in May I stepped ashore
through a cool moonlight
where the grass and flowers were grey
but smelled green.

I drifted the hillside
in the colorblind night
while white stones
signaled to the moon.

In a period
a few minutes long
and fifty-eight years wide.

And behind me
beyond the lad-shimmering water
lay the other shore
and those who ruled.

People with a future
instead of faces.
—Translated from the Swedish by Michael McGriff

The Sorrow Gondola


Two old men, a father-in-law and a son-in-law—Liszt and Wagner—live
[near Canale Grand
along with the restless woman who married King Midas
the man who turns everything he touches into Wagner.
The green chill of the sea rises through the palace floor.
Wagner is marked, the familiar Mr. Punch profile grown weary
the face a white flag.
The gondola is overloaded with their lives, two round-trips and one-way.


A palace window flies open and those inside grimace at the sudden draft.
The garbage gondola appears on the water, paddled by two one-oared bandits.
Liszt has composed a few chords so heavy they should be rushed
to Padua's mineralogical institute for analysis.
Too heavy to rest, they sink and sink through the future all the way down
to an era of Brownshirts.
The gondola is overloaded with the crouching stones of the future.


Pinholes opening toward 1990.

March 25th. Anxiety over Lithuania.
In the dream I visited a large hospital.
No staff. Everyone was a patient.

In the same dream a newborn girl
spoke entire sentences.


Next to his son-in-law, who's a man of the times, Liszt is moth-eaten, a grandseigneur.
It's a disguise.
The deep, which tries on and discards its various masks, has chosen this mask for him—
the deep that wants to climb into a man without showing its face.


Abbé Liszt is used to hauling his suitcase through the snow and the sun alone
and when his death arrives no one will meet him at the station.
The scent of fine cognac carries him off during the middle of a commission.
He is always commissioned.
Two thousand letters a year!
The schoolboy who copies the same misspelled word a hundred times before
[he's sent home.
The gondola is overloaded with life, it is simple and black.


Back to 1990.

In the dream I drove over a hundred miles for nothing.
Then everything grew and grew. Sparrows the size of hens
sang me into deafness.

In the dream I drew piano keys
on the kitchen table. I played them, without a sound.
The neighbors came in to listen.


The keyboard that's remained silent through the whole of Parsifal
[(but has been listening) finally gets to speak.
Tonight while Liszt plays he holds the sea-pedal down
and a green force rises through the floor and merges with every stone
[in the building.
Good night, beautiful deep!
The gondola is overloaded with life, it is simple and black.


In the dream it was the first day of school and I showed up late.
Everyone in the room wore a white mask.
Impossible to know which was the teacher.

Author's note: During the late 1882 and early 1883, Liszt visited his daughter in Corsica and her husband Richard Wagner. During this time, Liszt composed two piano pieces that he later published under the titles La lugubre gondola I and II. Wagner died shortly after the visit.

Translated from the Swedish by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl

November in the Former DDR

The almighty Cyclops's eye disappeared in clouds
and the grass shook itself in the coal dust.

Black-and-blue from last night's dreams
we board the train
that stops at every station
and lays an egg.

Nearly silent.
the clang of church bells' buckets
fetching water.
and someone's relentless cough
scolding everything and everyone.

A stone idol moves its lips:
it is the city.
rule by iron-hard misunderstandings
among kiosk attendants butchers
metal-workers naval officers
iron-hard misunderstandings, academics.

How my eyes ache!
They've been reading by the half-light of the glowworms' lamps.

November offers candies made of granite.
Like world history
laughing at the wrong place.

But we hear the clang
of the church bell's buckets as they gather water
every Wednesday
—is it Wednesday?—
so much for our Sundays!

Translated from the Swedish by Michael McGriff and Mikaelal Grassl

poems from a forthcoming publication, The Sorrow Gondola (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2009). English language copyright ©2009 by Michael McGriff. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

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