Albert Bonniers förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789100125158
Reviewed by Robin Fulton Macpherson in SBR 2011:2
Tomas Tranströmer is 80 this year. Robin Fulton Macpherson writes about new works by and about the poet, and about translating his poetry. What is ‘fame’ for a poet? Is it being asked to take part in activities which may have little to do with the writing of poems, like international reading tours or obliging beady-eyed postgraduates and biographers? The process often starts when the poet is young and discoverable and, once started, generates its own momentum: prizes lead to more prizes, translations proliferate. Rumour has it that Tranströmer was ‘famous’ even before his first slender book appeared. In 17 dikter (17 Poems, 1954), several of the poems gave a foretaste of the graphic imagery and short, classical forms revisited in later collections. But a little over half the book was taken up by three long poems (‘Sång’, ‘Elegi’ and ‘Epilog’), whose strenuous ambitions were promptly abandoned. They were a struggle to translate and are a struggle to read. How did his readers in 1954 respond to them? Did these three poems enhance or diminish the young poet´s popularity? Almost six decades later, among other events to mark Tranströmer’s eightieth birthday, Bonniers have brought out a couple of pleasantly designed hardbacks: Poems and Prose (1954-2004), i.e. all his poems and a collection of short autobiographical sketches, and also a ‘portrait of the poet’ by Staffan Bergsten. The poems are presented mercifully freed from the squashed format that often mars such volumes: starting a new page each time a new poem starts gives plenty of space around the texts. The collected poetry occupies very little space on the shelf, far short of the massive tomes by Ted Hughes (nearly 1,400 pages) or Robert Lowell (1,200 pages, and that wasn´t all). Yet, as we can gather from Lennart Karlström’s bibliographical labours, so far covering the period to 1999, the many reviews, articles and books about Tranströmer must amount to thousands of pages filling two substantial volumes, published in 1990 and 2001. This voluminous response is a token of the enthusiasm generated by the poems, but I sometimes wonder, at the risk of causing scholarly eyebrows to be raised, if so much really needs to be said. Many poets lead lives unremarkable to the outside world. Their poems begin invisibly inside their heads, making the very idea of writing a poet’s biography questionable. Bergsten is well aware of this and devotes his preliminary remarks to juggling with the issue. He attributes the popularity of Tranströmer’s poems to their combination of ‘the simply natural’ and ‘something secretive’ and promises ‘to track down those secrets.’ That reminds me of Robert Frost´s couplet: ‘We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.’ Bergsten’s other purposes are to ‘come to grips with the author as a person’ and to ‘follow the paths that led from life to poetry.’ He wisely avoids trying to extract autobiographical revelations from the poems and since personal Tranströmer papers are sealed in Stockholm’s Royal Library and not yet accessible, he describes his book as a ‘portrait’ rather than an exhaustive biography. He doesn´t rule out the possibility of ‘the full truth’ but even if that were possible, would it lead to ‘the poetry’? The press response to each Tranströmer collection has been benevolently hazy, the exception being complaints in the 60s, obscure in their own way, that Tranströmer’s poetry failed to be politically ‘engaged’ (Bergsten usefully explains the circumstances). Usually, the poet would point out that his poems exist as part of a larger picture, one which includes, but not blatantly so, awareness of shifting political and social issues. In ‘Vermeer’ (the 1989 collection), a poem which Tranströmer has indicated is partly a picture of his own existence as a writer, he says that we find ‘the second that’s allowed to live for centuries’ inside his studio, yet this is ‘No protected world – Just behind the wall the noise begins.’ Ears sing, from depth or height. It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall. It makes each fact float and steadies the brush. For poets writing in a minority language, translation is the unavoidable but shaky bridge out into the wider world. Although often seen as a disadvantage it can be an advantage when cultural policy in a small country promotes writers. Would Tranströmer’s work have been promoted if he had grown up in Scotland or Wales? Translations of his poems have proliferated remarkably (over 50 languages), with more than twenty complete or very substantial selections. Poetry translation is a treacherous labyrinth whose maps keep changing, which ought to discourage us from making dogmatic claims. I would never, for instance, propose that Tranströmer’s poems translate ‘readily’, because they don’t. Yet the spread of his work has perhaps been facilitated by the way in which he uses Swedish. The language of his poetry is concise, attractively so, but, as Lasse Söderberg has suggested, not very adventurous or demanding. I would add that his poetry is less inventive than Harry Martinson’s, its intellectual range narrower than Kjell Espmark’s and that his exploration of the natural world is less disturbing and original than Lennart Sjögren’s. These are not necessarily limitations as such, but may contribute to a deceptive impression that a Tranströmer poem can be persuaded to slide over into another language simply by transferring the imagery. The unwary reader might be tempted to think so after comparing versions in different languages of a brief poem like ‘Midwinter’ (1996 collection). Tranströmer himself has suggested that poems might exist independently of languages and be able to surface in any one. Yet we all know of poets whose work is so at one with their native language that the bravest attempt at translation reduces them to pale, untrustworthy reflections of the originals. All the activity around Tranströmer´s poems would amount to little if it weren´t for the simple fact that his best work, to borrow a notion from Borges, allows ‘true’ poetry to happen when text and reader meet. At a first reading one is ambushed by surprise, a shock of recognition, not easily defined but unmistakable when it occurs. Something like this must have captivated readers and carried these poems across all these linguistic barriers. This brings us to the secret in the middle... or to something more like a butterfly taking off to escape the eager lepidopterist, not to be pinned down like the specimens on the book end-covers from young Tranströmer’s own insect collection. Bergsten deserves credit for his large-scale enterprise: just about ‘everything’ is here but, overall, his book, presented with the care of a surveyor describing a property, inspires some insistent questions. Who is it aimed at? Presumably, ignorant readers, considering the constant over-explanation of matters which ought not to be new to the reasonably well-read. Patient ones, too, for the style is very discursive, and some may wonder if, edited down to half its size, the book would have packed more punch. It spells out, assiduously, the circumstances out of which the poems grew. To the detective mind-set, this has its attractions, but at least to mine ‘the paths from life to poetry’ end short of the poetry. For a brief example of butterfly- nailing, we can look at the concluding lines of ‘In the Nile Delta’ (1962 collection): and a voice said: ‘There is one who is good. There is one who can see all without hating.’ In their context, these lines are open-ended and enigmatic – typically so. Bergsten tells us: ‘The voice in the poem can be interpreted as belonging to Christ and the one ... good is of course God Himself.’ But isn´t that exactly what the poem studiously avoids saying? Bergsten is rather dismissive of Tranströmer´s own suggestions that to read the work, we need not know about the authors and that Shakespeare is none the worse for our relative ignorance. Of course we need scholars to tell us about the world in which Shakespeare lived, but we don´t need to know the names of whatever teachers he had or how and when he met Mrs S. The arguments are complex, but on balance I would side with the poet rather than the scholar.