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Mohammad Shahidul Islam: Scandinavia’s best-known living poet, Tomas Transtromer (Swedish full name: Tomas Gösta Tranströmer), who on October 6th, 2011 won the Nobel Prize for Literature at age 80, explores the relationship between our intimate inner selves and the world around us. A trained psychologist, Transtromer advocates that the poetic examination of nature offers insights into human identity and its spiritual dimension, which often enters metaphysical territory.
On Thursday, a cheer went up in the Swedish Academy as they announced that, for the first time since 1974, one of their fellow countrymen had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Transtromer is a living poetic superstar who, according to Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, writes about “death, history, memory and nature. A lot about nature.”
He is the first poet to win the prize since 1996. The Swedish Academy said it recognised the veteran poet “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”
“A human being’s existence does not end where the fingers end,” one Swedish critic said of Transtromer’s poems, which have been described as “secular prayers”. Transtromer’s reputation in the English-speaking world owes much to his friendship with American poet Robert Bly, who has translated much of the Swedish work into English, one of the 50 languages in which his poems have appeared.
His poems are rich in metaphors and imagery, painting simple pictures from everyday life and nature. His introspective style, described by Publishers Weekly as “mystical, versatile and sad”, is in contrast with Transtromer’s life, which shows a constant, active commitment to working for a better world — and not just by writing poems.
His work has gradually shifted from the traditional and ambitious nature poetry written in his early twenties toward a darker, personal, and more open verse. His work barrels into the void, striving to understand and grapple with the unknowable, searching for transcendence. “I am the place / where creation is working itself out,” he declares in his poem “The Outpost,” about which he wrote “This kind of religious idea recurs here and there in my poems of late, that I see a kind of meaning in being present, in using reality, in experiencing it, in making something of it.”
Born on April 15th, 1931 in Stockholm, Transtromer was raised alone by his mother after his father left them. He graduated in psychology in 1956 and started working in an institution for juvenile offenders in 1960.
In his parallel careers as psychologist and poet, he also worked with the disabled, convicts and drug addicts while, at the same time, producing a large body of poetic work. When he was 23 and still a psychology student, Transtromer’s first collection of poetry, “Seventeen Poems” was published by Bonnier, northern Europe’s most prestigious publishing house. Bonnier has described Transtroemer’s poetry as “a permanent analysis of the enigma of the individual identity faced with the labyrinthine diversity of the world”.
His numerous collections of poetry include Windows and Stones (1972), an International Poetry Forum selection and runner-up for the National Book Award for translation; and The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (2006), Robin Fulton’s translation of Tranströmer’s complete body of work. His longstanding friendship with poet Robert Bly, who has also translated some of his work, is documented in Air Mail (2001), a collection of more than 25 years of their correspondence. Transtromer has also published a memoir, Minnena Ser Mig (Memories Look at Me).
Transtromer’s poetry, building on modernism, expressionism, and surrealism, contains powerful imagery concerned with issues of fragmentation and isolation. “He has perfected a particular kind of epiphany lyric, often in quatrains, in which nature is the active, energising subject, and the self (if the self is present at all) is the object,” notes critic Katie Peterson in the Boston Review. Critic and poet Tom Sleigh observed, in his Interview with a Ghost (2006) that “Transtromer’s poems imagine the spaces that the deep then inhabits, like ground water gushing up into a newly dug well.”
His honours include the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, the Aftonbladets Literary Prize, the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Oevralids Prize, the Petrarch Prize in Germany, the Swedish Award from International Poetry Forum, and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize.
After publishing 10 volumes of poetry, Transtromer suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk. After a break of six years, he came back with “Grief Gondola”, a book that sold 30,000 copies in his native Sweden, a stunning figure by poetry standards. Following this success, Transtromer published nothing for eight years, except for his correspondence with Bly, before returning in 2004 with a collection of 45 haikus, Japanese-style poems invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons.
Since then, music has become more important to the accomplished amateur pianist than his writing, he told Swedish paper of reference Dagens Nyheter in an interview earlier this year through his wife Monica. He plays the piano every day, using his left hand, the right damaged by the stroke, and spends his mornings listening to classical music.
Transtromer had been tipped as a potential Nobel Prize winner for years. Finally 2011 smiles at him. His Nobel Prize proves again the power of poetry, still an everlasting branch of literature.
“The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall. It is like a prayer to what is empty. And what is empty turns its face to us and whispers:
I am not empty, I am open.’…”