Critic’s Notebook: Tomas Tranströmer’s spare, elegant genius

I was hoping for Bob Dylan. Briefly, on Wednesday afternoon, the singer was favored to win the Nobel Prize for literature by the British odds-maker Ladbrokes, which has handicapped the Nobels for many years. In second place was the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami; in third, the Syrian poet Adonis.

Not that any of this matters; the Nobel committee is notoriously secretive and has tended, for much of the last decade anyway, to select laureates such as France’s Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio or Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek, who are willfully outside the mainstream.

There was, in other words, no chance of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize, although his mere presence in the conversation tells us something about the way we engage with this most prestigious of literary awards.

As it happens, the 2011 Nobel Prize in literature went to another Ladbrokes’ favorite: Tomas Tranströmer, the 80-year-old poet who became the first Swedish laureate in 40 years.


Tranströmer has been a perennial Nobel contender. He’s the author of more than a dozen slim books of verse (so slim, in fact, that when “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems” was published in 2006, it came in at less than 300 pages). And he is a terrific choice: a poet of conscience who chronicles both the interior and exterior life. “The language marches in step with the executioners,” he writes in “Night Duty.” “Therefore we must get a new language.”

And yet, this need for a new language is not necessarily political — at least not as we commonly think of politics in verse. For Tranströmer, rather, the issue (the great enigma, so to speak) is consciousness: “You are alone on the water,” he concludes in “Track.” “Society’s dark hull drifts further and further away.” It is this place — the place of our separation, our distinction — that much of his poetry occupies.

Here’s another short poem, “Allegro” (for much of his life, Tranströmer has been a piano player, as well as a psychologist, specializing in juvenile prison work), in a translation by Robert Bly:

After a black day, I play Haydn,

and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.

The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists

and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets

and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:

“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;

rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house

but every pane of glass is still whole.

Let’s break this poem down: “After a black day, I play Haydn, / and feel a little warmth in my hands.” It’s all there, isn’t it, the frustrations and the satisfactions, the direct voice of a poet honestly revealing his human condition and, by extension, ours.

This is what poetry, what literature, is supposed to do — to find a way to connect us, even as it acknowledges that such connections are futile, fleeting, that we are “alone on the water” and that there is a world of difference between "[shoving] my hands in my haydnpockets / and [acting] like a man who is calm about it all” and truly being calm.

And yet … “haydnpockets”? “Haydnflag”? How great is that, how smart and playful, how open-hearted and engaged? There’s both joy and resignation in this language, a sense not just of music but of life itself as “a house of glass” that can keep us bounded, if only for a moment anyway.

Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the chatter stirred by Ladbrokes, which spent the last few weeks tracing the odds of the long-shots. Still, despite what this says about the superficiality with which we seem to approach, well, everything, there are haydnflags and haydnpockets here as well.

It’s because of Ladbrokes, after all, that I first came to Tranströmer; until the betting firm began to label him a front-line Nobel candidate, I had never read his work. The same is true of Adonis, and there are others — Korean poet Ko Un, with his beautiful, spare observations, and Algerian novelist Assia Djebar — who have attracted readers by being on Ladbrokes’ list.

Even Dylan draws more people to the conversation, making us reflect not only on who might win but also what a prize such as the Nobel means. What is literature? How do we respond to it? These, more than anything, remain the central questions, and from where I sit, any discussion that asks us to consider them is a worthwhile discussion indeed.

Either way, we have Tranströmer, a great poet for more than 50 years. “I am still the place / where creation does some work on itself,” he notes in “Sentry Duty"— an evocation of existence and its rigors so clear-eyed that it almost hurts to read. The idea here, the driving principle, is that we are always in transition, that this is both the burden and the consolation of time.

Or, as he writes in “The Blue House”: “It’s always so early in here, before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. Thank you for this life! Still I miss the alternatives. The sketches, all of them, want to become real.

“A ship’s engine far away on the water expands the summer-night horizon. Both joy and sorrow swell in the dew’s magnifying glass. Without really knowing, we divine; our life has a sister ship, following quietly another route. While the sun blazes behind the islands.”