The Poet on His Island
A Final Conversation with Tomas Tranströmer
This profile originally appeared in Norwegian, in the weekly paper Morgenbladet. Tomas Tranströmer died on March 26th, 2015.
The island of Runmarö lies an hour east of Stockholm, ringed by skerries that rise out of the water. To journey there one must catch a ferry that gurgles through the chop at about 20 knots per hour.
It’s a rainy August afternoon, the sea green and mysterious—and not hard on a day like this to imagine why seafarers built their homes on Runmarö as opposed to on one of Stockholm’s 27,000 other islands.
When it looms into view, rocky, tipped by spruce and oak, it looks like a staunch man’s version of paradise.
In the late 19th century, Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer’s maternal grandfather was one such man. A ship’s captain, he needed a place to reach landfall and found it here. The small blue clapboard house he constructed on Runmarö still stands, and it is where Tranströmer and his wife of more than 50 years, Monica, spend their summers.
Like a true descendent of sea captains, Tranströmer does not take arrivals by water lightly, even if the stroke that paralyzed him 25 years ago makes this gesture difficult.
I arrive to find him waiting in a wheelchair at the end of a long thin, twin-track gravel path, a blanket round his shoulders, Monica standing behind him.
A radio that dates to the mid 1950s rests in his lap, aerating the forest with Rachmaninoff’s symphony no. 2 in E minor.
As Monica wheels her husband gently toward the house, up a ramp and into the front room, all the symbols of Tranströmer’s poetry whistle around us. The ground around the house is pleated by roots and moss. Wind murmurs in the trees. The air smells of sea salt and resin. No doubt a hawk or buzzard hovers above, peering down on us, observing the scene.
Right away Tranströmer begins pointing things out, in silent gestures: here, this is what I was trying to say.
Over the next two hours, it’s clear this island has given him the notes to create such a magical, and enduringly beautiful score of poetry. And so questions about poetry, about its meaning, always wend their way back to the island, to Tranströmer’s grandfather, the poet’s hand often raising up to point out the objects and paintings around the room, as if they are the poems themselves, not the subject or inspiration of them.
This is how we communicate. The stroke Tranströmer suffered in 1990 paralyzed him on one side, stealing most of his speech. As a result, the room into which Monica ushers us is small and also crowded. Two friends, an American filmmaker and his Swedish wife, sit atop a narrow piano bench.
A photographer, Tranströmer’s publicist, and Monica sit in a semi-circle about him, as if Tranströmer were a concert pianist about to perform, rather than a poet sitting reluctantly, yet kindly for an interview.
In reality, though, they are all here to help interpret Tranströmer’s answers. He can say two words very clearly: ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and then, ‘very good.’ Other words appear sporadically but these three utterances are his verbal rudders. His face says much more, though.
So often photographed with a stern twenty-yard stare, in person Tranströmer is lively, engaged, kind-eyed, even joking.
Over the afternoon I ask questions that Monica translates into Swedish, and then he responds, to which she seeks greater clarification, and on it goes. In between, Tranströmer steers her questions and extrapolations with his face, his few words, gestures, and the tone of his voice. They touch and regard each other constantly throughout this process.
It is hard to tell, watching the two of them, who is the conductor, and who is the symphony.
* * * *
It is perhaps fitting to speak in this manner with a poet who has been publicly intimate for so long. Even before he won the Nobel, Tranströmer had been translated into nearly 60 languages, making him the second most translated poet behind Neruda.
Tranströmer’s admirers included Seamus Heaney and many of America’s major poets of the post-war period. Romanians, Yugoslavians, the Japanese. Growing up in Northern Ireland, poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon says the craze even reached them there in the worst of the troubles: “Our local nickname for him was ‘Transformer,’ a nickname that indicates our deep respect for his achievement.”
This achievement is all the more remarkable given Tranströmer’s relatively modest production. In six decades he has published just eleven collections, none of them containing more than 20 poems.
A volume of his collected poems sits nearby as we prepare to talk, laying there like a logbook of the places he’s traveled with his mind.
I ask if Tranströmer began to see poetry as a kind of orienteering, to which he says “Yes, yes,” followed by Monica’s extrapolation: “a way to try and approach the enigma. I think it is good metaphor for poetry.”
His territory was not vast, but it was deep. For many years he spent far more time working as a psychologist, first at a correctional facility for young men, and later as an occupational psychologist for the Swedish government.
The poems he writes have a deep psychological potency, the work of a man possessed. Many of the same symbols and omens occur: the seasons and their weather systems, dream states and doubles, the arc of his family’s past.
To read Tranströmer’s poetry is to enter a tense, interior space made visual, one full of signs and signals, intimations. His poems may use abstract imagery, but the best of them are as intimate as a kiss in the dark. He achieves this connection through the senses, and a gradual erasure of the self-serving “I.” Morning Birds,” for instance, begins by describing the poet getting into his car, and then shifts to a description of magpies singing loudly, then moves on again to this astonishing segment, which could stand as a kind of guide to much of Tranströmer’s work:
Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It grows, it takes my place.
It pushes me aside.
It throws me out of the nest.
The poem is ready.
Muldoon’s and Heaney’s affinity for Tranströmer are a clue to why a poem like this is so startling, but also radical, even. Tranströmer began writing poetry seriously just after World War II and is now alive at 84 during a perpetual war in the Middle East.
In all that time, the challenge he has put to himself has been to find a new language for intimacy and engagement, just as Heaney and Muldoon did within their own politically charged environment.
“After the war, many Swedish poets began to think about the country’s neutrality,” says the literary scholar and publisher, Daniel Sandström. “It was a source of a shame, and out of that shame there grew this desire to think more broadly and politically.”
In the minds of the generation that followed Tranströmer, one was either a Marxist or a reactionary. Tranströmer was neither. He traveled and was politically engaged, but he was not interested in using art as a cudgel.
There was a further division to face. He was raised in a religious context, but was by no means an evangelist. In a country that was increasingly secular, this presented a problem.
“You were free from all that,” Monica says with regard to religious doctrine, prompting a wry facial joke form the poet as if to say “thank god.”
And so while many of his contemporaries contemplated false polarities, Tranströmer returned to the island where he spent all his summers as a boy, turning the sounds and seasons and moods of this place into his own vaulting mythology.
* * * *
It would take Tranströmer 20 years of publishing to formalize this connection. When he was first starting out, his biggest challenge was to find syntax for his imagination.
Like all poets born between the wars, modernism and surrealism were beacons of the mind. But it was an intimate personal experience that changed him most drastically.
During the summer of his 15th year, he had what he described in his memoir as a kind of existential terror. His legs shook, he was suffused with dread. “At the time I was skeptical of all forms of religion,” Tranströmer wrote in Exorcism, published in 1993, admitting if it had occurred later it probably would have been a revelation.
After the crisis, Tranströmer began to play the piano a lot, an activity he keeps up with even today, performing occasionally on stage. Today he stands by his assessment of what happened in that period, saying it was closer to a psychosis than a religious experiment.
Monica expands: “I think that you said that if you had reached this kind of gentle religious faith or confidence in faith that you did reach some years later, then you would have been able to deal with the crisis in a totally different manner. In a way you simply developed a faith of your own in the course of adolescence, I think you would have put it like that yourself?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” says Tomas. “But…”
“You created an image of God of some sorts, to yourself.”
“… although not with a specific affiliation or related to what was taught in religious studies in school. A feeling of confidence, wherever it came from. It’s not an easy topic to talk about.”
Today Tranströmer says he can’t tell whether it was that experience that made him interested in psychological matters.
“I think a transition from a basic religious consciousness to faith [occurred],” Monica explains. “And it had to do with the music.”
Intriguingly, of all Tranströmer’s poems, the one that deals most directly with faith is also about music, “Schubertiana.” “So much we have to trust,” Tranströmer writes in the poem, “simply to live through our daily day without / sinking through the earth!”
* * * *
By his late teens Tranströmer was leaning away from music toward poetry, writing so hard he had found ways—like any virtuoso—to make the writing more difficult. He began composing in Horatian stanza forms—the Sapphic and Alcaic—turning out part of “Autumnal Archipelago” and “Five Stands to Thoreau,” both of which wound up in his first volume, 17 Poems.
Tranströmer pulls out a volume of his collected verse and begins identifying the stanza form in poem after poem, “there, there, there,” he says. “I suppose the Sapphic verse form gave you perhaps a freedom of sorts,” Monica adds, to which Tranströmer says “very good,” adding: “a form to work within.”
It is not the only restriction Tranströmer put upon himself. The poems in 17 Poems sketch out a kind of ecosystem that Tranströmer would work within on and off for the rest of his life, one that upon arrival at Runmarö is recognizably of this island.
Its greenery and sailors, the coiling waves. The island’s sonic fingerprints are all over the early poems. Here was a poet “groping for attention’s instruments,” to quote an early Tranströmer poem.
The response in Sweden to this 23-year-old phenomenon was instantaneous. As Sandström says, “the critical breakthrough was immediate and long-lasting. The early 1950s was considered a heyday for modern poetry: if you were cool then, you didn’t have a garage band, you put on a poetry reading.”
Tranströmer went on to publish three more books in this heady period, each one deepening his connection to the landscape, all while the economy of images was growing stranger, eerier. As the heyday of poetry waned, Tranströmer moved ever inward in his work, becoming, as Sandström says, “almost his own genre.”
* * * *
Around this period Tranströmer began his correspondence with the American poet, translator and literary editor Robert Bly. A Minnesotan by birth with a larger-than-life personality, Bly had started a literary journal in America that would rename itself every decade.
In 1964, his journal was called The Sixties, and in March of that year, 32-year-old Tranströmer wrote to its editor in Madison, Minnesota asking how he could get a copy. Bly replied right away, remarking how he had just that day driven all the way across the state of Minnesota to read Tranströmer’s The Half-Finished Heaven in Swedish.
Over the next the 25 years the two poets exchanged hundreds of letters, quenching each other’s thirst for international literary gossip. The story of this friendship and its inner workings is revealed in Air Mail, a book dear enough to Tranströmer that when I bring a copy he picks it up and seems unlikely to give it back.
To read the volume is to see why he might want to keep it close. Caught in its pages is a friendship that soars on a literary crosswind, one that changed the course of both men’s lives. Tranströmer and Bly translate each other’s work, gripe about politics. Bly’s poems about the Vietnam War can’t get published. Meanwhile, Tranströmer is criticized by the Marxists for being aloof: “Generally speaking in Sweden,” he tells Bly after summarizing some sniffy reviews, “the young Marxists have very little tolerance for poetry.”
“Tomas wrote an enormous amount of letters, not only to Bly but to many others, and in them he really let go,” Monica says. “These letters are often talkative, funny, and at times, harsh. So I think that although Tomas had all those qualities in him, he never felt the need to express them in his poetry.”
Still, it was during the year of Bly and Tranströmer’s heaviest correspondence, 1970, that Tranströmer experienced his first major breakthrough as a poet. “I am struggling with a very long poem (about the Baltic, from all points of view),” he wrote to Bly in August of that year. “It started when I found my grandfather’s almanacs from the 1880s,” he added the following May, “where he had noted down the ships he was piloting… I found that much of my life had some connection with the Baltics so I started to give a jumbly sketch of many things.”
Tranströmer was being modest. “The Baltics” (1974) is hardly jumbled, it moves like a piece of music, retelling first his grandfather’s, then his grandmother’s story. Waves of images cascade through the stanzas, turning the elemental concerns of sailors into cosmological ones.
Tomas and Monica debate for a bit whether Bly was the one that encouraged him to write prose poems or whether would have explored them after all. “But Bly didn’t like Baltics” Monica adds: “No, he didn’t particularly like it. So you were quite independent of Robert, I would say.”
In “The Baltics” the poet inserts himself into the work in the most direct way yet. He is the orienteer through this family history, the onlooker, the one who sorts out what it means to be from somewhere, and yet to know for sure one will vanish.
Here are figures in a landscape.
A photo from 1865. The steamer is at the pier in the sound.
Five figures. A lady in a bright crinoline like a bell, like a flower.
The men are like extras in a rustic play.
They are beautiful, irresolute, in the process of being rubbed out.
They step ashore for a little while. They’re being rubbed out.
(Baltics, section 3)
Torbjörn Schmidt is a literary scholar who put together the Swedish edition of AirMail. “I would say that Tranströmer’s enigma is a spiritual one,” he writes by email. But he adds: “Tranströmer himself has always refused to be called a mystic. On the other hand, Tranströmer has stressed that his experience of life is enigmatic in a deep sense: there are dimensions of life that cannot be grasped by a purely rational mind.”
Nowhere in Tranströmer’s work does this duality become as personal as it is in “Baltics,” which is a kind of spiritual and sensual genealogy set to music. Nearing the end of the poem’s completion, Tranströmer’s letters to Bly become increasingly lyric. At times he sounds almost like Blake. “I sometimes have the feeling that I have a duty to do for some hidden Consciousness. Why do I have to live through this constant confusion, to see and hear all thee things, what does it mean?”
When asked if this spiritual posture resembles Buddhism, Monica recalls Tomas having been asked that question before, him nodding to her answer: “You said you had never really studied Buddhism. Whereupon this other person responded that, if that was the case, you were an intuitive Buddhist of sorts. But not a professional one.
* * * *
This numinous sense of duty gives Tranströmer’s work a quality of humility. He won’t find the answers, and he needn’t dwell too long on the darkness. “There are so many great things about Tomas,” says the Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold, who has known and translated Tranströmer for four decades, “but one of them is that he knew where to keep the darkness.”
Tranströmer’s ability to ponder the infinite, while keeping the darkness at bay made him a hugely popular poet around the world. Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s, his work began to appear in translation, especially English translations.
During this decade he met Allen Ginsberg in Mexico City, W.S. Merwin in Sweden. It was also during this busy period of travel and early publication that the Syrian poet Adonis first came across Tranströmer’s work. They had both won a prize from the University of Pittsburgh.
Years later, Adonis would help translate Tranströmer’s collected works into Arabic, bringing Tomas and Monica over to Lebanon and Syria for a reading tour there, which Adonis describes some decades later in an email as “a poem of supreme human essence, and an extension of his poetry.”
Adonis has read Tranströmer’s poetry closer than most and also considers him a mystic, just not in the conventional sense. “When I say mysticism in the poetry of Tranströmer,” he wrote in an email from Paris. “I mean a vision that does not separate existence into two categories: ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual,’ but sees that existence is one and indivisible.”
* * * *
It is hard to know whether this approach to living has made Tranströmer any more able to survive life after his stroke. Since then, he has published just two books, the short memoir, Memories Look At Me, most of the pieces of which had been written before his stroke, and a short book of haiku, The Sad Gondola, (1996).
That he started writing even more haikus after he had a stroke, Monica says, was “a technical and practical solution. And one that felt natural, at that.”
Tomas agrees as Monica continues: “I think that these strict forms can give a sense of freedom, actually. Working within their restrictions can function as a sort of game.”
When it comes to the question of what Tranströmer’s notebooks contain, whether there may in fact be one final game to be played, a cloud crosses Monica’s face and the circle around the room closes.
I think you can safely leave out that question, Tomas, Monica says.
A cache of letters exists and “there is a small volume scheduled,” Monica says, “we know that.” Upon which point the interview eddies to a pause and she graciously moves everyone into the small kitchen where plates of chicken and rice, black bread, and glasses of beer await.
An hour later, after the food is consumed, and a side trip to some neighbors complete, we return to the blue house for a final goodbye. Photographs have been taken, the ferry is booked.
I find Tranströmer sitting out in the yard in a lone ray of sunlight with his radio again, Monica sitting with her hand on his knee. Now Swedish radio is playing “Song to the Moon,” from Dvorak’s Rusalka, one of the most beautiful operas ever written.
And just like that the universe drops one of its unexpected clues onto our laps. Tranströmer was a great poet because he found a way to ponder the infinite, and would not look away.
One of the reasons he could do it so beautifully though was, like any performer who sang more beautifully in a duet, he did not—and he does not—do it alone.