Transtromer, Swedish Poet With ‘Tinge of Modernism, Surrealism,’ Wins Nobel

BY Jeffrey Brown and Anne Strother  October 6, 2011 at 6:00 PM EST

Tomas Transtromer

The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, the first poet to win the award since 1996. Judges selected Transtromer because, they wrote, “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”

Transtromer’s work has been translated into more than 50 languages. Internationally renowned for his surreal explorations of the human mind, he studied psychology at Stockholm University and worked in a center for juvenile offenders after he graduated. His first collection of poetry was published while he was still a student. His books of poetry in English include “The Sorrow Gondola,” “The Half-Finished Heaven,” “Baltics,” “Paths,” “The Half-Finished Sky,” and “New Collected Poems” — published this year. He has described his poems as “meeting places.”

Art Beat spoke with Don Share, senior editor of Poetry Magazine, about Transtromer’s work and prize.

[Read a Full Transcript after the jump]

WikiMedia Creative Commons photo courtesy Andrei Romanenko

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded today to Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer. He is 80 years old and author of more than 15 collections of poetry, a number of which have been translated into English. Poetry magazine has published a number of his poems and joining us now from Chicago is Don Share the magazine’s senior editor, and I should say for the record, The Poetry Foundation is our partner and supporter of our poetry coverage. Don, welcome.

DON SHARE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: What should people know about Thomas Transtromer’s poetry?

DON SHARE: Well what I think they should know is that like the best poetry you can find his poems have great mysteries and landscapes and particularities in them, the details that we like to find in poems but also the great truths and visions that we want to be illuminated by when we read a poem so he’s really got the best of everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the subject matter or style that you would point to?

DON SHARE: Well I think in terms of subject matter you can see a lot of the Scandinavian landscape in his poetry. Trees, mountains, water, things like that. But he invests them with things that people I imagine living in a desert would relate to. The sort of collisions of what we see around us and what we hear and what we think and feel with how we are supposed to respond to everything just to get by, to survive, and to live the best we can.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what would be his influences? Put him in some tradition to help people place him.

DON SHARE: Well I think what’s really exciting about his poetry is that he’s been writing since the 1950s and he’s got sort of a tinge of modernism and surrealism but he’s gone well beyond that so that with those movements you expect a kind of difficulty and obscurity but he doesn’t really have things like that because he’s moved so far beyond them. His voice sounds contemporary, but really it’s the kind of thing that everyone can get something out of because he reaches very deep. The American Poet Tom Slay once said that Transtromer’s poems imagined the spaces that the deep inhabits like ground water gushing up into a newly dug well so really he’s a very distinctive voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned Tom Slay and another American that he has had a long literary relationship with is Robert Bly, right?

DON SHARE: That’s right Bly really is probably best known in this country for his translations and of course his own poems. Bly spotted Transtromer’s terrific poems very early on and brought them to an American audience and they have a very long standing relationship. One of the heartening things about Transtromer’s work is that he’s been blessed with so many great translators. Robert Bly of course is one of them but also Robin Fulton, a British poet, and Robin Robertson. So really he’s been brought into English magnificently.

JEFFREY BROWN: I understand he was a psychologist by training. I know late in life he had a stroke that’s left him mostly unable to talk. Do you know much about his life what can you tell us?

DON SHARE: Yes he did. He studied poetry and psychology at the University of Stockholm. And although he has been writing a long time I wouldn’t say that his output is prolific so if you look for his collected poems you are not talking about an enormous book. The poems are very powerful and compact and they pack a visionary punch but over that period of time he’s won quite a few prizes so this of course is the best of them all you might say. His work has been translated into at least 50 languages and even though he had a stroke back in 1990 after a couple of years he was still able to write and publish poems. I understand that he he’s able to play the piano with one hand so he’s still very much a vigorous creative presence in the poetry world.

JEFFREY BROWN: So even though he’s not someone well known to the general public, you are saying that in the poetry world he’s been a major figure for some time.

DON SHARE: I think that’s really true. I think people who read lots of poetry have probably expected that one day he would win the Nobel Prize I think he’s been on many of our own short lists for quite awhile so it’s a happy day for poetry readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: I noticed though that the Nobel committee hasn’t given the prize to a poet in a number of years I believe, right? Has that been an issue in the poetry world?

DON SHARE: Well you know the Nobel Prize, it comes with its own controversy about what kinds of works are rewarded and the countries the writer is coming from you know all that kind of stuff gets wrapped into it. To me, it just adds to the excitement. This year there was a lot of speculation about a poet winning it and so you heard names as various as Adonis, the Syrian poet, and Bob Dylan so this was our year I guess.
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JEFFREY BROWN:** Ok before we go is there a poem of his you could read for us?

DON SHARE: Yes, this is called National Insecurity.

National Insecurity

The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X
and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles.

As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground
so the demon merges with the opened newspaper.

A helmet worn by no one has taken power.
The mother-turtle flees flying under the water.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok the poetry of Thomas Transtromer the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and Don Share is senior editor of Poetry Magazine. Thanks so much.

DON SHARE: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.