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Tomas Transtromer–2011 Nobel Prize

I can’t help myself. Every time I look at the name of this year’s Nobel recipient, I find myself wanting to change a couple of letters and sing, “Transtromer: more than meets the eye!” (And if you didn’t watch enough kids TV in the 1990s to have heard that Transformer’s theme, then you can check out a very low-res version here.) The Swedish poet simply must have more than meets the eye to him or the Nobel people have completely lost their minds.

Most of Tomas Transtromer’s poetry is quite short, weighing in at twenty lines or less. The imagery is often natural, but not the sort of sentimentalized nature that turns me off from the Romantics. Instead, this poet presents crisp, stark images drawn from the real world. Consider this brief offering from his most recent collection:

April and Silence

Spring lies deserted.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side without reflections.
All that shines
are yellow flowers.
I’m carried in my shadow
like a violin in its black case.
The only thing I want to say
gleams out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnshop.

I can imagine presenting that to a literature class and saying, “What’s that all about?” In the first lines, he uses several simple but surprising images to create a setting. Upon considering these lines, I can see myself traveling down a road in spring. But then “I’m carried.” That much is odd enough, but to be carried in one’s shadow seems even more peculiar. And how does a shadow relate to a violin in its black case? Does the shadow protect like the violin case? Does the poet produce music like a violin? And of course, if the violin is in the case, then it won’t be making any music.

That idea of silence is then suggested more clearly in the closing lines. “The only thing I want to say.” What is the only thing that the poet wants to say? We never discover this unattainable yet longed-for statement. And isn’t there something paradoxical about claiming that language is out of reach, “like the silver in a pawnshop,” while at the same time speaking through the poem?

My New Critical college professors would not approve of me doing this, but I would point out a biographical fact. Transtromer, at eighty years of age, has suffered a stroke that rendered him almost unable to speak. Has this medical problem placed his “violin” in its shadowy case? I’m not altogether sure.

Not surprisingly, given the politics and social bias that dominate Europe, this Nobel recipient is, like most of those who have received the award in recent years, not a particularly spiritual and certainly not a religious writer. Such an orientation would be, in the European mind, gauche. Still, I applaud the choice of a poet who does not make grand and transitory political statements, cloaking in a thin veneer of supposed art. Transtromer, similarly, does not wallow in absolute obscurity as have some celebrated writers. Instead, he presents life in its mystery. His words are utterly intelligible–at least in the English translations that I’ve read. The images will resonate with nearly any reader. Yet the combinations and tensions betweens words, sentences, and images leave us with a sense of the mystery of life far more than the cleverness of the artist.

As I read various of this poet’s lyrics, I’m convinced that there’s more than meets the eye to him.

Posted in Commentary, Modernism.

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