Thursday, 21 May 2015

THINKING BELOW STREET LEVEL

"Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams."

At least it felt like that when my alarm went off at 6am so that I could catch the early train to Edinburgh on Saturday.  

The quotation is from the opening line of Tomas Transtromer's "Prelude" (translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton).  I was in Edinburgh to attend a discussion on Transtromer's poetry at the Saltire Society.  

I find Edinburgh's urban geography fascinating.  The Saltire Society building is reached via Fountain Close (one of those narrow pedestrian closes off the Royal Mile) and down steps into a courtyard which on Saturday morning was a well of sunlight.  The courtyard buildings are below street level, or, more correctly, the street level has risen above them over the centuries.

There were a dozen of us at the discussion, organised by the Scottish Poetry Library in the Nothing but the Poem series.  It was facilitated by Kate Hendry, though it was such a lively group that it didn't need a lot of facilitating!

I had only encountered Transtromer's work once before - in an analysis of his "Schubertiana" by Gerry McGrath (PN Review 220 Nov/Dec 2014).  Some people were totally new to his work, others quite familiar with it.  Two participants were Swedish which helped a great deal.

Tomas Transtromer was born in 1931 and won the Nobel Prize for literature.  I get the impression that he is as well-known in Sweden as Seamus Heaney in Ireland.  As well as writing poetry he was a professional psychologist and a keen pianist.  in 1990 he suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis down one side.  Afterwards various Swedish composers wrote music for him to play one-handed.  He died earlier this year.

I particularly enjoyed the musical references in Transtromer's "Allegro", for example, which begins
     "After a black day, I play Haydn,
      and feel a little warmth in my hands".  
I liked the humour of "I shove my hands in my haydnpockets"  and "I raise my haydnflag".  In this poem music becomes a refuge: "The music is a house of glass standing on a slope."

We noticed recurring images and themes in the poems - light and darkness (the two extremes of the Swedish latitude, someone remarked), dragons, birds, trees, sleep, dreams, cars and traffic.  In all the poems there was an element of surprise as if Transtromer was seeing the world anew.  

Everyone round the table brought fresh insights and comparisons.  But we felt we had only dipped our toes in Transtromer's work.  I would definitely like to read more.  A big thank to the Scottish Poetry Library for an exhilirating poetry discussion.

Transtromer's work has been translated into English:
New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe 1997) translated by Robin Fulton
The Winged Energy of Delight: selected translations (Harper Collins 2004) translated by Robert Bly
The Blue House (Thunder City Press 1987) translated by Goran Malmqvist.

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