Sunday, 28 June 2015


Here's another answer to the question, How do you know when a poem is finished?  (my post of 28 May):

"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."

These are the closing lines from "Morning Birds" by the Nobel prize-winning Swedish poet, Tomos Transtromer.  The Scottish Poetry Library discussion (my post of 21 May) on Transtromer's poetry gave me the impetus I needed to read his New Collected Poems, translated into English by Robin Fulton (Bloodaxe 2011).

The cover blurb quotes Seamus Heaney - "In its delicate hovering between the responsibilities of the social world and the invitations of a world of possibly numinous reality his poetry permits us to be happily certain of our own uncertainties".

Tomos Transtromer's face on the cover of the book conveys that happiness - he is looking up and the light in his eyes suggests an openness to new experience, to the possibility of transcendence and a refusal to lapse into cynicism.

The book includes the prose chapters of the autobiographical Memories Look at Me.  I read these first and found they provided me with helpful background.  In "Exorcism" he writes about what he calls "a severe form of anxiety" which he experienced in his mid-teens and which lasted for several months.  It was "possibly my most important experience".  I wonder if that was why Transtromer went on to become a psychologist.  His poems often convey a strange dream world between the conscious and the unconscious, between sleeping and waking.

When I read the poems I noticed various doors into a different kind of experience.  These doors included music, the natural world, sleep, journeys (often by car - there's a lot of traffic in these poems?).  Transtromer himself said, "These poems are all pointing towards a greater context, one that is incomprehensible to the normal everyday reasoning."

"I lie down to sleep,
see strange pictures
and signs scribbling themselves behind my eyelids
on the wall of the dark.  Into the slit between wakefulness and dream
a large letter tries to push itself in vain."
      from "Nocturne"

Transtromer uses some striking metaphors and similes in his poems, for example,
"The wind came out gently as if it were pushing a pram" (Noon Thaw"),
"Crystal chandeliers hung like glass vultures" ("The Blue Wind Flowers"),
"Constellations stamping inside their stalls, high / over the tree tops" ("Autumnal Archipelago").

I particularly enjoyed reading (and re-reading) Transtromer's masterpiece, "Schubertiana", and the sequence of poems, "Baltics".  The sequence is framed by Grandfather, " a new-made [naval] pilot" and Grandmother, who "never looked back / but because of that she could see what was new / and catch hold of it."  "Baltic" includes found text, definitions, diary entries, history, lateral thinking, recollections.  It ends with the poet noticing a fisherman's hut, its ancient roof tiles "slipped downways and crossways over each other".  The tiles remind him of "the old Jewish cemetery in Prague" ("the stones packed packed").  The hut "is lit up / with all those who were driven by a certain wave, by a certain wind / right out here to their fates."

The only drawback to this Bloodaxe edition is the absence of the original poems.  Although my Swedish is almost non-existent, seeing a poem in the original language can reveal rhyme, alliteration, form, line length, punctuation etc which might affect how a translation is read.    Robin Fulton has been translating Transtromer's work for at least 35 years.  I trusted him to get as close to the original form and language as possible in poetry (no easy task).  Thanks to him I am able to read Tomas Transtromer's wonderful luminous poetry in English.  Never forget the translator.

Saturday, 20 June 2015


150 years since the birth of the great Irish poet, W B Yeats (13 June 1865).  It’s a shock – one and a half centuries for a Modernist writer.   I have the fat green paperback of his Collected Poems, expertly annotated by Norman Jaffares.   The spine is cracking in four places and several poems are wafered with post-it notes for quick access. 

I re-read familiar poems but always with a sharp intake of breath at their wild, strange, faultless music.  What varied poetry he produced: the early favourite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, the powerful political poems such as “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”, the devastating “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (one of the last poems he wrote). 

It’s impossible to forget “The Wild Swans at Coole”.  The poet describes the birds: “lover by lover, / They paddle in the cold / Companionable streams or climb the air”.  Swans pair for life (“lover by lover”) but the poet counts “nine-and-fifty swans” and suddenly I realise that one swan is without a mate – surely an allusion to Yeats’s unrequieted love for Maud Gonne.

I was reminded of Yeats one morning this week when the BBC Radio 4 news announced that the poet James Fenton had won the PEN/Pinter Prize, an annual award for a writer who looks at the world with an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze and shows “a fierce intellectual determination ... to define the real truth of our lives and societies.” 

You can read two of Fenton’s “unflinching” poems, “A German Requiem” and “Wind”, on the website.  The former begins, “It is not what they built.  It is what they knocked down”.  They are political poems in the widest sense of the word.  Two poets have won the prize before – in 2009 Tony Harrison, and in 2012 Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the most moving political poems I have ever read is Lorna Goodison’s “The Woman speaks to the Man who has Employed Her Son” which is about a mother’s love for her son who has been “employed” as a child soldier.

Last year “The Lioness of Iran”, the poet Simin Behbahani, died at the age of 87 (see my blog post for 12 November 2014).  Her work tackled women’s issues and social and political injustice.  For ten years her work was banned in Iran and she was subjected to police harassment.  But her work was greatly admired and a measure of her popularity was that her face appeared on T shirts and placards. 

It takes courage to venture above the political parapet and write.