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.

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