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His meeting places

Three decades ago, I had discovered Tomas Tranströmer's work in the Penguin Modern European Poets series.

books Updated: Oct 08, 2011 00:11 IST

Three decades ago, I had discovered Tomas Tranströmer's work in the Penguin Modern European Poets series. The opening lines of his early poem 'After an Attack', which have stayed with me all these years - "The sick boy./ Locked in a vision/ with his tongue stiff as a horn" - seem cruelly prescient; the Swedish poet suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1990, leaving him partially paralysed and almost beyond speech.

Now in his 75th year, Tranströmer is not only Scandinavia's greatest living poet, but also widely regarded as one of our most important contemporary international writers. Born on April 15, 1931, an only child, his parents divorced when he was three years old and he was brought up by his mother within the educated working class of Stockholm: a social democratic system infused with the traditional Lutheran ethics of moral compassion and generosity. After graduating he took up a career in psychology, working in a young offenders' institute in Linköping. In 1965 he moved with his wife Monica and their daughters, Paula and Emma, to Västerås, a small town west of Stockholm, where he continued his work with juvenile delinquents, convicts, drug addicts and the physically handicapped. It was during this time that his poetry began to reach its full maturity and an international audience, being translated into more than 40 languages and bringing him awards.

In 1990, however, his life was changed irrevocably by his stroke. While his disability did not end his writing career, it did impair his ability to communicate, and the Tranströmers now live in an apartment in the Södermalm district of Stockholm, near where Tomas lived as a young boy and overlooking the sea lanes where his grandfather worked as a pilot, guiding the ships through the Stockholm archipelago.

The landscape of Tranströmer's poetry has remained constant during his 50-year career: the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters, is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. Sometimes referred to as a 'buzzard poet', Tranströmer seems to hang over this landscape with a gimlet eye that sees the world with an almost mystical precision. A view that first appeared open and featureless now holds an anxiety of detail; the voice that first sounded spare and simple now seems subtle, shrewd and thrillingly intimate. There is a profoundly spiritual element in Tranströmer's vision, though not a conventionally religious one. He is interested in polarities and how we respond to finding ourselves at pivotal points, at the fulcrum of a moment:

The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low, throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.

A man crouches over something in the field.

The shadow reaches him.

For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.

I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches.

Sometimes it seems like a snapshot of frenzy.

('Out in the Open')

Tranströmer's is a poetry of sharp contrast and duality - a double world of dark and light, inside and outside, dreaming and waking, man and machine - and he is fascinated by the pressure between the world we know and the hidden world we cannot deny. He continually returns to symbolism that stands in opposition to the natural world: the bureaucratic, the technological and, most specifically, the car, the driver, the mass movement of traffic. The image of man as a diminished, vulnerable creature - distanced from nature, protected by his machine but open to sudden accident - is a recurring one, and this combination of a natural landscape and abrupt, violent meetings with the unnatural, is a hallmark of his work.

What happens at this moment of collision is vividly portrayed: the split-second of shock, of vertigo, where the nerves start to register panic and calamity, where the mind starts to fight against the body's accelerating fear. The eerie coolness and detachment of these poems, allows him to present the intrusion of irrational forces as primal threats.

Tranströmer has been well served in English with a valuable Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton (1988, updated 1997) and an American selection by Robert Bly, The Half-Finished Heaven (2001). He is, however, a complex poet to translate. His exquisite compression and vividly cinematic imagery are instantly attractive, but the elemental sparseness of his language can often be rendered as colourless and bland. The supple rhythms of the original poems are hard to replicate and, equally, the explosive musicality of Swedish words like 'domkyrkoklocklang' lose all their aural resonance when they become a 'peal of cathedral bells'. His empty, numinous landscape is comfortably familiar to northern poets, but his metaphysical parsing of that landscape into minimal Swedish can often prove too challenging.

In his introduction to Imitations (1962), Robert Lowell writes that "Boris Pasternak has said that the usual reliable translator gets the literal meaning but misses the tone, and that in poetry tone is of course everything. I have been reckless with literal meaning, and laboured hard to get the tone. Most often this has been a tone, for the tone is something that will always more or less escape transference to another language and cultural moment."

In my relatively free versions of some of Tranströmer's poems I have attempted to steer a middle ground between Lowell's rangy, risk-taking rewritings and the traditional, strictly literal approach. I have kept the shape of the poem, opened out its sense more clearly, and tried to get the tone.

Tranströmer has said "My poems are meeting places." The metaphor is persuasive, and singularly apt. He is interested, as all poets are, in epiphanies: the moments of sudden, spiritual manifestation where we are aware of an intimate connection being made with our landscape, our history, or with each other. But he is also deeply concerned with the dangers of abandoning those 'meeting places' - those moments of communication - in favour of something mechanical: faster and more efficient, certainly, but also meaningless, artificial and ultimately corrosive to the human spirit. As he wrote himself: "The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language."

Last May, I visited the Tranströmers in Stockholm. They had approved my English versions, but were kind enough to invite me to lunch, which we took under the watchful gaze of Tomas's grandfather, the pilot, whose portrait hangs in the dining room. After our glasses of whisky, Tomas stood and moved slowly from his chair to the piano stool, gesturing for me to join him. Without any words exchanged I knew what was expected of me. Standing at his damaged right side, I, who cannot read music, was being asked to turn the pages of the score at the right time. As Tomas began to play, I found I could follow the notes while watching his fluent left hand - and knew, at the same moment, that I was at a meeting place and that I would write about it.

Robin Robertson has translated Tranströmer's poems into English
The Guardian