At last Australia has won its second Nobel Prize for literature. Or first-and-a-half. Thirty-eight years after Patrick White won literature’s equivalent of the Norm Smith Medal, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has been honoured for his “condensed transluscent images”, which give “fresh access to reality”.
More on the Australian connection to all this in a moment; for now let’s stay on Tranströmer. Eighty years old, partly incapacitated by a stroke in 1990, Tranströmer worked for most of his life as a psychologist and social worker. He published his first collection of poems in 1954 at the age of 23, and Den Stora Gatan, his 12th, in 2004.
Tranströmer’s early works were in a more lyrical style, but in the second half of his life, his poems became increasingly staccato and unsettling, frequently focused on interstitial zones, with mundane physical spaces and objects — outskirts of towns, train stations, electricity pylons — serving as a concrete form for fissures in being, beyond mere psychological anxiety. Here’s Outskirts as translated by Robert Bly (of Iron John fame):
Men in overalls the same color as earth rise from a ditch.
It’s a transitional place, in stalemate, neither country nor city.
Construction cranes on the horizon want to take the big leap,
but the clocks are against it.
Concrete piping scattered around laps at the light with cold tongues.
Auto-body shops occupy old barns.
Stones throw shadows as sharp as objects on the moon surface.
And these sites keep on getting bigger
like the land bought with Judas’ silver: “a potter’s field for
Yet like much poetry, it is often the case that Tranströmer’s work does not so much suffer in translation, as expire from it.
In Tranströmer’s case, the exceptional bluntness of Swedish, its lack of a Latin register, and its relatively infrequent use of fancy Germanic grammatical tricks, gives the originals a compression impossible to reproduce in English. Here’s a haiku in translation from Sorrow Gondola, a volume published the year of his stroke:
The high-tension lines
taut in cold’s brittle kingdom
north of all music.
And here’s the original, whose harsh force can be seen at an instant:
spända i köldens rike
norr om all musik.
The work is consistently intoxicating, uncanny, as if De Chirico had spent decades painting the echt world of municipal Sweden, the grey days and persistent sense — which is the sense of modernity — that life is elsewhere. Because his poems are short, simple in structure and echo English vocabulary, they can be struggled, and I am not the only Swedish visitor to have sat down to leaf through a dual-language edition, and not got up for a long, long while.
Tranströmer deserved the Nobel decades ago, but the Swedish Academy has been wary of awarding it to countrymen after a century of being outrageously overgenerous to Scandinavians — culminating in a dual award in 1975, to two members of the Swedish Academy. The resulting scandal was so great that one, Harry Martinson, attempted suicide, an act both desperately sad and, for a poet and a Swede, something approaching a contractual obligation.
The Australian connection is even more exciting and moving, for Tranströmer would never have become a great poet had he not got out of his early, nature-oriented lyricism, and developed the later unsettling style, in which nature is essentially broken open to reveal deeper, and divided notions of being.
Where did this come from? Well as Tranströmer told Geoffrey Dutton it came from Kenneth Slessor, the great poet that generations of Australian students have come to hate, after being force-fed his works. Dutton interviewed Transtormer for radio; after the session was concluded, Tranströmer told Dutton that reading Five Bells had changed his whole approach to poetry.
Dutton, by his own account, tried frantically to get access to a studio to continue the interview, but none was available, and the link did not become noted again until Dutton published his biography of Slessor two decades ago.
Once you know that this was the case, you see Slessor everywhere in Tranströmer. Five Bells, his masterpiece, used the drowning death of a friend, and the sublimity of Sydney Harbour, as props for a meditation on being and time, weirdly bending past and present — and much of Tranströmer’s ability to open up the surface of existence and make visible the flow of time appears to come from Slessor.
Even Nightride, a famous but ostensibly plain verse — “Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;/Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,/Pull up the blind, blink out – all sounds are drugged” — re-appears repeatedly as a frame in Tranströmer’s work, such as Outskirts above.
Here, for example, is Tranströmer’s Track that seems to fuse Five Bells and Night Ride together:
2 A.M. moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.
As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember he was there
when he returns again to his view.
Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.
The train is entirely motionless.
2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars.
On the basis of that, and without taking anything from Tranströmer, I’m willing to claim a taste of the honour for the shade of Slessor, still lingering these days in the lapping waves, and the ferry lights across the dark harbour.
Les Murray for ’12, and the hat-trick. Ja visst. Varsågod.