Tomas Tranströmer

In Robert Bly’s introduction to his translations of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, he writes:

One of the most beautiful qualities in [these] poems is the space we feel in them. I think one reason for that is the four or five main images which appear in each of his poems come from widely separated sources in the psyche. His poems are a sort of railway station where trains have come enormous distances to stand briefly in the same building … The poems are mysterious because of the distances the images have come to get there.  (Bly, “The Winged Energy of Delight”)

Robert Hass has also written about Tranströmer.  Hass describes Tranströmer as a lyric poet and distinguishes between lyric and narrative approaches in the following way:

Novels and narrative and discursive forms of the poem imitate life in time.  They move and accumulate, ripen; some things fall away and other things come up. But the lyric imitates insight, or being, or consciousness without object… (Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures, p.74)

I think of lyric poems as poems that are highly musical and that concern themselves not with how things unfold over time, but the depth that can be discovered within a moment.  So much poetry today is narrative-based and explores the personal stories of the poet.  Tranströmer is a deeply private poet who almost never writes directly about himself. Here is the ending of his poem “Morning Birds:”

Fantastic to feel how my poem grows

while I myself shrink.

It is growing, it takes my place.

It pushes me out of the way.

It throws me out of the nest.

So Tranströmer’s work as a lyric poet is not concerned with deep insights about his personal life. Like Rilke, he is more interested in exploring the shining depths of a moment, or the timelessness within psychic space.  A great example of his method is the poem “After a Death” —

Once there was a shock

that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.

It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.

It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun

through brush where a few leaves hang on.

They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.

Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat

but often the shadow seems more real than the body.

The samurai looks insignificant

beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Tranströmer’s poem provides no explanation of who dies, instead it explores the impact of that death.  And death’s impact is not explained in terms of its personal effect on the poet, but its effect on the psyche of the world – the TV pictures get snowy and the telephone wires heavy and cold.  Impact is expressed in powerful images, each compressed to a line or two at most. This progression of multiple, compact images is very similar to Bly’s poems, which have been described as utilizing an “accumulation of images and the exploitation of end-stopped lines. . . each end-stopped line contains equal value in terms of its surprising content (as if each line were a poem in its own right).” (Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, p. 295-6)

So how does Tranströmer’s accrual of images create the depth of lyric poetry?  Hass says that “One of the impulses of the modernist poem is to leap out of time, or record those moments in which we seem to.” (Hass, p.80)  He traces this impulse from Wordsworth through Baudelaire into Imagism.  In examining Tranströmer’s long poem, “Baltics,” Hass declares that the only way an image-based poem can create discourse – an exploration or examination of a subject – is by creating an inter-related set of images.  In Tranströmer’s poems, “Fact has the pull of metaphor and one metaphor pulls against another.” (Hass, p.78)  In order to create discourse, the poem creates an image-space (Bly’s railway station) that challenges the reader to create connections. The mind makes metaphor and discourse out of the powerful interplay of images – “discourse occurs because the separate parts tug at one another and everything seems metaphorically related.” (Hass, p.85)

Hass’ definition of the image as a leap out of time seems surely related to Bly’s essays in his book Leaping Poetry. But for Bly, the leap is not so much about a leap out of time, as about opening a connection between conscious and unconscious parts of the mind.  He identifies it as a technique related to spiritual energy and goes on to call Rilke “the greatest spiritual poet of the twentieth century.”  So Tranströmer (and one can also see much of Bly’s poetry in this light) is creating a lyric poetry based on the interplay of images that create a psychic space where conscious and unconscious states of mind are mingled. This psychic space is the “railway station” Bly refers to in his description of Transtromer’s poems.  Its is also what Hass feels in his poems when he talks about the experience of pure being – “The held, vivid moment and life flickering out there at the vision border.” Hass connects this feeling in Tranströmer’s poems to “pure consciousness, without object.” Bly would see it somewhat differently as a connection between mind and object, which opens the mind to all the depths of its conscious and unconscious feelings, perceptions and substance.

Tranströmer’s poem “Out in the Open” is one of my favorites and a great example of this exploration of psychic space.   It is in three parts, each of which is in a different setting or landscape.  The first part takes place deep in the woods – a “deep autumn labyrinth” within which one could easily get lost.  “Frost has breathed on the mushrooms and they have shriveled up./ They look like objects and clothing left behind by people who’ve disappeared.” In the second part, the speaker walks in a suburban housing tract where ”newborn districts [are] without memories, cool as blueprints.” His walking has a spiritual association – “Half-mad, lost walking, it is a kind of prayer.” This human-made area is fraught with feelings of good and evil, death and violence.  A new office building becomes a “mirrorlike lake with no waves, turned on edge in the summer night.”  And for a moment, in the beauty of this image, “Violence seemed unreal.”

The third part of the poem finds a spiritual link between shadow and light, the momentary and the eternal, man and God, in a startling juxtaposition of images:

Sun burning.  The plane comes in low

throwing a shadow like a giant cross that rushes over the ground.

A man is sitting in the field poking at something.

The shadow arrives.

For a fraction of a second he is right in the center of the cross.

I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults.

At times it resembles a split-second snapshot of something

moving at tremendous speed.

Tranströmer never fails to amaze in his ability to create images of deep resonance that connect to the psyche as if hard-wired. In his poem, “The Gallery,” faces emerge like masks in the white walls of a motel room – “the white wall of forgetfulness.”  Many of the faces and their stories must be related to Tranströmer’s work as a psychologist.  They include a woman who buys things to cure her unhappiness, a girl learning to talk after a car crash, a paranoid man, a burned-out artist. The poem ends with a great set of lines that not only capture the psychic depth and complexity of each of us as individuals, but also demonstrate Tranströmer’s truly marvelous ability to accrue images that echo and resonate and grow.

It happens, but seldom,

that one of us really sees the other:

a person shows himself a moment

as in a photo but clearer

and in the background

something that is bigger than his shadow.

He stands full length in front of a mountain.

It’s more a snail shell than a mountain.

It’s more a house than a snail shell.

It isn’t a house but has many rooms.

It’s indistinct, but overwhelming.

He grows from it and it from him.

It is his life, it is his labyrinth.


Daniel Thomas, February 2007

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