Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel Laureate who died recently at the age of 83, was a poet of probing imagination and fine-tuned musical craft. Tranströmer, whose work has been translated into 60 languages, won the Nobel Prize in 2011, after having been nominated for the honour every year consecutively since 1993. A piano player all his life, he often used musical imagery to confront questions of art’s form and power, as shown by his poems in the selected volume The Winged Energy of Delight, translated by American poet Robert Bly. In appreciating the tension between a poem’s linear unravelling over time, pointed out by Glyn Maxwell in his superb On Poetry, and a reader’s ultimate perception of the poem as a perfected whole, Tranströmer indicates where poetry’s value lies. In normal life “you can see beauty only […] hastily” (‘Under Pressure’), whereas a poem affords you time to attend to the beautiful.
The short poem ‘Allegro’, powerfully juxtaposed against piano music in a performance by Tranströmer, reflects this aesthetic current in his work. The simple opening “After a black day, I play Haydn” expresses the doctrine of art as consolation, fundamental to the classical genre of consolatio. Tranströmer personally found consolatory comfort in art, learning to play the piano using only his left hand after a stroke in 1990 left him paralysed on the right side. For Tranströmer, music is “a house of glass standing on a slope”, an image which hints at art’s capacity to console. Art shifts according to the light in which it is viewed: it is simultaneously a window onto the world and a reflective medium for its audience’s own inner feelings. But the construction of a glasshouse on the exposed top of a hill would appear to be absurd, so fragile as to belie its own value as a spiritual pillar to humans in need of consolation. Tranströmer’s conclusion is a riddling masterstroke:
_________“The rocks roll straight through the house / but every pane of glass is still whole”
Tranströmer understands that a Haydn piece, or a poem, exists not merely in the linear plane of a brisk allegro pace, but as an ideal whole in the minds of its audience. The object of the poem is suspended outside of time, enabling analysis of scientific precision – indeed, ultra-scientific precision. It is unsurprising, then, that he drew on the analytical language of science in his memoir Memories Look at Me: “the scientific method I was closest to was the Linnean: discover, collect, examine.” Appropriately, Tranströmer was a psychologist by profession, analysing the case histories of juvenile offenders and drug addicts.
‘Track’ is characteristic of Tranströmer’s poetry in applying his rigorous analytical eye not to society but to a feature of the natural world: a night sky. This poem explicitly pauses time, beginning “2 A.M. moonlight” and ending “2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars”. It compresses, then, the ‘track’ of its linear imaginative progression into a singular moment of epiphany. Tranströmer connects the “flickering sparks” of a nearby town to the “flickering” of human consciousness, as seen in the total forgetfulness of a man “deep into his dream” or the “swarm” of an invalid’s numberless days. In contrast, poetic practice involves hyper-attentiveness: Tranströmer is conscious by the final line of the “few stars” that he overlooked in the poem’s opening. Like the train “stopped / out in a field” (notice the juddering halt enacted by the line-break), a good poem can be “motionless”. In pausing time, poetry allows for a contemplation, which is impossible in the flux and loss of the material world.
So how are we to respond to the sad loss of Tranströmer, a poet acclaimed both in his native Sweden and in the English-speaking world in translation? Perhaps with his poem ‘After a Death’, which concludes with the ominous image,:
_________“the samurai looks insignificant / beside his armour of black dragon scales”
The colour “black” gives a deathly quality to the scales – troublingly, what the samurai stacks between himself and death only seems to confirm death’s power. I am reminded, too, of the dragon hide in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, gradually consuming human bodies in its unchecked growth. Yet, the choice of the dragon for armour suggests a revealing similarity between poet and samurai warrior: both turn to the timeless and mythical as their only defence against temporal loss. Let’s be thankful that the exquisite house of glass crafted by Tranströmer is timeless. After a dark day, I read Tranströmer.
‘After a Death’, ‘Allegro’, ‘Track’ and ‘Under Pressure’ quoted from The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly (London: Harper Collins, 2004).
Memories Look at Me, trans. Robin Fulton (New York: New Directions, 2012).
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