A ‘Tranströmeration’ of the Nobel
I remember walking through the rather sparse poetry section of Chapters bookstores downtown recently and stopping for a moment before a Tomas Tranströmer collection – probably fresh off the press, rushed out to meet the galloping demands attending a Nobel moment. My instinct was to buy a copy of the collected works. But I demurred. Would I be giving a nod of encouragement to the wise but befuddled Swedish heads in Stockholm? The instinct of a poetry lover took over. I flipped through the work. Apart from some flashes of brilliance, I did not think this effort was worth the prize it has been burdened with. General public response to the news of this particular award has ranged from dismay to glee and disillusion. I am dismayed.
According to the awards committee, Tranströmer won “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” From my own readings of the poet’s work, I understand ‘translucent’ to be a euphemism for either ‘prosaic’ or ‘light verse.’ There is an example from Carol Rumens ‘Poem of the Week’ in a London Guardian selection from Tranströmer’s work, beginning like this: “In the black hotel a child is asleep. And outside: the winter night where the wide-eyed dice roll… See the rest of “Six Winters” here:
Perhaps there is a need to give a more detailed example of the poet’s work. Two should suffice. The first stanza of “Schubertina”:
In the evening darkness in a place outside New York, an outlook point
where one single glance will encompass the homes of eight
The giant city over there is a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy
seen from the side.
Within the galaxy coffee-cups are pushed across the counter, the
shop-windows beg from passers-by, a flurry of shoes that leave
The climbing fire escapes, the lift doors that glide shut, behind doors
with police locks a perpetual seethe of voices. Slouched bodies doze in subway coaches, the hurtling catacombs. I know too – without statistics – that right now Schubert is being played
in some room over there and that for someone the notes are
more real than all the rest.
And the poem, “Memories Look at Me”:
A June morning, too soon to wake,
too late to fall asleep again.
I must go out – the greenery is dense
with memories, they follow me with their gaze.
They can’t be seen, they merge completely with
the background, true chameleons.
They are so close that I can hear them breathe
although the birdsong here is deafening.
The above is adequate as poetry but I would not describe it as a great verse but poetic prose arranged in verse. Well, that leads to this phenomenon, that (oxy)moron, which I can never really fathom – prose poetry. It is a very lazy way to write poetry and allows for a lot of short cuts, a notable one being the inability to make the diction carry more than its usual weight of meaning. The syntax and line arrangement of the above announces them as prose poetry, so does the diction. There is more of the same fair on the Nobel website at:
It must be admitted that Tranströmer’s work has an imagistic charm, a brevity and elegance all its own; such charm as made Teju Cole, the writer of Open City declaim in joy in a New Yorker blog, the same publication in which pages the poet, Paul Muldoon, also praised the Nobel committee for acknowledging Tranströmer despite the latter’s apolitical and ‘translucent’ poetry. It is noteworthy that Cole is not a poet, while Muldoon’s poetry is similar in spirit to Tranströmer’s work and equally apolitical – in the main. I have especially quoted the first poem above since it is one of those which captures for Cole the confusion of bodies that is New York City, his home, and “an outlook point where one single glance will encompass the homes of eight million people.” Nevertheless, for me as a reader, there is something missing in diction, scansion, and overall poetic depth and resonance to merit a Nobel Prize – unless translators have not done ‘poetic justice’ to the Swedish originals. This is however belied by a quiet noise and ponderous invocation of the poet’s personal circumstances in public references to the 2011 prize.
Commentary, usually of the positive sort, about this particular award invariably intones sympathetic murmurs about the travails of a poet struck speechless by stroke. There is a disconcerting sense that the Nobel Committee is compensating the poet more for his personal circumstances than for overall poetic excellence. The pointer to this is the committee’s own infringement of a standard overriding criterion for the award – a large body of work. The Nobel is given to a living writer for a life’s work, that is, an expansive body of work. Tranströmer’s oeuvre is a relatively slim volume compared to previous winners, even if we were to ignore matters of aesthetic quality and consider that questions about value can, after all, be as subjective as the poet’s own reclusive and socially-distanced muse. The fact of Tranströmer’ Swedishisness adds to the dissenting camp’s bemusement with the 2011 prize. How convenient, they clamour: the Nobel Committee in Stockholm abandons its own chief criterion and favours a native son. This is what I call a ‘Tranströmeration.’ There is a heavy weight on the poet in terms of future range and production.
The 2011 prize is more likely to inhibit and limit than free the spirit. We are yet to get a magnum opus from Tranströmer, and in this instance the award of a Nobel is a limiter and came too soon. While it is said that comparisons are odious, in this literary matters, perhaps, a comparative evaluation is what will bear the burden of proof. Let the discerning reader place the 1992 winning volume in the same genre, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, beside any of the 2011 laureate’s work.