Tomas Tranströmer: What Should I Read First?

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Oct. 6 2011 3:20 PM

Where Should I Start with Tomas Tranströmer?

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A picture taken on March 31, 2011 shows Swedish poet Tomas Transtroemer at his home in Stockholm, Sweden.

Photo by JESSICA GOW/AFP/Getty Images

Not to be confused with the Michael Bay franchise, the 80-year-old Swedish psychologist and poet Tomas Tranströmer, just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, writes surreal, imagistic poems that explore his fascinations with the music of memory and nature. If you want to get to know his work, here are a few good entry points:

1. Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954 – 1986. Edited by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, this selection of over 100 poems provides perhaps the best introduction to Tranströmer. Here, the poems are Englished by twelve different translators, including Hass; it’s a good way to figure out whose translations make you feel closest to the ‘real’ Tranströmer. 

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2. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. This 2006 collection of Robin Fulton’s clear-eyed and spare translations will give you the most complete picture of the arc of Tranströmer’s career. It’s also one of the only readily available books that shows how the poems were originally collected in Swedish. The Great Enigma includes everything from the astonishing teenage lyrics published in 1952 (17 Poems), to the haunting Baltics, to the late poems of The Sad Gondola.

3. The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer. Robert Bly has long been a champion of Tranströmer, and his translations in the 1960s had a great influence on a generation of American poets. These are perhaps the most well-known versions of Tranströmer in English, and they bear the mark of Bly’s own poetic imagination, as well as his particular (and at times controversial) translation style.

My personal favorite, I should add, is Tranströmer’s slim, green chapbook, Baltics, which I brought with me when I moved from New York to Thailand last year. In Samuel Charters’s translation of this book-length poem, Tranströmer navigates the forested archipelago of his native Sweden, stitching together fragments of memory, family histories, echoes of violence and faith. This, like so many of his other poems, enters us into a landscape that’s material and immediate, but decaying slowly into dream:

            The strategic planetarium rotates. The lenses stare into the darkness.
            The night sky is full of numbers, and they’re fed into
            a blinking cupboard,
            a piece of furniture,
            inside it the energy of a grasshopper swarm that devours the acres
                        of Somalia in half an hour.

I found this book when I was just beginning to consider a life in poetry, and Tranströmer showed me what was possible to discover in a poem. I hold him and his little green book responsible for getting me into this whole poetry racket. I thank him for it.

Colin Cheney, author of Here Be Monsters, lives in Bangkok, Thailand.

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