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The Poetics and Music of Tomas Tranströmer

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Tomas Tranströmer 3 Bright Scythe – Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer Translated by Patty Crane

The Swedish language does not come easily to me. In fact it’s a fairly hard slog at times. But Bengt Berger, a prodigious drummer and, dare I say, poet in his own way, introduced me to Swedish music through his iconic music and his equally iconic record label, Country & Eastern. I was enamoured of Berger long ago, when I first heard a performance of his with the great Don Cherry on Bitter Funeral Bear. Later I discovered his record label and Jonas Knutsson and several other Swedish folk musicians, which is to say Swedish jazz musicians for there is no real difference in that country. Oddly enough it was Berger who also led me back to the poetry of his country and one poet in particular, Tomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet I greatly admired (and sometimes emulated in my own poetry) from my university days. In fact, Tranströmer was my first introduction to Sweden, a country where the very air of its countryside was music itself. Like Bengt Berger, Tranströmer drew me into Swedish poetry and to the work of Harry Martinson, Gunnar Elkelöf and to Stig Dagerman, among others. Sweden became embedded in my consciousness and it was this consciousness that was awakened when I first heard the music of Berger, Jonas Knutsson, Kjell Westling, Päkkos Gustaf, Ellika Frisell and a slew of other great Swedish musicians. Sweden has never left me since then.

Tomas Tranströmer Bright ScytheSo when I saw the new 2015 bilingual edition of Tomas Tranströmer’s poems Bright Scythe – Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer Translated by Patty Crane, I jumped at the chance to re-acquaint myself with Tranströmer’s poetry anew. Crane, herself a poet who was intimately acquainted with the work of Tranströmer, would surely have created a book of poems not only representative of his work, but also of his deeply moving idiom as well. I was not wrong. This is in essence how poetry in unfamiliar languages must be rendered into English – a difficult language to translate into because there is often no ‘exact’ way to ‘name things’ (in the sense of how Confucius defined it). This is why I have always been an apologist for the translations of Ezra Pound (and Ernest Fenollosa) from Japanese, Chinese and in Pound’s case, translations of the Indian poet and saint Kabir as well. A grasp of poetics and music is essential to rendering poetry from foreign languages into English.

Ironically, this is how we find the ‘exact name of things’ – contrarily by assuming the poetics of that poetry and learning the melodicism of its music. Fenollosa, Pound and Michael Hamburger (who famously translated the work of Hölderlin), as well as the Indian poets, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (translations from Hindi and other languages) and of course the celebrated poet Arun Kolatkar (who translated poetry written by the 17th century Maraharastrian poet and saint, Tukaram) made great translations of other poet’s work. To this list must be added Patty Crane’s translations of Tomas Tranströmer. And while Crane’s work is heroic, the real hero is, of course, Tomas Tranströmer.

Tranströmer is a poet as well as a pianist of grassroots Sweden. His lens describes its world in deeply natural terms. Pink skies, wet grass the elemental darkness and the vivid light of its northern sky. His poetry is redolent of ‘the rhythm of the seasons, and the palpable, atmospheric beauty of nature’. Tomas Tranströmer inherits the wind and like its wispy and visceral energy, he too becomes something elemental, yet not only of all that is Swedish, but all that is human nature as well. He moves, almost secretly into the nooks and crannies of human existence, as formless as the soul, feels it’s (humanity’s) quintessence palpably. His work becomes something magical to experience. This becomes something astonishing in his poem Kyrie:

Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark
a feeling as if crowds moved through the streets
in blindness and angst on the way to a miracle,
while I, invisible, remain standing still

Like the child who falls asleep afraid
listening to his heart’s steps.
Long, long, until morning slips its rays in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.

The ethereal nature of the poem where streets sing crepuscular songs and resemble something palpable, but which also something human-like that is transubstantiated as air – elemental, with the primordial power to turn as miraculous as a child’s heart beat into the physical aspect of blinding light that not only unlocks darkness but in a whispered sense the nature of perception as well. The depth of the idiom and Tranströmer’s articulate turn of phrase is as powerfully nebulous as it is concrete and monumental.

Elsewhere, dissecting Winter’s Formulas, the poet is changes in time because time changes everything and he discovers:

In the lamplight the road’s ice
glistens like grease

This is not Africa.
This is not Europe.
This is nowhere other than “here”

And somewhat surrealist, although that aspect of his work is muted unlike the romance of human naturalness, such as:

And which was “I”
is only a word
in December’s dark mouth.

Note the subtle shifting of idiomatic phrase from one verse to the other, where Tomas Tranströmer is scientist as well as artist; an interloper with a penchant for melding the essence of unity of the two arts. Note also the beauty of the translations of Patty Crane. (It might not be appropriate to add Tranströmer’s the Swedish lines here. Suffice it to say that Crane captures the essence of the Swedish not only linguistically but in terms of its cadence and in the nature of the music of the language.

In terms of his rather small body of work Tranströmer bears witness to how the 20th century observed a return to the Aristotelian paradigm, followed by trends toward metacriticality, or the establishment of a theory of poetics. Tomas Tranströmer subscribes to the art that includes the perfunctory nature of scientific/concreteness such as in “December’s dark mouth” which is also completely the opposite of the mechanical. Thus when taken as a whole the verse must be read aloud and this will, in turn, recommend Tomas Tranströmer’s practice of cadence and music with as much – if not – a greater belief in the theatrics of meter in his versification. This must lead us to a deeper appreciation of the music of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. Of course this melody and rhythm is better ‘felt’ in the Swedish. Here is a part of his great long poem Sorgegondol nr 2, a gorgeously imagined poem about the relationship between Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt:

Bredvid svärsonen som är tidens man är Liszt en maläten granseigneur
Det är en förklädnadnad
Djupet som prövar och förkastar olika masker har valt just den här åt honom
djupet som vill stiga in till manniskorna utan att visa sitt ansikte

Which Crane has brilliantly rendered into English in this way:

Beside the son-in-law, who’s a man of the times, Liszt is a moth-eaten grandsigneur.
It’s a disguise.
The deep, that tries on and rejects different masks, has chosen thie one just for him
the deep that wants to enter people without ever showing its face.

Patty Crane has not only maintained the cadence of Tranströmer’s original but has also grasped the element of translation as Fenollosa or Pound would have done: embracing the rhythmic sweep of the metaphor and language in an elemental and breathtaking manner. Here is that folksiness that so endeared Tomas Tranströmer to a world of readers who fell in love with his sense of the rustic nature of Swedish countryside in the beautiful music of its language; yet keeping his eye and his heart always beating with the enormous humanity which he inhabited. This is what makes Tranströmer a great poet and why he was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, four years before he passed from this world, but not before he left us a legacy that is worthy of any library upon which is bestowed much great poetry. And like the books in that library – perhaps imagined only by Jorge Luis Borges – this book Bright Scythe – Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer Translated by Patty Crane will also find a special place. First for the fact that it is bilingual, which suits me fine for I have been appropriately informed of the music of the Swedish ethos by folks like Bengt Berger and Päkkos Gustaf and Ellika Frisell, for its because of them that I came to understand and have my own understanding of the language and its music – however meager. But this poetry has also been written in a soulful manner that often transcends language as much as it is rooted in the music of the Swedish. For that we must thank Patty Crane for her wonderful work, but in the end we have to thank Tomas Tranströmer must take a central place in the great tradition of Swedish writing and in the world of poetry as well.

Sarabande Books
201 pp – $ 24.95
ISBN 978-1-941411-21-6

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