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A Nobel Winner's Positive Gaze

October 7, 2011 |
The clear-eyed poet seems to be carrying a notebook through the world.
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Until Thursday, 88 out of 100 people who bothered to fill out Nobelprize.org's survey, had never heard of the Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer

Many poets might recoil from this statistic, but Tomas Tranströmer is more apt to find delight in the number of new readers after today's announcement that he has won the Nobel Prize in literature. This is how he chooses to reflect the world he sees.  

Vertiginous, generous, and possessing a warm regard for the collective entity known as humankind, the Swede's work is not that of a gloomy dyspeptic, even though he is partially paralyzed. Instead, the nature of his poems reflects an intense and positive gaze, one that is willing to scrutinize the world and push beyond life's easy catalogue of miseries. His 1990 stroke could be one such event, but Tranströmer continued to write, and to play one-handed piano recitals across Europe. 

The Swedish Academy chose Tranströmer "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." The announcement of the $1.5 million dollar prize comes as little surprise. The Sorrow Gondola, his recent book of poetry—poetry, mind you—sold 30,000 copies in Sweden alone, and was translated into 50 languages.

Born in 1931, the son of a schoolteacher mother and a journalist father, the clear-eyed poet seems to be carrying a notebook through the world. Tranströmer began writing poetry at 16. Less than a decade later, he published his first collection of poems, 17 Dikter, or Seventeen Poems. Working as a psychiatrist with juvenile offenders during the 1960s, Tranströmer also reflects a call to social justice in his work.

Like many readers of my generation, I was introduced to his work while in college during the 1990s. Three decades earlier, Tranströmer's poems first arrived in the United States in the translations of Robert Bly. Many other wonderful English translations have followed. The final lines of his poem, "Vermeer," perhaps his most famous, have stayed with me since I first encountered them: 

"I am not empty, I am open"

I've returned to that line many times over nearly two decades to soften my regard of a desolate landscape, a gray morning reluctantly spied through a window frame. Like millions of other readers, I've used this line to ally myself with a more expansive, gentler, and hopeful frame of mind. This is rare for contemporary poetry. So is the fact that Tranströmer's work isn't clever. It isn't narrowly self-conscious. It isn't a party trick, or a plea to be liked. Tranströmer isn't about polishing the shallow moment. He insists on taking on the messiest and most important questions of human existence. 

In Sweden, he's called the "buzzard poet" not because he's hungry for death, but because he's always wheeling above at a distance, scrutinizing the country below.   

Here are examples of the Nobel winner's work

Landscape with Suns

The sun emerges from behind the house
stands in the middle of the street
and breathes on us
with its red wind.  
Innsbruck I must leave you.  
But tomorrow
there will be a glowing sun
in the gray, half-dead forest
where we must work and live.

Midwinter

A blue light
radiates from my clothing.  
Midwinter.  
Clattering tambourines of ice.  
I close my eyes.  
There is a silent world
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled across the border.

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