Like a glass-blower by a wintry sea, Tomas Transtromer has been slowly and painstakingly making poems in his native Stockholm since the early 1950s. In his debut work, the modestly titled Seventeen Poems, published when Transtromer was just 23, the Swedish poet imagined Thoreau in the woods, “disappearing deep in his inner greenness/artful and hopeful.”
A private man in his work and life, Transtromer has been following Thoreau’s example for 50 years. He will have more difficulty doing that after today’s announcement that he is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In truth, though, Transtromer is far from obscure. Since the 1960s, when his work first began to appear in English — translated by Robert Bly, Robert Hass, May Swenson and others — he has been one of the most regularly translated European poets. On this, the morning of the prize, Transtromer has already been translated into over 50 languages.
The Great Enigma, a comprehensive new collection of his poems, is certainly the place for any curious reader to begin. What strikes one immediately upon reading Transtromer is the intense and beautiful stillness of his work, as if the words are blots against a very large white canvas. In “Solitary Swedish Houses,” from 1962, he writes:
A confusion of black spruce
and smoking moonbeams.
Here’s the cottage lying low
and not a sign of life.
The recent wave of Swedish crime writers has made such a mark on readers’ minds that it’d be unsurprising for Transtromer’s icy pastoral moods to raise the question: shouldn’t something menacing and awful happen now? But again and again, his poems return the landscape and familiar scenes of Transtromer’s Sweden to us in simple terms: here are the rusted boats and dinghy-filled harbors; here are the rainy mornings of a dark, northern place.
Transtromer has lived in Stockholm most of his life, and that certainly marks his work; but he travels on the page as well. Travelers, train trips, letters mailed and received and long journeys reappear in his poems. The world is constantly peered at over the jostle of constant motion, as in the similarly deep-bottomed work of W.G. Sebald. In “Oklahoma,” for instance, Transtromer writes:
The train stopped far south. It was snowing in New York.
Here you could go about in shirtsleeves the whole night.
But no one was out. Only the cars
flew past in their glare, flying saucers.
The torque of an unexpected image frequently disturbs these poems’ natural stoicism. Like so many great poets before him, Transtromer is forever reminding us that the world is not what it appears to be; that with mindfulness and close attention, you might get a glimpse of something vast and strange. “Hear the swish of rain,” he writes in a late haiku. “To reach right into it/I whisper a secret.”
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of The Tyranny of E-mail.