80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has won the 104th Nobel Prize for literature. I first read some of Tranströmer’s poetry (in translation) when I was in high school and was much drawn to his spare, haiku-ish verse, with its use of nature imagery and evocation of a landscape far different from the California I called home. It is the kind of writing that makes you look at the world from a different perspective after you read it:
“Hear the swish of rain. / To reach right into it / I whisper a secret.”
Tranströmer has written 15 collections of poems starting with his debut collection, 17 Poems, when he was only 23 years old. His poems have been translated into English and some 60 other languages; he is described as a “non-English-language poet who has been fully accepted into British and US poetry in his own lifetime.”
Tranströmer was born in 1931 and has lived in Stockholm for most of his life. After studying literature, history, religion and psychology at Stockholm University, he worked as a psychologist at a youth correctional facility. He suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him mostly unable to speak, but he has still been writing.
As Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, which most recently published Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems, writes:
His early work was rooted in the landscape of the island where he spent his summers in childhood, drawing on the tradition of Swedish nature poetry.
His later work is more personal, open end relaxed, reflecting his broad interests: travel, music, painting, archaeology and natural sciences.
He has become known as a “buzzard poet”, a term coined by a fellow-poet Lasse Söderberg to express how he views the world from a height, in a mystic dimension, while bringing every detail of the natural world into sharp focus. His poems are often explorations of the borderland between sleep and waking, between the conscious and unconscious states.
While Tranströmer has long been a contender for the prestigious prize, he was not the popular favorite. The Swedish Academy, which administers the prize, admitted that the choice of a Swede could be controversial, even though it has not happened in almost 40 years, when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson shared the prize in 1974. European writers have won the prize eight times in the past decade and there had been speculation that Syrian poet Adonis might win the prize, in recognition of the uprisings earlier this year throughout the Middle East. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was another oft-mentioned name.
There was also speculation that Bob Dylan could win the prize, according to the British betting firm Ladbrokes. The odds given to the Hibbing, Minnesota-born singer were 5/1, while Tranströmer’s were 10/1.
Of course, the awarding of the Nobel Prize is not done via a democratic process but by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm and the odds, and the whole notion of “a Nobel for Dylan,” are indicative of popular sentiments that may have absolutely nothing to do with whatever criteria are used to award the prize. In recent years, Dylan’s work has been analyzed as poetry and its philosophical qualities remarked upon; Cambridge University has published a companion to his work. The Nobel is to be awarded to “the person who … produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” in the words of Alfred Nobel, who endowed the prize: Sounds very good, but indeed vague. Perhaps the question to ask is rather, can a Nobel Prize for literature be awarded to someone whose literary oeuvre is popular song lyrics? Certainly it’s more likely that people have heard a Bob Dylan song than have read one of Tranströmer’s poems.
On the other hand, maybe it takes something like a prestigious prize for people to hear about a poet associated with the “beauty of stillness.”
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Photo of Dylan performing in Stockholm via Wikimedia Commons