Tomas Tranströmer, laureate of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature
visited Budapest in 2001. Since Tranströmer was already ill at the time and could
hardly communicate, Ferenc Mervel, his translator (who has died ever since) answered most of the
questions for the Swedish poet.
How did Tomas Tranströmer's career start?
His first volume was published in 1954 and was sold out within weeks. He was immediately praised by both critics and readers. On the whole he has published only around a dozen thin volumes, but each of them was considered a major poetic event. Tranströmer has travelled around the world, there is even a café named after him in Beijing, his poems have been translated into 51 [by now 60] languages, including Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. Critics have mentioned the music of Bach, Wagner and Liszt, and the poetry of Rilke, Eliot and Éluard as inspirations for Tranströmer’s poetry, and not without good reason. As for Swedish poets, we must mention the name of Ragnar Thoursie. As early as in 1970 Robert Bly called Tranströmer one of the most outstanding poets of his generation.
His poetry seems universal, based on the collective experiences of people in modern times.
Yes, Tranströmer talks about general human experiences that an Indian will understand just as readily as a Briton. There are no restrictions in his poetry, rather, it opens borders. A Hungarian editor has told me that Tranströmer may be the only poet who has never written down the word ‘nation’ or ‘homeland’. This is, of course, an exaggeration, but it is one reason why he has been so widely translated.
Tranströmer works with nature images, which is a long-standing tradition in Swedish poetry. However, these images stand for human rather than natural content. The reader realizes the meaning of the poem on a subconscious level. His images are ascetic and have more than one meaning, as if they were opening into each other.
It is no accident that Rilke and Eliot are seen as his poetic sources. But Tomas Tranströmer is also a psychologist by vocation, and his images seem to touch unconscious layers. As for their form, they are mostly written in free verse. How are form and content related in his poetry?
In his first volume, entitled 17 Poems, he wrote in stricter forms. Later on he expanded his vision of form, so his later poems are a mixture of surrealism, imagism and symbolism, devoid of rhetorical devices. Seeing that his images indeed aim at the subconscious level, the influence of psychology may after all be considered an occupational hazard for him. Yet perhaps this is precisely why this is not national, Swedish poetry, but universal poetry with a meaning for everyone.
One of the most intriguing questions for a Hungarian reader is Tranströmer’s friendship with János Pilinszky, one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the last century. How did he meet Pilinszky? Even on first reading the similarity of the two voices—the cosmic, universal images, the lack of embellishments and the asceticism of both poets—strikes the reader. Were they influenced by each other’s art?
Although contemporary Hungarian poetry managed to find a way to Sweden even during communist times, not all poets were allowed to be published abroad, so it happened that our greatest poets—Pilinszky, Nemes Nagy—did not find their way to Swedish translators. Tranströmer himself was attacked in his own country in the 60s for a lack of revolutionary message in his poetry, since Sweden was a social democratic country for decades. I had just escaped from communist Hungary in 1956 when, on arriving in Sweden, I saw with dismay that Marx and Engels are taught and the Internationale is sung at the university. Tranströmer felt solidarity towards those who were stuck on the wrong side of the psychological and physical wall, and he was also trying to warn his own nation, so he was looking for contacts with talented fellow poets who were not allowed to publish, and that was why he visited Czechoslovakia and Slovenia.
Pilinszky became a very close friend of his. Monica, Tomas’s wife says that they were like twins. However, their poetry developed independently of each other, and perhaps that was why they were on such good terms later on. One cannot trace direct influences, but the two poets have common themes. Their inclinations, their attitudes, their vision of the world and their reactions are very similar. Tomas felt that his translations of Pilinszky’s poems were so much his own that he included them in his 1973 volume Stigar. Tranströmer also translated poems by Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Sándor Weöres, Gyula Illyés, Lőrinc Szabó and many other Hungarian poets.
Although Tranströmer has repeatedly said that he considered translation an impossible mission, he himself has translated a lot, and his own poems have also been widely translated, giving a source of inspiration to the art of others, including musicians.
Yes, he has translated a lot. In his Tolkningar (Translations, 2000) there are 43 Hungarian poems, many of them Pilinszky’s. He is not the most widely translated Swedish poet—that is August Strindberg—but he is the most widely translated poet alive.
Are world poetry and postmodern poetry synonyms?
This question has been formulated many times. As I have said, Tranströmer’s poetry is a mixture of symbolism, imagism and surrealism, in various proportions. However, it cannot be by mere chance if someone’s poetry arouses interest in so many countries and inspires so many various art forms. Tranströmer’s poetry opens intellectual borders that separate nations from each other. It is a poetry that is hard to classify. Similarly to Ekelöf and Lindegren, Tranströmer reveals images of the inner world behind the world of senses and tries to map the borders between the two, just like he writes in “Preludes”: “Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, / the other from outside, / and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.”
He made language and poetry indispensable for modern man. He fights with words so that they would not remain mere stage décors, but would rather be intimately linked to human experiences, not to phantasms and lies. That is why he translated biblical psalms. He has brought liturgical words, normally spoken in a murmur, much closer to the reader. He talks of ethics rather than religion, and produces texts that are ascetic rather than oratorical, because for him, it is only the meaning that matters.