Tranströmer, Tomas 1931- (Tomas Gösta Tranströmer, Tomas Goesta Tranströmer, Tomas Gösta Transtroemer, Tomas Gosta Transtromer)

views updated

Tranströmer, Tomas 1931- (Tomas Gösta Tranströmer, Tomas Goesta Tranströmer, Tomas Gösta Transtroemer, Tomas Gosta Transtromer)


Born April 15, 1931, in Stockholm, Sweden; son of Gösta and Helmy Tranströmer; married Monica Blach, 1958; children: two daughters. Education: Received degree from University of Stockholm, 1956.


Home—Västeras, Sweden.


Psychologist and poet. Worked at Psychotekniska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, 1957-59, Ungdomsanstalten in Roxtuna, Sweden, 1960-65, Paraadetin, 1966—, and Arbmarkninst, 1980—, both in Västeras, Sweden.


Swedish Writers Union.


Aftonbladets Literary Prize, 1958; Bellman Prize, 1966; Swedish Award, International Poetry Forum, 1971; Övralids Prize, 1975; Boklotteriets Prize, 1981; Petrarca Prize, 1981; Pilot Corporation Prize, 1988; Neustadt International Prize for literature, 1990; Nordic Council Prize, 1990; Nordic Prize, Swedish Academy, 1991; Horst Bienek Prize, Bayerische Academie des Schonen Kunste, 1992; Bonnier Award for poetry.



17 dikter (title means "Seventeen Poems"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1954.

Hemligheter på vägen (title means "Secrets on the Way"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1958.

Den halvfärdiga himlen (also see below; title means "The Half-Finished Heaven"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1962.

Klanger och spår (title means "Echoes and Traces"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1966.

Twenty Poems, translated by Robert Bly, Seventies Press (Madison, MN), 1970.

Mörkerseende, Seelig, 1970, translation by Robert Bly published as Night Vision, Lillabulero Press (Ithaca, NY), 1971.

Windows and Stones: Selected Poems, translated by May Swenson and Leif Sjoeberg, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1972.

(With Robert Bly and Janos Pilinszky; and translator) Stigar (title means "Paths"; includes translations of works by Bly and Pilinszky), Författarförlaget, 1973.

Elegy: Some October Notes, translated by Robert Bly, Sceptre Press (Rushden, England), 1973.

Citoyens, translated by Robin Fulton, Sceptre Press (Rushden, England), 1974.

(With Påvo Kåvikko) Selected Poetry of Påvo Håvikko and Tomas Tranströmer (translations and introduction for Håvikko's works by Hollo; translations and introduction for Tranströmer's works by Robin Fulton), Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1974.

Östersjöar, Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974, translation by Samuel Charters published as Baltics, Oyez (Berkeley, CA), 1975.

(With Harry Martinson and Gunnar Ekelöf) Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, translated by Robert Bly, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1975.

Sanningsbarriären, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1978.

Dikter: 1954-1978 (title means "Poems: 1954-1978"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1979.

Truth Barriers: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated and with introduction by Robert Bly, Sierra Books (San Francisco, CA), 1980.

How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins, Sceptre Press (Rushden, England), 1980.

Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Ardis, 1982.

Det vilda torget, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1983, translation by John F. Dean published as The Wild Marketplace, Dedalus (Dublin, Ireland), 1985.

The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist, Thunder City Press (Houston, TX), 1987.

Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer: 1954-1986, translated by Robert Bly, edited by Robert Haas, Ecco (Hopewell, NJ), 1987.

Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1987, Dufour (Chester Springs, PA), 1988.

Minnena Ser Mig (title means "The Memories Watch Me"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1993.

For the Living and the Dead, translated by John F. Deane, Dedalus (Dublin, Ireland), 1994, version edited by Daniel Halpern and translated by Joanna Bankier and others published as For the Living and the Dead: New Poems and a Memoir, Translated from Swedish, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1995.

New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Dufour (Chester Springs, PA), 1997.

Sorgegondolen, translation by Robin Fulton published as The Sorrow Gondola, Dedalus (Dublin, Ireland), 1997.

Tolkningar (translations of other poets into Swedish; title means "Interpretations"), edited by Niklas Schioler, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1999.

The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translated and edited by Robert Bly, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2001.

Samlade dikter 1954-1996, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 2001.

Faängelse: Nio Haikudikter Frän Hällby Ungdomsfängelse (1959), Edition Edda (Uppsala, Sweden), 2001.

Air Mail: Brev 1964-1990, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 2001.

Ett Drömseminarium, Östersjöns författar-ochöversättarcentrum (Visby, Sweden), 2002.

Vlada Dikter: Odbrani Pesni: Selected Poems, Zlaten venec na Strusëkite vecëri na poezijata (Skopje, Macedonia), 2003.

The Deleted World, Enitharmon Press (London, England), 2006.

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, New Directions (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals. Translator of poetry from Greek, English, Hungarian, German, and other languages into English. Translator of opera Katja Kabanova by Leos Janacek.


Tomas Tranströmer has garnered a reputation as perhaps Sweden's greatest poet of the years since World War II. Tranströmer "has become a ‘classic’ in the sense that his art is consummate, serene, and timeless," wrote Sven Hakon Rossel in World Literature Today when discussing the collection Samlade dikter 1954-1996. Over the course of his career, as Rossel noted, Tranströmer's poetry has moved from a localized viewpoint to a universal one, and from a pessimistic to a hopeful, affirmative one. Another contributor to the same journal, poet and sometime Tranströmer translator Robin Fulton, noted in a review of the autobiographical Minnena Ser Mig, that, while Tranströmer's early work tended toward the impersonal, he eventually began to play "a more explicit part in his poems," with "the emerging role of the capital I" being a delineator of this evolution. On the whole, Tranströmer has proven himself "a poet par excellence," in the words of Piotr Florczyk, who critiqued The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems for World Literature Today.

Nature and its mysteries have frequently been the subject of Tranströmer's verse, and music has been a recurrent theme for the poet, who is also a pianist. In Tranströmer's poetry, according to Rossel, music is both "a consoling and stabilizing force" and often "a structuring principle." Rossel added that the poet's work is never formulaic or predictable, with politics and other diverse topics finding a place in his output, although he is concerned more with morality and spirituality than ideology. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, assessing The Great Enigma, observed that Tranströmer's "forms have varied impressively," encompassing haiku, lyric, and many other types of poetry. Tranströmer also has translated many poets from other countries into Swedish and even published a collection of these translations, Tolkningar, in 1999. He sees his translations as interpretations, for which his title is the Swedish term, and he views his original work through a similar lens. He once stated that "even an original poem is a translation or manifestation of an invisible text behind the layers of our conventional language," as Rossel related in a World Literature Today review of Tolkningar.

Tranströmer produced his first collection, 17 dikter, in 1954, quickly establishing himself as a master of unorthodox imagery and striking nature descriptions. In the poems of this volume Tranströmer blurs the distinction between the inanimate and the animate, likening well-worn clothing to a pack of mangy wolves and describing the cosmos as restless horses. Here he introduces themes that would remain constant throughout much of his later work—the universe as a wild, endless energy, the past as an ever-present force, and the present as an unfathomable, but somehow soothing, mystery. As Sven Birkerts wrote in Parnassus, "Tranströmer … is a poet preoccupied with the Unknown…. Time, identity, the bottomless psyche, and death—these are the boundary stones of his terrain."

In his second collection, Hemligheter på vägen, Tranströmer focuses further on life's mystical aspects, but without compromising his sense of imagery. This second volume assured his success in Sweden, but it did not please some reviewers. Rolf Fjelde, for instance, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "the first two [collections] have the cribbed, cabined and confined preciosity of a poet who has not yet found his sea legs."

For Fjelde, it was with Tranströmer's third collection, Den halvfärdiga himlen, "that the always exhilarating voyage of a major talent was clearly underway." In this work Tranströmer concedes the widespread presence of human suffering, but he nonetheless expresses optimism, extolling the virtues of nature and love and anticipating the future. He also articulates his artistic conviction and sense of stability, describing himself in one poem as the ballast that prevents a ship's capsizing. He further addressed the poet's role in society in the 1966 collection Klanger och spår, in which he derived topics from his worldwide travels.

In 1970, sixteen years after Tranströmer published his first collection, his work became available in English translation. Robert Bly, himself a respected poet, introduced Tranströmer to readers of English with Night Vision, a translation of the Swede's fifth collection, Mörkerseende. This volume, containing only eleven poems, sustained the vision of Tranströmer's earlier works while establishing his reputation among English-language readers.

Tranströmer's next publication, the long poem Österjöar, was translated by Samuel Charters and published as Baltics in 1975. The collection drew considerable praise from some critics. Writing about this work in Boston Review, Jay Boggs noted that Tranströmer remains highly effective in mining the seemingly normal for unexpected and unanticipated effects. Boggs was particularly impressed with Tranströmer's artistry in writing these lines about a photograph: "The men are all like extras in a folk play. / They're all good-looking, indecisive, / beginning to fade out. / They step onshore for a moment. They / fade out. / The steamer is an extinct model—/ a high funnel, awning, narrow hull—/ it's completely, a UFO that's / landed. / Everything else in the photo is shockingly real: / the ripplings on the water, / the opposite beach—/ I can stroke the rough rocks with my hand, / I can hear the sighing in the spruce. / It's near. It's / today. / The waves are topical." Of this segment, Boggs wrote: "Tranströmer is a master of taking a common situation—looking at an old photograph—and starting out with what anyone in the same situation would see…. Once he has nailed you into the scene, Tranströmer comes in with what he's really after. The really shocking thing about the past, about this old photo … is that the past looked just like the present." In Parnassus, Birkerts wrote that with Baltics "Tranströmer finally strikes out from his norm," noting that in this poem the "commerce between interior and exterior worlds is a great deal freer than what we have seen in the previous work."

Truth Barriers: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, a 1980 collection of English translations, provides further evidence of Tranströmer's increasing flexibility as a poet. Birkerts noted that the poems—including six prose poems—in this volume "are looser, with longer lines." But for Birkerts, too many of the poems in Truth Barriers "simply reenact the familiar Tranströmer procedures." He added, "A big step forward has been followed by a little step back."

Since his first publications in English translation, Tranströmer has become, as Boggs noted, "one of the most widely translated poets now writing in Swedish." Bly and Robin Fulton have remained prominent translators of Tranströmer's work, and in the late 1980s both translators produced substantial English-language retrospectives of his work. The quality of the translations, like the poems themselves, did not find universal favor. Michael Schmidt, reviewing Fulton's volume of translations, titled Selected Poems, thought Fulton's work was "uneven." Schmidt found the volume was "disappointing," and he added that Tranströmer's language was sometimes ineffective. Fjelde, however, wrote that Tranströmer's high status was "well served" by Fulton's volume and noted that Selected Poems proved "particularly useful" in tracing Tranströmer's artistic development.

The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer appeared to live up to the superlative in its subtitle, given the critical plaudits it received. In her review of the book in Borealis, Roseann Lloyd commented that "no poetry is a better antidote against the dark" than those contained in this collection. Important to her assessment of the book are two oft-repeated words: hum and open, "his totem words of hope." While acknowledging that Tranströmer is not "a cheery poet," Lloyd maintained that through such diction, Tranströmer "writes his way into the gloom but comes out in another place," one offering readers "music and images of tropical comfort." Isenberg's review for the New York Times echoed Lloyd's praise: he wrote that The Half-Finished Heaven "registers within the lexicon of classical music" and called the book an "extraordinary collection" with a "rich sampling of … Tranströmer's direct, elegant style."

As well as being a poet, Tranströmer has had a long career as a psychologist, and like his poetry, this work has won him substantial respect. He spent the first half of the 1960s working at a prison for boys, and after 1965, he worked extensively with convicts, drug addicts, and the handicapped. Fjelde, writing in the New York Times Book Review, recalled that after a poetry reading in New York City, Tranströmer "observed wryly that, for all those who asked how his work influenced his poetry, few inquired about how his poetry affected his work." Some critics have noted that Tranströmer's psychology career undoubtedly limited the time he could devote to poetry. Also, after suffering a stroke in the 1990s, he had difficulty speaking, reading, and writing, but he eventually began to produce poetry again. Florczyk observed, however, that the size of Tranströmer's body of work is not the key factor in his reputation. Tranströmer, Florczyk wrote, "deserves our attention precisely because he occupies the elusive spot reserved for the privileged few whose importance and validity is judged by quality, not quantity."

The volume that elicited that comment, The Great Enigma, contains all of Tranströmer's poems that had appeared in book form until then. The inclusion of his most recent poems plus a prose memoir made the collection especially valuable, according to some reviewers. It is a "more comprehensive collection" than The Half-Finished Heaven, remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor. The memoir, Florczyk added, provides important insights into Tranströmer's life and influences, especially his love of nature, and is "integral and self-sustaining." Most of all, Florczyk wrote, the collection underlines that Tranströmer is "a metaphysical poet of vivid images and haunting sceneries."



Tranströmer, Tomas, Österjöar, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974.


Books in Canada, September, 1997, review of For the Living and the Dead: New Poems and a Memoir, Translated from Swedish, p. 26.

Borealis, January/February, 2002, Roseann Lloyd, "Swedish Psychology," pp. 34-35.

Boston Review, February, 1988, review of Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer: 1954-1986, p. 19.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1998, review of New Collected Poems, p. 531.

Library Journal, April 1, 1987; review of Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, p. 152; January, 1998, Louis McKee, review of Sorgegondolen, pp. 103-104.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 12, 1996, review of For the Living and the Dead, p. 6.

New York Review of Books, October 8, 1998, review of New Collected Poems, p. 37.

New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1981, Rolf Fjelde, "Poems as Meeting Places," p. 26; November 18, 2001, Noah Isenberg, review of The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, p. 68.

Parnassus, fall, 1983, review of Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, p. 192.

Publishers Weekly, August 25, 1997, review of The Sorrow Gondola, p. 67; May 25, 1998, review of New Collected Poems, p. 87; August 27, 2001, review of The Half-Finished Heaven, p. 77; September 18, 2006, review of The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, p. 37.

School Librarian, summer, 1998, review of New Collected Poems, p. 98.

Times Educational Supplement, November 13, 1987, review of Collected Poems, p. 26.

Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 1975; September 4, 1981, review of Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, p. 1019; March 27, 1998, review of New Collected Poems, p. 24.

Translation Review Supplement, July, 1997, review of For the Living and the Dead, p. 41; February, 1998, review of The Sorrow Gondola, p. 25; July, 1998, review of New Collected Poems, p. 24.

World Literature Today, summer, 1990, Lasse Söderberg, "The Swedishness of Tomas Tranströmer," p. 483; spring, 1994, Robin Fulton, review of Minnena Ser Mig, p. 387; winter, 1997, review of Sorgegondolen, p. 174; winter, 2000, Sven Hakon Rossel, review of Tolkningar, p. 253; winter, 2002, Sven Hakon Rossel, review of Samlade dikter 1954-1996, p. 116; May 1, 2007, Piotr Florczyk, review of The Great Enigma, p. 77.

ONLINE, (December 19, 2007), brief biography.

About this article

Tranströmer, Tomas 1931- (Tomas Gösta Tranströmer, Tomas Goesta Tranströmer, Tomas Gösta Transtroemer, Tomas Gosta Transtromer)

Updated About content Print Article