2011’s Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Tomas Tranströmer, one of Scandinavia’s best loved poets. The 80-year-old Swede suffered a devastating stroke in 1990 that left him without the power of speech and only able to move his left side. Despite this he not only continued to write but also learned to play the piano with his left hand. There are about a thousand pieces of music for the left hand and only fifty odd for the right. Many of the most talented pianists and composers of the past were left-handed – the left side is linked to the right brain, the creative centre. No coincidence then.
At an event hosted by Poet in the City, in conjunction with the Embassy of Sweden, the poet laureate’s poems were read and celebrated to mark his achievement. Tranströmer’s stunning poems were recited in both their original Swedish and in English by actors Krister Henriksson (of Wallander fame) and Philip Fox. Interspersed with the verse were beautiful musical renditions of Tranströmer’s work and some fascinating insights into the poet and his art by fellow poet Alan Brownjohn, and poet and translator David Constantine.
Tranströmer’s love for music lead him to write poems such as C Major and Allegro, the final lines of which read –
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope…
The rocks roll straight through the house
But every pane of glass is still whole.
As well as his beloved music, nature and psychology (Tranströmer worked as a psychologist for much of his life) are always present. He conjures transitions over frontiers – sleeping and waking, life and death, culture and nature, silence and speaking – describes what it means to be human in a particular time and place and opens doors you didn’t even know existed: doing exactly what the best poet and writer will do. His poems are concise, simple and supremely evocative. They don’t need rhyme and rhythm to mesmerise.
There were too many resonate lines from the evening that I wanted to capture and remember forever. In Black Picture-Postcard he confronts death, that ever present and inevitable fact of life, with originality and frankness:
In the middle of life, death comes
to take your measurements. The visit
is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit
is being sewn on the sly.
And in Romanesque Arches he gives us another perspective on life, as a faceless angel whispers to him that –
Inside you, vaults are opening and new vaults beyond these – forever.
Never will it stop. Never shall it stop.
There was also music by Bach, Schubert, Frank Bridge and Rachmaninoff played sublimely by pianist Simon Lepper and violinist Björn Kleiman. Hanna Husahr provided the soprano for the poems sung to music and Nils Klöfver gave some spell-binding performances on the acoustic guitar.
As a poet myself, it was inspiring to hear so much food for thought about other artists and the medium of poetry. Poetry is generous. Poems are written to be enjoyed and to be learned from by another person at another time, not for the gratification of the poet. Constantine drew attention to the fact that in language there are so many ready-made phrases we use robotically that the meaning of these words becomes meaningless to us. Poetry rebels against this by providing new ways to combine words so that we are no longer blind to their meaning. Translators are essential. They convey these messages from one language to another – “couriers” bringing about a “beneficent globalisation”, to quote Constantine.
Affection and admiration for Tranströmer was very apparent at the British Library on Friday. The man himself was present and a prolonged standing ovation as the evening drew to a close reflected the respect and appreciation held for him by all. If poetry were something you’ve never given a second thought, Tranströmer’s oeuvre would be an incredible place to start.
Interestingly, Alfred Nobel, after who the prize is named, was also a Swedish poet and dramatist. He left the majority of the money in his will for the establishment of the prize, the first of which was awarded in 1901.