The Music of Tomas Tranströmer

When I read the complete works of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer last year, collected in The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems in a marvelous translation by Robin Fulton, I was not at all surprised to discover the most riveting depiction of the Swedish landscape I had ever read. Many of Tranströmer’s poems paint vivid pictures of Sweden’s eerie beauty, as in “Storm,” an early poem from his début collection 17 Poems (Sjutton Dikter) in 1953:

Here the walker suddenly meets the giant
oak tree, like a petrified elk whose crown is
furlongs wide before the September ocean’s
            murky green fortress.
Northern storm. The season when rowanberry
clusters swell. Awake in the darkness, listen:
constellations stamping inside their stalls, high
            over the treetops.

In “Solitary Swedish Houses,” from the 1958 collection Secrets On the Way (Hemligheter På Vägen), one almost shudders at Tranströmer’s deceptively simple portrait of the chilling majesty of rural Sweden. The poem begins:

A confusion of black spruce
and smoking moonbeams.
Here’s the cottage lying low
and not a sign of life.
Till the morning dew murmurs
and an old man opens
—with a shaky hand—his window
and lets out an owl.

Images such as these are common in Tranströmer’s writing. What I didn’t expect, and what for me is the most startling and beautiful aspect of his work, is his passionate writing about music. Although Tranströmer’s remarkably varied poetry touches on many themes—his travels in Africa, feelings of isolation and the inevitability of death—his most sublime poems for me are those whose subjects are music and the complicated reactions it often inspires. “The Sad Gondola” is an ode to Liszt and the majesty of his piano compositions. In “Brief Pause in the Organ Recital,” the ambient noises a parishioner hears between hymns remind him of lost friendships, and of the incipient outlines of death’s features.

Other poems celebrate the pure joy of music, as in this excerpt from “C Major”:

A music broke out
and walked in the swirling snow
with long steps.
Everything on the way toward the note C.
A trembling compass directed at C.
One hour higher than the torments.
It was easy!
Behind turned-up collars everyone was smiling.

And in this lovely verse from “Schubertiana,” Tranströmer evokes music’s ability to heighten all of our other senses:

The string quartet is playing. I walk home through warm forests with the
            ground springy under me,
curl up like an embryo, fall asleep, roll weightless into the future, suddenly
            feel that the plants have thoughts.

It is no surprise, then, and quite wonderful, that Tranströmer, who is paralyzed on his right side and has difficulty speaking due to a stroke he suffered in 1990, will accept his Nobel Prize in Literature not with a lecture but with a piano recital. I can think of no more appropriate way for this most musical of poets to receive his award. Few art forms are as eloquent and immediate as music. A concert of pieces written for the left hand, pieces that Swedish composers have adapted specifically for Tranströmer, is a fitting tribute not only to music’s many powers but also to the poet’s courage and accomplishments. I have no doubt that, during Tranströmer’s recital, every one of the assembled guests at Stockholm Concert Hall will be smiling, much like the citizens shrouded by those turned-up collars in the swirling snow.


2 thoughts on “The Music of Tomas Tranströmer

  1. Wonderful article. Even more enticed to get a copy of his book in my hands. Beautiful poetry. Have you read any of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poems? She won the Griffin Poetry Trust prize awarded to a non-Canadian last June for her book Heavenly Questions. Moving, mesmerizing recitation.

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