Swedish Poet Wins Nobel Prize In Literature

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 6, 2011 5:49 pm
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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

We're going to learn more now about the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a Swedish poet named Tomas Transtromer.

NPR's Neda Ulaby explains who he is and why he was chosen.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Tomas Transtromer is one of those poets who can conjure natural landscapes in your imagination, such as Sweden's austere winter landscapes. Here he is followed by a translator.

TOMAS TRANSTROMER: (Through Translator) December. Sweden is a beached unrigged ship against a twilight sky its mast are sharp. And twilight lasts longer than day. The roads here is stony. Not till midday does the light arrive and winter's coliseum rise, lit by unreal clouds.

ULABY: Transtromer's reading was recorded before 1990, when he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak or walk. Transtromer was an accomplished pianist and he continued to play after the stroke using only his left hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

ULABY: In 2002, he released a CD of music including this piece composed just for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

ULABY: You can hear musicality in Transtromer's' language and rhythm, and in names of the classical composers with whom he sometimes almost seems to collaborate.

TRANSTROMER: (Through Translator) After a black day, I play Haydn and feel a little warmth in my hands. The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall. The sound is spirited, green and full of silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

ULABY: Tomas Transtromer was born in 1931. He grew up in the shadow of World War II, in a family vehemently opposed to the Nazis. His parents separated when he was three, and he was pitied and occasionally bullied at school.

Ia Dubois is a professor of Scandinavian poetry, and she says how he must have felt remains a striking motif in his work.

PROFESSOR IA DUBOIS: The loneliness and it is often the lonely child, the lonely man. And through his works, you feel that aging and how he relates to the human condition at each step of life.

ULABY: Transtromer's work has been celebrated in Sweden since he was 23, when his first volume of poetry instantly established him as a leading literary voice of his generation. But some found his voice cold and removed. In an interview from 1962, Transtromer lounges serenely under a tree to talk about his presence in his own poetry.

TRANSTROMER: (Through Translator) When I started writing, and especially in the first book, there was very little I. I think actually only in one place in the book there is an I. But, in fact, the book is full of me.

ULABY: Moments of intense self-awareness and unflinching empathy characterize Transtromer's work. He spent his adult life not just as poet but psychologist, working with imprisoned teenagers and addicts. And he traveled the world, translating what he saw.

TRANSTROMER: (Through Translator) In the evening dark of a place outside New York, Lookout Point, where one glance can encompass eight million people's homes. The giant city over there is a long flickering snow drift, a spiral galaxy on its side.

ULABY: Starting in the late 1960s, Tomas Transtromer began to develop a U.S. following, thanks to poet Robert Bly, who was the first to translate him into English.

ROBERT BLY: I was reading Swedish poetry and found him. And then I wrote to him and said, wow.

ULABY: Bly says he was staggered, not just by stealthy brilliance of Transtromer's metaphors but by the clarity of his beliefs.

BLY: Swedes tend to be a little too modern and Tomas was not like that. I felt that he was a new voice in Swedish poetry, in which a lot of spiritual energy appears - not mocking it but living with it.

ULABY: Transtromer's work has been translated into over 50 languages, according to Peter Englund, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy. But in an interview following this morning's announcement, he admitted that Transtromer's output is more about quality than quantity.

PETER ENGLUND: You could fit it into a not-too-large pocket book, all of it. So he has a very sparse and very well-contained production. He is not a prolific author.

ULABY: You could probably read every poem Tomas Transtromer has written in a single evening, he said. One very special evening.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.