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In Praise of Tranströmer the Transformer—and His Translator, Robert Bly

“Tranströmer!” Of course, I knew immediately what the email message meant. After years of waiting among the also-rans, and amid speculation that this was the year for an Arab poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature to honor the Arab Spring, or maybe, a late-breaking rumor, that Bob Dylan was the bettors’ choice, a Swede was named to win the Swedish prize.

Tomas Tranströmer: The name always makes me think of some kind of giant transformer, sending out signals from his redoubt in the snowy fields west of Stockholm. He is said to be a respected psychologist there—someone who has worked in a juvenile prison and cares for convicts and drug addicts—and an amateur pianist. Until a recent stroke, he also wrote poems. Those poems are well known to American readers in the poetry world, if such a world can be said to exist. He still plays the piano, with one hand.

Every poet has a distinctive music. Here is the closing stanza of Tranströmer’s poem on Vermeer:

The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
and whispers:
“I am not empty, I am open.”

I told my emailing friend, himself a Scandinavian “by background,” as we say, that I’d always suspected he had invented Tranströmer. Not at all, he responded, “Tranströmer invented us.” A typical Northern sally of wit, I thought, as I walked the dog on a sunny and crisp fall morning in New England, crossing the stubble fields into the dark woods. But then I thought, hey, what if he’s right?

For me, a Nobel for Tranströmer, well deserved, is also a Nobel for his close friend, translator, and collaborator Robert Bly. Bly! I can’t even begin to calculate how much I owe, in all things literary and spiritual, to Robert Bly. I don’t mean the Bly of later years, the prophet of Iron John and the Men’s Movement, though I can’t say I’m unmoved by his lament for the fathers, now that I’m one myself. I don’t mean the ecstatic Bly who performs Kabir with some mysterious rhythm instrument in hand, chanting and dancing and making his serape flap like wings. But I can’t say I mind that either. The truth is, I love Robert Bly.

For readers of poetry like me, who came of age during the late 1960s, poetry arrived through Robert Bly. There was his own poetry, especially the profound and quiet poems of Silence in the Snowy Fields (1953), which laid out an entirely different path for American poetry than the straight-laced and tight-assed poems of the academic poets of the East. Bly’s poems were set in rural Minnesota, and coaxed out of the bleak Northern landscape some private strain of feeling and loss and hope, which came to be associated with the notion of Deep Image, a poetry of the unconscious. Here is “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter”:

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

And then there were the translations. I came back from a year in Japan in 1970, crashed at the North Beach home of a friend of my brother’s. I was full of Gary Snyder and Denise Levertov. “You like poetry?” my host asked. “Here.” Twenty poems by Georg Trakl, translated by Bly and James Wright, courtesy of the Fifties Press. Amazing, wonderful, unforgettable poems. A few years later, the Sixties Press brought Neruda to us, and Vallejo. And Tranströmer.

Here’s what Bly told Alice Quinn in his interview with the Paris Review: “Translation of him was an amazing experience for me because there was a kind of image appearing in him that I’d never seen before. And it’s interesting that the Europeans recognized this, and within a few years he was being honored all over Europe. So how can you describe the strange images that he produces?” Bly offered these lines, from “The Scattered Congregation,” as an example:

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitors thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Bly points out that the effect here is far from French surrealism. “Most of the images of French surrealism don’t have a center,” he writes. “They’re like a wheel without any spokes.” He adds that “there’s a feeling that Tranströmer is closer to some silent energy in the middle of the universe than the rest of us are.”

This slightly woozy talk of silent energy is typical of Bly. The implication is that these poets from abroad are more inward than we Americans are, more in tune with the rhythms and leaps of the unconscious. But what makes Tranströmer distinctive, it seems to me, is the way he fuses his astonishing images, with their dark tug at the imagination, with a wide-awake sense of the ironic course of life in this world. Perhaps the convicts and the addicts have helped to anchor him. “The Scattered Congregation” is about life after the break-up of religious certainty: “The church bells have gone underground./ They’re hanging in the sewage pipes.” “Vermeer” contrasts the idyllic space of the paintings with the raucous doings next door, the bedlam of a grog shop: “It’s not a sheltered world./ The noise begins over there, on the other side of the wall/ where the alehouse is.”

In “After a Death,” as translated by Bly, Tranströmer imagines the aftermath of something momentous, the moment after:

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Where in the world did that image come from? How did we move from the telephone book to the samurai? It all came from Tranströmer, the transformer. Via Bly. It’s not a sheltered world. May their names evade the cold a little longer.

Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor for The New Republic.