Hoo-Hooing in the Birch

Michael Hofmann

  • Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane
    Sarabande, 207 pp, £13.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 941411 21 6

I have a sort of moral-aesthetic compass rose I like to play with. The designations are approximate and subject to change, but for now they go like this: North-South is the axis of simplicity; East-West that of pleasure. The North is spare, the South proliferative; the West bland, the East astringent … Well, for something so simple and seemingly arbitrary, there is probably more truth in it than there ought to be.

The Swede Tomas Tranströmer was for our time the poet of the North, the pendant – to use the obvious parallel – to Ingmar Bergman, in one of whose early films he was an extra, as a boy. Like Bergman, he gives you the days that are all night, and the nights that are all day; the interleaving of land and water, and city and country; the half-life of religion; the grim pasts and only slightly less grim presents; the unending monochrome winter and the brief summers that are all leaves and insects and blue and green sparkle. His poems, one reads, have been translated into fifty, then sixty, and at the last seventy, languages (which is extraordinary for anyone writing in a ‘small’ language, much less a poet). In 2011 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; his name, apparently, came up every year from 1990 on. Yes, a homer, but it’s as though the world retained a soft spot for its Scandinavian corner, so grounded in the verities, so rudimentary, so shyly phlegmatic, and not least with such an appetite and curiosity for the rest of the world unfolding below: for Turkey and Greece and Iberia, in Tranströmer’s case (like many of his countrymen, he was a great traveller), for Asia and Africa.

Tranströmer, who died last year, trained as a psychologist and all his life worked with young people. Literature – which meant a dozen short volumes of poetry (not more than 250 pages, all told) and a vivid and attractively straightforward memoir of his childhood, also short, called Memories Look at Me – was almost a sideline for him, occasional, but unusually pure and self-consistent. Poetry was reserved for encounters with the unsettling (das Unheimliche, as German has it), for sinister or joyful impossibilities, for moments when existence abruptly swelled or dwindled. Words like ‘mystical’ and ‘surreal’ get tossed around a lot, but they’re not right: these impulses and moments are neither pious nor programmatic. ‘The jet plane curtsying in its skirts of noise’ is a random example; ‘the concert hall with its lamps trembling in triumph like the train-ferry when it puts in’; blue wind-flowers that ‘shoot up out of the brown rustle of last year in overlooked places where one’s gaze never pauses’; or ‘It’s spring 1827. Beethoven/hoists his death mask and sails off.’

Unusually, and attractively too, his poems don’t eclipse or exhaust their subjects, but leave something of them peeping out: you get poem and subject, metaphor and literal fact, concert hall and train-ferry. Tranströmer is terrified and calm, asleep and awake, old man and small boy, himself and (at the time) four billion strangers. One of his favourite figures is the labyrinth. Metaphor in him is not ornament, as it is in most poets, but the whole poem. And then consensual metaphor too, impersonal, uncoercive, democratic metaphor. One might suppose he retained something of the strength and sense of purpose of the amateur. He gravitated in his reading to non-fiction, to history and geography and biology. ‘I left literature to its fate,’ he writes drily, in the section of his memoir called ‘Libraries’. I find it accordingly difficult to put him in a literary context, to see him as anything other than the poet of his life and time and place. At best, maybe, in the single-sentence lines especially, with his cold burn and primary diction, a stragglier version of the Austrian Georg Trakl: ‘The jacket threadbare as a wolf pack./The face like a marble slab./Sitting in the circle of his letters in the grove that rustles/with scorn and error,/the heart blowing like a scrap of paper through the inhospitable/passageways’ (‘Gogol’). Or, in his enduring childhood and capacity for surprise and wonder, of the Orkneyman and author of one of the great poets’ prose books (An Autobiography) Edwin Muir, who, come to think of it, also thought about existence in terms of a labyrinth.

Tranströmer is neither anxious nor imposing in his poems. There is never the pushiness of ‘Me first, Kingsley, I’m cleverest.’ He never became resentable to readers, either at home or abroad. Poets liked him. Seamus Heaney of course liked him, but so did others as dissimilar as Joseph Brodsky, Andrew Motion and (one of his first translators) Robert Bly. Poets were drawn to translate him too: fellow Northerners like Robin Fulton (for a long time now a resident of Norway, though 48 years ago for small reward he was teaching me geography in Edinburgh) and Robin Robertson, or the Irishman John F. Deane, or now the American Patty Crane. They were drawn by the small vocabulary, the short sentences, the largely transferable word-order, the language that seems to pay twenty shillings to the pound – darkness, stone, light, tree, cold. You feel the poet trotting through the woods, jotting something down when the need arises, as for instance: ‘A cuckoo sat hoo-hooing in the birch just north of the house. It was so loud that at first I thought it was an opera singer imitating a cuckoo.’ (They are, someone said, for the most part very outdoorsy poems as well, which I think accounts for some of their appeal to Americans.) Tranströmer also drew, played the piano and composed. When a stroke crippled him in 1990 – he became aphasic, and lost the use of his right hand – he continued to play with his left. Music, he said, guided him out of the darkness. He often described his poetry as music (which, as in most cases short of Sitwell or Cummings, I find a perplexing remark), and it’s undeniably full of references to it: ‘Prelude’, ‘Ostinato’, ‘Caprichos’, ‘C Major’, ‘Schubertiana’, ‘Allegro’, ‘Berceuse’, ‘An Artist in the North’ (a first-person poem in the voice of Edvard Grieg), to give just a few instances (all titles, and there are more).

Why accept less if one can have everything? For the reader seriously interested in Tranströmer, there is no alternative to the New Collected Poems, Robin Fulton’s translations, from Bloodaxe, compiled and refined over forty years, and containing all the poems and Memories Look at Me. It makes a wonderful book; really, the only book. As Fulton says, Tranströmer is less in need of selection or pruning than any other poet, so for once you actually want everything. The newly appeared Bright Scythe is a selection of 62 poems, about a third of the whole, that trades on ‘the translations’ (and perhaps also on an American wish to have American versions for the post-Bly age), and as often, it’s not quite enough. From these versions we have: ‘It’s spring 1827. Beethoven/raises his death-mask and sails.’ Perhaps the feeling is that you’ve done something against the useful tyranny of prepositions. The publishers, Sarabande, haven’t done poet or translator any favours with their cover (a creepy-looking black and white caricature of Tranströmer with curly-wurly writing that appears to promise a graphic novel within, and the words ‘Bright Scythe’ like a blue parrot along one shoulder), the odd title (a celebration of death?) or the book itself as an object: it’s hardback, large-format, handles like a child’s first cookbook and feels as though it can be safely wiped down.

Patty Crane is of the Fairy Tale School of Translators. No, she didn’t wake up one morning knowing Swedish, having been taught it by the birds, but when her husband was transferred there for three years, as she relates in a rather breathy afterword, she put herself through the trouble of quickly learning the language, took some poetry classes back home, was asked by someone to take a book to Tranströmer in Stockholm, and somehow ended up making these translations, with assistance from the poet and his wife, Monica, to whom Bright Scythe is dedicated (in fairness, I think, all the English translators of Tranströmer have been offered similar hospitality and assistance; I don’t think any of them is ‘endorsed’, much less at the expense of the others. Moreover, such an endorsement would be of only limited value). Still, it’s a funny way to get to here from there.

The translations are better than that classically American narrative of luck-and-making-your-own-luck would lead one to think: they are quite good, ‘pleasant and without conceit’ in the words of one poem. Their judgment, tact and good sense are impressive in a newcomer. I like her ‘fragments of the great nightly writing that drew past’, preferring it to Fulton’s ‘fragments of the high nocturnal style that drew past’ but that’s the level of distinction we’re talking about. Tranströmer is not a poet who gives much to his translators, or needs much from them. Crane is more predictably in thrall to common details of Swedish, as though they were somehow wonders, or demanded translating. To me it doesn’t make much sense to render ‘glasklara’ (not a neologism, an ordinary word) as ‘glass-clear’ when English says ‘crystal clear’. One language assonates, the other alliterates. (The sentence it occurs in, the first sentence in the first poem in the book, makes a horrid screech anyway in a bafflingly disordered English: ‘The stones we have thrown I hear/fall, glass-clear through the year.’) One of the pluses of the book is that (unlike Fulton’s) it includes the Swedish originals, and if you know any Swedish (or even, like myself, some German; there’s a great deal of lexical overlap), that’s worth having. Another plus is David Wojahn’s enthusiastic and intelligent introduction. His first sentence, ‘the great subject of the poetry of Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer – it sometimes seems as though it is his only subject – is liminality,’ was so completely satisfying that it took me several days to get past it, to the four pages still to come.

In the end, the case against Bright Scythe is mostly coverage. Why not have the memoir? Why stint yourself of ‘Elegy’ and ‘Epilogue’ and ‘A Man from Benin’ and ‘An Artist in the North’ and ‘Schubertiana’ and ‘Black Postcards’ and ‘Codex’ and ‘Carillon’ and, because Crane does two late books in their entirety, all but small fractions from other books (just two poems of fifteen from Truth Barriers of 1978, which Wojahn calls ‘one of his finest individual collections’)? Why strip out the political Tranströmer (to applause from one of the American publishing preview journals) who wrote ‘Citoyens’ about a nightmare about Danton and made topical references to Gromyko and Eban? Why take no account of the poet as grateful, worried globetrotter, in New York City, in the Third World, behind the Iron Curtain? ‘Read between the lines,’ he says in ‘To Friends behind a Frontier’: ‘We’ll meet in two hundred years/when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten/and can at last sleep, become trilobites.’