National Poetry Month – Poets On Poetry # 1 – Tomas Transtromer 1931 – 2015

Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer. Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX

Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer. Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX


from Morning Birds

Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It is growing, it takes my place.
It pushes me out of its way.
It throws me out of the nest.

Tomas Transtomer, Trans. Gunnar Harding and Frederic Will from Selected Poems 1954-1986 – Ed. Robert Hass, The Ecco Press, 1987


From March ‘79

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I came across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.

Language but no words.

Tomas Transtomer, Trans. John F. Deane from Selected Poems 1954-1986 – Ed. Robert Hass, The Ecco Press, 1987 p.159

April 1st, 2015. The start of another National Poetry Month. It seems fitting to dedicate this first day of this month-long celebration of poetry to the Swedish Nobel Prize laureate, Tomas Transtromer who died almost a week ago on March 26th just a few weeks short of his 84th birthday.

In addition to being a prolific poet, Transtromer was also a practising psychologist for many years. In spite of a debilitating stroke in 1990 that took away his ability to speak coherently and confined him to a wheelchair, Transtromer continued to write and to appear at major writing events. He even managed to keep playing the piano, one of his passions, but with just his left hand. In 2007 he flew to Toronto to accept a Lifetime Recognition Award for Excellence in Poetry from the Griffin Trust. For a video on Transtromer from Bloodaxe Books click here.

I choose, also, to feature Transtromer in this post because of the theme I want to explore this month: poets writing poems about language and poetry.

The final stanza of Transtromer’s poem Wild Birds featured above captures the utterly mysterious nature of the poetic process. Do we write the poem or does it write us? Transtromer in his poem seems to be saying it writes us: fantastic to to feel how my poem grows/ while I myself shrink. Jane Hirschfield, the American poet and essayist echoes Transtromer in these comments from an interview in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997:

When I write, I don’t know what is going to emerge. I begin in a condition of complete unknowing, an utter nakedness of concept or goal. A word appears, another word appears, an image. It is a moving into mystery.

A moving into mystery. This seems to be a wonderful description of poetry and also of Transtromer’s second poem featured above which also seems to be grappling with the nature of poetic language. I love the paradox of this poem. Tired of all who come with words, words but no language, Transtromer finds a language without words embedded in the snowy landscape he describes. Language but no words. But in the very act of writing this poem he appears to come to us his readers with both words and a language. One of astonishment and mystery.

The Canadian poet Anne Simpson, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2004, addresses this poem in her essay, A Hundred and Fifty Psalms at Twilight. She says how it reveals how the land speaks to us, how it addresses us. Then she adds: We inhabit language bodily, letting the air move through us, allowing ourselves to be thresholds. Yet a sense of otherness, which might speak through us, is too often scoured away. We favour the analytical model; we depend on it. There is nothing wrong with it, but we have allowed it to supersede other forms of expression: astonishment is ironed out of it, lament and ecstasy eradicated.

It is this otherness which for me inhabits the mysterious nature of poetry. And it is embodied in Transtromer’s poems.

I have had barren times in my  spiritual life. An otherness or numinous quality, something divine even, seems nowhere. I say seems to because the odds are I am not alone even at those moments but it sure feels that way. That’s when I head for poetry to the otherness I find there. The palpable mystery. And I find it especially in the poems of Transtromer and especially in this poem:

Face To Face

In February life stood still.
The birds refused to fly and the soul
grated against the landscape as a boat
chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.

The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth
measured by the stubble poking through.
The footprints grew old out on the ice crust.
Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.

Suddenly, something approaches the window.
I stop working and look up.
The colours blaze. Everything turns around.
The earth and I spring at each other.

Tomas Transtromer from The Deleted World, Enitharmon Press, 2007, trans. Robin Robertson

Transtromers’ trademark is his use of spare imagery and, not surprisingly, the resulting rich starkness of his poems also mirror the harsh beauty of his native land. There is a numinous and mystical aspect to Transtromer’s work. It suggests vividly the presence of something looming at the edge of consciousness, at the edge of the page.

Face to Face is no exception The image of the soul in this poem arrests me. The sense that the soul is caught, trapped here in the world, a boat chafing against the concrete reality of the jetty; tethered, when it is designed to be free, out on a greater ocean. If some of his poems touch on the religious it is not as dogma or in the thrall of some specific theology. It is as if he reaches out and touches something indescribable and then anchors his poem back in concrete reality.

In another poem called The Outpost, Transtromer says: I am the place/ where creation is working itself out. In an interview in 1973 he says: This kind of religious idea recurs here and there in my poems of late, that I see a kind of meaning in being present, in using reality, in experiencing it, in making something of it. And I have an inkling that I’m doing this as some sort of task or commission.

The last lines of Face To Face contain a primal exultation. No matter how tied up, tied down, we feel, especially when the world we see around us seems dormant or dead, this poem says something past the window blazes with transcendent life. The earth and I spring at each other. What a shocking recovery from the tone of the first stanza. What hope carried by both words and language!


  1. Liz McNally
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    “Tired of all who come with words,
    Words but no language.”
    This could never be said of you Richard.
    You come to us with such language in these posts and bless you for it.

  2. Richard
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Bless you Liz, how you cherish language.

  3. Heidi Garnett
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    This is the trick isn’t it, to write about the absence of words using words? How terrifying it can be to sit and wait for the silence to speak.

  4. Richard
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    You speak to me this Easter morning. The white page. The dark garden patch. No words. No language. Winter is not a season! It is any time! Any now!

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