A Victory for Poetry

The decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer is a declaration of faith in poetry's power to transcend borders.

"And I take the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature, when it is given to a poet, to be primarily an assertion of the supra-national value of poetry. To make that affirmation, it is necessary from time to time to designate a poet: and I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry."

It has been over 60 years since T.S. Eliot said the above in his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet. Since then, a few other poets have won the prize, including Wislawa Szymborska and Seamus Heaney, and now once again a poet has been awarded the prize, this time the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. It seems that Eliot's remarks are more relevant than ever, and the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to a poet indeed is not just an award to the poet himself, but also an award to the significance of poetry and a renewed declaration of faith in its power to transcend borders and have an impact even in times when the value of things is measured solely by the number of people interested in them.

Tomas Transtromer and wife - Reuters - october 6 2011
Reuters

The name of Transtromer, who was born in 1931, has been mentioned as a candidate for several years now, but his win is still seen as a surprise. He is not exactly apolitical, but his poetry does not represent clear-cut non-conformism the way the works of other Nobel laureates did, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky. Nor is the selection perceived as representing the people's voice, the way works of Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott are. Not everyone therefore deems Transtromer as a worthy choice. The Telegraph's Philip Hensher noted, for example, "that time has shown every single Swedish winner of the prize to be 'a little phenomenon of no interest' outside their own country."

Transtromer is indeed not a popular poet among the broader public, but his poetry has been translated into some 60 languages. His poems were translated into Hebrew by Galit Hasan-Rokem and his book, "Winter Formulae" was published in 2003 by Keshev Leshira. "Transtromer's poetry can be considered from two perspectives," says the publisher's CEO, Rafi Weichert. "First, it contains material directly connected to Sweden, the images, the scenery. On the other hand, he deals with universal issues, such as the alienation that is the lot of modern man, the relationship between nature and the written word and urbanity, the place of language and poetry, the place of religion."

The last poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature was Wislawa Szymborska. The ease with which both poets' works can be translated may well account for part of the choice to grant them the award.

"Transtromer's poetry is meditative, recitative, and colored with surreal images and expressionism," says Weichert. "It is poetry where the essence is in the content, the pictures and in this respect it is also reminiscent of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, which is also easy to translate and has become popular around the world."

A politically clean choice

Transtromer suffered a stroke in 1990 and since then has been paralyzed on one side and is unable to talk. He does continue to write and publish, but Weichert says his best poetry was written in earlier years. "I think they gave him the prize because they were worried that he would depart from this world without receiving it. This choice also conveys a message of political cleanliness. Had they chosen Adonis, for example, who I think is a great poet and certainly deserving of the prize, they would be saying that he was chosen because of the protests in Syria. And if they had chosen Amos Oz they would say that it was in order to promote the peace process. In the case of Transtromer, it is impossible to make any political arguments of this kind. Clearly, he was chosen on the merit of his poetry."

In England, the publisher of Transtromer's books has already announced that it will be printing additional copies in anticipation of a spike in demand in the wake of the prize. Will buyers in Israel also rush to the stores?

"With Szymborska that happened," says Weichert. "Before she won the Nobel Prize I had already translated two of her books and most of the copies remained in my bedroom. After she won, she became very popular." Could this happen with Transtromer?

"Not in the same way; I find it hard to believe," says Weichert. "Szymborska's poetry had something much more accessible; in her work, there is a smile, cleverness, humor. Transtromer's poetry is gloomier with the oppressive scenery of Sweden. There is something Bergman-esque about it; it will never be as popular as Szymborska's poetry."

The Station

A train has rolled in. Carriage after carriage stands,
but no doors open, no one gets off or on.
Are there no doors to be found at all? In there it is crowded
with locked-in people who are moving to and fro.
They are staring out through the immovable windows.
And outside a man goes along the train with a hammer.
He strikes on the wheels, which toll faintly. Except right here!
Here the ringing swells incomprehensibly: a thunderclap,
a cathedral-bells-sound, a world-circumnavigating-sound,
that lifts the whole train and the neighborhoods wet stones.
Everything is singing. You will remember this. Proceed!

(Translation by John F. Deane)