Guest Review: SJ Fowler on The New Nobel Laureate

New Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton
Tomas Tranströmer

There is little doubt that Tomas Tranströmer will be remembered as one of the last great figures of 20th century European poetry, and by many, the last of a dying breed – that is a poet whose work and whose persona genuinely and thoroughly resonate in the consciousness of their nation. All the more remarkable perhaps, because he has come to stand for an image of the poet we might perceive as tailored and quaint – a deeply private and modest man, whose output of poetry over the last sixty years has been sparse though clearly momentous enough to command a world audience.

This important volume from Bloodaxe, the second of its kind in under a decade, may not build any new structures for the reception of Tranströmer’s poetry, but in its simple reconstitution of works past, embellished by the short, poignant works Tranströmer has undertaken in the 21st century, the book becomes something of a testament to a remarkable literary figure, whose recalcitrant writing has fashioned him into the most urbane of contemporary poetical mystics. In some ways, it is hard to see the volume as anything but a fitting, if pre-emptive, poetic eulogy.

Tranströmer’s poetry has always been admired for its clarity and poise. His is a singular mode, so refined to approach a certain perfection in its simplicity, multifaceted in its exposition but often returning to the observant, the human, the roots of metaphysical scrutiny, his work is often quietly biographical, anecdotal or reflective. His poems resonate with wisdom, and yet rarely fall foul of seeming cloy. In fact, it is perhaps this which marks his genius. And this volume proves once again that Tranströmer has always been served by excellent translators, with Robin Fulton perhaps the most remarkable, having loyally represented his poems for over 35 years.

Not that Tranströmer has been without his critics. Successive generations of younger Swedish poets have spoken out against his quasi-religious poetry, claiming his work to be picturesque. Perhaps because his achievement is so thoroughly individual, though his work may be in some ways traditional, that those who imitate him will be so clearly in his shadow to fall at their first hurdle. It has often been said that his life’s profession as a psychologist and his pseudo-religious intimations have made him a unique poetic voice precisely because he is a product of a country like Sweden – liberal and pre-dominantly secular.

This volume is discernible because of its inclusion of his most recent work ‘the Great Enigma’ (the only poems, bar a cluster Haiku’s from 1959, that is not included in the 2002 Bloodaxe edition New Collected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer) and in this, as well as in his memoirs and later poems in general, we see the arch of his output reach it’s most distilled and modest form. Mortality has always been a fundamental theme of Tranströmer’s work and in the tone and subject of these slight poems, one could even compare these final works to that of the Buddhist monk’s death poems, solemn, accepting and imperceptibly wry.

‘The funerals keep coming
more and more of them
like the traffic signs
as we approach the city’

For anyone with a passing interest in the poetry of 20th century Europe, this volume is a must have addition to their collection and with it we are allowed a clear glimpse of Tranströmer looking eye to eye with the very greatest writers of his time.

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