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Upheavals in life often leave us running, at once, for the new and the old. Unconfirmed reports say that I may have cut seven inches of my hair off, four days before flying home for the first time in almost eight months. I also may have downloaded two Longmire novels to my phone, and the second book of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War series to my Audible app. Tomas Tranströmer has played much the same role in my life, a touchstone for times good and bad, new and old. Laying in bed listening to a recitation of one of his poems a few nights ago was what inspired me to write this post initially.
While winning a Nobel Prize would be a breathtaking gift to most poets, for Tranströmer this attracted no small amount of criticism. As he was Swedish, some critics said, his mediocre poetry was being honored by a sense of national pride rather than for its merits. To me, this is complete stupidity. The Swedish former psychologist deserves far more attention than he gets in the English speaking world, for the beauty of his wordcraft and the profundity of his message.
Take the poem below, one of my favorites, if not my absolute favorite. I’ll pick just one flourish to try to convince you of Tranströmer’s brilliance; the repeated allusion/motif of Haydn. Skilled poets, perhaps most famously T.S. Eliot, use a variety of allusions as bullets of concentrated meaning, a device which can convey a rainbow of history, feeling, and philosophy where otherwise so many words would be needed. In “Allegro” the Classical composer Joseph Haydn alone is used to the same effect. In the first instance as an example of beauty and the mooring that enduring products of civilization can provide in life. In the second, Haydn, his music and his thought, are a place of retreat, “Haydnpockets” where, if the poet is narrator, the man of faith goes to escape an increasingly secular society. And on like this. Combined with a spare style that perfectly evokes the harshness, minimalism, and beauty of Swedish natural life (and such outstanding characteristics of other places that he poetically paints, like Shanghai), this skill in manipulating literary devices shows a true brilliance. Combined with the contents of the poetry, reaching to understand every aspect of life and the beyond, makes it sublime.
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance is green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.
I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.”
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.