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Poetry and performance infuse Tranströmer's Nobel lecture

Poetry and performance infuse Tranströmer's Nobel lecture

Published: 07 Dec 2011 18:38 GMT+01:00
Updated: 07 Dec 2011 18:38 GMT+01:00

The annual Nobel Lecture in Literature, honouring 80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, opened in Stockholm on Wednesday with an introduction by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.

Tranströmer is the first Swede in 40 years to win the Nobel literature prize.

Whereas many literature laureates prepare special lectures for the occasion, Tranströmer's lecture featured readings of 13 poems from throughout his career coordinated with musical accompaniment.

Tranströmer looked on as his work was set to music and sung by the Gustaf Sjöqvist's Chamber Choir and Uppsala Chamber Soloists, among other performers.

“Good poetry is a powerful thing. It can change our picture of the world, making it clearer, sharper, more comprehensible. And forever,” Englund said.

“We should not be taken in by the understated tone of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. Several of the real wonders of our existence are constantly present: Memory, History, Death, Nature – nature not least. But each not as an overwhelming exterior presence, nor as something that assumes life under our gaze. In your work it is the very opposite: ego, the individual, is the prism into which everything is drawn. It gives us a feeling of context, even obligation,” he continued.

“Dear Tomas, it is impossible to feel insignificant after having read your poetry. Neither is it still possible to love the world for the wrong reasons.”

“But what makes great poetry great is not only that it clarifies or reveals something already present in our world, but also that it has the ability to actually widen the boundaries of that world. Therein lies its power,” Englund said.

The first poem recited was “Minnena ser mig” (Memories Look at Me), originally published in 1983:

A June morning, too soon to wake,

too late to fall asleep again.

I must go out – the greenery is dense

with memories, they follow me with their gaze.

They can't be seen, they merge completely with

the background, true chameleons.

They are so close that I can hear them breathe

although the birdsong here is deafening.

Tranströmer began his serious writing career in 1954 when he published "17 dikter" (17 poems).

Predominant in the Swedish poet's work are themes of nature and music and he followed up "17 dikter" with several collections in the 1950s and 1960s, including: "Hemligheter på vägen" (1958; Secrets along the way), "Den halvfärdiga himlen" (1962; The Half-Finished Heaven, 2001) and "Klanger och spår" (1966; Windows & Stones : Selected Poems, 1972).

With "Windows & Stones: Selected Poems", published in English in 1972, he consolidated his standing among critics and other readers as one of the leading poets of his generation, according to his Swedish Academy biography.

A significant amount of his work has been translated into English and other languages including "The Sorrow Gondola" and "New Collected Poems", published in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

In an article on the challenges of translating Tranströmer into English, Robbin Robertson, who translated Tranströmer's forthcoming volume, "The Deleted World", wrote: “The supple rhythms of the original poems are hard to replicate and, equally, the plosive musicality of Swedish words like 'domkyrkoklocklang' lose all their aural resonance when they become a 'peal of cathedral bells.'”

After Tranströmer was announced as the Nobel literature winner at the beginning of October, his books flew off the shelves in the Anglophone world.

The Observer reported that within a few days after the announcement, his book The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems was ranked number 12 on Amazon, a rarity for a poetry book.

Recent Nobel literature laureates include Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), Romanian-born German author Herta Müller (2009), French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008), and British author Doris Lessing (2007).

Tranströmer is the first Swedish writer since Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who shared the prize in 1974, to claim the Nobel.

The Literature Nobel has been awarded 104 times since 1901, with the exception of six years during WWI and WWII.

He will receive the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature on Saturday at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

A live webcast of the Nobel literature lecture was broadcast from the Swedish Academy. A video of the performance will be available on the Nobel Foundation website below, where the full text of the 13 poems in English and Swedish have also been published.

Charlotte West (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

18:57 December 9, 2011 by BritVik
Personally, poetry as such leaves me cold, having never got much beyond Lewis Carrols's 'You are old, father William, the young man said . . . learned at school back in 1947. To me, the Tranströmer poem quoted here could just as easily have been written as normal text, and been just as logical. So it is with much that is called poetry today, and clearly requires 'a literary mind' or something, to appreciate it. I just don't see it. Am I alone in that??
20:23 December 9, 2011 by canam
You're not "wrong". That's my biggest issue with poetry - it's so personal hence subjective, who can say what is "brilliant" or "rubbish"? One of my biggest pet peeves is bad poetry and those who actually label poetry "bad" ;)
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