Friday, October 14, 2011


When Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel prize for literature last week, many people around the world uttered a collective, “Who?”

Perhaps half the people in Minnesota who follow such things were pleased, or at any rate, not overly surprised. This is not only because of the state’s Scandinavian heritage, but also because one of Tranströmer’s early translators and lifelong friends is Robert Bly, who is a literary institution in these parts.

I was biking with a friend on a rail-trail near Nisswa over the weekend, and conversation got around to the recent award. “I dug out this book,” my friend said, “to give him another chance…”

“I know the one,” I relied. “It has a purple cover with a painting by Vermeer.”

“Yeah, I read five or six poems…they just didn’t grab me.”

“I often take that book with me when we go up north. Yet I feel like I’ve never read it. Now Rolf Jacobson I like.”

And so it goes.

It’s a great thing that the Nobel committee still gives out awards to poets, and also great that the news can make the front page of the paper, or somewhere close. Everyone loves to dispute whether so-and-so is worthy, and who’s been unjustly neglected for too long.

Perhaps Tranströmer will someday return to the ranks of the obscure in the lengthening Nobel list, along with Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, and Henrik Pontoppidan. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.

As I thumb once again through The Half-Finished Heaven, with its gloomy and enigmatic urban images and it bizarre nature-associations, I hit upon expressions that seem artificial and portentous to me:

The building not open today. The sun crowds in through the windowpanes
And warms the upper side of the desk
Which is strong enough to bear the fate of others.
That's a bad line. But in the next stanza things improve.

…If you stand in the sun and shut your eyes,
You feel as if you were slowly blown forward.
The narrator has come down to the beach—a place he rarely visits—to stand among “good-sized stones with peaceful backs.”

He concludes:

The stones have been gradually walking backward out of the sea.
I like that. There is a sense of things left behind and other things being noticed for the first time. A minimum of words.

The heaviness is not in what the desk bears but in the psyche of the man who too often sits behind it.

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