Presentation Speech by Kjell Espmark, Member of the Swedish Academy, Member of its Nobel Committee, 10 December 2011.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, esteemed Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Tomas Tranströmer is one of the very few Swedish writers with an influence on world literature. He has been translated into some sixty languages, and has been important to poetry in various parts of the world. The Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky admits that he stole more than one metaphor from him. And during a journey among Chinese poets a year ago I found that Tranströmer is their great model.
Why? Is it the brilliant metaphors? I think that is only half the truth. The other half is the visions, the illuminations in everyday life into which the metaphors have been inserted.
Let us consider “Carillon” – “chimes” – where we find the poet in a shabby hotel in Bruges, lying on the bed with his arms stretched out, “an anchor that has dug itself down and holds steady / the huge shadow floating up there / the great unknown”. Or think of the picture of defencelessness in the line, “I have low beaches, if death rises six inches I shall be flooded.” What is important is not such separate images but the overall vision where they form a part. The easily flooded poet is the defenceless centre where now different epochs, now far and near converge. Also the anchor chain from the great unknown centres towards this unpretentious subject. But, in this poem, there is an opposite movement as well. The room’s window faces “The Wild Market Square” and the condition of the soul is projected there: “What I carry within me is materialised there, all terrors, all expectations.” There is a movement both inwards and outwards. Once “the sack splits along its seams and the chimes roll out across Flanders”, next time the same bells “bear us home” on their wings. The metaphors lend a sensuous precision to this huge breathing. Remarkably, this complex text is almost weightless, and speaks immediately to our senses.
There is a similar huge breathing in Baltics. The striking images for understanding versus blockage have been integrated into an interplay between “great doors opening and great doors closing”, between one breath of wind “sighing about other shores” and another leaving the place “desolate and silent”.
But the movement of Tranströmer’s universe is primarily directed towards the centre. His illuminations gather widespread phenomena in one translucent present. We remember from Secrets on the Way the “room that contained every moment – a butterfly museum”. In tacit polemics against colleagues groping for heaven, he begins his first book of poetry with the words, “Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.” This is a genuine Tranströmer sinking into the centre, towards an earthly summer.
In “Schubertiana”, the precision of this movement towards the centre is caught by the image of the swallows flying for six weeks over two continents “to last year’s nest under the guttering of this very barn in this very parish”. Their flight towards “precisely this vanishing dot in the land-mass” corresponds to the way Schubert “catches the signals from a whole life in a few ordinary chords for five strings”.
Tranströmer’s development has moved towards ever greater openness. His Swedish geography has expanded into the shimmering spiral galaxy of New York and the crowds of Shanghai getting “our silent planet going with their tramping”. And fragments of world politics now and then glitter in the poems. At the same time the picture of unpretentiousness becomes clearer: “I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the washing-line.” With this relaxed authority, Tranströmer can speak for many of us. Even at an early stage he says, “Each man is a half-open door / leading to a room for everyone.” This is where we are at last – the room that once contained every moment now contains all of us.
It is a great pleasure for me to convey to you the warmest congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to come forward to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.