Tomas Tranströmer was born on April 15, 1931, the son of Gösta and Helmy, née Westerberg. His parents divorced when Thomas was three years old, so he grew up in Stockholm with his mother, who was a schoolteacher. They spent their summers at his maternal grandfather’s pilot station on the island of Runmarö in the Stockholm archipelago, an environment that has always been an important starting point for his poetry, particularly Östersjöar, 1974 (Baltics, 1975). Here, among islets and skerries, he developed an early interest in geography and science, especially entomology. Because of his work in collecting insects, a newly discovered beetle now bears Tranströmer’s name: Mordellistena transtroemeriana.
As a teenager, Tranströmer cultivated artistic interests. Music became essential to him; he began to play the piano, and he soon approached poetry. His first poems were published in student magazines during the late 1940s.
After completing secondary school, Tranströmer studied literary history (writing his graduation essay on Swedish Baroque poetry), history of religion and psychology at Stockholm University College (now Stockholm University). During the late 50s he worked at the Institute for Psychometrics at Stockholm University College, then as a psychologist at Roxtuna outside Linköping, a youth correctional facility, and then from 1965 to 1990 as a psychologist at the Labor Market Institute in Västerås.
During the 50s he also took a number of trips, for example to Iceland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Egypt. His later worldwide travels, including many visits to the United States, mainly included reading tours and contacts with his translators.
In 1958 Tranströmer married Monica, née Bladh. Their two daughters, Emma and Paula, were born in 1961 and 1964.
Right from his debut book 17 dikter (17 poems) in 1954, Tranströmer came to be regarded as the leading Swedish poet of his generation. To a substantial degree, he had already developed his distinctive language here: his original and sharply contoured metaphors, nature mysticism, musicality, strictness of form and natural diction – qualities that reappeared in his later books of poetry.
His poetry incessantly moved closer to the secrets of existence – note such titles as Hemligheter på vägen, 1958 (Secrets Along the Way), Den halvfärdiga himlen, 1962 (The Half-Finished Heaven) and his latest book, Den stora gåtan, 2004 (The Great Enigma, 2006). His interest in what, in a true sense, is unspeakable is nevertheless dictated by a desire for poetic concreteness – as if the inaccessible regions of the mind and of existence can only be sensed or touched with the exact instruments of sensuality.
Yet Tranströmer’s exploration of the complex nature of human identity and his instantly constructed bridges between nature, the cosmos and the dead never result in structured patterns or loud-voiced confessions. His poetry is a tranquil affirmation of few words, but is nevertheless a form of resistance to power, the market and media clichés.
Especially starting in the 60s, his poetry thus contains social and societal motifs – for example in Klanger och spår, 1966 (see Windows and Stones: Selected Poems, 1972) and Mörkerseende, 1970 (Night Vision, 1972). Experiences that were based the poet’s simultaneous career as a psychologist also influenced many of his poems. He combines factual observation and a psychologist’s fascination with the metaphorical reality of dreams.
In later collections such as För levande och döda, 1989 (For the Living and the Dead, 1994) and Sorgegondolen, 1996 (The Sorrow Gondola, 1997), death – though never an unfamiliar guest in his poetry – has demanded more and more space, but not as an unambiguous threat. With trusting stillness, Tranströmer notes that life includes death, and vice versa. Sometimes his poems thus possess a kind of non-dogmatic religiosity.
Since the Swedish language can not be read by more than about one thousandth of the world’s population, the skillfulness of his translators has been especially vital. Since efforts to translate his works began in earnest during the 60s, Tranströmer’s international reputation has constantly gained strength. Today his works are available to readers of some sixty languages.
If anyone should be mentioned especially in this context, one cannot ignore the contributions of Tranströmer’s American friend and fellow poet Robert Bly in introducing and translating his work. The two have interpreted each other’s poetry, and much of their copious correspondence has been published in Air Mail, 2001.
In 1990 Tranströmer suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. He almost entirely lost his ability to speak. Since then, writing has taken him longer, although he has published some poetry collections and a memoir, Minnena ser mig, 1993 (Memories Look at Me, 2011). Tranströmer has increasingly embraced short forms of poetry such as haiku, which only reinforce his focus on concentration of expression. But even before he became ill, he took plenty of time to write his vivid, precise poetry. Some poems took him years to complete.
Tranströmer’s lifelong interest in music, which has left significant traces in his writings, has actually deepened since his stroke. Several composers have been inspired by his poetry and have set it to music, as well as dedicating to him a number of newly composed piano works for the left hand.
Between 1965 and 2000, Tranströmer lived in Västerås, Sweden. In 1997 the Municipality of Västerås established the Tranströmer Prize, which rewards outstanding poetic writing. Since 2000 he has lived in his childhood city of Stockholm.
|Books in Swedish, English Translations and Selected Anthologies|
|17 dikter, 1954|
|Hemligheter på vägen, 1958|
|Den halvfärdiga himlen, 1962|
|Klanger och spår, 1966|
|Mörkerseende, 1970 (Night Vision, 1972)|
|Twenty Poems, 1970|
|Windows and Stones − Selected Poems, 1972|
|Stigar, 1973 (including translations of poems by Robert Bly and Jánosz Pilinszky)|
|Östersjöar, 1974 (Baltics, 1980)|
|Sanningsbarriären, 1978 (Truth Barriers, 1984)|
|Det vilda torget, 1983 (The Wild Marketplace, 1985)|
|Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986, 1987|
|The Blue House = Det blå huset, 1987|
|För levande och döda, 1989 (For the Living and the Dead, 1994)|
|Minnena ser mig, 1993|
|Sorgegondolen, 1996 (The Sorrow Gondola, 2010)|
|Tolkningar, 1999 (translations of other poets; ed. Niklas Schiöler)|
|Air Mail, 2001 (correspondence between Tranströmer och Bly; ed. Torbjörn Schmidt)|
|Fängelse, 2001 (nine haiku poems from Hällby Youth Prison, written in 1959)|
|The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, 2001|
|Den stora gåtan, 2004 (The Great Enigma, 2006)|
|Tomas Tranströmers ungdomsdikter, 2011 (ed. Jonas Ellerström)|
|Selected Prizes and Honors|
|Bellman Prize (Sweden), 1966|
|Petrarch Prize (Germany), 1981|
|Pilot Prize (Sweden), 1988|
|Nordic Council Literature Prize, 1990|
|Neustadt International Prize for Literature (United States), 1990|
|Swedish Academy Nordic Prize, 1991|
|August Prize (Sweden), 1996|
|The Griffin Trust, Lifetime Recognition Award (Canada), 2007|
|Title of Professor granted by the Swedish Government, 2011|
|Nobel Prize in Literature (Sweden), 2011|
Tomas Tranströmer died on 26 March 2015.
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.