'Straight Into The Invisible': A Swedish Poet's Explorations

Posted: March 25, 1987

Poet Tomas Transtromer explores the lost and hidden places, the undiscovered places - "the immense treeless plains of the human brain," the valley "full of crawling axe-handles," the places of risk and mystery that lie everywhere.

He is like the composer in his poem "Schubertiana" who "got a river to flow through the eye of a needle" or like the navigator of the long poem ''Baltics" who takes his boat "straight into the invisible."

Not widely known in this country, Transtromer is nevertheless greatly

admired by his peers and is widely regarded as Sweden's finest living poet. Ecco Press has just brought out his Selected Poems, edited by Robert Hass, and Transtromer arrived in Philadelphia on Monday to spend a week as writer- in-residence at Temple University, where he is participating in poetry and translation seminars and meeting with individual students. At 7 p.m. Thursday, he will read from his work at Temple's Paley Library.

Shortly after his arrival here, Transtromer took time out to chat about his work. At 55, he has short gray hair, spikey like iron straw; pale blue eyes, and a reserved demeanor that breaks now and again with staccato bursts of laughter. He speaks very quietly, as though unaccustomed to answering so many questions in English, and voice and words seem to dissolve in the air.

For many years, Transtromer has made his living as a psychologist, a vessel for the problems of others, which may have something to do with his reticence. He has been employed as a vocational counselor, and for six years he worked with youthful offenders in a progressive prison in southern Sweden. He calls that time "my prison years."

"In my work, I am more accustomed to asking questions and listening than answering them," he said with a short laugh before going on to speculate on the relationship between his workaday world and his art. "I am more and more

uncertain about what the relationship is. A very simple way to say it is that I am a psychologist, and I earn my living through that. But it is very important the type of psychologist I am. I am a grass-roots psychologist, not very psychoanalytical. . . .

"It is a type of psychology that gives me a direct confrontation with society and a lot of experience with human beings. Because of this, it is very important to my writing, although not in a direct way."

That is not entirely so. In his poem "The Gallery," Transtromer approaches his job head-on with a serene and deadly portrayal of a ward encountered during his rounds:

I stopped over at the sleepwalkers'


Many faces in here are desperate

others smoothed away

after their pilgrimage through


Human contact - with its difficulties and rewards, its tenuousness and treacherousness - is a key theme in his work, so much so that his poetry has been called political. But the political element is buried, like a rune that must first be uncovered and then deciphered.

Take the relatively early poem "Track:"

2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has


out in a field. Far off sparks of

light from a town,

flickering coldly on the horizon.

As when a man goes so deep into

his dream

he will never remember that he

was there

when he returns again to his


Or when a person goes so deep

into a sickness

that his days all become

flickering sparks, a swarm,

feeble and cold on the horizon.

The train is entirely motionless.

2 o'clock: strong moonlight, few


This poem is so oblique that poet and critic Robert Hass addresses what it ''feels like" - an indication of just how far Transtromer's work operates beneath rational consciousness. His poems seep into the mind, announcing themselves through sense and feel.

But, as Hass goes on to point out in his essay on Transtromer, "Track" offers more than a feeling of quietness and austerity. "The poem feels like it is about social man waking up to the fact of his being," Hass suggests. The poem's suggestion of the unreality in social relations transports it from the hermetic into the political realm.

Is Transtromer's work political?

"Yes," the poet said, "but that depends on the definition of what is political. I stay away from political slogans and political language. I have always done that. But it is the environment that defines whether or not a poem is political. It is not the poem itself.

"For instance," he continued, "I was in Latvia in 1970, which at that time had a very severe communist system, and poems that I didn't regard as political at all became political in that environment. If you say something innocent about breathing, or something like that, the oppressed person always reads it that way - that it has something to do with freedom."

On the other hand, in a different setting, blatantly political content can be completely defused.

"In a very relaxed country like Sweden, writers have been irritated

because they have really tried to criticize and shout and people just pat them on the back and say, 'Oh, yes, it's OK.' It doesn't impress anybody."

Transtromer also has been discussed as a religious poet. Although he has been concerned with religious themes - the uncovering of connections between the isolate self and a larger realm of being, for instance - he is chary of definitions here too, and is hesitant in discussing the subject.

"I think this is something you spend your whole life trying to detect - what you believe in," he said. "It is difficult to solve this problem in 30 seconds - or 30 years. To say it in a general way, I think most of (my) poems deal with the mystery of life. Life is very mysterious, and for me this has religious implications. But it is not an orthodox religion. I think most bishops and priests would regard me as only half Christian."

Transtromer's mother was a religious woman, lending a pious atmosphere to her home, but she was not "severe," he said. "So I can say from the beginning I have very positive associations around this. And when I was younger, I had certain religious experiences . . . sort of low-level mystical experiences."

These experiences have cropped up in his writing, primarily in poems contained in his first book, published 30 years ago. But Transtromer has moved on in his writing, and no longer feels intimately connected to those poems

from so long ago.

"When I read something I wrote 25 years ago, I have the feeling that I am reading the poem of another person," he said. "The direct feeling that 'now I am talking from this experience' is absent."

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