Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Nobel Prize Worthy of the Name

The selection of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer for the 2012 Nobel prize in literature is the relatively rare instance, in recent years, of the Nobel literature committee choosing the best living author who had not previously won the prize.

The Nobel prizes in literature and for peace, in fact, have become so political in recent years that their reputations have begun to lose much of their previous luster.

Any thoughts that the literature committee showed national favoritism in the award should be discarded. In fact, the location of the prize should in this case be considered an advantage because if the committee had been made up of, say, Americans, Japanese, Brazilians or Nigerians, Mr. Transtromer might have been passed over. Great writers from small countries, and who write in languages which are spoken by relatively few persons, can easily be unfairly ignored for this prize. The Swedish Nobel committee could not help but know about Mr. Transtromer, widely regarded as the major living figure in the Swedish language.

As I see it, there are not many truly great writers alive today. Of course, there may well be some young writers whose work, already written or not yet written, may someday regarded as “great,” but among the established and well-known authors, there are very few whose work is likely to survive as important for generations to come.

I have long admired Transtromer’s work which has been ably translated into English since 1970 by poets Robert Bly, May Swenson and Finnish-born Anselm Hollo. Mr. Bly particularly has championed the poetry of Tomas Transtromer.

Mr. Transtromer was born in 1931 and was for many years a practicing psychologist. He is also a very accomplished amateur pianist. In recent years, he has endured illness and disability, and the Nobel committee likely took has failing health into consideration since a Nobel prize cannot be awarded posthumously.

The question I have is why the prize was not awarded to him earlier. Tomas Transtromer is not just one of the few truly outstanding living authors; he may well be one of the very few great poets of the past several hundred years. There is really no other poet quite like him. At least not that I have read. The power of his images and the way he juxtaposes them is so original and unexpected that he can literally take the reader’s breath away with only a few lines. I think of him as creating a new kind of architectural space in language as Le Corbusier did and Frank Gehry does now in their design of buildings. But unlike the fashion of recent years, especially in American poetry, Transtromer’s poems are not primarily derived from painting and the visual. Instead, they somehow combine space and music in such a way that they seem to come from
another part of the universe. They are mysterious and foreboding, but without conclusions, ideology or esoteric reference. You don’t have to be a scholar or a poetry specialist to read and enjoy this man’s work.

I do not have space here to detail a criticism of Tomas Transtromer’s poems. My intention was to congratulate the Nobel committee for doing the right thing, worthy of Mr. Nobel’s intention; and to provoke any my readers who might enjoy poetry at its very best. and most original to read his work.

Ultimately, Mr. Transtromer’s work is deeply unsettling. Almost instantly, his poems take us to new and much larger spaces in our consciousness than we are accustomed to visiting in our daily lives, or even in more routine artistic experiences.

In these anxious times, with so much daily crisis in the world around us. a visit to Tomas Transtromer's poetic locations might be a worthy and useful journey.