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Tomas Transtromer: The Nobel Laureate Who Showed Us The Poetry In Silence

Tomas Transtromer was a Swedish poet and the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 2011. As is the norm, everything about him became newsworthy the minute he won the prize (which many claimed he should not have) – but we will come to that later.

As a child, he collected insects. An exhibition was organised by the Museum of Natural History, Stockholm (which also is the poet’s hometown), where his insect collection was displayed. Accompanying it was a guidebook which featured beautiful essays on his collection. And preceding it was a quote by Charles Darwin. It read: “It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication for future success in life.” 

Darwin was right here. Whether or not his interest in insects had much to contribute to the kind of poet that Transtromer became, the imagery that his poetry brings to life is certainly inspired from the days spent observing nature and looking for those creatures worthy of his collection. The imagery, the reflection of nature’s beauty, its stillness and solitude are the key aspects of Tomas’ poetry. He is indeed the poet of silence.

It is hard to say if poetry comes to you or you go to poetry. I’d like to believe you always live with it like a lonely companion in the dark. You discover it only when you need to say things that can’t be said, or hear things that can’t be heard. For Transtromer that discovery happened rather fiercely while he was working as a psychologist at an institution for juvenile offenders. But to say that it was his ‘job’ as a psychologist that impacted his poetry would be an assumption. When at a poetry reading, someone asked him how his work had impacted his poetry, his response was, “Well, what’s strange is that no one has asked me how poetry affected my work.” We can visualise the impact alone in the following lines. But as for who is impacting who – that I leave to the listener’s discretion.

The sick boy

Locked in a vision

with his tongue stiff as a horn.

He sits with his back turned to the picture with the cornfield.

The bandage round his jaw hinting at embalming.

His glasses are thick like a diver’s. And everything is unanswered

and vehement like the telephone ringing in the dark.

After an Attack” from “Selected Poems”

It isn’t hard to place Transtromer in the poem and a surface reading brings to mind the image of an epileptic boy. But is epilepsy simply a medical condition? Is any illness merely medical?

Transtromer was criticised by contemporary poets in the 1970s. His poetry wasn’t political enough, they said. Jorge Luis Borges too harboured a similar grudge against Neruda. But he was careful to not get his poetry involved in the mudslinging. “I think of him as a very fine poet, a very fine poet,” said Borges. “I don’t admire him as a man, I think of him as a very mean man.

Not the poets who criticised Transtromer though. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was this very strong pressure to write about society, to write political poems and so on,” says Transtromer. He was, at the time, much criticised for not writing explicitly political verse. His response to which was as understated as his poems. “I felt more free than most of my colleagues because I was working with these issues as a psychologist, so I didn’t feel very guilty about writing poetry.” 

In a series of Haiku called Scattered Congregation, he writes:

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

The slum must be inside you,” comes out as a commentary on the invisible, the injustice against those living on the margins, those unheard voices and those unseen faces. And if this isn’t political, nothing is. Transtromer had visited Bhopal soon after the gas tragedy and took part in a poetry reading session with poets like S. Sachidanandan outside. 

And why must, I wonder, the burden of society fall always on the shoulders of a poet? Is it not enough that he writes from the margins and not from a position of privilege? Transtromer’s poetry, simple, interspersed with cinematic imagery, leaves you with a frustrating sense of helplessness. It doesn’t end with a bang but passes you by as whimper – a YouTube commenter says this about the music of Arvo Part, an Estonian musician, whose music is much like Transtromer’s poetry. It is still, slow, silent, even when it is pacing. I have Teju Cole, the Nigerian-American writer, to thank for the introduction to Part. He was the one to have first compared the music of Part to the rhythm of Tomas’ poetry. I simply witnessed the phenomenon on my laptop last night, only after being pushed by Cole.

It is hard to disagree with Cole when he says that Tomas’ “poems contain a luminous simplicity that expands until it pushes your ego out of the nest, and there you are alone with the Truth. In a Tranströmer poem, you inhabit space differently; a body becomes a thing, a mind floats, things have lives, and even non-things, even concepts, are alive.” Consider these lines for instance

Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way to the Address.
Who’s got the Address?
Don’t know. But that’s where we’re going.

What do you do if you don’t surrender yourself to this stillness? There is mobility, but, you could say. They are going somewhere, after all. But where are they off to? Aren’t you helplessly tied to this unanswerable question that won’t let you move? Even in all this commotion?

And if that hasn’t left you exhausted already, listen to these lines.

I dreamt that I had sketched piano keys out

on the kitchen table. I played on them, without a sound.

Neighbours came by to listen. (From “Grief Gondola #2”)

Can you hear the music of silence in these lines? Those piano keys that he drew in his dreams, and those neighbours who came by to listen, all seem to be a part of this silent lullaby. There is so much beauty, and so much quiet in these lines. You can hear what isn’t being said, can’t you?

I have been instructed to fill in some biographical details in this article. It is necessary, I am told. And so I feel pressured to give you a brief rundown of boring, easily accessible data that you might not go to on your own. If that happens, you have my (lack of) capabilities as an orator to blame. Without taking that risk, let me tell you a few things quickly. Transtromer was the first Swedish national in 40 years to win the Nobel Prize. His name would get nominated year after year, and international press would gather in front of his house in the morning, waiting for the news that finally came in 2011. It is why I find the international surprise and outrage in response to his victory, strange and hypocritical. If they were landing on his doorsteps each year, drinking and eating the tea and biscuits served by Monika, Tomas’ wife, then how could they not know who he was?

A severe heart stroke that happened in the year 1990 left him half-paralysed and without speech, before his eventual death in 2015. The poet of silence, you could say that he lived by silence. After the stroke, he turned towards music in a way others have turned towards religion. I say this because he has been a pianist all his life, but music then became his voice, his mode of communication. While researching on Tomas, when I read about his stroke, I thought how incredible it is that he should find music at the departure of speech. And then I thought, did he really ‘find’ music? Was his work not always music? Can poetry survive without music at all? I imagined Tomas silently laughing at my ignorance. Why indeed could I not question music’s existence without poetry? Why must poetry always bear the brunt and why must the poet always suffer?

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