The Poet and His Double Life: The Psychology of Sweden's Transtromer

April 2, 1986

Ed’s note: This story was originally published April 2, 1986.

Tomas Transtromer saw the syntactical evasion again and again when he worked at the prison for young men.

"They had committed something, but they expressed it in a passive way: 'It happened I was standing there in a house with a lot of money in front of me...." Transtromer remembers, laughing. The crime happened to them. They were victims, not responsible for what happened to the money.

"The way you express yourself is the way you experience things," says Transtromer. It is a fitting credo for a man who is both a psychologist and a poet.

Transtromer is considered by many, among them poet Robert Bly, to be Sweden's premier poet. They even say it is not unlikely he will someday win a Nobel prize. But he spends much of his time with people who, he says, "are not at all interested in my poetry."

As Transtromer, who now works as an occupational psychologist for the Swedish government says this, a faint smile plays across his weathered face. No grand statements, no pronouncements. His wife Monica says he loves to perform, describing his delight in presenting his poems -- as he will tonight at the Folger Shakespeare Library -- with a Swedish idiom that translates as "stage fox." But Transtromer seems to prefer his worn blue jeans and rolled shirt sleeves to a poet's mantle.

"I'm quite anonymous in the job for most people," he says.

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" 

The sick boy is an epileptic, the man who cannot pierce his vision is the young psychologist Transtromer.

"We were at a reading and someone asked, 'How has your work affected your poetry?' " remembers Bly, who has translated Transtromer's work. "He said, 'Well, what's strange is that no one has asked me how poetry affected my work.' In America, people are always saying their work is just something they do so they can write poetry. It's not at all as important as the poetry. He's saying that it's hard to say which is more important."

With a self-deflating smile that suggests life is a matter of quiet and poignant humor, Transtromer says, "That's my problem in life -- there are so many things I want to do. For a time I was in a prison working, counseling, and that was a full-time job. I don't know how I wrote."

Transtromer, 54, is a man prey to distractions -- the piano he plays frequently and well, letters from foreign countries where he will read or be published, projects like his current one of translating the Psalms into Swedish for a new government-sponsored Bible -- and he wryly praises the sparsely furnished Folger guest house because, unlike American hotels "with the televisions, so you spend your time watching television," the rooms include nothing to tempt one.

While he says he has considered limiting his life, focusing solely on the poetry, he clearly never will.

"It's possible if I was sitting there knowing I had all the time in the world, that I had all this time for poetry, I would probably be paralyzed," he says.

"It would kill him," says his wife who wears the same smile -- part bemusement, part affection -- as if it is a family requirement.

Poets in Sweden cannot, as hundreds of American writers do, wangle an appointment to some faculty and live the protected life of a campus bard.

"The Swedish universities are not so interested in modern literature," Transtromer says. "Mainly, the poets support themselves working in mass media or newspapers. We don't have this system of writers-in-residence as you do."

But even if they did, Transtroies and reverential classrooms.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, there was this very strong pressure to write about society, to write political poems and so on," he says. Transtromer, a popular poet from the time the first of his nine books was published in 1954, was much criticized for not writing explicitly political verse. "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."

Transtromer's poems are dense with images that, as in dreams, may at first seem unrelated but soon melt into their own evocative form of sense. Transtromer describes seascapes and landscapes that are powerful and mysterious, but as much the products of an industrialized Sweden as of natural forces. And though he writes often about dreams themselves, about fantasies and memories, they are not reveries unconnected with the waking world.

He laid aside his pen.
It rests still on the table.
It rests still in the empty room 
He laid aside his pen.
Too much that can neither be written nor kept secret!
He is paralyzed by something happening far away
although the wonderful travelling-bag throbs like a heart.
Outside it is early summer.
From the greenery come whistlings -- men or birds?
And cherry trees in bloom embrace the lorries which have come home.
Weeks go by.
Night comes slowly.
The moths settle on the window pane: 
small pale telegrams from the world.
“Lament," from "Selected Poems" 

"It goes back to a more general feeling that I need this direct contact to have the feeling of being real," he says of his continuing work as a psychologist. "It is a counterbalance to a world that only deals with fiction or poetry. I'm a little afraid of being locked in."

Poems come, he has said, when "a strong outer pressure suddenly meets a strong inner pressure." One world without the other will not suffice.

He frequently expresses sorrow over the absence of memory, the lack of interest in history among Swedes. In one poem he has said alludes to his country, Transtromer writes, "It shouldn't be said but there is much suppressed violence here."

Transtromer says the recent assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, an act of violence that astonished Sweden, will not be "material" for his work. "It influenced us all in a deep way, but I am not one of the writers who feel inspired by the events when they happen. I think most of the things I have written have a long story -- they go back to things that happened a long time ago."

Again, no encompassing political comments, no stridency. When his wife talks about her work with Iranian refugees in Sweden he laughs at her comment that "Sweden is rather hard for them -- the emotional climate is not perfect," appreciating the understated delivery.

Transtromer will read at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society on Friday night (for information call 596-6183). Tonight's seminar at the Folger is open to the public; reservations are required. Although he speaks English gracefully, Transtromer does not translate his own work. One of his translators, Samuel Charters, will appear with him.

"The whole experience of being translated in the long run influences the language, making it a little more international," Transtromer says of his poems. "It's nothing conscious. I think writers in a way adapt to an audience without knowing it. Of course, many are extremely opportunistic and want to make a quick career and worship the trends. But I am talking of something different. And I have been lucky in translators, so at least 70 percent of the Swedish poem is there."

And in the world of translation, even 70 percent is an impressive proportion? He smiles the rueful smile.

"Yes."

SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=3, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=3, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=3, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=3, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments