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.