The annual Nobel Lecture in Literature, honouring 80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, opened in Stockholm on Wednesday with an introduction by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.
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Tranströmer is the first Swede in 40 years to win the Nobel literature prize.
Whereas many literature laureates prepare special lectures for the occasion, Tranströmer's lecture featured readings of 13 poems from throughout his career coordinated with musical accompaniment.
Tranströmer looked on as his work was set to music and sung by the Gustaf Sjöqvist's Chamber Choir and Uppsala Chamber Soloists, among other performers.
“Good poetry is a powerful thing. It can change our picture of the world, making it clearer, sharper, more comprehensible. And forever,” Englund said.
“We should not be taken in by the understated tone of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. Several of the real wonders of our existence are constantly present: Memory, History, Death, Nature – nature not least. But each not as an overwhelming exterior presence, nor as something that assumes life under our gaze. In your work it is the very opposite: ego, the individual, is the prism into which everything is drawn. It gives us a feeling of context, even obligation,” he continued.
“Dear Tomas, it is impossible to feel insignificant after having read your poetry. Neither is it still possible to love the world for the wrong reasons.”
“But what makes great poetry great is not only that it clarifies or reveals something already present in our world, but also that it has the ability to actually widen the boundaries of that world. Therein lies its power,” Englund said.
The first poem recited was “Minnena ser mig” (Memories Look at Me), originally published in 1983:
A June morning, too soon to wake,
too late to fall asleep again.
I must go out – the greenery is dense
with memories, they follow me with their gaze.
They can't be seen, they merge completely with
the background, true chameleons.
They are so close that I can hear them breathe
although the birdsong here is deafening.
Tranströmer began his serious writing career in 1954 when he published "17 dikter" (17 poems).
Predominant in the Swedish poet's work are themes of nature and music and he followed up "17 dikter" with several collections in the 1950s and 1960s, including: "Hemligheter på vägen" (1958; Secrets along the way), "Den halvfärdiga himlen" (1962; The Half-Finished Heaven, 2001) and "Klanger och spår" (1966; Windows & Stones : Selected Poems, 1972).
With "Windows & Stones: Selected Poems", published in English in 1972, he consolidated his standing among critics and other readers as one of the leading poets of his generation, according to his Swedish Academy biography.
A significant amount of his work has been translated into English and other languages including "The Sorrow Gondola" and "New Collected Poems", published in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
In an article on the challenges of translating Tranströmer into English, Robbin Robertson, who translated Tranströmer's forthcoming volume, "The Deleted World", wrote: “The supple rhythms of the original poems are hard to replicate and, equally, the plosive musicality of Swedish words like 'domkyrkoklocklang' lose all their aural resonance when they become a 'peal of cathedral bells.'”
After Tranströmer was announced as the Nobel literature winner at the beginning of October, his books flew off the shelves in the Anglophone world.
The Observer reported that within a few days after the announcement, his book The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems was ranked number 12 on Amazon, a rarity for a poetry book.
Recent Nobel literature laureates include Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), Romanian-born German author Herta Müller (2009), French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008), and British author Doris Lessing (2007).
Tranströmer is the first Swedish writer since Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who shared the prize in 1974, to claim the Nobel.
The Literature Nobel has been awarded 104 times since 1901, with the exception of six years during WWI and WWII.
He will receive the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature on Saturday at the Stockholm Concert Hall.
English-language admirers of Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet who will receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature in a ceremony in Stockholm on Saturday, will soon have to make room on their shelves for another book.
On Monday Graywolf Press acquired the rights to “Air Mail: The Correspondence of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer,” a collection of some 200 letters tentatively scheduled for publication in early 2013.
The book, already a best seller in Sweden, will contain the full correspondence between the two poets, starting in 1964, when Mr. Bly began publishing Mr. Transtromer in his journal The Sixties, and ending in 1990, when a stroke left Mr. Transtromer paralyzed on the right side, complicating his ability to write and speak.
The letters “range across all kinds of subjects,” Jeffrey Shotts, the editor who acquired the book, said in an email. ”Poetry, of course, and the back and forth of translation, critical reception of Transtromer’s work in the United States, politics in Sweden and the United States, the Vietnam War, travel plans, literary gossip, and even Transtromer becoming Bly’s son’s godfather. It is a remarkable portrait of a long-standing (and ongoing) literary friendship.”
As it happens, the book contains Mr. Transtromer’s account of watching the Nobel ceremony on television on Dec. 10, 1975 — 36 years to the day before he will collect his laurels. (He will not deliver a speech, but will reportedly play a piano piece written for the left hand.)
After noting the “gloomy people coming and going” and a “boring professor” nattering on in English with a “100 percent Swedish accent,” Mr. Transtromer, now 80, described the moment when the Italian poet Eugenio Montale stepped forward to receive that year’s literature prize.
. . The victim is standing up now, his body is surprisingly thin, you did not expect that from his round Harpo Marx face, he walks with difficulty. . . and NOW the King gives away the prize, Montale is saying something to the King, he is smiling, he looks pleased, relaxed again, no tics. Time for the economy prize — you will never get that prize, Robert, but you might get the literary one when you are 80!
Graywolf also published “The Half-Finished Heaven” (2001), a selection of Mr. Bly’s translations of Mr. Transtromer that has sold some 15,000 copies since the Nobel was announced. On Dec. 19, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish “The Deleted World,” a selection of Mr. Transtromer’s poetry translated by Robin Robertson.