For the Living and the Dead: Poems and a Memoir by Tomas Transtromer, Ecco, 70 pages ($15.99 paper); Selected Poems: 1954-1986 by Tomas Transtromer, Ecco, 190 pages, $15.99. It was, let's face it, a national spanking. A few years ago, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Literary Prize committee decreed that modern American literature was too insular to take part in the world literary conversation found in Nobel Prizes for Literature. There was, to be sure, no small comedy in a high-ranking bureaucrat in Literary Prize-land taking an entire national literature out to the woodshed and administering punishment for too much interiority. You could, if needed, think of it as a scene from a Swedish movie with the venerable
Max von Sydow administering the corporal punishment with excruciating regret.
That the prize itself has long since lost its luster for many doesn't deter it from bringing very great writers to international attention -- Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska for one. The 2011 prize could almost have been awarded by our friend in the movie played by von Sydow. It went to 80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, a perennial candidate who suffered a stroke in 1990 that wiped out his speech but not his ability to write.
Transtromer is a superb poet, but it's hard when you investigate him at length not to think more than a little chauvinism went into the prize. At the very least, he is, like Rainer Maria Rilke, not an easy poet to translate well despite the presence in "Selected Poems" of such translators as Robert Bly and May Swenson ("I was like the needle in a compass carried through the forest by an orienteer with a thumping heart," translates Robin Fulton in one poem). Cliche occasionally dabs these translations -- a metaphysics that can't transcend translation into another language. But then all can be set right in "Night Book Page" from "For the Living and the Dead," where, in one Samuel Charters' translation, the poet experiences in one night "a time in space/a few seconds long/fifty-eight years wide" and "the ones who rules" seemed like "people with futures instead of faces."
-- Jeff Simon