Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer, dead at 83

The Nobel Prize-winning (2011) Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has died at 83. He had been partially paralyzed since a 1990 stroke, but there was long the expectation that the Nobel committed would recognize his work. He was nominated for the Prize every year from 1993 until his eventual win.

the great enigma

Since he was awarded the Nobel, American readers have been treated to a wider range of his work. New Directions had offered The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems, in 2006. In 2011, they followed that with Memories Look at Me: A Memoir, written after Tranströmer lost his capacity for speech. Farrah, Straus and Giroux brought out The Deleted World: Poems, late in 2011. A particular treat (I’m unapologetically partial to letters) came from Graywolf Press in the form of Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, a 2013 release spanning more than 25 years of correspondence between the two poets.


The letters are fond and lively, as in February 1968, when Tranströmer addresses Bly as, “Dear Robert, defender of the barricades.” Later that year, Bly writes back from Norway, “The thing that amuses me is that the FBI is unable to open and read my mail over here! That is a terrible frustration to them – they’re falling behind on various plots.” They also send poems back and forth, and little sketches to illustrate them at times. There is talk of translations (the correspondence begins with Bly sending literary magazines to Tranströmer and talking of translating his work, as well as the revelation that Tranströmer had translated a few poems by James Wright). All of this is simply to suggest that if you’re new to Tranströmer, or never got around to reading as widely in his work as you’d have liked, now is as good a time as any to catch up.

Tranströmer’s work is often apparently quiet, but this translates to a sort of elegance, a sense of control rather than detachment. Consider the opening lines of “The Half-Finished Heaven”:

Despondency breaks off its course.

Anguish breaks off its course.

The vulture breaks off its flight.

The eager light streams out,

even the ghosts take a draft.

Tranströmer’s register here is measured, and if the lines are nearly cryptic in sense, there is much to engage the reader in their sound, the consistency in the way each is formed. Spend time with Tranströmer, his poetry and prose alike. We are poorer for having lost him.

– John McIntyre

“Haiku” from The Great Enigma

Birds in human shape.

The apple trees in blossom.

The great enigma.   

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