Monday, March 30, 2015

Confessions of Tomas Tranströmer

Poet Tomas Tranströmer, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2011.

It is a feeling, a very helpless feeling. As if I have lost a relative. My friend Tomas Tranströmer, a man of humility and rare talent, the kind of which I have never met in my life. I will carry many great memories of him, my correspondence with him and Monica in Stockholm, Vesterås, Uppsala, and permanently in his poetry. Stay in peace in heaven, my friend, since God was longing for you and your poetry. Best wishes God.

On Friday, on my way to the city centre Uppsala from my home in Eriksberg, the bus radio was on as usual. Sometimes I care, sometimes I do not. All of a sudden, I heard the broadcaster making a reflection on Tranströmer’s poetry. I found it something to be expected and figured a poet like Tranströmer would be relevant at any time on radios. I did not even imagine then, that he was no more. Getting down from the bus, I got a phone call from a journalist who confirmed the sad news: Tranströmer is no more.

I had a flashback of my memories with him and Monica during my stay in Sweden. What can I say about Tranströmer? He was a king of contemporary poetry. He was very much an international poet. Poets and readers of poetry in every corner of the world are fond of his writing. He was translated in some sixty languages, even before receiving his Nobel prize. I came in touch with his poetry before my first visit to Sweden in 2006. It is not my intent to tell that long story now.

Instead, I want to share my conversation with him. I first met him at an international literary conference in Stockholm in 2008. When I came to Uppsala in 2009 as fristads för fattare, Tranströmer and Monica invited me to Vesterås. The invitation was through Tapio Hovebro, the committee chairman for the Tranströmer International Prize for Literature, introduced by Vesteråskommun. Tapio picked me up from Uppsala in his car and dropped me at the hotel where the Tranströmer family was staying. Monica warmly received me.

It is to be noted that after living in this industrial town for 35 years, the city authority introduced this prize in his honour. The city also set Tranströmer’s haiku poems on the city roads to promote Tranströmer’s legacy. Oslo city authority did much the same for Henrik Ibsen’s verses and dialogues from his plays.

After my long meeting with Tranströmer, Monica guided me on a short walk. She showed me Tranströmer’s haiku poems featured on stones on the streets. She showed me the church where he used to visit every Saturday for listening to organ music.

We all know that it was not so easy for Tranströmer to speak, for a long while after his stroke in 1990. His voice was also disturbed. However, Monica could communicate with him very well. She was a good help for me to steer the conversation between Tomas and I. She knew every detail of his writing.

Tomas had read Rabindranath like many Swedish poets. It was a good gesture from him for a Bengali individual like I. Tomas presented me a complete volume of his poems in English translation along with his newly published haiku poems in Swedish. The books carry his autographs.

Referring to his memoire about his childhood, I reflected that French poet Baudelaire made an observation saying, “You have to discover your boyhood to be a writer.” I told Tomas, when I read his poems, it reminded me of what Baudelaire had said. He agreed with me.

About Bangladesh he said, “It is a beautiful country. In the 1960s, I was impressed seeing the beauties of Bangladesh in a movie scene. I wanted to visit that beautiful land, but I did get any chance.”

With a little frustration, he continued, “Now it is too late to make such a long journey. My health will not permit.”

Discovering the international tradition in his poetry, I added, “When I read your poems I found post-Eliot consequences. I guess you read Eliot and other English classic poets.”

He smiled and said “You had been right, I had liked Eliot.”

“How could you achieve this international tone in your poetry?”

“I try to read poems from every possible corner of the world. Luckily I have friendship with many good poets from different continents. I read continental poetry.”

He had no support for any particular political party, but he was in favour of particular causes boosting welfare of the country and humanity. That was the impression I had when he spoke of his political beliefs.

Poet Tomas Tranströmer in his youth. Photo: Bonniers Arkiv.

He had letter correspondence with American poet Robert Bly. They started to write the letters in Swedish. Tranströmer was not happy with the standard of Bly’s Swedish. They decided to continue the letters in English instead. The letters have been published as a book called Air Mail in Swedish first, and then in English.

Why had he published a thin volume of works comprising 10 collections of poems, one haiku collection, and a few pages of a memoire from his boyhood? He has said that it is not true that he wrote so little. He used to write every day, every afternoon after his office when he was at home. He has vast collections of unpublished poems in his suitcase.

“Why did you not publish them? We want to read them.” I said.

He merely smiled. Monica added, “Tomas hesitates. Those unpublished paged carry many of Tomas’ sketches.”

Regarding his piano hobby, he said it was his way of spending his time beautifully. He learned on his own how to play it.

“Why did you not have any focus on other writing but poetry?”

He said, “It is not true. My letters in Air Mail are also individual prose or essay on literary and contemporary social and political issues during the decades of the last century. I had a plan waiting in addition to poetry after my retirement. The brain stroke in 1990 blocked every one of my plans for writing.”

Let Tomas Tranströmer, my friend, ask your God in heaven to remove your obstacles so the heavens may resound with new refined poems and powerful metaphors.

Anisur Rahman is a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, journalist, literary critic and translator. He is a member of The Swedish Writers’ Union and Honourary Member of the Swedish PEN. He sits in the program and reference group for the Swedish Literature Centre in Uppsala, Sweden.

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