It's not only racist loons who link to this site. In an article on Tomas Transtromer, the august Kenyon Review has cited the super-scientific poll we ran last year to decide the greatest living writer. Alas, Transtromer still hasn't received the bottle of Old Thumper he was awarded for beating out literary titans like Jack Ross and JK Rowling. I'd better get cracking, because the old boy's health is not reputed to be good.
The Review is discussing Transtromer's new volume of collected poems, The Great Enigma; I haven't inspected that tome yet, but I did recently read Deleted World, a group of translations by Robin Robertson. I was disappointed by the brevity of Robertson's book, and by the fact that he only tackled poems which had already been brought into English by others. By contrast The Great Enigma, which is translated by veteran Transtromerite Robin Fulton, includes everything the great man has published in book form. Here is a Fulton translation I found on the Bookey Wookey blog:
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon's scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
words in invisible ink
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it...
In the late '60s and the '70s a generation of young, radicalised writers attacked Transtromer, who was already an established literary figure, for creating poems which dissolved the ugly realities of the real world in mystical language, cryptic imagery, and a quasi-religious faith in the redemption of human suffering by some higher reality. Transtromer's critics, who were strongly influenced by Maoism (the popularity of Mao amongst Scandinavian radicals in the '60s and '70s has always puzzled me), demanded that he write an unadorned, committed poetry.
As William Morris and Herbert Marcuse argued, though, unrealistic art can sometimes be more radical than its realistic counterpart: by showing us the distance between what we want and what we have, it can offer an implicit critique of reality that is more powerful than the explicit condemnations the didacticist. I read 'Further In' not as a simple escape from reality, but as a sort of extended metaphor for the search for a truth that is obscured beneath or beyond everyday reality. I don't think Transtromer is saying we should all run off to the hills and go fossicking for shiny stones; I think he is expressing a desire to get a grip on the bewildering and often frustrating world he lives in. There are many Aucklanders who must have similar thoughts, during their morning crawl up the southern motorway.