I could not help the fun pun, in honor of the newest Nobel Laureate in Literature, Tomas Transtromer of Sweden. Eighty years old, with limited speaking and moving abilities due to a stroke twenty years ago, he still produces poetry.
The seniors and I, on “Fun Friday,” explored his life and several of his poems–as much as one can in forty minutes. I was struck by his response to a New York questioner, as reported in this past Friday’s New York Times. To the query about how his work as a psychologist has affected his poems, he wondered why few people ask the mirror question: “How does your poetry influence your work?”
What does this oversight suggest about the questioners’ view of art? The newest literary laureate implies that making art can affect internal transformation. Over and again, people–both those with and without developed poetic sensibility–have said that poems tilt the angle of our lens. They catch the light just right, helping us see not only the Golden Gate Bridge in front of us, but also the moon and city skyline behind us. By transforming our vision, the poems change us, too. Hence, “Transtromer, the Transformer.”
On a final note (musical echo intended), here is the first stanza of Transtromer’s “Schubertiana,” from the collection called Truth Barriers, translated by Robert Bly and published by Sierra Books (San Francisco, 1980). The students and I have been recently studying Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I told them that the last line of Transtromer’s stanza helps me think about Keats’s idea that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The piano player in Transtromer’s poem understands this, I imagine:
Outside New York, a high place where with one glance
you take in the houses where eight million human
The giant city over there is a long flimmery drift,
a spiral galaxy seen from the side.
Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are being pushed across
the desk, department store windows beg, a whirl of
shoes that leave no trace behind.
Fire escapes climbing up, elevator doors that silently
close, behind triple-locked doors a steady swell
Slumped-over bodies doze in subway cars, catacombs in
I know also–statistics to the side–that at this instant
in some room down there Schubert is being played,
and for that person the notes are more real than
all the rest.
So, beauty is truth. What is more real is more true. Those notes mean something to the lone piano player. That resonance is beautiful, Keats might say. Epistemology has always intrigued me. What do we really know? Wendell Berry, in his collection called Leavings, writes, ” . . . a million leaves / alive in the wind, and what do we know?” What do we “need to know”? Good questions for people inside or outside of schools. Especially helpful questions in today’s rapidly revving engines of the “information” age.