Transtromer, the Transformer

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

beings live.

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

of voices.

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.


Filed under art, beauty

5 responses to “Transtromer, the Transformer

  1. Jennifer

    Your blog is so insightful and inspiring. It has really helped me see the world in a different perspective. Thank you for sharing all of your thoughts. Keep it up!!! 🙂

  2. Darby

    I really like what Transtromer has questioned here…. It is so true. We, as people, often get too caught up in everything and do not ask the “flip-side” question. Especially in the weeks we have been focusing on poetry, I have realized that it is not only the world that inspires your poetry, but the poetry that changes you. I also like what you said about poetry as a looking glass. With a more poetic mindset I have begun to see things differently. Mind you this could have to do also with the stage of my life that I am in: my mind is growing up. I am excited about these commonplace blogs… As I said to you earlier today, there are questions that I guess come up and I do not devote time to them later. It is this thirst for knowledge that I am excited about really fueling….

  3. What do we need to know? The answer, or at least the content inherent in the answer, seems to get bigger and bigger every day. It was interesting to see what the students were working on in Haiti. In math, the only universal language we share, they appeared to be on grade level. Yet the students do no homework. Is it because there are no distractions? As Darby said, “there are questions that I guess come up and I do not devote time to them later.” She has no time later.

    The poem you reference is beautiful. I especially like the line, “Slumped-over bodies doze in subway cars, catacombs in motion.”
    Deathly transit.

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