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Too Much of the Air: Tomas Transtromer

Written by

Tom Sleigh
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Year

2005
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My first glimpse of Tomas Tranströmer was many years ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts as he ducked his head under the metal lip of a twelve-seater plane's exit door, then stepped hesitantly down the stairs to firm ground. He seemed a little shaken, his long face blanched, his features reminding me, when I think of it now, of the circus horse in a late Bonnard painting: gentle, wary, potentially sad. "I don't mind large planes or middle-sized planes (his English was slightly gutteral, his intonations lilting in a mild brogue), but small planes—you feel too much of the air under you." That remark, direct, plainspoken, but also flirting with the metaphysical, has seemed over the years a keyhole into his work: a void; a sense of hovering above that void; the nerves registering each tremor with precision; the mind fighting back the body's accelerating fear.

The reception of his poems thirty years ago is now part of American literary history: serviceably and widely translated from the Swedish, they were talked about by many of his English-speaking admirers in terms of "deep image." It's hard to recall how passionate poets were about this notion, which fuzzily suggested that poetry could state absolute truths if only the images poets evoked welled up from deep enough sources uncontaminated by history and the follies of reason. Such an idea's devotion to poetry as an autonomous category, unbeholden to social uses of speech, still holds a deep appeal, a linguistic Eden of primal power. But it ignores what poetry most wants to do—or at least the poetry that I most want to read—which is to confront the reader with a world of private thoughts and feelings as contingent as the sudden anxiety a passenger might feel in his journey over the abyss while registering each bump and dip as an utterly objective, historically determined shock.

Much contemporary poetry feels a little mannerist, extreme rhetoric pretending to be bumps and dips, or willed obscurity masquerading as the abyss. Naive or simplistic as its premises might be, at least "deep image" expressed a powerful yearning for a state of conviction that didn't flatten out, on close reading, into a studied set of stylistic maneuvers—as if style were anything less than the quality of perception. In the 70s, Tranströmer's poems were treated as proof and example of the vaguely Jungian tenets of deep image, and soon became subsumed by the style of the day—a surrealism that smacked of automatic writing, whose imagery was drawn from elemental antinomies: light/dark, stone/water, fire/ice.

The foreign poet who is currently being inoculated with American aesthetic concerns is Paul Celan—he seems to give license to a different kind of automatic writing, the sort you would expect from poets bred up on John Ashbery, but lacking his humor and lexical range, combined with high-sounding abstractions, a sort of mystical mummery of "difficult" ideas. Yet Celan's "style", fetishisized by many of his American champions because of its linguistic aporias and disjunctions, is really a by-product of his intense struggle to register interior experience with absolute objectivity. Ashbery's invitations to language to help create interior experience couldn't be more different. That Celan and Ashbery can be spoken of in the same breath shows just how historically unnuanced this current mix and match of styles is.

Deep image has had its day, though its ahistorical premises have been taken up in this new method's assumption that style is merely a manipulable function, easily disconnected from the individual poet's personal and historical circumstances. That Tranströmer's poems have outlived the aesthetic program which first made them popular is not only an indication of their enduring quality. It also seems an ironic comment on our current intellectual climate, in which criticism seems more interested in issuing directives to artists than in addressing itself to the actual experience of individual works of art. Given the proscriptive nature of criticism's tone, it's not surprising that the line between art and criticism has blurred. But if poets (and poets are also critics) are to continue in their traditional imaginative role of envisioning the spaces that their poems then fill, they need to be especially wary of treating their art as if it were merely a set of linguistic codes handed down to them by the operations of criticism.

Our current technicians' understanding of poetry as language system is symptomatic of a largely unvoiced anxiety about the capacity of art to adequately register the shocks of contemporary experience—what Baudelaire in the l9th century recorded in his poems as the decay of tradition under assault from the processes of mass urbanization and technological advance. Those processes have only accelerated in our century, making it wholly understandable why deep imagists sought to counter that anxiety by locating "truth" outside our daily experience of mass society. And our current interest in Celan as filtered through Ashbery is also invested in preserving a sense of vital inwardness that isn't so desensitized that it can barely register shock.

The problem with both deep image and our current technicians' willful sleight-of-hand is their ahistorical relationship to their models: to do anything but mop up surface mannerisms of another writer (and this is especially the case with distinctive stylists like Ashbery, Celan, and Tranströmer) requires a keen knowledge of how the structures of poetry and the structures of consciousness differ. To hear the traditional formal elements in Ashbery, a reader needs an ear educated in the history of English literature to know when the poet is resorting to deliberate parody or pastiche. Otherwise, the self-generating quality of his language degenerates (as is often the case with his imitators) into license for mental flux, flux which tries to redeem itself by adopting a tone of high seriousness characteristic of Celan.

Similarly, deep image as a doctrine of composition gave countenance to poets to indulge in a different species of mental flux, one conditioned by the mythology of an Edenic return to language as a sacral instrument. This mythology ignored one of the prime concerns of Tranströmer's poetry: in order to record the shocks of contemporary life, the poet must be willing to enter into history, to conjure it not merely as chronological sequence, but as unique texture and feel, what Walter Benjamin called "aura." Deep image, however, was committed to locating itself in a world of prehistory, as if the mind were a direct conduit to the eternal collective unconscious, and the timebound structures of poetry were only a hindrance to the reception of archetypes.

The true marker of Tranströmer's poetry is not deep image's desire for unmediated process or the current fascination with stylistic bricolage, process "liberated" from its historical origins. His intention isn't to suppress or outmaneuver the shocks of experience for the sake of primal purity or a portentous, knowing tone, but to make the poem a place where these shocks can occur. The eerie coolness and detachment of his poems are a summons to these shocks that constantly forbode imminent catastrophe. The catastrophe hinted at is the intrusion of irrational forces—natural, historical, psychological—into moments of shock that seem on the verge of erupting into visionary transcendence that would compensate the poet for being at the mercy of these same forces.

Yet this potentially consoling vision is always short-circuited into a direct confrontation with these forces: the vision becomes the moment of this confrontation, while the possibility of transcendence is deferred until the next trial. In his poem "Grief Gondola No. 2", an homage to Liszt's piano pieces by the same name, "the green cold of the ocean" that "presses upward through the palace floor" transforms later in the poem to "the deep that loves to invade humanity without showing its face." Both of these visionary moments, which start off by registering the shock of artistic creation, unpredictably veer off into the irrational world of the poet's own dreams that develop in ways beyond his control, or the control of the structures of art.

This moment of vertigo, of the sense of the non-human void revealing itself beneath the invisible, but human face of the deep, is one of the triumphs of Tranströmer's poetry. His sensitivity to the deep as the source of human creativity in response to the timelessness of the void suggests how alert his imagination is, always poised on the brink of revelation, but infinitely patient, careful to let these otherworldly revelations take place on their own terms. "The still, sad music of humanity" that resonates from the deep, and the intimation of the void underneath that music, can't be counterfeited by a blind trust in unconscious processes or by appropriating other poets' hard-won intuitions, as if those intuitions could be reproduced at will, regardless of their historical and personal contingencies.

By contrast, Tranströmer's poems imagine the spaces that the deep then inhabits, like ground water gushing up into a newly dug well. And those spaces are anything but ahistorical. In fact, history itself is the main force that occasions his encounters with the deep.

In "Vermeer" as in "The Forgotten Captain" the poet confronts the rising of the deep as it announces its own arrival in historically defined circumstances, a l7th century alehouse in the former case, a World War II convoy patrolling the North Atlantic in the latter. Tranströmer's sense of the continuity between history and our private fates sets up what Baudelaire called "correspondance" in which "the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness" vibrate with and against the specific social conditions we are born into. Tranströmer's poems are acoustically perfect chambers in which all of these contradictory vibrations can be heard without straining. In "Streets in Shanghai" the intoxication of the crowd resonates against darker notes: "We look almost happy out in the sun, while we bleed to death from wounds we know nothing about."

This inclusive, paradoxical habit of vision contributes to what I find most appealing in Tranströmer's work (and perhaps most damaging to our current period style). You can see this rare quality hinted at in the title of his short prose memoir included in For the Living and the Dead, "Memories Look at Me." Baudelaire's lines "L'homme y passe à travers des fôrets de symboles/Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers" ("Human beings wander through forests of symbols/Which look back at them with a knowing stare") suggests the reciprocity between the forests of symbols that we make of memory through the means of art, and the actual lived events which will have been our lives. Tranströmer's sense that memories have eyes that look at us from their own vantage point independent of our attempts at remembering insists on the objective quality of the past while acknowledging the contingent nature of memory. All is not at the mercy of language sieved through the ceaseless processes of mental flux; nor is language necessarily an enemy of recollected emotions objectively recorded through poetic form.

Tranströmer's comprehensive understanding of how the forests of symbols establishes deeply personal correspondences to our imaginative lives argues quietly against certain premises of post-structuralist language theory. In terms of personally experienced emotion, there is nothing arbitrary or politically coercive about inherited poetic structures that challenge us to greater coherence in the face of our own fear and confusion before the menacing paradoxes Tranströmer proposes at the end of "Streets in Shanghai" or in "Island Life, l860": "This moment's stain that flows out for eternity,/ this moment's wound that bleeds in for eternity." The poet's recognition of two kinds of time and their interrelationship through the stain and the wound demonstrate how individual fates impinge on categories like "eternity". The poet's notation of the date signals his respect for the manmade, historically situated forests of symbols that buffer us from the void, but also resonate with its unsettling influences.

Tranströmer's work constructs spaces that allow us to penetrate to that void, but without denying the contingent nature of the poem's historical moment. By this quiet way of confronting the void in which "the deepsea cold" rises into our being, he makes his poems hospitable to the abyss while still acknowledging the vertiginous feel of too much emptiness underneath us. At the ending of "Vermeer" he takes this dynamic between the void and private subjectivity a step further:

The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
and whispers:
'I am not empty, I am open.'

Objectively voiced, this simultaneous denial and affirmation points beyond itself with unsentimental cool to a realm where the void itself hints at the correspondences between us and it, an invitation almost to inhabit that openness. Perhaps what we most need to learn from Tranströmer's poetry is the grave tact of his making, his wary refusal to march into that void accompanied by linguistic flourishes and salvoes, while allowing the tenderness of this moment between us and that instant of openness to resonate and expand.