Sunday, March 29, 2015

Poetic Musings: Great Enigma Haiku by Tomas Transtromer

for Tomas Transtromer, Swedish Nobel laureate and a master of metaphors who died March 26.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

--T.S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding,' "Four Quartets"

Birds in human shape.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.

Concluding Haiku, The Great Enigma, 2004

Commentary by Helen Vendler

This farewell offers two facts of being: the beautiful energies of the natural world (apple blossoms, birds) and our compulsion to make those energies, through the excitements of poetry, resemble our emotional selves. This is hardly new: poetry has long ascribed human qualities to birds. But normally the natural creature (say, Poe’s raven) precedes the “human” quality (the utterance of the word “Nevermore”). Transtromer characteristically, and unnervingly, puts the symbolic image first—the human-shaped birds—and then, without explanation, adds the unelaborated natural fact of blossoming apple trees. He finds in this juxtaposition the great enigma of human existence: the simultaneity in human beings of an indivisible awareness both subjective and objective. For Transtromer, poetry requires a double articulation, in which the irrefutable senses converge seamlessly with the irrepressible emotions. In that convergence one may gain a possible self-knowledge:

Two truths draw nearer each other.
One moves from inside, one moves
    from outside
And where they meet we have a chance
    to see ourselves.

-- excerpted from “The Art of the Inexplicit,” New Republic, February 2012

The Great Enigma (Swedish: Den stora gåtan) is Tomas Transtromer’s collection of short-form poetry (translated by Robin Fulton);  It consists of five small poems in free format, followed by 45 even smaller haiku in eleven suites. These suites are loosely organised by genre and themes, and these themes frequently blend. The book was nominated for the August Prize.

In 1959, Transtromer published his haiku for the first time, such as the following one:

The boy drinks milk and
Sleeps securely in his cell,
a mother of stone.

And in 1966 he published eleven more in his collection, The Sorrow Gondola. The haiku in The Great Enigma, like those published earlier, follow the traditional 5-7-5 format, and in them, Transtromer employs many “nontraditional” techniques and literary devices, such as overt simile and metaphor, surrealist  personification and mythopoetic symbols.

Take the haiku above for example, the mythopoetic personification, which is indicated by the phrases “birds in human shape” and “great enigma,” is employed in L1 and juxtaposed with the realistic description of a natural spring scene ("the apple trees in blossom").

Evaluated in the context of haiku poetics, L3, from which the title of the book is drawn, reads more like an authorial comment, which narrows, not opens up, an interpretative space for the reader to co-author the poem. I think this poem might work better as a two-line gendai haiku:

Birds in human shape.
The apple trees in blossom.

Note: Below are the haiku selected from Tomas Transtromer's collections of poetry:

The high-tension lines
taut in cold’s brittle kingdom
north of all music.
(translation by Patty Crane)

The orchid blossoms.
Oil tankers are gliding past.
And the moon is full.
(translation by Patty Crane)

The presence of God.
In the tunnel of birdsong
a locked door opens.
(translation by Patty Crane)

The power lines stretched
across the kingdom of frost
north of all music
(translation by Robin Fulton)

Death bends over me –
I’m a chess problem, and he
has the solution
(translation by Robin Fulton)

(Note: This haiku reminds me of the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal)

1 comment:

  1. Below is a relevant excerpt from Helen Vendler's “The Art of the Inexplicit,” New Republic, February 2012:

    During the evening banquet in his honor, his wife, Monica, representing the poet, read in Swedish and English (in a translation by Robin Fulton) a poem called “From March 1979.” In it Tranströmer displays the enigma around which all his writing revolves: given the inexpressiveness of words in their blank everyday functionality, how is the poet to recreate nature’s signs in that rare human language we call poetry?

    Weary of all who come with words,
    words but no language,
    I make my way to the snow-covered

    The untamed has no words.
    The unwritten pages spread out on
    every side!

    I come upon the tracks of deer in
    the snow.
    Language but no words.

    At the beginning, words with no authentic language; at the end, nature’s language (in “deer-speak”) but no words. It was by this self-portrait—as a poet facing untamed nature, exhilarated by its wealth of unwritten pages but also overwhelmed by the duty to transmute them into written ones.