The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, announced today, is an accomplishment for its Laureate but also for the genre of poetry.

Of the 107 prizes since 1901, only 15 have gone to poets and six of these, i.e. around half, were awarded in the short period between 1959 and 1979. The last prize presented to a poet was back in 1996—until, that is, today.

There are few poets who can make a living out of poetry and Tomas Tranströmer is no exception. Now in his eighties, he used to work as a psychologist and a translator. In 1990 a stroke left him partly paralyzed and unable to talk but he has nevertheless continued to play the piano, which he loves, and to write poetry. His work has been translated in English, French and German but, like poetry more generally, it is not widely available.

I had not heard of Tomas Tranströmer before; and, therefore, I am all the more pleased he received the Nobel Prize because now I have a chance to read him. Ultimately, that is also one of the functions of prizes—namely to raise awareness about those writing in isolation and/or in minority languages but whose message might have a wider resonance.

The few examples of Tranströmer’s work available on the Internet suggest that his poetry is accessible without being evident; and it is strongly evocative through visual images that resonate with mood and feeling.

For instance, in ‘The Couple’ he writes the following about love:

“The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
But their most secret thoughts meet as when
Two colors meet and flow into each other
On the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting”
(translated by Robert Bly)

And about music he writes in ‘Allegro’:

“After a black day, I play Haydn
And feel a little warmth in my hands

The sound is spirited, green and full of silence

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
Rocks are flying, rocks are rolling,
The rocks roll straight through the house
But every pane of glass is still whole”
(translated by Robert Bly)

Congratulations Tomas Transtömer!!


P.S. List of other poet Nobel Laureates
Rabindranath Tagore (1913)
William Buttler Yeats (1923)
Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931)
Gabriela Mistral (1945)
T.S. Eliot (1948)
Juan Ramón Jiménez (1956)
Salvadore Quasimodo (1959)
Saint-John Perse (1960)
Giorgos Seferis (1963)
Pablo Neruda (1971)
Odysseus Elytis (1979)
Derek Walcott (1992)
Seamus Heaney (1995)
Wislawa Szymborska (1996)