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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.4 (2004) 65-79

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The Recognition of Faith in the Poetry of Tomas Transtromer

Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role--I am the place
where creation is working itself out.

The unseen--God, angels, ghosts, saints--populate acclaimed Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer's world. Transtromer is a master at taking life's foggy realms--hallucinations, dreams, meditations--and breaking them upon the page in brief, breathtakingly concrete images. Startling, too, is Transtromer's view of the self. For a poet in the twenty-first century, his modern, secular poetic voice is surprisingly free of cynicism about the direction of humanity and, indeed, all of God's creation. In Transtromer's poems, the recognition of God's work on earth is a delicious secret, delighted in by the poet and his characters. The poet seems to stumble on his faith, recognizing it in moments that burst upon him unexpectedly, usually triggered by something concrete: flowers, violins, cars spinning on the highway. This examination will explore the theme of faith [End Page 65] through three recognitions that repeatedly occur in Transtromer's poetry: the recognition of the holy unseen as magnetic forces drawing human beings toward them, the recognition of the self as God's unfolding creation, and the recognition of others and nature as fellow creation--that is, acts of ongoing creation.

Transtromer's life as a poet is unique in that he garnered a great deal of critical respect straight out of the gate. Born in 1931, he studied psychology and poetry at the University of Stockholm. He worked as psychologist until 1990 in a variety of positions in Sweden: at a reformatory for boys, within the prison system, with labor organizations, and with patients of disease.

Following the 1954 publication of his first book of poetry at the age of twenty-three, simply titled 17 Poems, Transtromer became a respected poet in his own country, debated and delighted over in the literary criticism columns popular in Sweden's newspapers. His poetry hums with a quiet joy and surrealistic optimism. Free from overtly political concerns, Transtromer's poetry has been described as "meeting places" where the individual can encounter the universal. His early work in 17 Poems, characterized by classical meters adapted from Latin forms, contains a formality that eventually evolved into a more spoken Swedish in his following books of poetry, which have been translated into more than thirty languages. Still writing about seven or eight poems a year even after a serious stroke in the 1990s, Transtromer is one of the most widely acclaimed poets in the world, translated into English and befriended since the 1960s by landmark American poets such as Robert Bly, Robert Hass, and Mary Sweeney. The recipient of a lifetime government subsidy to support his art, Transtromer has been awarded a variety of international poetry awards, including the Petrarch Prize, Bonnier Prize for Poetry, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Sweden, having instituted the Tomas Transtromer Prize for poetry in Västerås in 1997, is still eagerly waiting for Transtromer to be awarded the Nobel Prize. [End Page 66]

Like many poets, Transtromer describes his writing process as one of great pressure. In one interview he said that he starts a poem when "a very special kind of ignition when a strong outer pressure suddenly meets a strong inner pressure."1 When Transtromer's poetry was first translated into English, certain tags got attached to his style--most often "confessional." But later poets and critics have noted that his poems simply do not warrant such a categorization. As Lasse Soderberg said, "He is no confessional poet. He is suspicious of his own ego."2 His detached, elevated perspective is not turned inwards in a subjective vacuum of emotions and experiences; while his perspective is intensely personal, it is based in a universality that sees the poet go in and down through his...


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