Nobel literature laureate admired by Heaney

Tomas Tranströmer: April 15th, 1931 - March 26th, 2015

Tomas Tranströmer, who has died aged 83, was a Swedish poet and Nobel prizewinner known for a body of work in which shrewd metaphors were couched in deceptively spare language, accompanied by crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity.

In 1990, aged 59, he had a stroke that severely curtailed his ability to speak; he also lost the use of his right arm. His poetry production tapered off but he took refuge in music – he had once thought of becoming a concert performer – playing the piano with just his left hand.

With a pared-down style and brusque, forthright diction, Tranströmer wrote in accessible language, though often in the service of ideas that were diaphanous and not easy to parse; he could be precisely observant one moment and veer toward surrealism the next.

"The typical Tranströmer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter," the poet David Orr wrote in an essay in the New York Times in 2011.


He was a hugely popular figure in his home country: his more than 15 books were translated into 60 languages. He was widely admired by English-speaking poets too, including his friends Robert Bly, who translated many of his poems, and Seamus Heaney. Heaney's delight "I was utterly delighted when I heard Tomas Tranströmer had won the Nobel Prize," Heaney said in 2011. "Everybody was hoping for that. For years."

In his newly published memoir Give Dust a Tongue, Irish poet John F Deane devotes a section to Tranströmer and his influence on his own work. In 1995, Deane published a booklet of translations of some of thepoems, worked over with his help, and the Swedish poet came to Dublin for the launch, at which Seamus Heaney spoke.

Deane wrote: “His poetry is one that opens the world to a loving scrutiny that changes the reader’s view of things ... His is a deeply human and resonating voice, capacious, exciting and immensely readable. And it is the openness of his imagination to the world, its actualities, its deep resonances and meaning, that opened up my closed and doctrinaire imagination.”

In 1999, Deane and his wife visited Tranströmer and his wife in Sweden. Tranströmer, then nine years into his illness, played for his guests. There are many piano pieces written for the left hand; among Tranströmer's favourites, Deane recalls, were works by Schubert and Haydn but some contemporary composers also wrote pieces specially for him.

Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm in 1931. His father was a journalist. His parents divorced when he was young and he was reared mostly by his mother, a teacher. He studied literature, history, religion and psychology at Stockholm University, graduating in 1956.

Work as a psychologist followed, first in Stockholm, then in Roxtuna, at a centre for what were then called juvenile delinquents, and, from 1965, in Västerås, to the west of the capital, where he was employed by a government agency providing rehabilitation for a wide variety of people who had fallen out of working life. Diminished mobility When possible he worked part-time, to give space for writing. His stroke in 1990 deprived him of most of his speech and diminished the mobility of his right side.

In due course a kind of modus vivendi was established: according to those close to them, Tranströmer managed to maintain his good humour and, thanks to his wife, Monica’s, care, he was able to live at home instead of in an institution. His writing life was essentially over, but his love for the piano was not.

In 1990 he was awarded the Neustadt international prize for poetry. When his Nobel prize came, the reason cited by the Swedish Academy was that “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”.

In his speech at the prize ceremony, the writer and literary historian Kjell Espmark particularly referred to his vivid, surprising and unforgettable metaphors, and drew attention to his longer and more complex poems, which are perhaps more challenging and more rewarding than the shorter and more familiar pieces that are more frequently quoted.

Sitting in his wheelchair on the stage of Stockholm’s Concert House, Tranströmer received an extraordinarily prolonged and resounding ovation.

His survivors include his widow, Monica Bladh, and two daughters.