blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
print icon

Letter to Tomas Tranströmer

Dear Tomas,

I remember when I first heard you read in New York, in the 70s, with Robert Bly reading his American translations, that I felt I understood the poems in Swedish as you read them. I mean that I was moved and somehow informed by hearing the sounds of your poems, in your voice. I’ve had the same experience hearing a couple of other poets without knowing their languages.

But I love your work best, Tomas—for your simplicity, held in a shared, universal complexity; for the naturalness of your voice: in these ways, and in your seeing into the natural world, I think you are kin to the beloved Elizabeth Bishop.

In your silences and intuitions I can’t compare you to anyone. Well, maybe to Basho. Like his, your work seems to be sort of slantwise spiritual, in an egoless way. Your poems are receptive, tuned in certainly to the political and historical life grinding and haunting around us, but without an agenda. Motherly and fatherly: “Come in, let’s listen together.”

Your voice is both friendly and vulnerable. Nonviolent, holding no one off. Passionate, like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, you are a force for openness.

Your silences are like silences in music, like negative space—time notation, notation of depth.


The most recent time I saw you, you were in a wheelchair, in New York, at NYU. It was at the yearly reading to honor the writing students at Goldwater Hospital, and you were the other honored reader. Like you, some of the other writers were in wheelchairs. I remember, after the event, how you wheeled yourself over, from one writer to another, to say hello.

And do you remember all those lovely young women poets from NYU (and some young men) who lined up to get you to sign your books, and to talk to you? And, to be at eye-level, how they knelt before you?

The first of the couple of times I have met you socially, back in the 70s in New York, a few of us were meeting with you at a restaurant, and when you arrived, you somehow jumped over the back of your chair, like a dancer, and landed among us.

My friend the poet Bill Olsen remembers you visiting a class in Michigan, and that being asked what the difference is between writing prose and verse, you said, “Writing prose is like walking, in that one foot is always on the ground; for a really good short-distance Olympic runner, 80% of the time both feet may be off the ground, so that running is more like flying than it is like walking.”

With lifelong thanks to you, Tomas, our long-distance flyer; and to the beloved Monica; and to the fine American poet, Patty Crane, whose translations here seem to have caught a note of vivid quietness, which I hope you like—

Sending love,

Jean  end

   Sorrow Gondola (Sorgegondolen) Introduction & Suite Contents
   Sorrow Gondola Table of Contents

return to top