The Tuesday Poem: Tomas Transtromer


2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.

As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember that he was there
when he returns again to his room.

Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.

The train is entirely motionless.
2 o'clock: strong moonlight, few stars.

Tomas Transtromer (trans Robert Bly)

I've just found this poet - who is apparently one of Sweden's greatest and was a candidate for the Nobel laureateship. Why haven't I heard of him before?   Translations don't always work either  - but these do.  Robert Bly, his translator, was a personal friend and I think this closeness has made for really good translations - not just a transcription but the creation of a new poem.   Shelley is very good on this problem.  He wrote 'It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet.  The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower - and this is the burden of the curse of Babel'.

There are more poems on the BookeyWookey blog.
For more Tuesday Poems go to the Tuesday Poem blog.


  1. mmm yes - shelley is good on the problem of babel!

  2. Poetry definitely requires a good author to have any meaning after translation.
    As you say it ends up as a new work. The skill of the translator is if there is any sense of the original left.
    I think prose is the same you get some very dismal translations of novels sometimes. A literal translation does not work more often than not.

  3. Kathleen - I really enjoyed this poem. I have a vague feeling that I've come across this poet before - years ago? The stanza about sickness I felt was so deftly put. Lovely! Kathleen - offer of sending Marriage for Beginners stands - I believe there's a prob with emailing me through the blog, though I'm not sure at why. Anyway, it's I have a small stash of the book that I've reserved for sending to poets, so don't hesitate if you'd like a copy.

  4. Thanks for your comments - like you Al, a bad translation often spoils a novel for me.
    Catherine - I'd love a copy of marriage for beginners - would be happy to exchange a copy of my own Unwritten Lives for it. can you email me so that we can exchange addresses?

  5. Lovely
    I think Ted Kooser mentions Transtromer in his book "The Poetry Home Repair Manual". I haven't really sought out his poems though, it is that translation problem you mention.


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