Tomas Tranströmer and the Strangeness of Literary Legacy


Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer is dead, and all I can think about is how stupid it is to feel sure someone is dead when you see their name trending on social media and think, “the ONLY explanation for that trending would be…”

And to be right.

I’m also considering the irony of this being my first entry since I changed my blog tagline to one including “modern literary fun.”

I’ve created this blog partially as a humble attempt at an antidote (if only personal) for the general downer atmosphere of contemporary literature.

Part of that downer atmosphere is how much we talk about writers when they die. Oh, don’t get me wrong, that happens in the “entertainment” industry, too. (Quotes because books are definitely not entertaining, right?) Hollywood actors and directors get attention, too. But when you look at the amount of attention they also garner during their lifetimes, it’s not really the same thing.

Literature is still largely an art of legacy. Unlike television or movies, if we’re going to waste time reading a book, we need to know it’s important, damnit. We need to know it was written by someone who’s

a) preferably dead

b) garnered attention when they died

and c) has been talked about with mounting respect since their death.

In movies, you have fun and then you die. In writing, you’d think the fun didn’t start until after you’re dead.

You’d think.

Tranströmer was 83. His death is hardly a tragedy. Still, it evokes understandable emotion for those who loved his work.

A lot of the buzz surrounding Tranströmer’s death will be genuine feelings of sadness or genuine attempts to engage in conversation about him. A lot of it will also be people saying things that are either thoughtful or annoyingly and opportunistically analytical, depending on how you look at it. (I’d put this blog entry in that latter category and hope for the best.)

A lot of the buzz, though, will happen because it has to. Because for a poet, Tranströmer was hugely famous. He was one of the elite, despite the majority of people on earth still not having any idea who he was.

I would like to think, though, that none of this would make a huge difference to him either way.

I was introduced to Tranströmer’s work by Chinese poet Bei Dao, who led a workshop I attended in college during the last semester before I dropped out. At the time, I could already feel the intense isolation of American creative writing from everything else, and felt it heightened by the understanding that this man had been exiled from China for his poetry.

The idea that in some other countries poetry was actually important enough that you could be kicked out for writing it was and still is depressing to me in a double-edged sense: On the one hand, Americans are so spoiled by free speech that they have no taste for language in general, whereas in some places, language is recognized as being powerful but severely limited for that reason.

“No, I don’t feel that my poems are solemn or that my public persona would somehow be solemn.”

Tranströmer in an interview with Jenny Morelli, 2007 (translated from the Swedish by Martin Rundkvist)

I’ve often wondered if there isn’t a less depressing place for language to exist.

The answer to that is that yes, of course there is. Good poets create that place. But sometimes it doesn’t exist in society.

I found Tranströmer’s work playful and invigorating. From what I’ve read in translation since then, I still do. At times, you could call it fun.

Even when poets write for serious reasons, or when they are treated alternately like gods or monsters, they often don’t take themselves or their work too seriously. The question is, why do “we” (one way or another) continue to?

(Quotes because I don’t necessarily include myself, or you.)