Tomas Tranströmer Wins Nobel Literature Prize; Somewhere Philip Roth Weeps Quietly

Today Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Swedish winner since 1974 and the first umlauted winner since Herta Müller in 2009. The citation mentions his "condensed, translucent images," which allow readers "fresh access to reality."


It's a good choice, and one that Nobel watchers had been predicting for many years. Of course, there are sure to be critics, particularly American ones; since Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl called American literature "too insular" in 2008, there will be those who accuse the Swedes of hypocritically picking their hometown boy. But Tranströmer is a poet with a broad international reputation—in fact he's among the few foreign-language poets (Vera Pavlova is another) with an established following in English translation, even here in insular America. Robert Frost said that poetry is what evaporates from all translation, but something about the lucidity and idiosyncracy of Tranströmer's images seems to carry well across linguistic boundaries.

That said, the man's not exactly a household name, so I'm glad the prize will bring his work to an even larger audience. I'm familiar with only a scattering of his poems myself, but I'm always intrigued by the cryptic and ominous qualities of his work. I have a particular fascination with a poem called "Streets in Shanghai," as translated by Samuel Charters. Unfortunately the full text is unavailable online, but here's how it opens:

Many in the park are reading the white butterfly.

I love that cabbage butterfly as if it were a floating corner of truth itself!

At dawn the running crowds set our silent planet going.

The opening lines recall the deep simplicity of classical Chinese poetry, but the third line transports us suddenly to the teeming, globalized modern city. The poem is full of such evocative juxtapositions, and culminates in a vision of city dwellers bearing invisible crosses—a jarringly Christian image possibly inspired by Tranströmer's fellow brooding Scandinavian, Kierkegaard. The complete poem can be found in Robert Hass's anthology Now & Then (2008), and in a separate translation in Tranströmer's The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (2006).

Other samples of the new laureate's work can be found at the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poetry websites, which will undoubtedly expand their exhibits in the coming weeks. Congratulations to Mr. Tranströmer, and condolences to Philip Roth and Bob Dylan, who had been pegged by some as Nobel favorites this year but who must now console themselves with their immense talent, wealth, and fame.

[Image of Tomas Tranströmer courtesy of the Nobel Prize Foundation website.]

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
Sponsored
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

The mystery of Jesus’ brother gets even weirder

The controversy over whether Jesus had any siblings is reignited after an amazing new discovery of an ancient text.

Jesus and James. Unknown painter. Possibly 14th century.
Politics & Current Affairs
Keep reading Show less

Orangutans exhibit awareness of the past

Orangutans join humans and bees in a very exclusive club

(Eugene Sim/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • Orangutan mothers wait to sound a danger alarm to avoid tipping off predators to their location
  • It took a couple of researchers crawling around the Sumatran jungle to discover the phenomenon
  • This ability may come from a common ancestor
Keep reading Show less