Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Ireland
Tranströmer and his Haikudikter
Tomas Tranströmer was born in 1931 and grew up in Stockholm. A former psychologist, he now is one of Sweden’s most important poets, with many published volumes of poetry and numerous translations of his work into most European languages.
He started writing haiku quite early, in 1959, after visiting a fellow psychologist who worked in the Hällby Youth Custody Centre. Tranströmer then composed a short selection of haiku that contained these:
from his pockets:
Night lorry rolling by,
making inmates’ dreams
Years later, Tranströmer’s “prison haiku” were published in book-form as Fängelse/Prison (2001).
The poet’s next collection entitled Den stora gåtan/The Great Mystery (2004) contained forty-five haiku written over the course of more than forty years. Tranströmer called these poems Haikudikter, however, the readers won’t fail to notice that he writes haiku in his own way. Some critics asserted that Tranströmer's Haikudikter hardly could be called haiku or senryu, as they are “rich in metaphors, sometimes also reclining on an abstraction.” On the other hand, some of the Haikudikter were first published (in another translation) in "Blithe Spirit", the magazine of the British Haiku Society. Indeed, many of these pieces are nothing short of the qualities we admire in haiku, and the author undoubtedly experienced what we call a "haiku moment". In the following piece Tranströmer uses the technique of the sketch, or Shiki's shasei:
November sun –
my gigantic shadow drifts,
The imagery in Haikudikter is extremely rich, and these poems are highly "visual". The following haiku is hard to forget once you've read it, as it contains a striking image:
looking at me, tugboats
with bulldog‘s faces
If we take a look at the usage of season words in Haikudikter, we’ll see that it is quite sporadic. Of course, some of these texts have little in common with haiku. The author every so often employs a “non-haiku” technique; e.g. he sometimes writes about abstract things (“the wall of hopelessness”) and uses a direct metaphor, as well as a simile without dropping the word “like” (“like a rainbow”). There are some other things quite unusual for haiku poetry here, e.g. the mentioning of "the penniless god" and, in another poem, “the ferry across the Styx ”. But again, we may not deny an author who would write haiku about, say, the flying Pope the right to call himself a haijin.
In Haikudikter, Tranströmer mostly uses the 5-7-5 form. We have to say that Swedish is far more suitable for writing 5-7-5 haiku than English. Compare one of Tranströmer's original poems to a 5-7-5 English version of it:
och den döda kan se mig.
(From: Tranströmer, T. Den stora gåtan. Albert Bonniers Förlag, Sweden, 2004)
The roof broke apart
and the dead man can see me
can see me. That face.
(transl. by Robin Fulton. From: Tranströmer, T. Den stora gåtan/The Great Enigma. Radjhani Publications. Kolkata, India, 2006)
This is the reason why the translations of Haikudikter on these pages are free-form haiku. A new translation of 28 haiku from this book was made especially for this publication.
Overall, we would describe Haikudikter as an experiment in haiku, all the more interesting because it was performed by one of the best-loved European writers of today. "We can hear the poet’s inner voice in his haiku," the Swedish critic Torsten Rönerstrand wrote about Tranströmer's Haikudikter. Indeed, the initial silence in these short poems transforms itself into a very unusual language, which really is the language of the poet’s soul.
(First published in Shamrock Haiku Journal No 2, 2007)