IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Literature Nobel goes to Sweden's best-known poet

The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded Thursday to a psychologist who used his spare time to craft sparsely written poems about the mysteries of everyday life — commuting to work, watching the sun rise or waiting for nightfall.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded Thursday to a psychologist who used his spare time to craft sparsely written poems about the mysteries of everyday life — commuting to work, watching the sun rise or waiting for nightfall.

Tomas Transtromer, Sweden's most famous poet, had been a favorite for the prize for so many years that even his countrymen had started to doubt whether he would ever win.

Now 80 and retired from writing, he finally got the call as he sat down to watch the prize announcement on TV.

Asked how it felt to be the first Swede in four decades to win the literature prize, he told reporters: "Very good."

He gave mostly one-syllable answers to questions, the result of a stroke more than two decades ago that left him partially paralyzed and largely unable to speak. His wife, Monica, filled in the details.

"It was a very big surprise," she said. "Tomas, I know you were surprised. Despite the speculation for so many years, you haven't really taken it seriously."

Most of all, she said, Transtromer was pleased to see the prize go to poetry for the first time since Wislawa Szymborska of Poland won in 1996.

Transtromer's surrealistic works are characterized by powerful imagery that explores the mysteries of the human mind. His poems are often built around his own experiences and infused with his love of music and nature. He also writes about history, existential questions and death.

"His poems have a kind of stark, piercing inwardness that's very striking," said Robert Hass, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who edited Transtromer's "Selected Poems."

"There are lots of poems written about driving back and forth to work, poems about dawn, poems about dusk. He gets those moments in life, those ordinary periods of change."

Transtromer (TRAWN-stroh-mur) has long been recognized as the most influential Scandinavian poet of the post-World War II era. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages.

But many thought his nationality stood in the way of receiving the prestigious, $1.5 million Nobel from the Swedish Academy, which has often been accused of bias in favor of literature from mainland Europe. Seven of the last 10 winners have been mainland Europeans.

"The Swedish modesty, or the Swedish fear of being Swedish, has postponed Transtromer's award by at least 10 years," Swedish poet Bob Hansson wrote on his blog after the announcement.

The last Swedes to win the literature prize were Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who shared it in 1974.

Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged that the group is especially cautious about recognizing Swedish writers out of concern that doing so might suggest the members favor their own countrymen.

"I think we've been quite thoughtful and haven't been rash," he said after Thursday's announcement.

Some critics of Transtromer's writing have questioned its lack of social commentary, so often found in the works of other Nobel winners, including last year's laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru.

Humble and unpretentious, Transtromer has always avoided political debates and has stayed out of the public eye.

He is considered a master of metaphor, weaving powerful images into his poems without much embellishment. His focus on simplicity is also mirrored in the way he led his life.

"A lot of great poets don't do anything but writing poetry," said Swedish author Lars Gustafsson, a longtime friend. "But here you have a man who has worked really hard his entire life as a psychologist and who has been writing on Saturday afternoons and in his spare time, often in small, cramped rooms.

"I think his readers also experience him in that way. His poetry is very elementary. It is about things that nearly all people share, such as dreams," Gustafsson added.

Staffan Bergsten, who wrote a biography on Transtrom published this year, said his work is characterized by a combination of the ordinary — people, nature — and the feeling that "there's something secretive underneath."

"No strange words, nothing like that. Anyone can understand it at some level," he said. "But then there are other dimensions."

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Transtromer was raised by his mother, a teacher, after she divorced his father, a journalist. He started writing poetry while studying at the Sodra Latin school in Stockholm.

His work appeared in several journals before he published his first book of poetry, "17 poems," in 1954. It won acclaim in Sweden.

He studied literature, history, poetics, the history of religion and psychology at Stockholm University.

Transtromer's most famous works include the 1966 "Windows and Stones," in which he depicts themes from his many travels, and "Baltics" from 1974.

After his stroke in 1990, he largely stopped writing, but he published "The Sorrow Gondola" in 1996 with work that had been written before the stroke and the "The Great Enigma."

For decades, Transtromer has had a close friendship with American poet Robert Bly, who translated many of his works into English. In 2001, Transtromer's Swedish publishing house, Bonniers, published the correspondence between the two writers in the book "Air Mail."

Earlier this year, Bonniers released a collection of his works between 1954 and 2004 to celebrate the poet's 80th birthday.


Karl Ritter in Stockholm and AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.


Malin Rising can be reached at