Experience and Transcendence in the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer

By | 5 January 2001

Blanchot is right to emphasise that experience is double. In his terms, we name the possible and1 respond to the impossible. The impossible, for him, is the limit of the possible, the site where power, truth and unity finally crumble. Perhaps so; yet the discovery of indeterminate being in no way precludes the experience of determinate being, transcendent being, the Wholly Other, or anything else. I therefore propose a broader understanding of the word ‘impossible’, one that allows a more uplifting experience of transcendence. Let us say that the possible is the other that yields to the same, while the impossible retains its alterity: only its approach or withdrawal can be experienced. Now an experience to be faced is always marked by the possibility of possibility: what happens may be anticipated, and its outcome conceived in advance. Yet it is marked also by the possibility of impossibility: what happens may be singular, groundless, unable to be readily assimilated to consciousness. To describe this event we use words like ‘enigma’ and ‘mystery’, and to name its effects we say words like ‘calm’ or ‘distress’. Sometimes only one possibility is realised to any considerable extent. Daily life is characterised by the triumph of the possible: I reach for a cup, drink from it, then put it down. Yet I may reach for the cup and be seized with wonder that it and I exist. At that moment my experience is constituted with the possible and impossible as more or less equally distant vanishing points. Perhaps, as with Blanchot, this moment conjures the approach of death; if so, the distribution of these vanishing points changes, and impossibility becomes sovereign. Or perhaps the moment becomes an affirmation of the God who disposes being and nonbeing. Once again, the impossible is broached.

These are extreme examples in life though not in poetry. In life or art, however, ‘to transcend experience’ does not name the impossible, as people sometimes say. The expression merely indicates that experience is not the same in all regions of being. Experience is especially complex in the region we call poetry. Of course, most verse, of whatever school, abides almost wholly in the realm of the possible, and even so-called experimental poetry often does little more than rearrange formal possibilities. Fulfilling or destroying a form can expose one to the unknown, but it is the passage that is important not the vehicle. Despite appearances, devotional poetry has in itself no privileged relation to the impossible: the word ‘God’ usually falls fast asleep in literature. A memorable poem, whether about a cup or God, passes from mastery to mystery, if only for a moment, though on rereading it one finds that the relation between the two cannot be narrowly specified.

Were I to continue these reflections with Yves Bonnefoy in mind my comments would differ from those on other poets to whom I feel close: Philippe Jaccottet and Roberto Juarroz, for instance. Each speaks of the impossible in his own way.2 If I choose to read Tomas Tranströmer, whose work is equally close to me, it is because his poems not only open themselves to the impossible but also meditate on it without using the word.3

Tranströmer lives in the wake of what Friedrich Hölderlin calls the ‘double infidelity’: God has turned away from human beings, leaving us to experience His absence, and we have turned from Him, no longer regarding this absence as significant. The poet abides in the space created by this twofold abandonment while remaining open to the chance of a new revelation of the divine. Certainly Tranströmer does not thematise this openness by way of an uncritical endorsement of Christianity. The Church is ‘the broken arm of faith’, and the Cross is ‘like a snap-shot | of something in violent motion’. The latter image suggests that Christianity has attempted to domesticate a spiritual energy that overruns all limits. Although Tranströmer affirms ‘the great unknown which I am a part of’, this mystery is not simply benign in its effects. Thus ‘Golden Wasp’:

The divine brushes against a human being and lights a flame
but then draws back. Why? The flame attracts the shadows, they fly rustling in and join
the flame, which rises and blackens. And the smoke spreads out
black and strangling. At last only the black smoke, at last only the pious executioner.

To write ‘the divine’ (gudomliga) is already to claim more imaginative freedom than the word ‘God’ (Gud) generally allows. Yet ‘God’ is used now and then. In an earlier lyric, ‘Solitary Swedish Houses’, Tranströmer asks that the people he sees walking out- side in autumn may,

feel without alarm
the camouflaged wings
and God’s energy
coiled up in the dark.

The final image recalls the tremendous force pent-up in the Cross, yet the telling word is ‘feel’ [känna] rather than ‘energy’. A mixture of the Modern and the Romantic in his poetic stance, Tranströmer inclines to the Romantics in his theology while avoiding any show of piety. One poem ends by describing itself as ‘my inside-out psalm’, and the expression is a fitting emblem of Tranströmer’s work as a whole. His poems are songs of consolation, hope and praise that – for all their ‘finish’ as works of art – show the knots, loose ends and seams of experience, not the faultless pattern dreamed by a beautiful soul.

An early elegy proclaims ‘There’s a crossroads in a moment’, and a later poem about revisiting a childhood house tells us, ‘It’s always so early in here, before the crossroads’. There is a sense in which all Tranströmer’s poetry seeks a moment before decision, before the consequences of our choices can make us into adults. At the same time, this is a poetry that honours the ‘Beautiful slag of experiences (Erfarenheternas)’ that compose a life, even when viewed from the perspective of death. There is a lost innocence we mourn, and a higher innocence we long for and strive to attain. More potent than the image of the crossroads, however, is that of the border, frontier or wall which pervades Tranströmer’s writing. The lines separating one nation from another, dreaming from waking, life from death, creation from self are all investigated and shown to be divided and equivocal. One might say of Tranströmer’s poems in general that experience courts transcendence, whether ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’, and that the strongest poems affirm, ponder and explore a ‘vertical transcendence’, a mystery that can ‘neither be written nor kept silent’.

When I use the expression ‘vertical transcendence’ I think of Jean Wahl distinguishing ‘transascendence’ from ‘transdescendence’: an ascent to the heights, and a descent to the depths.4 Tranströmer writes of music having a way of following us ‘up | the depths’, and his images have a remarkable ability to reach up and down in the same movement, to be, as he says himself, ‘at the same time eagle and mole’. Indeed, his poems maintain close contact with the earth while gazing down on it from a great height, putting it in a broader context that enriches the physical world and does not devalue it. In their larger sweeps, his poems testify that ‘The other world is this world too’, that the impossible touches the possible, arises out of it or reaches out to it.

To keep this thought in play for a little while, I would like to cite an extraordinary poem by Tranströmer, one that names an artist whose work resonates with his own in certain respects. ‘Vermeer’ is a poem about walls, or rather about our abilities and inabilities to cross apparently clear dividing lines: inside and outside, madness and sanity, art and life, childhood and adulthood, life and death. We are told of,

Pictures that call themselves ‘The Music Lesson’
or ‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter’ –
she’s in her eighth month, two hearts kicking inside her.
On the wall behind is a wrinked map of Terra Incognita.

Art historians say that the painting most likely represents a creased map of Holland not ‘Terra Incognita’. Yet Tranströmer’s point is precisely that the everyday and the nearby are an unknown country. An common event like having a baby requires the woman to balance what she knows with what cannot be predicted.

The chairs in the painting are covered with an ‘unknown blue material’. We are asked to consider how the fabric is fixed to the wood:

The gold studs flew in with incredible speed
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been other than stillness.

The tension between energy and calm recalls the Cross that ‘hangs under cool church vaults’ and that nonetheless seems to be ‘in violent motion’. The pressure in the painter’s studio comes from ‘the other side the wall’, the noise from the street out- side: art is sustained by life. But ‘wall’ quickly takes on wider connotations when we hear that ‘It hurts to go through walls, it makes you ill’ and that ‘the wall is part of yourself’. Once again, experience is leagued with transcendence.

What kind of transcendence? The poem’s final lines enrich the question rather than attempt a definitive answer:

The clear sky has leant against the wall.
It’s like a prayer to the emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
and whisper
‘I am not empty, I am open’.

The Annunciation is quietly evoked then with- drawn: there is no angel, only daylight; the child is human, not divine; and conception occurred months before. Only emptiness, certainly not divine plenitude, characterises our world after the ‘double infidelity’. Even here one may risk a prayer, however. No mention is made of God or the divine, yet the answer to the prayer is impressive and mysterious. There is no easy assurance – the voice does not whisper of fullness – and to be offered openness is an opportunity for further experience and further transcendence. In the words of a lyric that speaks more directly than ‘Vermeer’,

An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
‘Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.’
  1. Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, 48.
  2. See Yves Bonnefoy, ‘But no, once again | Unfolding the wing of the impossible’, Poems 1959-1975, trans. Richard Pevear (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 63; Philippe Jaccottet, ‘The side I take now is that of the impossible’, Seedtime: Extracts from the Notebooks 1954-1967, trans. André Lefevere and Michael Hamburger (New York: New Directions, 1977), 23; Roberto Juarroz, ‘Celebrating the impossible. | Is there another path for celebrating the possible?’, Vertical Poetry: Recent Poems, ed. and trans. Mary Crow (New York: White Pine, 1992), 25.
  3. See Tomas Tranströmer, new Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1997).
  4. See Jean Wahl, Existence Humaine et Transcendence (Neuchâtel: n.p., 1944).
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