Tranströmer and haiku

Yesterdays news about the Nobel prize in literature going to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer warmed the hearts of many poetry lovers. I have been a big fan of his poetry for many years and he is certainly worthy of the prize. Since he is the eighth Swede to receive the prize I was afraid there would be comments here and there about the fact that only three Asians so far have been given the recognition and that Sweden is over-represented. However, I am happy to note that the choice is seen as a good one in world media.

Tranströmer is not only a good poet, he is also a good haiku poet. One of my favourite haiku poems of his is (in Swedish)


spända i köldens rike

norr om all musik.

(Roughly: The power lines /tightened in the realm of coldness / north of all music.)

In 2001 he published a book called “Fängelse, Nio haikudikter” (Edition Edda).  It contains nine haiku poems he wrote in 1959 as a kind of new year’s greeting to his friend, poet and psychologist Åke Nordin, who at the time was the head of the juvenile prison Hällby outside Eskilstuna.  One of the poems reads as follows:

De väsnas ofta

för att skrämma tiden in

i snabbare lunk.

(Roughly: They often make noise / in order to frighten time into / a faster pace.)

In my bookshelf I also found a Danish edition called “Haiku 1959-2001″ (Arena 2001). In it you can find a poem that makes me think of the famous movie “The seventh seal”, by Ingemar Bergman:

Döden lutar sig

över mig, ett schackproblem.

Och har lösningen

(Roughly: Death leans / over me,  a chess problem. / And has the solution.)

Some would say that some of his haiku are not really haiku, since a traditional haiku should also contain a season word, or an expression that hints at what season the poem, and the poet is in. But there are also haiku without season words, free haiku. Then there is senryû, a form of poetry which is very similar to haiku, but which always lacks a season word. Nowadays, haiku poets often also look beyond the haiku rules, especially the 5-7-5 syllable rule (which Tranströmer on the other hand masters; in Japanese one does not count syllables but character sounds), making their poems simply brief poems, even if they call them haiku.

There is so far only one poetry collection of his translated into Japanese, the book “Sorgegondolen” (悲しみのゴンドラ ).  In English there is more, for instance “The Great Enigma”, translated by Robin Fulton, New Directions Books, 2006. Anyway, we are all very proud of having such a distinguished poet in Sweden.

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  1. 01

    Dear ambassador,
    I didn’t know Tomas Tranströmer before I heard the news about the Nobel prize in literature going to him. Interestingly, he is a good “haiku” poet!

    I intend to talk about Tranströmer’s “haiku” with my mother(81 years old) tomorrow. She is a “haiku” poet, too. Hopefully next year, she will publish a book “ku-syu” herself for enjoyment.

    Actually, on the 20th October, I was sitting in the auditorium of the embassy all the day. I was listening ambassador’s welcome speech made in perfect polished Japanese. On that account, I had much pleasure in reading your blog.

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