I hadn’t heard of Tomas Tranströmer until last fall when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature; I placed a library request for two or three of his books, and, for various reasons, did not actually get a copy of either of them until very recently. Needless to say, I had certain expectations. This particular book, The Great Enigma, is in a sense “the complete poems of“, because it holds all of his poems that were ever published “in book form”–Baltics, The Sorrow Gondola, Secrets on the Way, etc. It also contains a short memoir, Memories in My Eyes, in which Tranströmer describes certain scenes from his childhood, in Sweden.
I hope it is fair to give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I’m not well up on contemporary poetry, but I love any good poetry, regardless of style. I’ve read several of the classics–Frost, Poe, Wordsworth, Browning, Shakespeare, etc. And I’ve written a fair amount of poetry myself. This is my rating, for what it’s worth.
Like many poets, Tranströmer wrote some real gems, but I personally did not enjoy the great majority of his poems. [The English translation, by Robin Fulton, seemed quite good, so I don’t think it’s that.] The Great Enigma spans 1950s – 2004, with the first half being slightly better than the second half. Overall, the parts I liked best were the memoir–a short but fascinating read–and the short prose pieces, prose poetry, if you will. The poems I like are as follows:
- The Stones
- Secrets on the Way
- Noon Thaw
- In the Nile Delta
- Summer Plain
- To Friends Behind a Frontier
Tranströmer has a true gift for analogies. Often you’ll stumble across an analogy so unique, so perfect you wish you had read it before. Some of these are very quirky (if you listen to Adam Young, think “Alligator Sky”). Some are just so obvious you’ll start thinking about them henceforth–i.e., traffic lights = eyes. I’d recommend the book for the analogies alone.
Are they depressing poems? Well, yes and no. “Death” is a common keyword. Religion is vaguely present, but not prominent, and there is little or no sense of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” The poems’ settings are typically a city, village, the sea, or the forest–each with a sense of sadness or something not being right.
Yet while the author’s mood is easy to infer, the poems themselves were too emotionless to provoke much sympathy in me. They are so “blank”, so to speak; even Kafka is emotional compared to this book. Additionally, much of the imagery in The Great Enigma is so hard to decipher you eventually give up trying to understand. I realize that it probably makes perfect sense to the author, but self-expression is no longer self-expression if an author doesn’t get their point across. Perhaps I should have been depressed by this book, but I wasn’t. Inversely, I was not encouraged or inspired. It made no net emotional impression on me whatsoever.
That said, Tranströmer’s poems are still a worthwhile read if you want to read more contemporary poems, while avoiding the angst and profuse immorality so typical in most contemporary writing. He obviously drew a lot inspiration from nature, and his few “romantic” poems are more decent than most. The Great Enigma certainly met some of my expectations, and I can recommend it for that.