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Envoy 2

Envoys is a section that is devoted to looking at individual, non-English haiku from the 20th and 21st centuries. For an introduction to this section, see Envoys.


Envoy 1 (part I)
Envoy 1 (part 2)
Envoy 1 (part 3)
Envoy 2

by Scott Metz



I became aware of the haiku of Tomas Tranströmer through the recent publication of The Great Enigma: 45 Haiku translated by Graham High and Gunvor Edwards, published and printed by RAM Publications (12 Eliot Vale, Blackheath, SE3 0UW, England). It is an elegant collection, carefully and lovingly translated. “The Great Enigma” is, in fact, a long poem, containing eleven parts made up of forty-five haiku and was published in its original Swedish as a single volume of poetry. This is what High and Edwards translated and, interestingly enough, is the name used for his entire oeuvre of work, spanning 50 years: The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (New Directions, 2003). Besides “The Great Enigma,” this collected work also contains twenty-two additional haiku.

Tomas Tranströmer was born in 1931 in Stockholm, Sweden. He attended the University of Stockholm, where he studied psychology and poetry. To quote, he is “one of Sweden’s most important poets . . . has sold thousands of volumes in his native country, and his work has been translated into more than fifty languages. . . . His work has gradually shifted from the traditional and ambitious nature poetry written in his early twenties toward a darker, personal and open verse. His work barrels into the void, striving to understand and grapple with the unknowable, searching for transcendence. . . . [He] is a (also a) respected psychologist, and has worked at a juvenile prison, and with the disabled, convicts, and drug addicts.”

Here is a favorite of mine from those twenty-two:


The power lines stretched
across the kingdom of frost
north of all music.

(translation by Robin Fulton)


For this installment of Envoys, though, I have chosen one of the forty-five in “The Great Enigma” and present to you five different translations of it, as well as some commentary following them:

De bruna löven
är lika dyrbara som




These brown withered leaves
are as invaluable as
the Dead Sea Scrolls             

-translation by Graham High & Gunvor Edwards


The darkening leaves
in autumn are as precious
as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

-translation by Robin Fulton
(The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, New Directions, 2003)

Brown leaves —
as precious as the
Dead Sea Scrolls

-translation by Anatoly Kudryavitsky

the brown leaves
as precious as
the dead sea scrolls

-translated by Jörgen Johansson

Dead Sea Rolls
the brown leaves
are as precious

-translated by Marcus Larsson


This haiku, like all of Tranströmer’s haiku poems (and like nearly all non-haiku poets who have taken forays into haiku composition) is written in the ancient 5-7-5 -on/-ji/mora format (for extensive information and research on this subject please see Richard Gilbert’s “Stalking the Wild Onji”), a “rule” often broken by the likes of Bashō and those proceeding him, though forever demolished by numerous early and mid-20th century Japanese haiku poets. Though haiku in Japanese have almost solely and traditionally been written in one (vertical) line (the language itself indicating breaks/pauses/cuts, allowing the reader further engagement with the poem), Tranströmer breaks his into three — in this case the traditional way in which Japanese haiku have been translated into English and, apparently, Swedish as well. Though he sticks to this format, he utilizes many “non-traditional” techniques — or at least techniques that have never quite been the norm — within it, such as surrealism, overt simile and metaphor, symbolism, the mystical, and the mythopoeic.

In the haiku above, and for all the haiku he has written, Trantrömer strays from western norms by placing a period at the end, giving the poem a kind of finality. Haiku naturally contain a cut at their beginning and end — punctuation or not — cutting it out of reality — “from the literal place/environment/atmosphere (“ba”) of existence” (Hasegawa Kai/Richard Gilbert, “Haiku Cosmos 2”). And so, a period at the end seems a bit heavy and unnecessary. This example, however, contains no cut, break or pause within it (though many of his other haiku do), but is, instead, a strong simile, comparing brown leaves to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Where does this comparison take us?

As I see it, this haiku is both an ode to the sacredness of nature, sacredness itself really, as well as a meditation on time, fragility, and mortality. It’s aura is dark, earthy, and autumnal.

In a painterly way, the poem works in shades of brown — the browns of the leaves (either still hanging on their branches, in the air, or on the ground) only to become food or part of something else, and the browns and beige of the ancient texts written on parchment and papyrus — not unlike, just to illustrate a popular example (and allude to a period of haiku Tranströmer is more than likely very familiar with), some of Buson’s most striking and colorful pieces.



Why the Dead Sea Scrolls though? Why that specific text and its actual naming?

The Dead Sea Scrolls (Dödahavsrullar) gives the haiku depth, background, and stretches the readers mind across time, from the present moment of a world broadcasting brown leaves, back almost a thousand years to a period when sacred texts were being written, copied and modified, beliefs were becoming solidified and suppressed, and cultures and languages were intermingling in potent ways.

The haiku does not necessarily render these sacred texts meaningless, but instead elevates and heightens nature and what we can learn from it, making it sacred, while at the same time noting its fleetingness and brittle nature. Tranströmer could have possibly utilized anything around him but instead chose de bruna löven (the brown leaves) because of the way they play off of and with the image and look of the scrolls. They almost mirror each other in looks, feel and composition.

Why not a different text then? In part, the answer might be alliteration. Looking at the word, “Dödahavsrullar” we find the “d” sound elsewhere: “De” and “dyrbara.” In addition, there is also the “ll” sound in “löven” and “lika,” as well as the “a” sound — found twice in “Dödahavsrullar” — in “bruna,” “lika” and “dyrbara.”

More importantly though is the fact that these sacred texts were found, were discovered, after almost a thousand years inside of caves. This sense of discovery, of something coming to light again, links directly to seeing nature (outside us, but a part of us) anew and coming to a new appreciation and realization of the common and oftentimes forgotten or overlooked. Thus, seeing it as sacred — an invaluable feature that Japanese haiku and culture has emphasized, given us (or reminded us of), through Shintōism. Also, though the haiku is in many ways about the documents’/scrolls’ actual features and the way they compare to brown leaves, the words themselves carry tremendous weight. Look at them as individual words linked together: död/dead, hav/sea, rullar/scrolls. Heavy words indeed, like spiderwebs with endless connections, most especially in regards to mortality and movement, and the curves, waves, effects and trajectories of both. Symbolism and change abound. The leaves and the scrolls then blend into one another, becoming a scroll of one and the same fabric, interwoven — the ancient and the familiar, the new, yet fading, forever entwined. Equal.

To have picked another document would have greatly lessened the poem.

It is certainly possible for the haiku to be a kind of moment, keenly perceived by the poet after a museum exhibition of the scrolls, or looking through reproductions in a book or magazine or something like that, and then having walked out among brown leaves. And there it was. And there it was able to be. It is also possible, however, for it to be a haiku more in tune with the poet’s inner feelings, mood, imagination and/or psyche, playing then with, and making use of, language and all its intricacies and echoes.

De bruna löven
år lika dyrbara som

Tomas Tranströmer


rubberstamp by Lancillotto Bellini

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Ah, I see. In that case you are forgiven 🙂

    I have been attempting lately to write haiku in 5-7-5 morae (NOT syllables) , really just to see if it can be done in English. It can be done, but it’s hard. And so far not exactly poetic…

  2. The statement “This haiku, like all of Tranströmer’s haiku poems (and like nearly all non-haiku poets who have taken forays into haiku composition) is written in the ancient 5-7-5 -on/-ji/mora format” adds to the confusion over this topic.

    In fact it’s written in 5-7-5 syllables. My lack of knowledge of Swedish pronunciation precludes counting the morae accurately, but I think it’s 7-10-8.

    You cite Richard Gilbert’s “Stalking the Wild Onji”, a document that is very clear on this topic.

    1. Elliot,

      Sorry if you found that confusing.

      What I meant was that Tranströmer, and many other westerner poets who have experimented with haiku, have gone with the false idea that 5-7-5 Japanese -on/-ki/mora = 5-7-5 syllables, and have proceeded to write only within those confines. Obviously, this historically inaccurate/off idea has become a norm for many, and a crucial aspect of English haiku’s definition, especially for beginners, in elementary schools, and, unfortunately, the vast majority of the general public. Which is why Richard Gilbert’s article is so interesting and important, if not crucial.

      Concerning the Swedish, I’ll quote directly from the intro to *The Great Enigma (45 Haiku)*, translated by Graham High and Gunvor Edwards (RAM Publications, 2008):

      “All the haiku, in the original Swedish, were written in strict 5-7-5 form . . . ” (6).


      “Although it’s apparent that the 5-7-5 form was Tranströmer’s preference, most readers and writers of haiku are unlikely to be purist about this convention, which is an ‘equivalent’ of the Japanese where no equivalence can really exist” (7).

      and also:

      “Like many mainstream poets who have used haiku for their own purposes, Tranströmer has used the 5-7-5 conventional ‘form’ of haiku very rigidly” (8).

  3. I wonder how many in the English-language haiku community would use a simile in as straightforward a manner as T.T. does here? Or for that matter to present a haiku as a sentence? A poem, in a sense, has its own requirements, and when it is “right” we can say the poet had no choice. (Of course an immense amount of work and chance comes into place before that blessed and rare choicelessness can assert itself). I cannot help but wonder, however, if this poem loses something with its front-loaded simile. I hope other readers will weigh in on this, and basically I’m thinking out loud a bit here.

    Something Robert Bly has said about T. may be useful. It’s from Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, first published in 1970. He writes: “One of the most beautiful qualities in his poems is the space we feel in them. I think one reason for that is that the… main images which appear in his poems come from widely separated sources in the psyche.// The poems are mysterious because of the distance the images have to come to get there”.

    “De bruna loven” certainly travels, in its 17 syllables, an enormous distance. I’m not convinced yet, but I’m wondering if the simile at its center doesn’t diminish, or harden the space it creates. Certainly it is quite directive, pinning us on a single quality, “precious”. It is telling us how to look, perhaps how to feel. Or is it, actually, asking us a question, or two mated questions? Is it asking us to consider how precious brown leaves are to us; how precious are the dead sea scrolls? If the poem were a simple equation, one thing as precious as the other (and *dyrbara*, I understand, has connotations of expense and money value) then it could be reversed, as: “dead sea scrolls are as precious as brown leaves”. This though, to my ear and gut, has a whole other feeling to it. Of course similes aren’t equations, but I feel provoked to consider the poem in that light, of weighing two very different things presented as equal and in the process exploring, really, what *precious* means. And the poem can’t, for all it directness, figure that out for me. But here’s the problem: it gets me *thinking* about preciousness, but I don’t feel it. (And I don’t believe that T. assumes anything about how his readers feel about brown leaves or dead sea scrolls). I won’t come down against any figure of speech in haiku, but maybe what similes tend to do is direct us toward evaluation. And maybe that is why I feel the space and the mystery collapse in this poem, toward a conceptual center.

    That said, the poem is better than a mere statement, though it is formulated as one. If it works, it works by provocation, and being made to think is not a bad thing. I value this poem for that, but if it were all that T. did, I would feel a hunger in my heart. It is not all that he does, however.

    Other poems in The Great Enigma seem to dwell in the same neighborhood as De bruna loven, but I would say leave the inner space alone, and are more mysterious: “Here where the sun burned…/ a mast holding a black sail/ from long long ago. And, “Death leans forward and/ writes on the ocean surface./ While the church breathes gold. These have some affinity with modern Japanese haiku, but do not feel in any way derivative.

  4. I’m a long-time admirer of Tranströmer, but I didn’t know about his haiku. Thanks for the mention of this book, your thoughtful analysis , and the multiple views/translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls/Rolls haiku.
    As for periods at the end of haiku . . . In my own haiku I follow the common conventions of the day (no period at the end, etc.), but I am not always distracted by work that does not follow these conventions. Artistic conventions are a kind of high-falutin’ fad.
    In “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, “ when James Wright says, “I have wasted my life.” – the poem opens up in spite of the period. In lines like this, it seems to me that the period is a little cosmic joke on convention. The line ends, but the poem goes on anyway.  
    But I continue to drop periods at the end of my haiku!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dave. Punctuation in haiku is definitely a fascinating topic, and I would never ever, personally, be completely or always against the use of the period in a haiku, at its end or anywhere else. One great, and very artistic, example of the use of a period in haiku comes to mind:

      sitting here
      without the mountains

      Gary Hotham (breathmarks, Canon Press 1999)

      What Tranströmer seems to do in this haiku (and all his haiku) though, and perhaps I should have mentioned this in the piece (and this is just a guess, mind you), is mimics the translations he has seen of old Japanese haiku. I am not aware of what haiku Tranströmer has read, or what has been translated into Swedish. However, take three popular examples of haiku translation work: Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku and R.H. Blyth’s oeuvre. All of them put punctuation at the end of their translations. For me, Tranströmer’s use of the period seems heavy and entirely unnecessary for the poem (for others it won’t). It’s a minor thing. Or is it? It was certainly his choice. Or was it? The same can be asked concerning his use of 5-7-5.

  5. I think you come to a correct conclusion that this poem hinges on the choice of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls are an alternative history or perspective to what Western Society was built on. This poem is a commentary on the lasting value of such an alternative. I suspect the scrolls were just another copy two thousand years ago, much like the leaves are now. It is only in hindsight that we see/suspect what was lost. And taken forward, what is lost in each leaf.

  6. Thanks, Scott, for the post. I’m a fan of Transtromer (and other Scandinavian poets), and I read him consistently for a long period. But, it’s been quite a while and I’m delighted to learn about “The Great Engima.”

  7. Nice piece, amigo. This haiku captures the ephemeralness of the Dead Sea Scrolls by placing it along the same plain as the withering leaves. There is an almost animistic sense behind the suggestion that we might see both objects in the same manner and perceive them both as possessing as much inestimable value. Of the five translations, it seems that Marcus Larsson (aside from the typo!) seems closest to conveying the charm of the original through his application of a rhythm that without punctuation has cutting qualities about it after the first and second lines.

    1. I’m pretty sure Larsson’s use of “Rolls” instead of “Scrolls” is actually, rather than a typo, a knowing and playful decision. Check out this page. Seems like “Rolls” is just an alternative to “Scrolls” when translating the word “rullar,” though, of course, not the typical way it is translated and discussed in English. I suppose there is also the small chance that “Rolls” could be read (misread? alternatively read?) in some way as a verb (“Rolls the brown leaves”) — at least more so than “Scrolls” which doesn’t lend itself to being read as a verb. I thought it was a typo at first too but then checked out the Swedish-English translation link above.

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