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Kaj Falkman’s Homage to Tomas Tranströmer in Japan

Hi, All, and Happy Holidays to you.

As you are undoubtedly aware, the most recent Nobel Prize winner in Literature is Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden, which is of particular interest to the haiku community because Tranströmer had more than a casual relationship with our genre. His work is only latterly becoming known to anglophones, via a spate of translations in the last decade (Robin Fulton’s Den stora götan / The Great Enigma. Radjhani Publications 2006; Graham High and Gunvor Edwards’ The Great Enigma: 45 Haiku, RAM Publications 2008; Anatoly Kudryavitsky’s selection in Shamrock; Patty Crane’s selection in blackbird, and as always it is instructive to compare the versions. Tranströmer’s work has now made it to Japan as well, as related by Kaj Falkman in his report, appended below.

We can only be encouraged that Tranströmer’s work is being so widely embraced around the world and in various cultures. His is not the most transparent work in the genre, but seemingly tightly held and reluctant to yield its secrets, but there is no doubt that it is visually arresting and emotionally intense. These qualities seem to bridge the gulfs between cultures and make his work cogent in a variety of contexts. Even in Japan, where this Nordic variation might seem the farthest-flung of possible successors to the Japanese intiative, its merits are appreciated by fellow poets.

Thanks to Kaj Falkman for sharing his report with us. I wish you all high expectations for the new year.

Jim Kacian
The Haiku Foundation


Tomas Tranströmer in Japan

At a haiku conference in Kyoto in early November I had been asked to speak about haiku in Swedish but instead found myself fielding questions about Tomas Tranströmer. For some of the 300 delegates, Tranströmer’s name had been familiar even before he was chosen as this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, but for most, he arrived out of the blue with the Nobel Prize.
Asked why Tranströmer’s haiku were not mentioned in the Prize motivation, I referred to the Swedish Academy’s presentation of Tranströmer’s work tending progressively towards “an increasingly smaller format and increasingly greater degree of concentration.” This general description applies to more than his haiku.
Later, in Tokyo, when I asked publisher Kyuro Oda what had persuaded him to publish Tranströmer’s haiku in Japanese, he answered: “The visual language! When I saw Tranströmer’s daring and innovative visual language in Eiko Duke’s excellent translation, I was immediately entranced.” Oda explained that haiku has gone through repeated renewals ever since Basho’s poetry revolution in the 17th century, when the first stanza, the hokku, in his linked-verse sequence became the independent haiku. Tranströmer’s haiku imply a renewal that Japanese poetry must become familiar with. “Many of the old school will reject his unexpected metaphors, since metaphor is banned in haiku. But it is specifically the use of metaphor that is Tranströmer’s strength!” According to Oda, Tranströmer uses an extraordinary visual language that belongs more to modern poetry than traditional haiku. This makes him thoroughly modern and potentially a model for Japanese haiku poets.

Oda stressed that a metaphor is also an image. It reinforces the initial image through extra energy. This opposes the conventional view that a metaphor diverts attention from the main point to a minor one, weakening the subject. Japan is currently debating the future of poetry and Oda believes that Tranströmer’s work can contribute to the discussion.

Tomas Tranströmer’s words are easily understood but his sentences are difficult, several conference attendees believed. An example is the last line in his best-known haiku:

The power lines stretched
across the kingdom of frost
north of all music. (trans. Robin Fulton)

Is the last line a hidden metaphor? Music notes are placed on lines reminiscent of power lines and serve the same purpose: the transmission of collected energy. Tranströmer’s poems seem to be inspired by detailed observations leading to unusual associations, which, on reflection, can reveal a subtle realism.
Professor Tadashi Kondo, one of the conference arrangers, wondered if the phrase “north of all music” was not an expression of the chill and silence that afflicted the poet after his brain hemorrhage, a silence he could not disclose because his ability to speak had been lost.
In Japanese haiku, winter is a symbol of nakedness. Nature’s covering has wilted. Transferring this image to man, it can be seen that man can no longer hide his true nature under make-up and disguise. Is this an analogy Tranströmer wants to communicate? Such a gloomy picture, sighed one Japanese woman. No, countered Kondo, under nakedness, new creative strength is being gathered for the spring.

Hear the sough of rain.
I whisper a secret
so that I can get in. (trans. Anatoly Kudryavitsky)

This could be a Japanese woodcut, remarked the editor of one of Japan’s 780 haiku journals: the vertical lines of the rain, the poet’s horizontal whispering. This haiku image expresses a likeness rather than a simile. The lines cross each other without touching even though the poet attempts this with his secret. What does the rain care about secrets under the dense veil it covers the land with during the rain period?

A dragonfly pair
Fastened to each other
Went flickering past. (trans. Patty Crane)

Isn’t the entire haiku a hidden metaphor? wondered an elderly woman in a kimono. Doesn’t the fastened pair represent a couple linked happily by the years — fastened, not bound, and therefore easy to unfasten, if one should so wish. One of the “translucent images” the Swedish Academy mentioned in its motivation.

Another method Tranströmer uses to construct unexpected images is anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to animals and nature. This, too, is alien to traditional haiku, but does appear in the works of Issa (1763-1827), known for his attachment to animals. Even Tranströmer can write a Syster snigel (Sister Snail) but of most interest are the images that demand re-reading and reflection:

A stag basks in the sun.
flies flit and sew the shadow
on the ground. (trans. Anatoly Kudryavitsky)

The picture clears when you realize that the flies around the stag’s body in the sun are casting lively shadows on the ground. A housewife from Osaka praised the way Tranströmer’s haiku could change observation: “although I see mosquitoes sewing, not flies.”
Trees are superior to man, writes Tranströmer, since they are higher and live longer. In this respect, trees are individual and similar to humans. But they still belong to a higher group, the forest: A forest that forgives everything but forgets nothing. This sentence testifies to Tranströmer’s affection and respect for the forest. His testimony has a divine ring: only God can forgive everything, forgetting nothing.
Japanese will be astonished at this image, said Kondo. The country’s forest-clad hills are untouched and blessed with temples, while the plains are secular and overpopulated. In Japanese haiku there is a spiritual dimension in all nature that should be apparent in the description of events without the addition of human attributes that diminish the essence of nature.

Tranströmer lends human characteristics even to objects: The letterbox shines quietly, what is written cannot be taken back. With this humorous remark, the letter-writer seems to realize the futility of regret, because the letter he entrusted the letterbox with cannot be recaptured. But he describes the situation not from his own rueful perspective but from the triumphant view of the letterbox.
Tranströmer is using an ‘opposites perspective’: subject and object change places, forcing the brain to adopt ‘opposites vision’. This startles, and is generally welcomed by, the reader.
What is fascinating in Tranströmer is the surrealistic element, said the haiku editor. “Suddenly, he opens a door to a different world. From Manga, the Japanese recognize this unexpected leap into the unknown, but we do not dare use it in haiku.” As an example, he mentions Tranströmer’s Minnena ser mig (The memories see me). “What is intended is probably not only memory in terms of associations or dreams but as a messenger from a parallel world. We Japanese have a great need of secret parallel worlds, since our physical world is so strictly regulated.”
What do Tranströmer’s haiku and Japanese haiku have in common? One answer is the absence of the Ego. The Japanese often say that a haiku is too small to allow room for the poet. What is to be elucidated is the poet’s inner image, not the poet himself. In his early poems, Tranströmer took pains to avoid the word “I”. In a later phase, he introduced the Ego in the beginning of a poem, only to make it disappear later in the text. Fantastic to feel my poem growing / while I shrink. The poem annexes his place and ultimately pushes him away, throwing him from the nest. Thus is the poem complete. This analysis interests the Japanese, says Professor Kondo, since the transition from the personal to the impersonal in the creative process is fundamental in Japanese culture.
In Tranströmer’s later haiku, the Ego makes a return, at times disguised as “he”. But as a rule, the images are presented as objective visual observations absent of Ego.
What Tranströmer’s haiku and traditional Japanese haiku have in common is naturally also the form: 17 syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Outside of Japan, this traditional form has increasingly ceded place to the free-form haiku. When the Swedish Haiku Society arranges haiku contests, the entries are usually equally divided between those using the 5-7-5 syllable form and looser styles, which however seldom exceed 17 syllables. The risk in counting syllables is that the poet becomes more concerned with the number of syllables than the haiku’s poetic substance.

How did Tomas Tranströmer discover haiku? I was asked this question in Kyoto and Tokyo. I relayed what I had heard: that Tranströmer had come across the first Swedish haiku book, containing translations of, principally, the four masters — Basho (1644-1694), Buson (1716-1784), Issa (1763-1827) and Shiki (1867-1902). The book was called Haiku. Japansk miniatyrlyrik (Haiku. Japanese miniature poetry) and the poems were interpreted by Jan Vintilescu. The same year that the book was published, 1959, Tranströmer wrote his first haikus. They were later published in a booklet entitled Fängelse (Prison), comprising nine haiku snapshots from the youth correction centre where Tranströmer worked as a psychologist. Even back then, he demonstrated his sensitivity for the surprise effect in the image of the third line:

When the escapee was caught
his pockets were filled
with golden chanterelles.

In 1996 eleven of his haiku were published in his book The Sorrow Gondola, and eight years later, 45 haikus in The Great Enigma.
The explanation most often given for Tranströmer’s return to haiku after almost four decades is his stroke, which no longer permits him to work on long texts.
The concentration in haiku is the result of curtailment. Even as schoolchildren, Japanese learn to describe situations using as few words as possible. Rejecting superfluity so that only key words remain becomes a game played with calligraphy characters that is greatly enjoyed by children. For Tranströmer, haiku is a creative jigsaw puzzle with pieces of personal experiences and memory notes set together to produce a new image of reality.

The only Japanese haiku poet Tranströmer refers to in his poems is Shiki. Professor Kondo believes that Tranströmer has more in common with Basho than with Shiki. Basho taught that to survive, a haiku must present a concrete image as well as a serious thought that is visually represented and only as an exception abstract. That is, the same demand for complexity that Tranströmer makes when saying that it is not enough to describe a situation with words in a poem; the image must be supplied with the energy of reflection.
Tranströmer has said that he wants to leave explanations of his poems to the reader. This deferral to the reader concurs with Basho’s advice: “Study the masters but do not seek to imitate them — rather, seek what they sought.”


Kaj Falkman’s latest book, Överraskningens poesi. Upplevelser av haiku (Poetry of Surprise. Experiences of haiku), will shortly be published by Atlantis.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. When I first encountered Transtromer’s haiku (through Scott Metz’s post on this blog), they seemed more like distallations of Transtromer’s free verse poems than haiku. I am almost convinced that if presented with 5-10 of these haiku without his name attached, we could identify them as Transtromer’s. His haiku have the same originality as the longer poems, the same encounters with mysterious powers that we can feel but not define. I am glad for these haiku for that reason alone.

    But I am also heartened by the positive responses by some Japanese poets and critics, as reported by Falkman in this post. And why not? After all, Japanese poets like Kusato Nakamura were writing haiku like this in the first half of the 20th century:

    A cactus stood,
    an evening crab scurried,
    and I was born.

    Each carrying a cresent
    moon, water rings are anxious
    to reach me!

    From Modern Japanese Haiku, edited and translated by Makoto Ueda.

    I’m sure that more people will understand traditional haiku better than they would haiku like Nakamura’s or Transtromer’s. But I’m also sure that poets like Nakamura and Transtromer will always come along and stretch the boundaries of what we think haiku are.

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