Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011 for a body of work known for shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity, died on Thursday in Stockholm. He was 83, The New York Times reports. The Swedish publisher Albert Bonniers announced the death without giving a cause. In 1990, at age 59, Mr. Transtromer had a stroke that severely curtailed his ability to speak; he also lost the use of his right arm.
With a pared-down style and brusque, forthright diction, Mr. Transtromer (pronounced TRAWN-stroh-mur) wrote in accessible language, though often in the service of ideas that were diaphanous and not easy to parse; he could be precisely observant one moment and veer toward surrealism the next. “The typical Transtromer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter,” the poet David Orr wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 2011.
He was a hugely popular figure in his home country — one American critic referred to him as Sweden’s Robert Frost — whose more than 15 books over nearly six decades were translated into 60 languages. And though he was not especially well known among American readers, he was widely admired by English-speaking poets, including his friends Robert Bly, who translated many of his poems, and Seamus Heaney, himself a Nobel laureate in 1995.
“I was utterly delighted when I heard Tomas Transtromer had won the Nobel Prize,” Mr. Heaney, who died in 2013, said in 2011. “Everybody was hoping for that. For years.” Many of Mr. Transtromer’s themes and interests, including music (he was an accomplished pianist) and the beauty and inspiration of the outdoors, were evident in his first book, “17 Poems,” published in 1954. The succinct poem “Ostinato” (translated by Robin Fulton) — the title is a musical term referring to a repeated phrase or rhythmic figure — observes nature in both meaning and form:
Under the buzzard’s circling point of stillness
ocean rolls resoundingly on in daylight,
blindly chews its bridle of weed and snorts up
foam over beaches.
Earth is veiled in darkness where bats can sense their
way. The buzzard stops and becomes a star now.
ocean rolls resoundingly on and snorts up
foam over beaches.
For many years, Mr. Transtromer, a trained psychologist, worked in state institutions with juvenile offenders, parole violators and the disabled, and many critics noted that he frequently deployed his inventive and striking metaphors to examine the depths of the human mind.
He often began his poems with descriptions of mundane settings and acts, but he was also interested in dreams and the other uncontrollable wanderings of thought. In “Preludes” (translation by May Swenson) he wrote:
Two truths approach each other
One comes from within,
one comes from without — and where they meet you have the chance
to catch a look at yourself.
His poems often had transcendental moments that led some critics to consider him a religious poet or a mystic. In “Further In,” from the 1973 volume “Paths,” the quotidian and the unfathomable collide, in both the body of the poet and in the world. Translated by Robin Fulton, the poem reads in its entirety:
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon’s scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windshield
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
words in invisible ink
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far into the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it …
Tomas Gosta Transtromer was born in Stockholm on April 15, 1931. His father was a journalist. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was reared mostly by his mother, a teacher. He studied literature, history, religion and psychology at Stockholm University, graduating in 1956. His survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, the former Monica Bladh, and two daughters. Mr. Transtromer’s poetry production slowed after his stroke, but he took refuge in music, playing the piano with just his left hand. As a testament to his prominence in Sweden, several composers there wrote pieces for the left hand specifically for him.
He was also an amateur entomologist. The Swedish National Museum presented an exhibition of his childhood insect collection, and a Swedish scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it for him. Mr. Transtromer was considered a candidate for the Nobel for a decade or more. Each year, on the day the prizes were to be announced, Swedish journalists, anticipating his selection, gathered in the stairwell of his Stockholm apartment building, about a mile from the Swedish Academy, which administers the prizes.
He was the seventh Swede to win the Nobel for literature, and he was the only winner in nearly 20 years to be known mainly as a poet. (The last was Wislawa Szymborska in 1996.) His selection was not without controversy. Some critics complained of home-nation favoritism and said that Philip Roth and other fiction writers were more deserving. Mr. Transtromer’s work was also at the center of a dispute between translators: Robin Fulton, whose work with Mr. Transtromer included the 2013 collection “The Great Enigma,” and Robin Robertson, a Scottish poet who translated a 2006 Transtromer volume, “The Deleted World.”
Mr. Robertson, who does not speak Swedish, referred to his work as “versions” of Mr. Transtromer’s poems and suggested that it was more important to get the spirit and tone of a poem right than every last idiom. The book set off a debate about the nature of translation. Mr. Fulton objected to what he called “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.”
Mr. Transtromer’s other works in English translation include the collection “The Half-Finished Heaven,” translated by Mr. Bly; “Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer”; and a memoir, “Memories Look at Me,” translated by Mr. Fulton. “Through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality,” the Swedish Academy said in awarding him the Nobel.