A textual wandering through the woods

In counterpoint to last week’s autumnal visuals, this week I’m blogging about a poem heavy with the imagery of woods, transformation and life.  I struggle with poetry and I put this down to my own ineptitude rather than anything else.  I struggle to ‘get it’.  I appreciate beautifully constructed lines and love the idea of poetry as a way to really exploit the musical quality of language.  I even developed an interest in prosody while doing my MA, but never pursued it in great depth.  Appropriately enough, it was the unusual sound of the word ‘prosody’ that first caught my attention when encountering it in the title of an article on my reading list and thinking “What the hell does that mean? I’m lost already.”  As is now a tried and tested strategy when I am intellectually lost, I look for emotional or physical resonance (however small) to give me a handrail, a safe-ish place to strike out from.  I find sound/musicality reassuring physical and intuitive, giving me enough of a handle to persevere with the jigsaw puzzle that is meaning.

Unfortunately, I often find myself simply intellectually lost when I read poetry which is hugely off-putting.  Every now and then, usually from a recommendation from a friend or some kind of meaningful connection to my own life, I find poetry that speaks to me.  The short poem below by Tomas Tranströmer is one such piece.  It was read by my Head of Department at my farewell gathering when I left my job at the University.  Given my difficult relationship with poetry, I never expected to find myself a fan of swedish poetry!  This however, as a result of the personal connection; the kind thought from my HoD; his explanation of what it meant to him and the resonance of the imagery with transition, change and hope has haunted my mind over the last few weeks.


(swedish first, then the English translation)

Jag ärvde em mörk skog dit jag sällen går.  Men det kommer en dag när de döda och levande byter plats. Då sätter sig skogen i rörelse.  Vi är inte utan hopp.  De svåraste brotten förblir ouppklarade trots insats av många poliser.  På samme sätt finns någonstans i våra liv en stor ouppklarad kärlek.  Jag ärvde en mörk skog men idag går jag i en annan skog, den ljusa.  Allt levande som sjunger slingrar vigtar och kryper!  Det är vår och luften är mycket stark.  Jag har examen från glömskans universitet och är lika tomhänt som skjortan på tvättstrecket.

I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go.  But a day will come when the dead and the living change places.  The wood will be set in motion.  We are not without hope.  The most serious crimes will remain unsolved in spite of the efforts of many policemen.  In the same way there is somewhere in our lives a great unsolved love.  I inherited a dark wood, but today I’m walking in the other wood, the light one . All the living creatures that wing, wriggle, wag and crawl! It’s spring and the air is very strong.  I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty handed as the shirt on the washing-line.

I love the way transformation and hopeful progression come through so strongly without being too laboured by the poet and without being prosaic.  It feels like the poem carries you along with its journey from the dark to the light wood without you quite realising it is doing so.  Both my Head of Department and I have experienced significant changes in our working lives and working environments in our time at the University and the significance of this to his choice of poem was not lost on me.  I have also experienced huge upheaval and change in my personal life over the last 5 years.

There were some stifled giggles among my colleagues as he read the last line in English (” … the university of oblivion …”). There have been times when that would have been an excellent summary of how many of us have felt about the place during the recent restructuring. I particularly like that last line though, it conjures a freshness of perspective and a clearing away of past hurts.  The image of a shirt on a washing-line floods into my mind, a pale shirt lit by impossibly bright sunlight, fluttering in the wind.

You can hear a reading of the poem in Swedish here: Tomas Tranströmer: Madrigal.

An article on Tranströmer being the winner of the Nobel prize for literature this year.

If, like me, you are interested in his other work ‘The Great Enigma’ is a collection of his works.


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