KR BlogWriting

Verse & Inverse: Transtr??mer’s Solution to the Sincerity Problem?

This post is the work of poet Jessica Johnson.–TM

Tomas Transtr??mer has been frequently appreciated in the blogosphere since his collected poems, The Great Enigma, came out last year. See Via Negativa and Reading the Maps, where readers voted him Greatest Living Poet.

One of his best known poems, “Andrum: Juli” (“Breathing Space July”), available in several translations here, derives its considerable power from a neat series of inversions. The third-person voice is unemotional ??? detached from the poem’s events, an impartial narrator. In his recent blog post on sincerity, Tyler pointed out how hard it is to write effectively about sincere feeling. Through this poem’s cold, clean mechanism, Transtr??mer points to warm & fuzzy stuff: death as a natural motion that starts in the height of life; the possibility of radical sympathy.

The poem consists of three stanzas. In each there is a man in relationship to some other, and in each, Transtr??mer inverts the relationship between the two.

Each inversion is different. (All excerpts here are from Robin Fulton’s translation). In the first, “The man lying on his back under the high trees/ is up there too. He rills out in thousands of twigs“” He experiences the tree’s experience. His being “up there too” illuminates the tree.

Note the sureness with which Transtr??mer posits the inversions: the man is up there too. And, within the bounds of the poem, he never comes down.

In the second stanza, “The man down by the jetties narrows his eyes at the water.” The jetties are then described in human terms.

The jetties grow old more quickly than people.

Their timbers are silver-grey, they have stones in their stomach.

The blinding light beats straight in.

They collectively have one stomach. They are becoming the man, about whom nothing more is said. Their experience is illuminating his experience.

In the final stanza, we learn the man’s fate. The man is “traveling all day in an open boat/over the glittering straights.” But he “will sleep at last inside a blue lamp/ while the islands creep like large months across the glass.” In this final movement, the “other” is the globe, the thing the man is traveling across. It’s what holds him up, it’s the underpinning of his existence. Finally, in death, he slips inside of it, joining it, while the islands ??? literally, parts of the globe; figuratively, other travelers ??? assume the man’s former place.

In the poem’s universe it is the height of summer. Different selves have different experiences ??? selves are not frighteningly interchangeable ??? but the boundaries of self, first in life, and ultimately in death, can be crossed in smooth motions filled more with wonder than with terror.

New work from Jessica is forthcoming from Prairie Schooner and The Paris Review. Find one of Jessica’s poems here. ???TM

About the Program

The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

KR Associates attend regular seminars conducted by Kenyon Review editorial staff, visiting readers, and publishing industry professionals. These seminars cover a wide range of topics including editorial philosophy, evaluation of submissions, print and electronic production, marketing, and design.

KR Associates enjoy also enjoy exclusive access to visiting writers and speakers, free issues of The Kenyon Review, and valuable work experience and employment references.

This program is made possible through an initiative of the Kenyon Review, part of the mission of which is to contribute to the enrichment of the academic, cultural, and artistic life of the Kenyon College community.

Requirements and Expectations

  • Submission Evaluation: All Associates are required to read and evaluate eight Kenyon Review submissions per week. Associates who are not able to complete their weekly submission assignments for more than two weeks in a row may not be allowed to continue in the program.
  • Trainings and Seminars: In-person attendance is mandatory at all trainings and seminars. We plan on scheduling six to eight seminars per semester, and most will take place on Thursdays during common hour.
  • Literary Engagement: Associates are expected to participate in literary events on campus and throughout the local community.

Application Details

The application deadline for the 2023-24 program has passed. Applications for the 2024-25 program will open in the fall of 2024. Please check back then for more details.

Questions? Please contact Tory Weber for more information.