Nobel Prize Winner Plays One-Handed Piano After Stroke


It will be a remarkable scene.

The poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature lost the ability to speak and the use of his right arm through a stroke more than 20 years ago.

But he still expresses himself – through music, by playing one-handed piano.

And that is how Tomas Tranströmer will accept his prize in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

“I imagine he will be in a wheelchair, and he will speak to people through the piano,” Neil Astley, the poet’s friend, told The Independent newspaper in London.

Tranströmer has continued to write poetry in the years since his stroke, and he is a national icon in his native Sweden, something like Robert Frost was for Americans years ago. White-haired, fragile, nearly silenced by his stroke, he nevertheless is a beloved public figure in his country, seen by his compatriots as a man of courage as well as art.

He performs piano recitals from time to time in Sweden and throughout Europe, playing only with his left  hand. There are pieces in the classical repertoire that are written to be played with the left hand alone,and some Swedish composers have adapted their works specifically so Tranströmer could play them.

At a recent appearance in London, Tranströmer played the piano while a friend read his poetry.

He’s had an unusual journey to the Nobel Prize. Tranströmer is a trained psychologist who has worked with juvenile offenders in a correctional institution in Sweden. His spare but intense poems have been translated into more than 50 languages, moving readers all over the world with their uncanny observations and deep emotion. He’s a kind of dreaming classicist.

Here’s an example, from his 2006 collection “The Great Enigma,” translated by Robin Fulton:

“Sketch in October”

The tugboat is freckled with rust. What’s it doing here so far inland? It’s a heavy extinguished lamp in the cold. But the trees have wild colors: signals to the other shore. As if someone wanted to be fetched.

On my way home I see mushrooms sprouting through the grass. They are fingers, stretching for help, of someone who has long been sobbing alone down in the darkness. We are the earth’s.