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How to Build a Metaphor: Novel Metaphors Construed by Concrete Elements in Tomas Transtromer's Poetry.

All great things are intimately connected to small matters. Humans seek for a deeper meaning of existence, but is surrounded and exposed to a world of concreteness, where mystery must be sought for behind the surface. To distinguish what we can see and touch from what we cannot is an ontological division that goes back to Aristotetle, who wrote about both physics and poetics and combined them seemingly effortlessly. Today, where hard science is ruthlessly separated from humanism, it is our intention here to seek areas where concrete and abstract are still united. Language, through which reality is mediated, constitutes an eminent starting point for our quest, in particular poetry: "Being tired of people who come with words, but no speech" the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer writes (Transtromer The half-finished heaven 81). Transtromer has been described as a poet of concrete images, yet he portrays a mystic, wondrous world (Pietrass; Schioler). This essay will explore and discuss in more detail how Transtromer treats concrete and abstract, and it will do so from a linguistic point of view. It is the first linguistic study performed on Transtromer's work (apart from Vogel published in Swedish only), which motivates the essay also from a research perspective.


Transtromer, 1931-2015, is famous for his bold metaphors (Bergsten). The poems are "a sort of railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building. One train may have some Russian snow still lying on the undercarriage, and another may have Mediterranean flowers still fresh in the compartments, and Ruhr soot on the roofs" (Bly, "Upward into the Depths" ix). The poems have been characterized as situational images, whose connection can be arduous, the images themselves being easy to conceptualize (Neuger). Transtromer shows an affinity with Christian mysticism, his poetry being formed by sensual observations and concrete elements. Thoughts and emotions are conveyed indirectly by external observations in a kind of objective aesthetics (Schioler; Bankier). In all, Transtromer's poetry seems quite well suited to study for a deeper understanding of the dimension concrete-abstract and its effect on the reader. Transtromer has been translated into sixty-nine languages (Karlstrom), which entitles him one of the most translated postwar poets in the world (Schioler). Right from his debut 1954, he established himself as one of the most prominent poets of his time in the Greater Romantic lyric tradition, although the "Sixties-school dogma" prevented him from access to the inner circle of the Swedish cultural-political scene, since he did not write explicitly political texts. Much thanks to his American translator and editor, Robert Bly, Transtromer earned an acclaimed position in the United States (Gustafsson). During the 1980s and 1990s, his domestic status among both a high-prestige cultural elite and ordinary people changed, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality" (The Nobel Prize in Literature).

The purpose of this linguistic study was to investigate how Transtromer treats the dimension concrete-abstract in three poems. By keeping in mind related research literature (Schioler; Bankier), and from observations made by translators (Neuger; Pietrass), we hypothesized that Transtromer's poems show a higher degree of concrete elements compared to poems by other authors. In order to design a manageable study, our data was limited to three poems from Transtromer for analysis. In addition, we looked at a comparison corpus, aimed at understanding whether Transtromer's use of concreteness would really turn out to be unusual or remarkable, or if it could rather be expected in this type of poetry, the comparison corpus consisted of two other poems, each from a poet showing important common traits with Transtromer, for the sake of not exaggerating his (alleged) uniqueness. We have elaborated in the selection below.


Three original Swedish poems by Transtromer were selected from one of his latest collections, Sorgegondolen "Sorrow Gondola," 1996. This is the last one to contain full-length-poems by an author at the crest of a mature authorship. After a first read-through of the collection, three poems were chosen that seemed representative according to the characteristics offered by research in literature and translators. The poems offered concrete beings and artefacts (people, stones, docks) as well as situational images with a secretive connection between them. The following poems by Transtromer were selected: "Fran on 1860" (Bly, "Island Life, 1860,") "Nattboksblad"(Fulton, "A page of the night-book") and "Som att vara barn" (Fulton, "Like being a child").


The search targeted poets who should (a) show documented interest in concreteness and (b) share thematic and formal traits with Transtromer. Initially, an informal interview with a poet and critic who had thorough knowledge of Swedish contemporary poetry identified interesting candidates (Strom). Then, the following types of sources were approached: academic research, press reviews, and essays on poetics written by critics and poets, including essays written by the poet candidates themselves. In the end, the two poets, Gunnar D. Hansson and Jesper Svenbro, were selected.

Hansson was born 1945 and is an established poet as well as a translator and university lecturer in literature. Svenbro, born 1944, is a well-acclaimed poet and academic in classical philology. In the following, I will explain the choice of these two authors.

Starting with the interest in concreteness (a), Hansson shows affinity for concreteness in terms of the prosaic everyday-life (Agrell). Svenbro combines geography and fantasy (Nykvist 140), or in other words, relates concrete places to an abstract landscape. Moving on to thematic and formal traits (b), memory and past time constitute major themes for all three poets (Bankier 178; Hansson, Lyckans Bersa 293, Nykvist 10). Further, Transtromer and Svenbro include Christianity as an important theme (Espmark 36; Nykvist 184). Their interests have a correspondence in Hansson's affinity for ecology and environmental concerns (Malm). Nature plays a significant role in Transtromer's poetry (Bergsten 110) as well as in Hansson's and Svenbro's (Persson). In press reviews and scholarly work, the comparison poets have been related to Transtromer in terms of theme, form, or manifest intertextuality (Teir; Kulturnytt; Nykvist 185; Bjelvehammar). Their connection to Sappho and Great Romantic Lyric tradition is also documented (Transtromer, Minnena Ser Mig 56-57; Nykvist 100-104; Hansson, Lyckans Bersa 293). All three authors mostly work with subjects and finite verbs in their poetry, forming grammatically correct and complete clauses. They all incorporate an "I" in their poems. Taken together, these claims well motivate to allow poems by Hansson and Svenbro create the comparison corpus of the pertinent study.

The first comparison poem is "3 augusti - 82[degrees] 69'N/18[degrees] li'E" "3rd August - 82[degrees] 69'N/18[degrees] 11'E" by Hansson, from Lomonosovryggen "Lomonosov Ridge," his latest poetry collection. This particular poem was chosen partly for its formal criteria (number of words) and partly because it at first sight exhibited clear concrete images (as a cabin or the oil painting). At the same time, the poem opens up to past-times, which has been pointed out as a typical feature for both Hansson and Svenbro. The other poem in the comparison corpus is "Epilog" "Epilogue" by Svenbro, from the lyric collection Inget Andetag Ar Det Andra Likt "No breath is like the other" 2011. That collection was his latest for the time being. The poem "Epilog" was selected both out of formal criteria (amount of words) and because the poems include clear images as well as references to past-times, which, as we have already mentioned, is a trait that has been identified as common for Svenbro.

The titles of the poem were included in the analyzed data, The Transtromer poems are short, from sixty-two to seventy-two words. Hansson's poem comprises 176 words, while Svenbro's poem measures at 199. The numbers are summarized in Table 1. Accordingly, Transtromer's three poems together contain around the same amount (200 words) as each of the comparison poems.


Below, the first one of Transtromer's poems ("Island Life, 1860") will be reproduced in full in order to give the reader a good comprehension of his voice. From the other poems, there will be more or less lengthy quotations and shorter fragments, including translations. Transtromer's poems have been translated by Bly and Robin Fulton, respectively. The translations of Hansson's and Svenbro's poems have been produced for the purpose of this article by Eva Strom, poet and translator. They have not been published and should be considered as an attempt to convey the main idea of the content and style.
   Island Life, 1860 by Transtromer, translated by Bly


   Down at the dock she was washing clothes one day,
   and the deep-sea cold rose right up along her arms
   and into her being.
   Her frozen tears became spectacles.
   The island lifted itself by its own grass
   and the herring flag floated far down in the sea.


   Also the swarming hive of smallpox got to him
   settled onto his face.
   He lies in bed looking at the ceiling.

   How hard it is to row up the stream of silence.
   This moment's stain that flows out for eternity
   this moment's wound that bleeds in for eternity (1).


A poem is a piece of art and, like language in general, it operates on several linguistic levels: on a phonetic, morphological, lexical, syntactic, semantic, textual, and pragmatic level. The present analysis only treated the lexical and semantic levels of the poems, and on these levels, how the poets work with the concrete and abstract, both on the whole and in their metaphors.


The study had a cognitive linguistic point of departure, which assumes that meaning is conceptual (Langacker). The approach was that language should be studied as it is used (Geeraerts). Although it needs to be pointed out that the original Swedish poems were analyzed, I will refer, for the reader's convenience, to examples from the English translations. Only in some cases, when the Swedish original sample has a different grammatical form or wording compared to the English translation, will I quote the Swedish example along with a translation, both literal and idiomatic.

The first stage of analysis concerned overall concreteness. For this purpose, the number of the concrete and abstract constituents in each poem was calculated. Only references and verbs were discerned. The assessment was guided by the following question, to which the author responded through introspection: Can an external observer see, hear, feel, taste, or smell what is at issue? If YES [right arrow] the constituent was counted as concrete, for example, bed, row (Transtromer).

If NO [right arrow] the constituent was counted as abstract, for example, opportunism, possess (Svenbro).

The estimation of concrete-abstract was similar to the one performed by Holzer and Tsur, even if these authors do not explicate their tools. Concerning verbs, the verb processes, as described by the Systemic-Functional Linguistics, were the point of departure (Halliday). His verbal, behavioral, and material processes, except the abstract doings and happenings, corresponded to concrete, while the rest was analyzed as abstract, apart from relational processes, which could be either concrete (lies, Transtromer) or abstract (possess, Svenbro).

The units of analysis regarding references were simple noun phrases and complex noun phrases, where the head was a noun or a substantivized adjective. Noun phrases with pronomina as heads were eliminated. The head noun determined if the noun phrase should count as concrete or abstract. The units regarding verbs were finites. Both finites in main clauses and subordinate clauses were included, except when the finite was an auxiliary or a verb needed for tense inflection. In those cases, the infinitive was counted instead (e.g., Not even the slave's intuition for Geometry may be delivered without the help of a midwife!, Svenbro). An infinitive constituting a clause abbreviation was included in the analysis (e.g., Man hor korsbarstraden gnola "[you] hear the cherry-trees humming," Transtromer). When no finite verb was present, the infinite verb was counted (e.g., to late to jump off, Hansson). Verbs inside noun phrases were not counted, such as, en dag nar hon skoljde tvatt fran bryggan "lit: one day when she rinsed laundry from the dock, idiomatically: down at the dock she was washing clothes one day" (Transtromer), in this case, skoljde "rinsed/was washing" was omitted.


The first stanza of Transtromer's poem "Island Life, 1860" was analyzed as containing both concrete and abstract units. The tide provided the first simple noun phrase, island, which was counted as concrete. Then, the complex noun phrase, that in Swedish reads: en dag nar hon skoljde tvattfran bryggan "lit.: one day when she rinsed laundry from the dock, idiomatically: down at the dock she was washing clothes one day" was regarded abstract, since the head noun day refers to time, which is abstract. The first verb, rose, was considered concrete. The following noun phrase, the deep-sea cold, was also analyzed as concrete by means of being perceptible by the tactile sense. Moving on to the following noun phrase, her arms, this one, too, was regarded concrete, while it can be perceived through vision or touch. The last noun phrase of the stanza, her being, was comprehended as polysemous, with one abstract and one concrete meaning. The Swedish original livet can both mean life (abstract) and waist (concrete), the two elegantly joint in the translator's choice of being. The instance was counted twice: the first time as abstract and the second time as concrete. As abstract, it formed the first example of an abstract unit in the poem. The line into her being hereby creates a sounding-board where both meanings echo (cf. Holzer).

Due to a lack of space, the work with the rest of the stanzas in the poem will not be reported in detail. For my purposes, it is sufficient to state that from twenty-seven units (noun phrases and verbs), twenty-five were counted as concrete and only two as abstract.

In the next poem by Transtromer "A page of the night-book," the "I" steps ashore on an island at night. It has a dreamlike, even surrealistic expression where concrete objects are treated in a new, mystic way. The second stanza of the poem reads:

I glided up the slope in the colour-blind night while white stones signalled to the moon.

Source: From "A page of the night-book" by Transtromer, translated by Fulton.

The noun phrases the slope, white stones, and the moon were analyzed as concrete, while the colour-blind night was counted as abstract. Regarding the verbs, both glided and signalled were seen as concrete. The full poem contains several noun phrases that were comprehended as concrete, such as the cool moonshine, grass and flowers, and the scent, but also two noun phrases that were understood as abstract. Like color-blind night, they refer to time: one May night and a period of time a few minutes long fifty-eight years wide. The verbs were analyzed as concrete (stepped) and abstract (were, was, and ruled).

Altogether, the majority of units were understood as concrete: eleven out of sixteen.

In his third poem, "Like being a child," Transtromer describes something which is never outspoken, in terms of a simile. The first stanza sets the scene:

Like being a child and a sudden insult is jerked over your head like a sack through its mesh you catch a glimpse of the sun and hear the cherry-trees humming.

Source: From "Like being a child" by Transtromer, translated by Fulton.

In the first stanza, the following noun phrases were counted as concrete: a child, your head, a sack, its mesh, the sun, and the cherry-trees. Concrete noun phrases continue through the poem by describing what body parts the sack covers: your head, your torso, your knees, and your face. Toward the end, the sack changes into a glimmering woolen hat with stitches. Verbs like jerk, catch, hear (first stanza), and cover, move, pull (second and third stanzas) emphasize the concrete actions. In the end, the scene widens the setting where the water-rings and green leaves are described. There are also noun phrases and verbs that were analyzed as abstract, such as the insult, which has a central position in the poem and occurs twice, the spring and be (twice). Again, a majority was comprehended as concrete: twenty-five out of thirty-four units.

So far it was evident that Transtromer makes use of concreteness to a certain degree. Could it be considered high, or more expected in this type of poetry? In the first four stanzas of the poem of the comparison corpus, Hansson depicts a journey on an icebreaker. They read:

Too late to back out. If everyone drowns, so will I.

It is impossible to move out, there is nothing else to move into.

I live in a cabin that is not my own, it has fused with my life (maybe).

The skin, the intestines, the books I brought for the journey everything will go down in the depths.

Source: From 3 August--82o 69'N/18[degrees] 11'E by Hansson, translated by Strom.

The beginning of the poem contains several noun phrases and verbs that were counted as concrete: back out, drown, move out, a cabin, the skin, and the intestines. The poem continues with a more philosophical discussion on names on seas and stellar constellations. Here, too, many noun phrases and verbs were understood as concrete, such as the name South Sea and call. Altogether, Hansson's poem was analyzed as containing forty-three concrete units out of seventy. Thus, this poem has a majority of concrete units, just like Transtromer's.

Finally, Svenbro's poem was analyzed. If Hansson has a philosophical side, Svenbro can be characterized as reasoning or even humorously arguing. The poem begins with a meta-discussion on the best way to start the very poem:

"If the disciple already possesses the knowledge there is no need for a teacher" might be a way of starting this poem, if the phrasing did not smell of pedagogic opportunism.

Source: From "Epilog" by Svenbro, translated by Strom.

Despite the scholar impression, many noun phrases and verbs were seen as concrete: the disciple, a teacher, this poem, the phrasing, and smell. The poem continues with advantages and disadvantages of various ways to write poetry, and makes a comparison to a biblical passage. Noun phrases like the messengers and the interpreters, and verbs like preach and stand were all counted as concrete, although some abstract ones could be found as well (its topic, the opposite opinion, have). In all, the poem has thirty-five units out of fifty-seven that were counted as concrete. This shows that Svenbro's poem has a majority of concrete units, too.

To conclude, it turns out that, even if Transtromer does make use of concrete units, so do the comparison poets in their poems. When all three Transtromer poems were counted together, sixty-one out of seventy-seven units were analyzed as concrete. As mentioned, for Hansson, forty-three out of a total of seventy units were concrete, and the numbers for Svenbro were thirty-five concrete units out of fifty-seven. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution.

According to the results, it was questionable whether the hypothesis had been supported that Transtromer's poems would show a higher degree of concrete elements, compared to poems by the other authors. For all the poems, both Transtromer's and those in the comparison corpus, more than half of the amount of units concerned concrete noun phrases and verbs, even if the three pieces by Transtromer showed a slightly higher share. Considering the small data set, such an outcome was not very convincing. Thus, the hypothesis could not be supported.

It seemed like any remarkable concreteness which literature researchers and translators had noted could not be captured by the current method. Possibly, the method was too coarse. From reading Transtromer's poems, one gets the impression that they were more closed than the ones by Hansson and Svenbro and that the situational images that Transtromer created by his concrete units were in some sense untouchable (cf. Neuger). Hansson's and Svenbro's poems seemed more open, as if there were negotiations between the text and the reader. When looking again at the verbs, I noted that Transtromer had no verbal processes, while Hansson's poem included four verbal processes: speak and then three instances of call. Svenbro, in his turn, had four verbal processes: speak, preach, and ask (twice). All these verbs referring to communication counted as concrete in the analysis. However, there seemed to be a difference in degree of concreteness between a passage like once they started to call the Arctic the Arctic (Hansson) and he lies in bed looking at the ceiling (Transtromer), in the sense that what people say is less "heavy" than what people do. In contrast to Hansson and Svenbro, Transtromer does not reason or argue, which adds to the closed effect, a more self-assured, even majestic impression. In order to further elaborate this idea of closure, I designed and performed a second stage of analysis.


The scope has now widened from clear images to imagery. The idea was to investigate whether the imagery, more specifically the metaphors, for which Transtromer has earned much acclaim (Bergsten), could be understood as constructed mainly from concrete units or abstract ones, or from some combination. At this stage, conceptual metaphor theory came to play an important role. The theory claims that metaphors are abundant in everyday language (Lakoff and Johnson), and that both poets and ordinary language users construct their metaphors along the same lines (Gibbs and Nascimento). The general idea of conceptual metaphor theory is that more abstract, complex phenomena are better understood through more concrete, simple things and actions. Time, which can be difficult to grasp, is often understood through motion (time flies, time passes, the summer is gone, etc.). Metaphors occur frequently in both general language and poetry. There are conventionalized metaphors (Svanlund), for example concerning time, and novel ones, which shed new light on the object. Thanks to its form, poetry may contain novel metaphors to a much higher degree than general language (Gibbs and Nascimento). The tenor/target domain (what is described in terms of the vehicle/the source domain) need not be explicit in poetry; instead, it can be open for the reader to construe (Steen). However, as the analysis proceeded (elaborated below), it soon became clear that the outcome could not be interpreted from the conceptual metaphor theory alone. Therefore, I included the Russian formalist theory of ostranenie, "defamiliarization." According to this theory, the main purpose of literature is to interrupt automatized human perception, so that the reader may see the world at large and in the text in a novel way. Experimental linguistic forms can make the known unfamiliar and create a distance between the reader and the objects and phenomena that surrounds him or her (Shklovsky). Current studies in cognition have confirmed Shklovksy's understanding of automatization and its opposite (Berlina), which facilitated the endeavor to combine conceptual metaphor theory, which is a cognitive theory, with Russian formalist theory in the second stage of the analysis.

The stage included four steps, stated briefly below, followed by a section where the considerations of each step will be developed. The four steps included:

(1) Distinguish the metaphors of each poem.

In a stylistic study, the novel metaphors seemed more crucial to study than the conventionalized ones, and therefore, the next step was:

(2) Separate the novel metaphors from the conventionalized.

Once the conventionalized ones were removed, the next step was as follows:

(3) Investigate what constituents (concrete or abstract) the novel metaphors contain.

Finally, the comparison could be carried out:

(4) Contrast the three poems of Transtromer with the two others.

To discern the metaphors (step 1), the grounds of "metaphor identification procedure" (Pragglejazz Group) were used. For every lexical unit, I performed an assessment to determine whether it had a more basic and contemporary meaning in other contexts compared to the pertinent meaning in the context at issue (in this case, the text world of the poem). Basic meaning is often more concrete, related to physical activity, and more precise (Pragglejazz Group). If there was another, more basic meaning than the one used in the poem, the usage would be regarded as metaphoric.

Conventionalized metaphors (step 2) were understood as those using language in an established and recognizable fashion. In the night (Transtromer) was such an example. My own intuition determined whether something would count as conventionalized. Novel metaphors, on the other hand, were understood as metaphors that combine lexical units in a fresh way, for example, her frozen tears became spectacles (Transtromer).

To analyze what constituents were included in the novel metaphors (step 3), it was necessary to perform the first stage of analysis again. This time, all nouns and verbs that occurred in the metaphor were analyzed. This entailed that nouns and verbs inside noun phrases were counted this time. In the last step (4), the three poems by Transtromer were contrasted to the two other poems.


In the Transtromer poem "Island Life, 1860," the first metaphor was found in the third line in i livet "into her being." To describe livet "lit.: life" as something able to have something inside it, like the deep-sea cold in this case, was analyzed as a conventionalized metaphor, following the pattern "life is a container" (Lakoff and Johnson). Since this metaphor was counted as conventionalized, it was not analyzed further. In the fourth line, the next metaphor was: her frozen tears became spectacles. Since tears cannot freeze into the shape of goggles, I regarded it as a metaphor, and because it was not established, I counted it as a novel one. The constituents were all comprehended as concrete: the tears, Swedish fros till "lit.: froze into, idiomatically: became" and spectacles. The same proved valid for the novel metaphor in the next line: the island lifted itself by its own grass where the island, lifted, and the grass were all considered concrete. The next line, and the herring flag floated far down in the sea, was seen as an image, a kind of periphrastic expression. I analyzed the clause as forming a novel metaphor, since it could not be interpreted literally and its use could not be understood as established. A possible interpretation would be that a fish, or a fry, is compared to a flag fluttering in the water. The Swedish compound strommingsfanan "the herring flag" was regarded a neologism; however, the similar strommingsflagga "herring flag/banner" was found in reference to a banner hoisted in Stockholm when herring was abundant (Lindberg). The parts herring and flag were both understood as concrete, which spoke in favor of counting the compound as concrete as well, in addition to the verb floated and the Swedish noun djupet 'lit.: the depth, idiomatically: the sea."

For the sake of space limitations, the analysis process of the rest of the poem will not be reported, neither will the procedure for analyzing the other two Transtromer poems, nor those by Hansson and Svenbro. The article will instead give a summary of the findings.

The second stage of analysis showed that Transtromer builds novel metaphors, in some cases by using concrete constituents, as in her frozen tears became spectacles, and in others by using a combination of concrete and abstract, such as a sudden insult is jerked over your head like a sack. If all three poems were put together, there would be ten novel metaphors using only concrete constituents, and seven novel metaphors combining concrete and abstract units. There were also two conventionalized metaphors, such as i livet "into her being."

Concerning Hansson's poem, no metaphors built by concrete constituents could be found. There were three novel metaphors combining concrete and abstract constituents, for example, a cabin that is not my own, it has fused with my life (maybe). Further, seven conventionalized metaphors were found, such as so why be burdened with that?

Regarding Svenbro's poem, the analysis showed no metaphors built by concrete constituents. The poem turned out to have four novel metaphors that combined concrete and abstract ones, such as if the phrasing did not smell of pedagogic opportunism, where phrasing and pedagogic opportunism were analyzed as abstract, and smell as concrete. Further, the poem had seven conventionalized metaphors, among them sa langt hade jag kommit med den bar dikten 'lit.: I had come thus far with this poem, idiomatically: I had advanced thus far with this poem." These numbers are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 clearly shows that the second stage of the analysis revealed an unparalleled quality in the poems of Transtromer. The majority of Transtromer's novel metaphors, ten out of seventeen, were constructed solely by concrete elements, while this construction could not be found in the two poems of the comparison corpus. What effect does this stylistic trait have on the reader? In order to discuss this, conceptual metaphor theory needs to be revisited.

According to the theory, abstract and complex phenomena are approached through concrete and simple concepts (Lakoff and Johnson). Is this how Transtromer's metaphors work? The answer is yes, and no. Looking closer at one of the novel metaphors where Transtromer blends concrete with abstract will elaborate the "yes"-side: the great insult covers your head your torso your knees. Here, the great insult is the tenor/the target domain. The words covers your head your torso your knees express how the insult behaves, like "a sack" that has been mentioned earlier in the poem, thus the sack or some kind of container forms the vehicle/the source domain. The source domain, the container, is (more) concrete, as it should be according to the theory, and the target domain, the insult, is (more) abstract. The metaphor can be interpreted as a case where the source domain, the container, aims at describing or elaborating the target domain, the insult. Thus, Transtromer makes use of this metaphor as predicted from the theory. The same is valid for the other six novel metaphors that combine concrete and abstract units. The target domain is always abstract while the source domain is always concrete, only with one exception, people with a future instead of a face, where it is uncertain what actually forms the target domain and the source domain. I suggest that face is the source domain, and that the target domain is not expressed, but open for interpretation. Possibly face stands for moral, so that people give up their morality in order to continue living on the other shore. The convention not to express target domains is common in poetry as has already been mentioned (Steen). This leads up to the next group of novel metaphors: those which Transtromer builds by concrete constituents only. Investigating the metaphor the island lifted itself by its own grass will elaborate on the "no-side," where Transtromer does not work as predicted by the conceptual metaphor theory. The metaphor alludes to a Swedish saying, lyfta sig sjalv i haret "lit.: lift oneself by one's hair, in idiomatic English: pull yourself up by your bootstraps." The metaphor, an animation, includes only concrete elements. What is the source domain, what is the target domain? If the whole image is regarded as the source domain, then the target domain is open for interpretation. Does the reader understand something, is something elaborated, is something made more graspable in the sense of conceptual metaphor theory? The answer must be no. Rather, the metaphor works the other way around. It shows something concrete, but with no bridge to something abstract (at least not in the poem). The image shuts the door on itself and leaves the reader mystified. The metaphor is not used for apprehension or grasping, as in conceptual metaphor theory. Instead, it points to some concrete action and renders it mystical. This is performed both by the meaning of the metaphor and the way the metaphor is isolated toward (shows very little cohesion with) the other passages, including the other metaphors of the same poem (cf. Neuger). Linguistic theory alone cannot explain the effect on the reader. Instead, the Russian formalist idea of ostrenenie "defamiliarization" (Shklovsky) seems to match the effect. As I mentioned earlier, experimental linguistic forms can make the known unfamiliar, and can create a distance between the reader and the objects and phenomena that surround him or her (Shklovsky). It can be argued that conceptual metaphor theory and Russian formalist theory show two different, but compatible, ways of treating their existence in literature. Transtromer makes use of both in his poems, but it is in this latter way, using concrete constituents to build metaphors, that he is unique compared to the poems in the comparison corpus. More research is needed in order to investigate whether or to the degree that other authors explore novel metaphors and concreteness in a similar manner.


The quest for an area where concrete and abstract is united led us to Tomas Transtromer's metaphors through a winding path. Contrary to what was expected in the first place, Transtromer poems are not unusual or remarkable in the sense that they include many concrete words. In a comparison with other poets, Transtromer's became clear that these, too, offer concrete, even prosaic matters through vocabulary. However, Transtromer's images seem more closed with a secretive link between them, and this can partly be explained by the types of verbs; Transtromer's poems lack verbal processes, that is, expressions like "say"and "ask", while the other poets use them. Elaborating further on this closure, the metaphors were investigated in terms of concreteness. Then, an unparalleled quality in Transtromer's poems was revealed. The majority of his novel metaphors are constructed solely by concrete elements, a feature not found compared to the other poets in this analysis. In contrast to what conceptual metaphor theory claims, Transtromer seems to explain the world through such concreteness in metaphors and thereby create a sense of defamiliarization. Hence, he connects great things to small matters and invites the reader to see how mystic and wondrous the world is.

ANNA VOGEL is an associate professor in Swedish at the Department of Swedish Language and Multilingualism at Stockholm University. Her academic interests relate to literary stylistics, discourse analysis, cognitive linguistics, rhetorics, grammar, and pedagogy. She takes a special interest in metaphors, as found in both poetry and in more prosaic languages. Her publications include textbooks in cognitive semantics and rhetorics. She has also published two novels.

Anna Vogel



(l.) Tomas Transtromer, "Island Life, 1860," translated by Robert Bly, from The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer. Copyright [C] 2001 by Tomas Transtromer. Translation copyright [C] 2001 by Robert Bly. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,


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Caption: Figure 1 * Distribution of concrete/abstract in the poems.

Caption: Figure 2 * Novel metaphors formed by concrete elements.
Table 1: Data.

Poem                                       Author        Number of

Fran on 1860 "Island Life, 1860"           Transtromer      66

Nattboksblad "A page of the night-book"    Transtromer      62

Som att vara barn "Like being a child"     Transtromer      72

3 augusti--82[degrees]                     Hansson          176
69'N/18[degrees] 11'E "3rd August-
82[degrees]69'N/18[degrees] 11'E"

Epilog "Epilogue"                          Svenbro          199
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Author:Vogel, Anna
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Date:Dec 22, 2017
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