A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF MODERN SWEDISH POETRY
Scandinavian literature has a distinctive relationship to both European and American literatures -- it is both part of European literature and isolated on the edge of Europe. As such, Swedish-language poetry is characterized both by periods of intense interaction with the rest of Europe and periods of isolation or rejection of European ideas. Further, from its marginal position, Swedish literature takes in a variety of influences from a variety directions; it is open to foreign streams of thought. For example, the Finland-Swedish Modernists, members of a Swedish-speaking minority living in Finland, were in close contact with Russian literature, while Swedish writers like August Strindberg, Pär Lagerkvist and Gunnar Ekelöf spent considerable time in France and Germany.
Perhaps the first clear sign of the purchase of literary avant-garde ideas in Sweden came in 1913 when Lagerkvist published a combative manifesto, Ordkonst och Bildkonst (Visual and Verbal Art). This manifesto called for Swedish literature to follow the example of the arts in taking up the ideas of Cubism and German Expressionism (which had made strong inroads in the visual arts of Scandinavia) and to turn its attention to "primitive" art like that of Africa or the Icelandic sagas. Lagerkvist published some poetry in the German Expressionist vein, and even published some in the German journal Die Aktion.
However, Modernism didn’t truly revolutionize Scandinavian poetry until Edith Södergran, Russian-born and German-educated, published a series of brash, radical books of free verse in the second half of the decade. Her controversial books provided the impetus for a second generation of Finland-Swedish poets -- including Elmer Diktonius and Gunnar Björling who began publishing in the early 1920s, and even a third generation -- including Russian-born Henry Parland -- who began publishing at the end of that decade. Södergran also influenced and inspired the young poet Gunnar Ekelöf, who visited her grave with Diktonius in the 1930s, and who went on to become perhaps the central figure of Swedish Modernism. In many ways, the early Finland-Swedish Modernists have continued to exert a strong influence on Swedish poetry ever since.
As a group these modernist poets were highly varied and highly international. From Södergran, they received ideas of Russian Cubo- and Ego-Futurism as well as German Expressionism and French Symbolism. In her wake they remained highly international, reading and writing about wide range of movements and artists, including German Dadaism, Die Neue Sachlichkeit, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Eisenstein. Interestingly, many of them found a great connection to American Modernism. Elmer Diktonius repeatedly wrote articles denouncing what he saw as pretentious European Modernism (Futurism, Apollinaire etc) in favor of no-nonsense Americans like Walt Whitman and Edgar Lee Masters. Parland had great interest in Carl Sandburg’s poetry and the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It is important to note that the internationalism of Finland at this time was largely due to its precarious political situation. After centuries as a colony (first of Sweden then of Russia), Finland gained its independence with the Bolshevik Revolution. However independence was followed by civil war between Reds (supported by the Bolsheviks) and Whites (supported by various other European nations). The internationalism of poets like Södergran and Parland can be seen as largely post-colonial. They were exposed to a variety of influences as subjects of an empire, and then engaged with other influences when that empire collapsed. Despite its distance from the political melee of Europe between the wars, Swedish modernism is to a large extent shaped by the diaspora resulting from these events.
A second massive wave of internationalism struck Sweden in the 1960s, as a whole new generation of poets discarded the nature mysticism of the previous generation (including Tranströmer) for a more urban, and politically explicit poetry. In part caused by the influx of refugees during World War II and in part a reaction to US imperialism, this change led to the discovery and canonization of Parland, who at that point had been dead for thirty years. The literary journals from this period are startlingly international. BLM, perhaps the central journal of the time, devoted entire issues to works in translation -- including an issue devoted to the New American Poetry (Creely, O’Hara, etc). It was during this time that Göran Sonnevi became one of the leading poets of the day, in large part due to his political poems criticizing the US war against Vietnam. He also translated the work of contemporary German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. At the same time, Gunnar Harding introduced a lot of American poetry to Sweden (including the New York School and the Beats) and called attention to the avant-garde of the 1910s and 20s (translating poems by Mayakovsky, Blaise Cendrars, Guillame Apollinaire and others).
During the 1960s there was also a great interest in American intermedia art (happenings, Fluxus etc), as the Modern Museum in Stockholm brought over artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Allan Kaprow to give performances at the museum. These artists interacted heavily with the McLuhan-influenced Swedish Concretists (unfortunately not included in this issue, but I hope to salvage this omission in the near future), a group of wildly experimental poets engaged in a wide variety of truly daring and strange projects (multimedia happenings, psychedelic experiments, anti-retinal tricks, visual poetry etc).
Björling’s literary output seems to have remained largely an oddity until the 1980s and 1990s, when young Swedish poets like Ann Jäderlund and Aase Berg took on his radical use of language. In 1995, the literary scholar and Björling expert Anders Olsson edited the publication of the massive, five-volume complete set of Björling’s books. In part Björling’s ascendancy has coincided with the ascendancy of postmodern theory, renewed interest in the Concretists and led to the introduction of American Language Poetry (and "post-language" poetry) in journals like OEI and Lyrikvännen.
This brief history of Swedish poetry obviously leaves many major figures
(Harry Martinsson’s populist Modernism, the natural mysticism of Thomas
Tranströmer, the Bob-Dylan-inspired urban surrealism of Bruno K. Öijer,
and others) and movements. I have emphasized moments of internationalism
and contact with US literature, as well as poetry written under the influence
of the original Finland-Swedish Modernists. I hope to fill in some of the
holes in the near future with the Action
Books Scandinavian Series and through special issues of our new online
quarterly Action, Yes. Ultimately, no history is complete and I
invite all readers to seek out their own Swedish poetry and make their own