Finland-Swede Edith Sodergran (1892-1923) is perhaps the most important figure in the spread of Modernist poetry to the Swedish language. She grew up in St Petersburg, attending German language schools. Her early work was written in a Symbolist style, largely influenced by French poets. In 1905 her family moved to the family's country home in the town of Raivola on the border between Finland and Russia.
In 1907 Södergran's father died of TB. She was diagnosed with the disease the following year. Sent to a Finland-Swedish hospital, she read Swedish poetry for the first time. A few years later she was sent to sanatoriums in Switzerland and read the work of German Expressionist poets such as Else Lasker-Schüler. More importantly, she first read Nietzsche, a writer who would be her main influence for the rest of her life.
Her first book, Dikter (Poems), was published in 1916. But it was not until her second book Septemberlyran (The September Lyre) that she attracted a lot of attention. Due to the political climate of the times, her forceful Modernist rhetoric was met with outrage. The Russian Revolution ruined the Södergran family and isolated Södergran from the intellectual circles of Helsinki. To survive, Södergran and her mother Helena lived in the shed while renting out the house to Russian soldiers. She published four more books until her early death from TB in 1923.
Södergran's poetry had an immense influence on the work of Elmer Diktonius, Gunnar Björling, Henry Parland and the other Finland-Swedish Modernists, as well as Swedish Modernists like Gunnar Ekelöf and later Modernists. Influenced by French Symbolism, Russian Cubo- and Ego-Futurism, German Expressionism and other movements she brought a highly cosmopolitan poetic into Scandinavian poetry.
For a more thorough discussion of Södergran's work, please Johannes
Göransson's article in Octopus
Finland-Swedish innovator Gunnar Björling (1887-1960) baffled his original critics and friends and continues to inspire and baffle Swedish-language poets. He was something of an oddity in his lifestyle as well. Having earned a PhD in philosophy he plotted to assassinate the Russian tsar, hung out with much younger students and was even put under house arrest for his open homosexuality.
In many ways he is the most daring Swedish-language Modernists, yet he seems to have been little aware of this. He first heard of Dadaism from the negative reviews of his first two books, after which he borrowed a copy of Richard Huelsenbeck's Avant Dada from fellow poet Elmer Diktonius. Soon thereafter he met Henry Parland, who provided the necessary intelligence and charm to spur on his experimentalism. Together the two shook up the Finland-Swedish literary community (including fellow Modernists) with their experiments in the avant-garde journal Quesego.
After Parland's death, Björling moved away from Dadaism toward a unique mixture of seemingly 19th-century mysticism and a radical use of erasure. He would even invite young friends over to help him erase texts, with seemingly little supervision.
Björling was the last of the Modernists to gain acceptance by the literary establishment, but his acceptance was never unconditional. This sequence is taken from the poem Där jag vet att du (Where I Know That You), published in 1938. It was a breakthrough of kinds because it was the first of his collections published by a major puslisher (Söderströms); his work up until that point had been more or less self-published. However, even after this breakthrough, his position in the Swedish and Finland-Swedish literary establishment remained tenuous.
It has taken Swedish literature decades to even begin to come to terms
with Björling's experiment. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did poets
seem to pick up his experiments. You can see the influence of his use of
erasure on Aase Berg's poetry as well as several other poets now writing.
In many ways, his work appears to be as profound and vital as ever.
Although Henry Parland (1908-1930) is one of the most influential figures of Swedish poetry, he was not Swedish at all. In fact, he never set foot on Swedish soil. He was born to Baltic-German and Baltic-English parents in Czarist Russia. His first two languages were German and Russian. In 1913, the family decided to flee the tumult of Russia to Finland. Unfortunately, Finland was going through its own struggle to end 100 years of Russian colonial suppression, and the Parland family had trouble assimilating in this cultural climate of severe anti-Russian sentiments. Henry was bullied so severely by the Finnish children that his family had to repeatedly put him in new schools.
This is how he finally ended up in the special high school for the children of Finland-Swedes. During his high school years, Parland learned Swedish and began to write his own stories and poems in Swedish. It was also during this period that he became increasingly interested in Modernist and avant-garde literature, reading Cubo-Futurist poetry from Russia and Dada documents received from relatives in Germany and the Baltic states.
When he graduated from high school, he joined up with the Finland Swedish Modernists and Gunnar Björling. Björling and Parland became the first writers in Scandinavia to get involved in Dadaistic ideas, publishing their experiments in the Modernist journal Quesego. Parland's manifestoes, including the now canonical "Sakernas Uppror" ("The Revolution of the Things"), and poems stirred up much controversy and outrage. Published in 1929, Parland's first book, Idealrealization (Ideals Clearance or Ideals Sale), was a watershed in the history of Swedish-language Modernism. As with his entries in Quesego, Parland encountered an uproar of negative criticism, as even fellow Modernists attacked him for what they perceived as his nihilism. Only Björling defended him.
By then, the twenty-one-year-old Parland was no longer living in Finland.
His parents had grown increasingly angry and frustrated with Parland's
behavior – his love of flamboyant Western fashions and entertainment,
his late nights and his close association with the infamous Björling.
To set him straight, Parland's parents sent him to live with his uncle,
Vilhelm Sesseman, a philosophy professor at the University of Kaunas, Lithuania.
The highly cosmopolitan uncle exposed Parland to the Russian Formalists
and the films of Sergei Eisenstein, as well as to the local arts scene.
Parland wrote articles for Finnish journals introducing Russian Formalism
to Swedish literature. Influenced by his reading of Marcel Proust, Parland
began work on a novel called Sönder. But he would not live
to complete it: he fell suddenly ill with scarlet fever and died at the
young age of 22.
Göran Sonnevi (1939) is not merely the leading poet of his generation writing in Swedish and arguably one of Sweden's greatest living poets, he has served as a political conscience for the nation. Esteemed authors and critics in Scandinavia have described his work as "a single long poem, a commentary on everything that comes within range of his language..." (Göran Tunström), while comparing Sonnevi himself to Lucretius – part scientist, part philosopher (Arild Linneberg). I think of him as many poets in one: poet of nature and the natural sciences, of politics between individuals and nations, of language, of love, of human possibilities. He is a poet who does not hesitate to confront the unknown; indeed, he courts it – historically, philosophically, linguistically. His voice is European; I am at a loss to compare it with the voice of any one American poet, although his natural descriptions at times resemble those of A. R. Ammons. If he were like any American poet, I don't think we would need him so much in English. While unavoidably conscious of its European and Swedish points of view, in his poetry Sonnevi has always looked toward the world in its entirety.
Mozarts Tredje Hjärna (Mozart's Third Brain), his thirteenth book of poems, was published in 1996. It consists of two parts: Disparates (so named after Goya's etchings), approximately 90 pages of discrete, primarily short, lyric poems written between 1956-1996, and the 190-page title poem composed from 1992-1996, a suite of 144 sections that bear roman numerals. I have been translating Sonnevi's work since 1984. In 1996-97 I translated perhaps a dozen of the Disparates. The long, meditative, visionary title poem occupied a great deal of my time from 1998-2002; many of its sections have been published since then (in, e.g., Barrow Street, Circumference, Guernica, The Paris Review, Pequod, The Threepenny Review, TWO LINES, Words Without Borders), though the book itself has yet to find an English-language publisher.
So far the densest single "chunk" in the poet's oändlig
– endless or infinite – poem that continues from book to book,
the largest expression of his achievement. Here is but one comment from
one of Stockholm's two morning dailies when the book came out in November
1996: "Göran Sonnevi's work will come to be read as a uniquely
multifaceted testimony concerning what it was like to attempt to live a
conscientious and dignified life on the fringe of Europe during the second
half of the 20th century. . . . Mozart's Third Brain is a collection of
poetry that is in every respect a great work." – Mona Sandqvist
in Svenska Dagbladet.
Gunnar Harding (1940) is one of Sweden’s foremost poets, and also one of its best liked. He started as a jazz musician, studied painting in Stockholm, and made his literary debut in 1967. He has published—in addition to translations and non-fiction—sixteen volumes of poetry (including his prose poetry). In 1992 he was awarded the Bellman Prize by the Swedish Academy. 1993 saw publication of a comprehensive selection of his poetry under the title Överallt där vinden finns: Dikter i urval 1969-1990 (Wherever the Wind Is Blowing: Selected Poems 1969-1990). In 1995 he was awarded Svenska Dagbladets Literature Prize in recognition of his important role in Sweden’s literary life since the 1960s; and in 2001 he won the prestigious Övralid Prize.
Brief mention of some of Harding’s work aside from poetry will suggest
the breadth of his career. His non-fiction includes a collection of essays
and articles covering the period 1971-77, and Kreol (Creole), a book
about the roots of jazz. He has translated numerous writers into Swedish,
for example Apollinaire, Cendrars, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Ginsberg, Charles
Olson, Keats, and Shelley. He has also edited several anthologies: in 1979,
Modern Swedish Poetry in Translation (with Anselm Hollo), in 1995,
Är vi långt från Montmartre: Apollinaire och hans epok i poesi, bild
och dokument (Are We Far from Montmartre: Apollinaire and His Epoch
in Poetry, Picture and Document), and in 1997, En katedral av färgat
glas : Shelley, Byron, Keats och deras epok (A Dome of Many-coloured
Glass: Shelley, Byron, Keats and Their Epoch), a collection and presentation
of English Romantic poetry in Swedish translation. Harding served on Sweden’s
Bible Commission, with the responsibility of ensuring that the new Bible
translation then under preparation would retain adequate poetic force. Starting
in the 1970s, he edited the magazine Lyrikvännen (The Poetry-lover);
for many years he was co-editor of the prestigious Swedish literary quarterly
ARTES and of the English-language annual ARTES INTERNATIONAL.
In his youth, Harding spent extended periods in the U.S.; those visits, along with his background in painting and his lifelong devotion to jazz, have had a noticeable influence on his work. Harding’s poetry is both accessible and appealing, informed by a lively intellect and a great gift for imagery. Anselm Hollo has written that the poems "are characterized by a consistently lively balance and tension between vividly visual information and the seemingly effortless musical structure that contains and carries the information."1 Above all, this is poetry with heart; it is unsentimental, but also unafraid to address a wide range of emotions that most readers will recognize.
When Ann Jäderlund (b.1955) gained prominence in the 1980's and 1990's, her hermetic-seeming poems stirred up a national debate about difficulty and gender in contemporary poetry, as male critics appeared to have trouble with her poetry. Her stature has continued to rise since then. In 2002, Bonnier published a collection of her complete works (dikter 1984-2000). In this selection from a suit of poems from her 1989 book Snart går jag i sommaren ut, (Soon Into the Summer I Will Walk Out), Jäderlund denaturalizes the Swedish language by invoking the orderless Swedish grammar of medieval religious tracts, uncovering a stunning perversity at the core of the tradition of mystical writings about nature. This particular sequence is partially a collage of the 1420 religious tract Själens Tröst (The Soul's Consolation). Rather than finding unity in this historical document, Jäderlund recovers the heteroglossic nature of the text, which were patched together and translated from other sources (Latin, German) into the as-of-yet un-standardized Swedish language. Rather than finding unity in the past, as Romantic poets of the 19th century did, Jäderlund uncovers a volatile and clumsy language, a disunity.
Jacques Werup was born in 1945 in Malmö, the small city in the southwest of Sweden that lies just across the Öresund from Copenhagen. Since making his literary debut in 1971, he has published over thirty books: poetry, novels, and portraits of Malmö and Paris (where he lives for part of each year). An amateur jazz pianist, he has also written songs and is well known in Sweden for his performances, in cabaret style, of songs, poems, and other texts (both live and on CD).
The poems here are from The Time in Malmö on the Earth (1974), a unified series that presents facets of the poet's daily life and reflections in the period 1970-73, when he was struggling to overcome a kidney ailment. The poems are remarkable for their interweaving of the local and the universal, the personal and the political, the ephemeral and the eternal. Werup sees the microcosm and the macrocosm reflected in each other but will not let his vision of either oversimplify his vision of the other. If his nervous energy and playful genius for juxtaposition set these poems apart from most Swedish poetry of the 1970s, his serious moral purpose sets them apart from much North American work of that period.
In these poems Werup writes in a natural voice whose prose-like, but never prose, rhythms accommodate a wide-ranging vocabulary, while at the same time he contrives through repetitions, inversions, and long, free-flowing strings of sentences to achieve a kind of musicality rare in Swedish poetry. Observation and comment play off each other in much the same way as the large and the small play off each other in the subject matter. The poems flow down the page like water; they are like the misted railroad-car window he describes in one of them, a window in which we see our own features, the world outside, and the blurred, half-remembered, half-discovered outline of whatever ideas mediate between them.
Lars Mikael Raattamaa (1964) is a poet and architect with four published poetry collections so far. He was awards the Poetry Award of the Swedish National Broadcasting Co. in 2001. This selection comes from The Other Side of Landscape - An Anthology of Contemporary Nordic Poetry, edited by Anni Sumari and Nicolaj Stochholm and forthcoming from Slope Editions .
Johan Jönson (1966) published his first book, Som Samplingdikter (As Sampling Poems), in 1992. Since then he has published a number of collections including Näst Sista Våldet (The Second to Last Violence), the five-volume I Krigsmaskinen (In the War Machine) and, most recently, Monomtrl. These pieces are excerpted from the collection Virus, published by OEI in 2004.
Jönson is also an active member of Teatermaskinen a performance group inspired by the work of Antonin Artaud and Heiner Müller. (Please visit their extensive homepage at www.teatermaskinen.com, which features an archive of images, texts and reviews.)
This is an excerpt from "Poetry and Politics," a talk Jönson gave at the conference "Post-Poetry" at Biskop Arnö, May 13, 2005.
… My study is a rented basement space in my building. I call it "the bunker" to make my routines feel a bit more dramatic. It's a privileged bunker. I return to it every day from 8 am to 3 pm on days when I'm not working or staying home with sick children. I work as a disposer of human waste in a handicap care facility. In my windowless bunker I don't have to see, don't have to listen, don't have to speak. I confess to this even though the confession-animal no longer has any secrets to confess.
The bunker looks like an imaginary beach, but without a horizon. The walls are covered with archival materials for sampling. In this space it is not especially hard to imagine being buried alive.
I escape. It is a human right to be a coward. I escape, but there is nowhere to go, no relevant transcendence is possible. In the bunker I am unmoving. Names are repeated and stuttered out, one after the other in an open and limiting medium. If these are different forms of knowledge (which I can't really tell) then they are soon caught. If this is thinking, or different forms of thinking (but I don't really think like this, I'm not a thinker) then it appears and reappears in a flickering pattern. If it is an investigation of unknowledge, then it is surrounded by biopower and poetology, both indissolubly symbiotic with poetry, and it will soon disappear into an established discourse. Is it at the same time an erasure? It feels like I remember less, know less, as if the writing generated an inexhaustible extinction-desire to erase that which has been and that which is constantly taking place: words that make life, the human creature bodies, all this survival that merely reproduces itself in all eternity. But what kind of erasure is this? My working-class-determined inferiority feelings keep plaguing me like a genetic flaw, just like the pubescent suspicion that I may not exist, and my vain and ridiculous attempts to destroy the fictions.
Does this ultimately lead to an anti-democratic desire to de-politicize? Or can one interpret it as an urge for a radically democratic utopia? Destroyed we would for the first time be equal, with the same conditions.
(A warning: Extreme demands and radical utopias often mean in practice the affirmation of a status quo. This may be one reason for poetry's often radical claims. Poets hope that most things will remain the same, so that they can continue with their cowardly routine, a privilege that would be lost in any other social order.)
Over and over I return to my bunker fiction. Maybe this writing is a peripherally but monadically widespread and symbolic redistribution surface. I strive for a form of non-fiction; writing that does not culminate and does not end the way a 19th century novel does; writing that does not arrive and does not want to convince the way 20th century mass media does. Perhaps it can be compared to an isolated expression machine. But it is important to remember that all kinds of machines fabricate and all kinds of machines are haunted by specters. Perhaps it is a form of non-human virological metabolism that is taking place. But I'm not talking about something that is dependent on subjectivities as we know them. I'm talking about something that therefore it is impossible to name with the language we are part of.
Perhaps there is a metabolism of various speeds, of winning incorporated speeds, but also of excluded and relative slowness? Hieroglyphic signs used to be carved into geologically folded cave walls; now it may be hacked into different vision machinic pattern formations at the highest possible speeds. It used to be that the medium was eternally still and the body carried out the work, a slow work. Now the medium is in constant movement and the body absolutely still, like a greasy appendix.
But what consequences does it have for poetry when its signs are distributed according to an orbital and decentralized logic-flow that was first developed to allow its users to survive and continue to wage a nuclear war? What does that mean for the book and the book page? People often talk about Gutenberg capitalism. How do these real-time vectors and transvectors affect our perception? There is no software, as they say in academic German.
One thing is certain. There will always be questions about meaning, and
these questions are always answered, with names and actions. I don't
know how to avoid the issue of meaning. I don't know if it is even
desirable. In a cognitive capitalism meaning forms a kind of added value.
The accumulation and overflow of meaning, which is steadily imploding, produces
a wide and at the same time aesthetic and symbolic poverty, which continually
has an effect. For example, the majority of the Swedish people remain ignorant
of literary Modernism. This probably contributes to the widespread thought-ban
in the Swedish language-area, and this leads to pragmatic politics. It is
not at all certain that this is the worst of all possible conditions. To
be able to think is not all that important in this world. And imagination
and intellectuals with supreme power – the fantasy literature harbors
and hides poorly – has usually led to terror regimes, book burnings
and bloodbaths, the kind of things that literature traditionally and with
poorly hidden glee has recognized as major subject matters...
Aase Berg (born 1967) started writing as a member of the Stockholm Surrealist Group in the early 1990s. Her first book, Hos Rådjur (With Deer) was published in 1997. This was followed by the multimedia sci-fi epic Mörk Materia (Dark Matter) in 1999, and the critically acclaimed pregnancy allegory Forsla Fett (Transfer Fat) in 2001.
These selections are from her fourth book, Uppland, which was published in early 2005. The title refers in part to a 1991 plane-crash that took place in the province of Uppland in Sweden. Miraculously, this event claimed no casualties. Uppland is in part about a plane crash, but it is a plane crash that Berg seems to poetically keep from happening, punning and playing around with language; through a pun on the English word "dragonfly", the poem transforms the crashing plane into a flying fairytale dragon, and the method of using English puns to transform the bucolic landscape is signaled by the use of the word "Ängland," which literally means "Meadowland," but homophonically suggests "England." These linguistic moves parallel the self-conscious move of the speaker from the public realm of disasters into the illusory-yet-comforting idyll of the nuclear family. The books ends with "Kvarlanda(Remainland)" a neologistic pun on Arlanda, the Stockholm airport,. The term "remainland" evokes the central tension of the poem – between remaining in the air and landing, or between never taking off at all and touching down. This tension – which can also be seen in such phrases as "blancedance" and "standstilldance" and in the very title of the collection, "Uppland" – runs throughout the poem, as the speaker attempts to hover between flying and landing (or crashing), between private and public, and perhaps most importantly, between languages.
In the fall of 2005 Action Books published Remainland: The Selected Poems of Aase Berg, a selection of my translations of Berg's work. To celebrate this occasion, Berg was invited to give readings at the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia and Emory University. She has also given readings around Europe, including, most recently, in Sarajevo. She is currently translating the collected works of HP Lovecraft into Swedish.
from "It's Not Acceptable To Be A Fatso" (first published in the journal 90Tal, number 3, 1999)
I hope for poetic expressions that are aggressive, baroque and esoteric;
I prefer ridiculous and embarrassing to perfection. On the literary market,
which is dominated by the aesthetic and social ideals of the upper middleclass,
it is unacceptable to be excessive in any way – one adjective too
many and you're out. There's a stubborn cliché that the sober, quiet
and elegant, the so-called "simple" is categorically more informative than
the noisy. The fleshy, screamy and overdone, the vulgar, desperate and pathetic
are so taboo in our culture that there must be dog buried in the phenomenon.2
The right to an inner life, to slowness and ease and the time it takes to travel to other worlds is the most important political message of our era. Slacking off is the strongest political act. In this matter poetry is an invaluable guide.
The future: Do I sound like an old fart if I say it's the
Internet? I don't give a shit. Unfortunately, the quality issue has been
replaced in most discussions of the Internet with issues of technology,
copyright and effectivity. I think poets have to conquer the Internet, which
is at its core a very poetic medium, a medium that lends itself to deeply
dimensional thinking and the dissolution of traditional chronology. The
Internet will not be the death of the book, but perhaps the death of the
conservative novel. Nobody will be happier than me: the narrative as a linear
format is oppressive. The Internet is a medium for episodic novels and lyrical
poetry. The paper book is becoming more and more like role-playing games,
something the poetry critics have not yet discovered. The text of the future
will be introverted, fractional and non-linear. I also hope it will put
its head under water.3
Jan Sjölund was born in 1967 in Örebro, Sweden. His books Sju vägar ut ur sitt namn (Seven Ways Out of Your Name) and Det nödvändiga motståndet (The Necessary Resistance) were published in 1995 and 1998, respectively. He earned a bachelor's degree in literature and worked as a newspaper journalist for 15 years. He studied literary composition at the University of Gothenburg and now lives in Gävle, Sweden, where he teaches journalism and literary composition at the University of Gävle.
Jenny Tunedal (born 1973) published her first book, Hejdande, hejdande sken4 in 2003. This year she received the Prince Eugene Cultural Award for her work as poet, critic and editor of Lyrikvännen. Her tenure as editor of this journal, one of the oldest (founded 1954) and most prestigious in Scandinavia, has been characterized by an intense interest in the poetry of other nations, including American poetry. Tunedal has translated the poetry of American poets such as Sylvia Plath, Claudia Rankine and Emily Dickinson.
This is how she describes her poetics: "Poetry is maybe, to attempt, rushing against the language walls. Poetry is thoughts that continue to continue. Poetry is written on its paper, without a doubt, and doubts and hesitates, a wavering writ. The poem lays still and moves. Poetry is maybe, dubiously gray. Like when black and white and light and darkness merge, like when snow does not quite cover the ground, like night before it falls, like faces that are shadowed by memory. That is one example. The poem is worse than that."
Bill Coyle lives in Boston, Massachusetts. His poems and translations have appeared in The Hudson Review, The New Republic, The New Criterion, Poetry and PN Review.
Roger Greenwald grew up in New York; he now lives in Toronto. He has won the CBC Radio/Saturday Night LIterary Award for his poetry (1994) and many awards for his translations. He has published one book of poems, Connecting Flight (1993), several volumes in translation from Norwegian and Swedish, and two novels translated from Swedish. His most recent books are Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas (2000) and North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen (2002).
Johannes Göransson is the coeditor of Action Books, which published Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg in the fall of 2005. He was born and grew up in southern Sweden, but has lived in the US for nearly 20 years. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia and teaches at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. His poems and translations can be found in journals like jubilat, Double Room and Canary. He recently edited a special Swedish poetry issue of Fourteen Hills, which featured some of the same writers as this issue of Typo.
Rika Lesser, the author of three books of poems (most recently Growing Back: Poems 1972-1992), has translated five books of poetry from Swedish or German, among them A Child Is Not a Knife: Selected Poems of Göran Sonnevi. She has received the Landon Poetry Translation Prize of the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Translation Prize of the Swedish Academy and the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize. She teaches at Columbia University.
Kristi Sigler has an MFA in poetry writing, 1996, from the University of Minnesota. She is a magazine editor and writer in New York City.
4"Hejdade" suggests arrested, slowed down or restrained. It also sounds strangely like "Hejande," which suggests a sports crowd cheering on an athlete. "Sken" means either bolting (as in the movement of a horse) or appearance (as in the Swedish saying "skenet bedrar," appearances are deceptive). Sken can also mean "shine." Perhaps ultimately the dynamics of this complex of words is more interesting and important than the literal meaning of the words.