Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Intellectual Silence

I'm sometimes drawn to speculate about why, in spite of several attempts to do so, Swedish poetry never really made the kind of breakthrough that characterized the work of Finland-Swedish and Danish poets in the twentieth century. In the pre-World War II era, only Karin Boye stands out as a poet with an identifiably modern sensibility, and even her voice spoke in a poetic language that was formally conservative, and even backward-looking. Immediately after World War II there was the "forties" movement (fyrtiotalism) represented by figures like Erik Lindegren and Karl Vennberg. Gunnar Ekelöf also belonged to this group in some respects, and probably became its internationally most recognized member, partly because of the translations of his work by W.H. Auden. Yet these "Swedish modernists" were really picking up and continuting a modernist movement that had begun much earlier -- some three decades before -- in Finland, when Edith Södergran, Gunnar Björling, Rabbe Enckell and others conducted their startlingly original experiments in poetic form and utterance, influenced in part but not in whole by the German Expressionist poets, and also by the Russian futurists and European Dadaists.

Even today, Sweden still has a tendency to claim those unique and iconoclastic Finland-Swedish poets as its own. A recent advertisement headed "Modern Swedish Poetry in Translation" on the website of the Swedish consulate general in New York promotes U.S. poet and translator Johannes Göransson's recent anthology of modern Swedish poetry (here in magazine form) like this:

This overview of Swedish poetry emphasizes moments of internationalism and contact with U.S. literature, as well as poetry written under the influence of the original Finland-Swedish Modernists. It features the poetry of Edith Södergran, Gunnar Björling, Henry Parland, Göran Sonnevi, Gunnar Harding, Ann Jäderlund, Jacques Werup, Lars Mikael Raattamaa, Johan Jönsson, Aase Berg, Jan Sjölund and Jenny Tunedal.

Three on the list of "Swedish poets" did not write "under the influence of the original Finland-Swedish Modernists" but were the original Finland-Swedish modernists. And this is by no means the only example of such misrepresentation.

In a recent poem about what it was like to be a Swedish poet writing in the 1980s, Magnus Carlbring appeared to suggest that the sources of real depth and innovation in Nordic poetry then lay not in Sweden itself, but in Denmark. The poem is entitled Letter to Inger Christensen, and it contains these lines:

It was in Denmark
that everything happened, it was you
and your younger sister Pia Tafdrup
who wrote the poems
The direct ones, the intimate ones
the ones with the treacherously
simple rhythms and songs
Poems that dare to touch
death life
time space,
poems that dare to appeal
I don't know what it is,
a geographical difference
or a snooty Swedishness,

the intellectual
silence, that makes the difference;
Here poetry is difficult
superfluous and timid


Eric Dickens said...

Intellectual silence and the distortion of provenance are not good things. There should be truth and justice in literary culture, as there is in everyday life.

As I am interested in Flemish versus Dutch literature, I have experienced this same type of cherry-picking. In this instance, the Dutch play the role of the Swedes, the Flemings that of the Finland-Swedes. And, similarly, the Netherlands has the more powerful publishing industry.

In other words, Dutch critics and publishers tend to take on board Flemish authors as it suits them, to boost a general Dutch-language literature. But they shun many Flemish authors as being too provincial, yokelish, and so on. And, just like with Sweden and "Svenskfinland", the Dutch spend plenty of time sniggering at local Flemish expressions which are "not proper Dutch".

Here too, more experimentation and serious Modernism arose first in northern Belgium, not in the Netherlands. This was partly on account of the fact that the Flemings always had to fight for their Dutch language against French domination, whilst the complacent Dutch in Holland could afford to be complacent. The province was more innovatory and avant garde than the metropolis.

This, mutatis mutandis, is the same story as Sweden versus the Finland-Swedes.

David McDuff said...

It's interesting that the same relation and dichotomy exists vis-a-vis Dutch/Flemish.

Magnus Carlbring's homage to Denmark is also significant, though, as it represents a step beyond the old Sweden vs. Finland-Sweden polarity - contemporary Danish poetry evidently means a lot more to some Swedish poets than the poetry written in their own language, and on reading Carlbring's poem one can begin to understand why.

Eric Dickens said...

You could re-write Carlbring's poem with the minimum of substitution to address the Finland-Swedish and Flemish issues.

I'm thinking of translating a few poems...

"... ones with the treacherously
simple rhythms and songs
Poems that dare to touch
death life
time space,
poems that dare to appeal..."

... by the Finland-Swedish poet Heidi von Wright for this blog, when I receive a copy of the originals. I've seen some of her minimalist things on the Ny Tid calendar and in the newspaper itself.

Scanian-born American publisher Johannes Göransson, whom I met in Stockholm last year, has published a book of Fredrik Hertzberg's translations of Björling poetry, entitled "You go the words". So I think he personally is very much aware of Sweden and Svenskfinland. See:

Quoting critic Marjorie Perloff on that website:

"Du gar de ord, the last collection of poems by the great Finland-Swedish Modernist poet Gunnar Björling, here superbly translated and introduced by Fredrik Hertzberg, is a milestone in the annals of experimental poetics produced in our century."

Göransson has also published Anselm Hollo's translations of Saarikoski.

David McDuff said...

Yes, but I don't think that Carlbring's poem has much to do with the issue of Finland-Sweden vs. Sweden - it's about Carlbring's sense of suffocation in the Swedish intellectual and literary climate, which he views as being severely impoverished. Denmark, just across the water, obviously had a much more lively and intellectually active poetry scene in the 1980s, which is the period he's describing in the poem. Sadly, Inger Christensen died in January this year.

Michael Peverett said...

Presumably "modern Swedish poetry" means poetry written in the Swedish language rather than poetry written in the nation-state of Sweden, so can properly include the work of Finland-Swedish writers. Göransson is doubtless aware of the nuances, though the phraseology in your extract may be a little imprecise. He is keenly appreciative of the complicated provenance of writers such as Parland and Södergran who are exotics even within a Finland-Swedish context.

David McDuff said...

Hi Michael -

It's not Göransson's own description of his anthology that I'm talking about - I have no doubt that he's perfectly aware of the nuances you mention. If you'll read the post again, you'll see that what I'm referring to is the wording of the Swedish NY consulate general website's advertisement for the book - the quoted extract is taken from that official Swedish government statement, and not from anything that Johannes Göransson wrote.

I adduced this example of Swedish officialdom's tendency to bend the facts in order to emphasize the much more interesting point that Magnus Carlbring raises in his poem.

Michael Peverett said...

Yes, I see what you mean. In the context of a Swedish Consulate promotion, references to "Swedish poets" and "Swedish poetry" must imply nationality in the absence of further clarification.

Magnus Carlbring said...


nice discussion: poetry is supposed to cross any borders


and nice seeing my poem translated into english

notice: please let me know if you'd like to translate some more (that would be great!)

yours sincerely,

magnus carlbring