Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The meaning of modern poetry

Although it's not quite complete, and presented in "Limited Preview" format, the digitized text of Steffen Hejlskov Larsen's Betydningsstrømme i nyere dansk poesi is available online as a Google Book. Larsen (b, 1931), whose studies and analyses of (mainly) Danish poetry first drew attention in 1965 with the seminal Om at læse moderne poesi, is one of the central voices in 20th century literary criticism as a whole, and his contribution to the understanding and development of modern literary aesthetics can be compared with that of figures like T.S. Eliot, Archibald MacLeish and Jean Paulhan.

In Betydningsstrømme, Larsen follows the same channels of inquiry that run through his earlier work, with the emphasis on language and the "breaks" in language that characterize the articulation of modern poetry. The book is divided into parts - a theoretical one, in which the tension between "normal" and "broken" discourse is explored in terms of metaphor, symbol, "planes" and structures, and a practical one, with critical studies of actual works, including examples from collections by Ivan Malinowski, Klaus Rifbjerg, Jess Ørnsbo, Jørgen Gustava Brandt, Inger Christensen and Dan Turèll. There is a particularly illuminating section on the Danish poets of the 1980s who like Pia Tafdrup, Michael Strunge and Søren Ulrik Thomsen reacted against the politicized poetry of the 1970s and once again wrote "poems about love, death and life in general" - "POETRY could again be written in capital letters."

This is a book which deserves to be translated into English, for even though many of the examples Larsen discusses might be unfamiliar to a non-Danish reader, the critical direction of his thought is universal, carrying it far beyond the narrow interpretations of conventional academic study and literary-theoretical fashion.

1 comment:

Eric Dickens said...

David touches on a major translation problem: examples. The problem with translating such a book is that by being translated, all these Danish poems would already be at one remove from the originals that spark off Larsen's comments. They would have to be translated very well for the foreign reader to be able to follow the theory in detail. It can be done, but the problems are not insignificant.

Having parallel text translations for each poem or excerpt quoted is one solution, but would enlarge the book. This would nevertheless mean that those who know some Scandinavian could look at the original poems as well as the English, French or German version.