Sunday, 1 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 5


Another striking feature of the collection is the influence on it of Old Icelandic literature, in particular the poetry of the Edda. The qualities that seem to have attracted Karin Boye in these poems are the ones associated with emotional and spiritual directness, or 'erectness' or 'straightness' - rakhet. In 'Æsir and Elves' Odin hangs in the world tree 'erect' or - an image of unyielding hardness and inflexibility that may easily become fanaticism. This kind of emotional colouring becomes more and more frequent in Karin Boye's poetry as it develops, and it is possible to detect a connection between it and the poet's concern with issues of freedom, unfreedom and determinism. Her interest in left-wing, Marxist political theory and in Freudian psychology is rendered more comprehensible in this light. The dominant conflict in her work increasingly becomes that of a passionate, almost desperate desire for personal freedom and self-assertion with an awareness that such freedom may be impossible, and that the only solution is to submit to powers that are mightier than the human 'I'. It is a conflict that has its roots in the poet's personal crisis of 1921.

The poems of Härdarna ('The Hearths'), which was published in 1927, represent further evidence of the flow of poetic inspiration that visited Karin Boye during her years in Uppsala. The Swedish title has associations that are perhaps not so immediately evident in English - in Swedish, härd or 'hearth' can mean a seat, focus or centre, and the ancient 'hearths' the poet is trying to invoke are symbols of culture and the creation of culture throughout the ages. Perhaps the collection's most famous and characteristic poem is 'In Motion' (I rörelse), with its call for perpetual movement and quest:

Yes, there is goal and meaning in our path
- but it's the way that is the labour's worth.
The best goal is a night-long rest,
fire lit, and bread broken in haste.

One critic who noticed the originality of the new collection was Hagar Olsson, the friend and confidante of the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran. In the newspaper Svenska pressen she wrote, under the headline 'New Tone in Swedish Poetry':
One has long looked in vain for a sign of renewal within Swedish poetry. All the lights seemed to have gone out. The 'young generation' has displayed an aspect of effeteness, carefully concealed beneath a shimmer of echoes. One cannot characterize its striving better than with the catchword employed by Diktonius, 'prettier everyday product' [vackrare vardagsvara]. When one has with effort and a good deal of melancholy read Österling's new collection of poetry with the elegant title Earth's Honour and the equally elegant publicity, one has said to oneself: will one single spark ever be lit in this suffocating atmosphere? Will there ever be a single lyre in the land of Sweden that is able to create life and tone in this oppressive, twilight-of-the-gods silence?

Recently a small, unassuming collection of poetry appeared: The Hearths, by Karin Boye. No advertising surrounds it and the publicity states that the author is not one of the most prominent. But the cover shines with a brilliance that is different from and more enduring than that of fame: the brilliance of fire fighting its way through. One reads: Karin Boye, and it is with love that one commits it to memory. One thinks: here is one of the first swallows...

Swallow - that is perhaps the word for Karin Boye's poetry. It is not strong like the eagle; its wingbeat does not have that breadth and boldness - but neither does it belong to the grey and twittering breed of sparrows. It flies high and beautifully and the wind murmurs in its trembling wings...

These are different tones from those one is accustomed to hearing in modern standard-Swedish poetry. It is something that ignites, awakens, carries away, it is truly - poetry! One encounters here no aestheticized hypocrisy about a simple little everyday, a simple little home and a simple little happiness, one encounters an honest soul that looks with completely illusionless eyes on that which is, sees the inevitability of suffering and the vanity of happiness, but does not seek a port of refuge from it, rather instead prepares itself for - higher flight. One encounters for once a courageous spirit, one that has passed through the destruction of the 'I' without stopping at this, without complaining and feeling sorry for itself, finding its strength in a higher reality...

There is an extraordinary purity in this spirit, it is without fear and far from sentimentality. It is always ready for departure, that is its distinguishing mark... It is never tepid, never in two minds. It is in other words - inspired.
The poems singled out by Hagar Olsson for special praise in her review include 'In Motion', 'We Sleepy Children' and 'The Sea', which she called 'a proof of the lapidary strength of Karin Boye's style'. Though the reviewer considered the book uneven, the review article itself was probably responsible for confirming the poet on her path, and for establishing her as a major name among contemporary Swedish poets.

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4

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