Saturday, 30 January 2010

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 5

It could be said that the Psalms of David, written about 3,000 years ago, refute my point of view. If God is the highest authority, God will not only see the poem as it is, but will also know it before it is written. In Psalms 139, 4-5 we read: ‘For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.’

The first part of the quotation reveals an idea about fate and providence, while the second part expresses a present action. There is a big difference between God already knowing everything, and God being simultaneous with events. If God knows the poem before I have formulated it, then God must know ‘all things’ ending’. It is not necessarily true that God knows ‘the end’. That is no precondition of His almighty power. If God created Adam in his likeness, it must be supposed that God’s likeness is in Adam. I am incapable of saying anything that would surprise God, because I can never come before God, but God apparently resigns Himself in listening and being at the same time.

Since I myself do not know the poem until I have written it, or perhaps just because of that, it is possible to insert God as an authority who in the last analysis is spoken to, and not as the one who knows the poem in advance.


Every significant work is itself, but that does not prevent it from wanting a dialogue. On the contrary. Doesn’t art become art only when it is perceived? When the poem acquires its reader? In spite of the fact that some parts of it will remain foreign to the reader, the poem’s will is to reach the unknown mind.

Although I have my centre, there are none the less collective patterns that become valid beyond the subjective, but if today one constantly has a sense of living apart from other people, it is because it has become so difficult to see the structures that are shared. Perhaps in some invisible place we are more alike than apart? At least it must be said that we have fantasies and longings in common. And perhaps at certain happy moments there is a bridge of seconds, where not only can one individual’s aloneness communicate itself to another, but where also a process takes place.

On rare but definite occasions the unknown reader identifies himself with the poems in a surprising way. A reader once told me: ‘If I could write poems, I would like to have written yours’. Some of it was already there in the reader, but had not been put into words before.

I am incapable of knowing what a poem means to the person who reads it, but if a poem can have an effect on another person like the effect it had on me when I wrote it, can one ask for anything more?

A poem cannot find a response if the readers or listeners are not in the mood, prepared to be in the poem and at the same time allow it to be in them. When a picture is looked at, it is best seen from a given location, and in the performance of music there must be a balance between closeness and distance, but the poem also demands that its audience should take a position with regard to it. That it should take its bearings from it in a spiritual sense, whether it is read or heard.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (VII)- 1
Over the Water I Walk (VII)- 2
Over the Water I Walk (VII)- 3
Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 4

Friday, 29 January 2010

SELTA, etc.

Well, I've sent off my annual SELTA subscription renewal - by my calculations it's now 29 years since I first joined the society, and I guess it hasn't really changed much in all that time, in spite of some members' aspirations to give it a wider focus. This time last year members were arguing the pros and cons of a broader coverage of Nordic literature in general, then this blog was formed, then it broke up and became a one-man effort - and SELTA stayed the same.

My situation is still that, like other members, although I've done a fair amount of literary translation from Swedish, it's not my only field of activity - my most recent publication is a book of poetry translations from Danish, and I'm currently planning another one. But SELTA still fulfils an important function in keeping the U.K.'s various Nordic translators in contact with one another. Even if the pan-Nordic element is underplayed to the advantage of a Swedish emphasis, and many of the associate members have published little by way of literary translations, this continues to be a unique professional body - for translation is after all a profession, rather than an academic subject or a stop-gap, subsidiary activity, as this intelligent post by B.J. Epstein points out.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

A valley in the violence

In Hbl Philip Teir interviews Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, whose work is being published in Sweden and who is tipped to win this year's Nordic Council Literature Prize. Excerpt:
After Sofi Oksanen appeared on a Danish TV culture show and depicted the Finnish people as depressive and uncommunicative she heard criticism from many quarters. The fact that Finland has two brutal school shootings behind it and a bleak set of statistics relating to violence was no excuse. This is stuff one shouldn't talk about to foreign journalists... "It isn't sanitary," was the view of Finland's Professor Laura Kolbe.

"I've learned that while many people don't mind as long as you stick to writing books and winning prizes ... as soon as you say something like this, the reaction is "Get back to Russia, you Estonian whore," says Oksanen, who grew up in Jyväskylä with a father who is Finnish and a mother who is Estonian.

See also: Knocking Finland

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Integration Poem. February 2006

by Susanne Jorn


They shout
“Death to Denmark”
and mean me too.

They burn Danish embassies
and burn me too.

They trample on the Danish flag,
and trample on my damned Danishness.


At Easter 2000 I stood
in Kastrup Airport
with the papers for my existence
in my hand baggage.

Stood for a long, long time
on the runway,
but knew that the first step
into my fatherland
was in the right direction.

First came foothold.
Then roothold.


The first time
they called me an immigrant
I was proud as a peacock.

The second time
deeply hurt –

The third time,
incandescent with rage.


When Danes trample
on my expatriate Danishness,
they trample on my heart.

They can’t see it.
They don’t want to see it.

(from Med et halvt øje  [With Half An Eye], Forlaget Sohn, 2006)
translated from Danish by David McDuff

See also: Two Poems
Susanne Jorn: Two Poems
A Speech

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Speech

In 2008 Susanne Jorn gave the following speech in English at the Tokyo Poetry Festival:
IF I WERE TO MAKE STATUS of the poets in the world, I believe that all poets one way or another write poems to live and to survive.

IF I WERE TO MAKE STATUS of World Poetry, I must say that it will always survive, no matter what happens in the world. A few years ago I went to Istanbul and saw a tiny clay table from Sumerian times behind glass at a museum. It had cuneiform characters on it, that I did not understand. On a little sign it said that this was the world’s oldest love poem. As no translation was attached, it was then up to the spectators to guess what the love poem was about. I take it that since love between people is eternal, a love poem way back then and today would have the same essence of human daily life.

I also believe that World Poetry has the power to make people survive. One example of this is the famous story of a Chilean woman who survived the most painful moments of torture in a basement during the Pinochet regime by reciting love poems by Pablo Neruda.

Last year I participated in the 46th Sarajevo Poetry Days and met Goran Simic. Following Sarajevo Poetry Days, I wrote Goran Simic and asked him how Sarajevo Poetry Days happened during the civil war in the 90’s, he answered ... ”I was the main organizer of Sarajevo Poetry Days in 1992 and also in 1993, when we actually read poems in a basment. For each other mostly, because there had been severe bombings all day long. It was a protest, but essential to keep poetry alive”

IF I WERE TO MAKE STATUS of the World Poetry scene in Denmark today, less Danish poetry collections get published every year, compared to the 90’s. This is the case of foreign poetry collections as well. The problem in Denmark is that there is not enough focus on World Poetry translated from non-Western languages.

However not so long ago there was a World Poetry Series which included poetry collections from the 20th century. The series started in 1999 and of the twelve poetry collections that did get published, in fact Shuntaro Tanikawa was the only non-Western poet included. When the series stopped in 2004, an unusual selection of 10 New Chinese Poets came out, including both Chinese poets living in China and Chinese poets in exile.

Nonetheless I have translated poems from Chinese and Japanese for decades and the economy of words in my poems in fact stem from the influence of Chinese and Japanese poetry.

IF I WERE TO MAKE STATUS of my own poetry, all my poems have epigrammatic qualities. I boil the Danish language down to short poems, consisting of a few words. This minimalist approach allows me a space to express myself. At the same time, it opens up for a spontaneous, abstract visuality.

My poems start with one picture followed by another picture in succession like in a film. This flow is dominated by painterly qualities like colors, lines and figures. Every single poem of mine is luminescent.

The visual element is intrinsic to my poetry and most of my poetry collections are illustrated by visual artist as well. Yasse Tabuchi and Pierre Alechinsky are some of them. There was also a time in my life, when I wrote poems to visual art. In Tracks in Sand, I was asked to write poems for the Icelandic artist Sigurjón Ólafsson’s sculptures. These sculpture poems were written in English and translated by Kazuko Shiraishi into Japanese.

For me all poetry is music one way or another. Therefore I naturally focus on sound in my poems. Every single one of my poems has its own melody then. A song for to live - and to survive.

Susanne Jorn

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Susanne Jorn: Two Poems

Summer Song

It was in the light of the year's longest day,
that people gathered for better or worse.
They sat silent in the shade of beech trees.

Life is colourful.
Lovely, lovely.

It was in the darkness of the year's shortest night.
people said to one another,
tomorrow things will go the wrong way,
tomorrow winter will come.

Winter Song

It was in the darkness of the year's longest night
that people gathered for better or worse.
They sat silent in the light from their lamps.

Life is colourful.
Lovely, lovely.

It was in the light of the year's shortest day
people said to one another,
tomorrow things will go the right way,
tomorrow summer will come.

(from Med et halvt øje  [With Half An Eye], Forlaget Sohn, 2006)
translated from Danish by David McDuff

See also: Two Poems

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The irresistible call of Scandiwegian crime

London's Mayor Boris Johnson explains in his Telegraph column why the British are so fond of Nordic crime novels:

It's like our joy in the Iris Robinson story. We wouldn't be so thrilled to discover her in bed with a 19 year-old if she hadn't spent all those years ranting drearily on about family values. Nordic crime writers profit from the fact that the blood is all the more vivid on the snow, the corpse more horrifying on the swish hygienic IKEA furniture. Scandinavia is still a mental landscape where crime is shocking, and that is a great compliment to Scandinavia.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 4

I always hope that a poem’s intentions will be perceived by the reader. Perhaps just because reading seems to be such a problematic activity, I aim for a reader who does not intervene with the noise and disturbance of his subjectivity, but is able to see the text as it is, namely God. God is the person who sees the poem as I would like it to be perceived.


The reader nearly always wants to see the poet’s blood, but my poetry is not the witness of a quivering heart. That does not mean I am a non-person – I simply want to be allowed to be the person behind the poem.

The poem can never escape the fact that it is written by a human being, a subject with senses, but the question is whether the poem’s witness should be a text or a human experience... Poems must at least contain elements of life, individual basic components that function as reliable poles in the midst of the torrent of words that comes out. A shy nightingale singing through a summer night could be a verifiable springboard for thoughts about the universe. As long as there is this gleam of reality, the poem can allow itself almost anything at all.

My poems qualify themselves by being my truth, i.e. they are not necessarily a truth for someone else, but many readers expect to be able to use poems as examples drawn from life in their own attempts to find the words for their experience.


The poem excludes no one, it is open to anyone who wants to enter it. In one sense all poetry is written to a ‘you’. In love our yearning moves towards someone who loves us for all that we are. In poetry towards someone who understands all that we want.

Many of my poems speak directly to a ‘you’. One of them contains these rather banal lines:

reality is here
just not you

These lines may have been written with a definite person in mind. Because the other person – in this case the one who is loved – is not present, reality appears extremely unreal. The very distance from the loved person is a restriction that cannot be overcome. Only as the Other can the beloved be loved, but this ‘you’ also points back at the writing subject: reality is there, but the ‘I’ is not present in it, or unable to share in it. Or the person who is reading the poem is addressed directly. At last the ‘I’ appeals to the invisible authority, God. Thus, the lines may mean: The person who is loved is missed. I myself am not really present. The reader is involved. And fourthly: God is not here.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (VII)- 1
Over the Water I Walk (VII)- 2
Over the Water I Walk (VII)- 3

Friday, 15 January 2010

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 12


Raivola was to remain, then, the place from which Edith Södergran looked at the rest of the world. Raivola was the garden land' in which she wrote and suffered and meditated She was regarded as a curiosity by the other inhabitants of the place. Residents have told of how she would sometimes be seen standing alone in the courtyard of the dacha, staring up at the sky to observe cloud formations. Sometimes the inquisitive­ness of the neighbours turned to pure spite. In December 1919 Edith Södergran's favourite cat Totti, which meant as much to her as a child, was shot by the Russian neighbours mentioned earlier. An attack of Spanish influenza in early 1920 left her weak and exhausted. All this time the civil war was raging. Food was scarce, and Raivola seemed more cut off than ever from the rest of the world. Desperately anxious to work, to be of some use, Edith Södergran conceived the idea of preparing a volume of German translations of Finland Swedish poetry. Unfortunately the arrangement with the publisher fell through, and the project came to nothing.

She did receive some visitors from the outside world during the last years of her life. Elmer Diktonius, a literary lion of the Helsinki avant-garde, came to Raivola and saw to it that she was able to write articles for Ultra, a literary journal of the new wave. But as a rule she was alone with her mother. More and more her thoughts began to centre on the person of Christ.

Steiner and Nietzsche were forgotten. She read the New Testament. In 1921 the Kronstadt revolt erupted, and again the Södergrans could hear the shooting and see the flashes of gunfire in the night sky. The end came in 1923. Edith Södergran died while Hagar Olsson was on holiday in the south of France, where she received the sad news.

This was contained in a letter from Edith's mother, and a part of it read as follows:
Do not think that Edith nurtured any bitterness towards Hagar because Hagar was not with her before her departure; she understood that Hagar was not travelling alone and perhaps had to comply with the wishes of her travelling companion Certainly she yearned to see Hagar and on her last day she said `I wish Hagar and Diktonius were here.' And she was full of gratitude for all the proof of friendship she had received she said the day before her departure: `We have had so much help and friendship that I should write a book of gratitude, if only I could manage it.' And she often, often remembered all that Hagar and Diktonius had done for her.
The last poem Edith Södergran wrote contains these lines, which were engraved on her tombstone, now situated in the Leningrad District of the Russian Federation, at Raivola-Roshchino:
See, here is eternity's shore, here the stream murmurs by,
and death plays in the bushes his same monotonous melody.
Her destiny was to grow as one with her destiny-from her limited personal fate she aspired towards the condition of pure fate. Misunderstood in her lifetime - Gunnar Ekelöf described her as "a Persian princess in Lapland" - she became after her death one of the most widely appreciated poets of Scandinavia. Today her poetry is read and written about in all the Scandinavian countries, and her reputation there is comparable to that of Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson in English-speaking countries, or to that of Anna Akhmatova in Russia. She has little in common with these poets. Her poetry, though imagistic in expression, is primarily a poetry of ideas. As such, it may remain alien to the majority of English-speaking readers.


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Thursday, 14 January 2010

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 11


In The Shadow of the Future there is a sense of giving-up, the struggle for material existence is abandoned and the poet's soul is freed The victory is not achieved at once. Often there are seemingly overwhelming doubts to be overcome. The soul often seems unreal:
I do not believe in seeming and soul, the game of games is so foreign to me. (`Materialism')
Physical suffering intensifies her sensation of her own body's grossness and helplessness. Yet even this grossness and animal­ity becomes transformed into a redeeming force, the power of Eros:
My body is a mystery.
So long as this fragile thing lives you shall feel its might. I will save the world.
Therefore Eros' blood hurries to my lips, and Eros' gold into my tired locks.

Throughout the poems there is a sense that at last her body is exhausted, that in some sense her `I' is free of her physical self. Now that `I' is at one with cosmic forces and dimensions, the human body, which has been the means towards this liberation, can fall back into passivity. Life is no longer "my" life, but the life of nature, of God. The transition to this standpoint must have been intensely painful for her, as she loved the perceptions of her senses and enjoyed in every way her presence on theearth. But as her illness progressed, she must have become aware that this indirect experience of nature was not for her. As her body grew weaker she began to experience herself for moments as a part of nature. Naturally her thoughts began to turn towards death:
Truth, truth, do you lie in mortuaries among worms and dust? Truth, do you dwell there where is everything I hate?
She senses that she will not physically survive the onslaught of the forces which have been at war within her:
My crown is too heavy for my strength. Look, I can lift it up with ease,
but my remains will fall apart.
My remains, my remains, you are wonderfully bound together. My remains, I believe you are beginning to long for a coffin. Now it is not the electric hour,
my remains, you do not belong to me.

(`Four Little Poems', II)

In the end, her body must count for nothing, her soul for everything:
But a little worm saw in a dark dream
that the moon's sickle cut his being into two parts: the one was nothing,
the other was all things and God Himself.

("There is no one who has time")

The story of Edith Södergran's involvement with Rudolf Steiner need not concern us in detail. It is enough to say that she was very well aware of the shortcomings of his philosophy, inherent no less in his personality than in his books. But he did bring her a measure of peace in the last, lonely years of her life, and there can be no doubt that he was a catalyst, the `dagger in the breast' that made the writing of The Shadow of the Future possible. There can also be little doubt that if ill-health had not intervened, Edith Södergran would have certainly travelled to Switzerland in order to become a pupil of Steiner. She announced this several times in her correspondence with Hagar Olsson. Such a discipleship would have been perfectly in accord with Edith Södergran's dreams of establishing a new world order of saints and mystics, poets and artists. Hagar Olsson did in fact visit Steiner, partly out of a personal interest and partly also to satisfy her friend's craving for at least some second-hand knowledge of her idol.

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(to be continued)

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 3

Reading is about taking an attitude that is attentively listening, asking, interpreting and remembering, about being able to go in and out of the poem in an attempt to find models in the inner relations between the signs and to construct a meaningful whole, but the process is far from merely intellectual, it also contains receptive and sensitive levels. Reading is a constant balance between objectivity and empathy, an attempt to understand what is purely factually there, and how one perceives it oneself. The degree to which one becomes visible in the poem or aware of oneself was once revealed to me in a dream:

in my dream
books were shiny mirrors
each single page
every word a mirror for the one who read
in any book at all
the reader saw only himself

In the poem ‘The Dream about the Reader’ from my collection White Fever, the writer is present in more than one sense, but at the same time the reader becomes aware of his own being there, conscious of his presence, which is something different from merely seeing oneself confirmed.

Sometimes the reader does not see what the poem wants, but uses a strategy that is wrong in principle and sees only himself or his own purpose. Such a reading can only lead to him staring himself blind in the mirror.


After it has been published, a poem no longer belongs to me. Once I have given it away, I must be prepared for widely differing approaches to it. And there are as many versions of the poem as there are readers. Sometimes readers have presented me with aspects of my poems which I have not been aware of, but which I have taken account of because I found them convincing. In a sense they were already there without my having seen them. Feedback of that kind is rare, but I see it as an essential part of the process that poems I thought I knew inside out because I produced them can still surprise me. It is only when they have lain unread for a long spell, or when I have read them aloud several times, that I take possession of them, I will always be the person who inhabits the background of any of my poems, I am its “crown witness”, as Per Hojholt once put it, but it can never be my task to analyse the poem or interpret it.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 2

Saturday, 9 January 2010

War and Peace

Veteran Labour politician and ex-Cod Warrior Roy Hattersley reflects in the Times on the bloody minded Icelanders:

Reykjavik’s innumerable newspapers denounced me as the oppressor of small nations. If any of them still remember me, they will still not believe that I feel ( perhaps perverse) admiration for their concentrated bloody-mindedness. There are Viking tombstones in the Great Wall of China. Reasonable men would not have sailed open boats to the other side of the world.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 10


Between August and November 1919 Edith Södergran wrote no letters to Hagar Olsson. The reasons for the silence are unknown, but it seems likely that during this time Edith Södergran experienced some kind of inner crisis, similar in intensity to the one she had experienced in the sanatorium at Nummela. The result of this new crisis was to be the collection of poems entitled Framtidens Skugga [The Shadow of the Future, 1920]. The last letter Edith Södergran wrote to her `sister' before the silence reveals some of the elements of this crisis:
... Have all the time felt within me such an infernal electricity that it was almost too much to bear. As if I had lain in the arms of Eros himself the whole time. I feel like the most blessed creature of all that has arisen from the depths of existence. More than ever before it is now necessary to catch the mood Have written poems, but this is not yet a period of inspiration What I need is for someone to plunge a dagger into my breast. And there is no one I respect who can receive my suffering. Wound me, Hagar! If I could create now, everything I have written hitherto would be rubbish. This alone would be me... ... Near Christmas I shall publish a book called Mysteries of the Flesh... Schildt wí11 gape, along with the rest of public opinion. It is Eros conducting worship in his own Temple. It is the same Eros who is the `Wille zur Macht'...
The `Mysteries of the Flesh' were the poems that later became known as The Shadow of the Future. The original title is more apt, and tells us more about the experiences that went into the poems. Until now, Edith Södergran's world outlook had been conditioned to a large extent by her extensive reading of Nietzsche. She had tried to persuade herself that she did not believe in God, that she was a materialist and anti­mystic. She saw her dreams vitalised in the image of the superman. During 1919, however, she had received visits from a retired schoolteacher, a certain Dagmar von Schanz, who lived near Raivola. Although Edith Södergran had no personal liking for this woman, it was through her that she became acquainted with the works of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner.* Steiner's nature mysticism seemed to her to form a direct link with that of Goethe. It also appeared to stand in resolute contradiction to the philosophy of Nietzsche. A severe conflict between the Nietzschean standpoint on the one hand and the Goethean-Steinerian on the other began to develop in the poet's psyche. It soon acquired the dimensions of a desperate struggle between apparently irreconcilable elements of her personality. With Nietzsche was associated the great accumulation of sensual and sexual energy that lay dammed up within her, denied release except through the medium of poetry. This is the `Eros' of which she writes in her poems and letters. Steiner, and to a lesser extent Goethe, reflected her experience of childhood and nature, and ultim­ately of Christ and God. The poems of The Shadow of the Future show the conflict at its most acute, generating new forms of experience which carry Edith Södergran out of herself and into a transcendental mode of being.

The sense of intolerable restraint, of accumulated energy crying to be let loose, and threatening the human person, is the force that drives these poems:

In order not to die I have to be the will to power.
In order to avoid the atoms' struggle in their break-up. I am a chemical mass...

There is an impression of enormous size, of enlarged dimensions:
Eros does not see men's petty squabbles, he sees with his burning gaze
how suns and moons complete their orbits.

(`Eros is Creating the World Anew')

I lift up the riches of the earth on my shoulders. (`The Net')
In the light of blue heaven must the coffin stand blessed The coffin stands in eternity's room.

(`Resurrection Mystery')

Through my lips streams the heat of a god, all my atoms are separate and on fire...

This experience of immensity could be terrifying:
It is dangerous to desire when one is the powerful one, therefore my desires stand still. (`Ecstasy')
Such statements inevitably brought accusations of megalo­mania and even of madness from readers who thought that Edith Södergran was talking about her own personal import­ance and power. They overlooked a poem like `Premonition', for example, where it is clearly stated: `I am only one among others and others are stronger than I'.

The experience of increased size has nothing to do with any sense of personal grandeur, but is rather the result of an emotional charge, an electricity which filled her at this time of crisis, rendering her normal perceptions invalid. There is even a possibility that some of the poems may have been written under the influence of a pain-relieving drug, although this has not been proven At any rate, the experience was a hallucinatory one, though it was felt as intensely real, and was a way through to an ecstatic vision of the kind described by Jakob Böhme or Teresa de Avila. Certain late poems of Gunnar Ekelöf - in part­icular, those of Partitur (1969) - bear a striking resemblance to the poems of The Shadow of the Future. It is significant that these, too, were written during a painful terminal illness.

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(to be continued)

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Two poems

by Susanne Jorn


The snow falls
softly, softly tonight.

I stand in the middle of
Kongens Nytorv
in Copenhagen.

Sparkling snowflakes,
twinkling snowflakes:

Snow me into my stars.


- - -

Worry is blackest
Sorrow, whitest.

Happiness is purple.
Unhappiness, grey.

Hope is primordial yellow.
Revenge, blood-red.

Non-violence is turquoise.
Violence, pale orange.

Lies are green.
Truth, violet.

Prose is pink.
Poetry, blue.

Death is colourless –
Life, a many-coloured painting.

(from Med et halvt øje  [With Half An Eye], Forlaget Sohn, 2006)
translated from Danish by David McDuff
NB read Lev Hrytsyuk's Ukrainian translation of the second poem here.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 2

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva said: “All the lessons that we derive from art, we ourselves put into it.” She gives the following example, based on The Sorrows of Young Werther: “One person reads Werther and shoots himself, while another reads Werther and, because Werther shoots himself, decides to go on living. The first reader behaves like Werther, the second like Goethe. Is this a lesson in self-destruction? Or in self-defence? Both. At that particular time in his life, Goethe needed to shoot Werther – the suicidal demon of Goethe’s generation needed to be incarnated precisely through his hand…

“Is Goethe to blame for the deaths that were one result of the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther? He said he was not guilty: “In his profound and splendid old age, he replied: No. Otherwise we could not dare to say even a word, for who can calculate the effect of a given word?”

Marina Tsvetayeva frees Goethe from blame, and so would I, but the example makes one reflect, as do the consequences that can arise when as a poet one does not distinguish between one’s life and one’s work.

In several places in his poetry Michael Strunge wrote about his yearning to burn into the darkness:

I could become a shooting star
and fall to rest,
fall to the ground on some planet or other

and for one disastrous moment got poems, dreams and reality all mixed up. A terrible thought, which I can’t help thinking as I read those lines.


The poem is at once sealed and decipherable. That is why reading is infinitely different from a conversation that is carried on between two people, where it is possible to break off, correct, expand or change the subject. Reading contains both cognitive and emotional components. Nothing can be understood unless one puts oneself on the line. It is not just a matter of getting something out that can be “used”, and even less so where poems are concerned. Beyond the cognitive aspects there is a demand that one be involved in an aesthetic sense, that one be able to listen to the emerging parameter a voice is, perceive the many intentions that take place on several levels at the same time in a poem.


Reading is usually an inward phenomenon, a graceful and entirely private activity that different people engage in very differently. In his short story ‘The Book’, Martin A. Hansen depicts – very movingly – how the boy Mattis makes his first encounter with world history an example of the fact that reading is an immensely individual process, one that is intoxicating and impassioned: “Mattis did not read like most people, reading was like a fever in him, his gaze moved over the lines like wooden clogs on the slippery ice, but the letters became tiny, living creatures that scurried into his brain and scribbled and scrabbled there so that the blood moved thumping through him. And if the contents were as intense and gripping as this book’s, the characters and events seemed to rise out of his own inner being, as though he were creating it all himself.”

The dynamics of the story are striking. A whole new world opens up to the boy. Later, when he lies exhausted in bed, we read: “Cold shivers ran through him. It’s fever, he thought to himself, I’m falling ill. Maybe I’ll die. But how I have read!’

There is a big difference between the identification patterns that are present in the case of texts that contain a gallery of characters, and what happens in poems, where other laws hold sway. The basis of poetry is not the same. One can orient oneself in the poem’s time, its landscape, and space, and above all listen to the voice that is speaking.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 1

Skating on thick ice

Tour skating in Finland!

(via Soila Lehtonen, who is out there somewhere)

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Guest posts and others

As some readers will be aware, last September this blog passed from being a group endeavour to the status of a one-man blog. There were several reasons for this, I guess, though foremost among them was the issue of the Aftonbladet "IDF organ theft" article and the Swedish government's depressing reaction to it (look it up in the search box). The reaction of some of the blog's readers, as evidenced by their comments, was also a sticking point, as well as the inevitable slanging match that ensued over issues of "freedom of speech".

However, now that a new year is upon us, I'm hoping that it may be possible to restore the blog to the kind of Nordic literature forum it was in its earlier days. Nordic-related translations, book reviews, and articles on literary and other topics are welcome, and can be sent to the email address that figures in my Blogger profile.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Danish cartoon axe attack

In a second New Year terror-related incident in a Nordic country, the 74-year-old graphic artist Kurt Westergaard, who authored one of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in 2005, was attacked in his home on Friday night by a Somali intruder armed with an axe and a knife, but managed to take refuge in a secure room and activate an alarm which summoned police, the AP reports.  According to the BBC, the attacker was shot and wounded by police. 

Links to Danish press sources:



Ekstra Bladet

Berlingske Tidende

Gates of Vienna has posted translated excerpts from Danish press reports.

See also: Espoo mall shootings

Friday, 1 January 2010