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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

Inbetween: Locating Göran Printz-Påhlson

Robert Archambeau

Texte intégral

  • 1 John Matthias, Reading Old Friends. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 179–80.

Shortly after I first met Göran Printz-Påhlson in 1973, he, the British poet Richard Burns and I gave a reading together at Clare Hall, Cambridge, where Printz-Påhlson was a Fellow. We all read from our translations that evening, as well as from our own poems, and Printz-Påhlson amused the audience enormously by reading a poem from Gradiva three times—twice in English and once in Swedish. ‘When Beaumont and Tocqueville First Visited Sing-Sing’ was, in fact, originally written in English. It appears in Gradiva translated by Printz-Påhlson himself into Swedish. Discovered there by an American reader of Swedish poetry, it was translated back into English and published in a literary journal. The new English version, obviously enough, was quite different from the first. Printz-Påhlson’s reading of the three poems that night formed a comic triptych with an elusive moral. But the adventures of the Beaumont and Tocqueville poem do not end there. A year ago, I picked up Lars Gustafsson’s Forays into Swedish Poetry and discovered that the one poem chosen from Printz-Påhlson’s work to represent him among his Swedish forbears and contemporaries was the ubiquitous ‘När Beaumont och Tocqueville först besökte Sing-Sing’—translated back into English for the American edition of the book, this time presumably by Gustafsson. Such are the hazards risked by extraterritorial types who are determined to write memorable work in more than one language.1

1In his long, ambitious, experimental poem ‘The Green Ey’d Monster’ (1981), Göran Printz-Påhlson describes two lovers who have ceased to talk to one another, but who go on talking to themselves. ‘Every conversation,’ writes Printz-Påhlson, ‘is inbetween these two.’ The context in which the passage occurs invites us to see the lovers and their strange (non-)communication as an analogy for the communicative situation of artistic expression, and by extension to see it as an analogy for the relation between a poet and a reader. The reader, like the mumbling lover, imagines but does not address the poet; while the poet addresses, but can only imagine, the reader, absent as she is at the time of composition. What is at stake is intimacy—intimacy and distance. But that is not of primary interest in the present context. More interesting for present purposes is Printz-Påhlson’s neologism. ‘Inbetween,’ he writes, not ‘in between.’ There is a substance to the state of betweenness for Printz-Påhlson, something demanding a more concrete expression than two prepositions laid side-by-side. John Matthias’s anecdote about Printz-Påhlson’s position between English and Swedish gives us a clue about why the state of being ‘inbetween’ carried such weight for Printz-Påhlson, why it required a sturdy, Germanic, compound word. Printz-Påhlson occupied many positions of inbetweenness—between the Swedish and English languages, certainly, but also between poetry and criticism, between the plain style and the vatic, between the Anglo-American and the continental traditions of poetry, criticism, and scholarship, and between the modernist and postmodernist generations. Printz-Påhlson’s career was ‘extraterritorial’ indeed, in both the geographic sense and the sense that word takes on in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze—as a term for describing things that elude all customary structures and boundaries.

2Born in 1931, Printz-Påhlson became known in Sweden both as a poet and a critic while in his twenties, with his first volume of poems appearing in 1957 and his critical study of Swedish literary modernism and its European context, Solen i spegeln (The Sun in the Mirror) appearing a year later. Printz-Påhlson could have stayed in Sweden and become a national literary figure, but instead left in 1961 for academic posts at Berkeley and Harvard before setting in Cambridge in 1964. In Cambridge he became an associate of Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode and, while continuing to write poetry and criticism in Swedish, he embarked on a career as an English-language poet and critic. In effect, he maintained a half-dozen related careers: as an academic specialist in Scandinavian studies; as a Swedish poet; as a Swedish critic; as an Anglophone poet; as an Anglophone critic; and finally as one of the best translators of English-language poetry into Swedish. He remained prolific until his return to Sweden in 1998, when illness kept him from writing with his prior energy. He died in 2006, leaving us a polyglot literary and critical legacy.

3The present volume contains works that Göran Printz-Påhlson wrote in English, along with a few translated items he expressed a wish to see presented in English. It is a selection, not a comprehensive collection, but it does hint at the scope of Printz-Påhlson’s achievement as a critic, poet, and scholar in English, an achievement that, on its own, would make for a distinguished career. Of course it gives no real sense of Printz-Påhlson’s overall accomplishment, which includes the critical studies Förtroendekrisen (Crisis of Confidence) and Slutna världar öppen rymd (Closed Worlds, Open Space), as well as books of Swedish poetry such as Resan mellan poesi och poesi (The Journey Between Poetry and Poetry), Dikter för ett barn i vår tid (Poems for a Child of Our Time), Gradiva och andra dikter (Gradual and Other Poems), and Säg minns du skeppet Refanut? (Remember the Ship Refanut?)

  • 2 Jesper Svenbro, ‘Thinking Translation,’ Paper given at the Göran Printz-Påhlson Memorial Conference (...)

4While Printz-Påhlson constantly wrote criticism while writing poetry, there were long periods when he lay fallow as a poet. As John Matthias suggests, this may have something to do with the conundrum of the expatriate poet, caught between two languages and two potential audiences, a poet for whom ‘the question of whether to write in Swedish or English became sufficiently problematic that the flow of poems in both languages all but ceased’ (Matthias 181). Indeed, even when the poet caught between two languages does write, he runs the risk of not finding his proper audience in either language. When the Swedish poet Jesper Svenbro was asked about Printz-Påhlson’s influence on younger Swedish poets, for example, he replied by saying he ‘found the absence of [Printz-Påhlson’s] influence more significant,’ and that it seemed somehow ‘easier to be his follower as a Swedish-speaking poet in Thorigny-sur-Marne, France, than in Stockholm.’2 From Printz-Påhlson to Svenbro—one poet of inbetweenness speaks to another, but just how Printz-Påhlson’s work stands in relation to his native and his adoptive communities remains an open question.

5Printz-Påhlson certainly understood his conundrum. In fact, the question of the artist who travels and adapts, as opposed to the artist who stays in his place and his local tradition, animates a pair of Printz-Påhlson’s poems, ‘In the Style of Scott Skinner’ and ‘Songs of Dock Boggs.’ Scott Skinner, a Scottish fiddler who traveled to France and introduced new techniques to the tradition of Scottish folk music, serves as Printz-Påhlson’s figure of the traveling, adaptive artist. In the poem devoted to him we see the allure of cosmopolitanism, of a broad embrace of the culturally different:

Two hundred
thousand wet sea-birds every
minute serve the mind with writs of constraint
pizzicato dancehalls all over
the moody crags. A lone kipper
is seen to flounder in the volatile traffic
leaving his ladder, embarking
for France, land of
cotillions and plenty

6In contrast, the poem devoted to the American bluegrass fiddler Dock Boggs depicts an art born of poverty, provincialism, and the resentment of ‘distant authority.’ Such art has, however, a certain power born from exactly these circumstances, and the music hits the listener like ‘Raw death: a clodhopper shovel / smack in the kisser.’ The two fiddler poems offer no conclusion, only a question about the relative merits of two different artistic paths. They are poems in dialogue with one another and, in the tradition of Blake and of Yeats, serve as emblems of the poet’s vacillation. If the problem of poetic inbetweenness could never be resolved, it could, at least, be sung.

  • 3 René Wellek, ‘The Poet as Critic, the Critic as Poet, the Poet-Critic,’ in The Poet as Critic, ed. (...)
  • 4 T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Mariner, 1975), p. 107.

7The condition of the inbetween also manifested itself in Göran Printz-Påhlson’s double commitment to the pursuit of poetry and to the pursuit of criticism. He never was, after all, merely a critic who happened to write poetry; nor was he a just a poet who ventured into criticism. He was the true, rare hybrid: the poet-critic. René Wellek gets at the harsh truth about such creatures when he tells us ‘the union of the poet and the critic is not always a happy one’ and that such a union is ‘not necessarily good for either poetry or criticism.’3 Wellek has in mind T.S. Eliot’s statement that the poet-critic always seeks ‘to defend the kind of poetry he is writing’4—a stance that can all too readily lead to narrowness, unfair judgment, and a blindness to the real, yet alien, virtues of the poet one is reading.

8The poet-critic, in this dim view, is something of a hedgehog, in the sense given to that beast by Isaiah Berlin when he took it as an emblem for the thinker who knows one big thing. Printz-Påhlson, though, escapes the sad fate of the typical poet-critic by virtue of what Berlin might call his foxiness—that is, by virtue of his openness to many things. After meeting Printz-Påhlson, the American poet Michael Anania described him as ‘a careening enthusiast,’ a term that indicates the all-embracing scope and catholic nature of Printz-Påhlson’s interests. As a scholar and critic Printz-Påhlson was a professional comparativist—and what is, after all, a comparativist (at least a good one) but a careening enthusiast, the range of whose sympathies and elective affinities must, by the very nature of the field, be impossibly broad?

9In the selection of critical works gathered in this volume, we see three of Printz-Påhlson’s main enthusiasms: the examination of the terms of literary criticism; the criticism of classic and contemporary Scandinavian literature; and the study of contemporary American poetry. The essays collected as ‘The Words of the Tribe’ were originally delivered as the Ward-Phillips lectures in 1984, and take as their subject the terminology of poetics and literary criticism. Printz-Påhlson’s concern with the words of the tribe of poets and critics continues in the important essays ‘Style, Irony, Metaphor, and Meaning,’ and ‘Realism as Negation,’ which probe the history of critical terminology in a manner similar to that pioneered by Printz-Påhlson’s colleague Raymond Williams in the landmark study Keywords. In ‘Historical Drama and Historical Fiction: The Example of Strindberg,’ and ‘The Canon of Literary Modernism: A Note on Abstraction in the Poetry of Erik Lindegren,’ Printz-Påhlson offers observations on the contexts of Scandinavian writing, and in the essay ‘The Tradition of Contemporary Swedish Poetry’ he surveys the field of Swedish poetry. ‘Kierkegaard the Poet’ is an assessment of the great Danish writer, an assessment as important as it is idiosyncratic. Printz-Påhlson’s concerns with American poetry are represented by ‘Surface and Accident: John Ashbery,’ an inquiry into the work of the leading American poet from a perspective of poetic intimacy. Printz-Påhlson’s long commitment to the translation of Ashbery allows for a perspective on linguistic particulars that is marginal in most Ashbery criticism. Another kind of intimacy informs a shorter essay, ‘The Voyages of John Matthias.’ Here, Printz-Påhlson comments on the work of a close friend and collaborator. The piece speaks to Printz-Påhlson’s poetic predilections almost as much as it does to Matthias’s poetry, which makes it a fitting transition to the selection of Printz-Påhlson’s own poetry.

10There is a great degree of overlap between Printz-Påhlson’s practice as critic and as poet. Often, for example, he turns to poetry as a form of literary criticism by other means—a phenomenon that accounts for the prevalence of metapoetry in his work—and even, in the case of ‘Comedians,’ of meta-metapoetry, the poetic exploration of the conditions of writing poetry about poetry. Certain themes, such as that of the meaning of metaphor, recur throughout the critical essays and the poems. But this overlap is always a matter of dialogue, not of doctrine: Printz-Påhlson’s poems are never merely illustrations of his critical ideas.

11One of the great dialogues to animate Printz-Påhlson’s writing is between a plain, discursive style, and a style more mysterious, even impenetrable. The dialogue, present in the margins of many of Printz-Påhlson’s essays, is at the center of ‘The Words of the Tribe’ a version of the Ward-Phillips lectures he gave at Notre Dame in 1985. Here, Printz-Påhlson contrasts two traditions of poetry, one based on a ‘vernacular linguistic primitivism’ in which ‘you posit a model for poetry in a language which is colloquial, contemporary, and non-archaizing.’ This is poetry in the tradition of Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, a tradition of the ‘sermo humilis, a ‘humble and earth-like language.’ Printz-Påhlson sees this as a dominant tradition in English-language poetry, not only in Wordsworthian romanticism but also in Anglo-American modernism. It is the tradition, for example, behind the young Ezra Pound’s vision of poetic language as a matter of:

  • 5 Ezra Pound, The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941 (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 49.

Objectivity and again objectivity, and expression: no hindside-beforeness, no straddled adjectives (as ‘addled mosses dank’), no Tennysonian-ness of speech; nothing—that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say. Every literaryism, every bookword, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity.5

  • 6 ‘The Words of the Tribe,’ in Göran Printz-Påhlson, Letters of Blood, p. 55.
  • 7 ‘The Words of the Tribe,’ in Göran Printz-Påhlson, Letters of Blood, p. 55.

12Against this colloquial tradition, says Printz-Påhlson, we hear ‘the voices of modernist poetry in French or German poetry, from Hölderlin to Celan, Baudelaire to Bonnefoy,’ voices that spurn the colloquial in order to ‘speak defiantly in another dialect, lofty, vatic, solemn, sermo sublimis rather than sermo humilis.’ For poets in this tradition, ‘words are used in poetry not as signs or names, but in order to name, in an Adamic act.’6 It is characteristic of Printz-Påhlson’s inbetweenness that he ends the essay in which he makes these remarks not by taking sides, but by asking questions. Is the vatic, Adamic stance ‘to be taken, with the English poet, as an act of social acquiescence in the face of the intractability of language, or with the continental poet, as a defiance of social demands in order to reach the silences behind the words?’7 When we look to Printz-Påhlson’s poetry, we find work that points in both directions. Few poet-critics who have looked as deeply into questions of the ethics and aesthetics of poetic diction have emerged from their inquiries with such broad sympathies. The closest analogue, one imagines, is Donald Davie, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that Printz-Påhlson translated Davie’s work.

13Davie, of course, was a decade older than Printz-Påhlson, whose generational position points toward another form of the inbetween: the state of transition between old modernist ways of thinking and an emergent postmodernism. Printz-Påhlson’s Eliotic sense of tradition, his almost impossibly erudite grasp of ‘the mind of Europe,’ shows him with one foot firmly placed in modernism. At the same time, his love of popular culture, and his enthusiasm for it as a subject for poetry in works like ‘Superman, or: How to Succeed as a Failure’ and ‘Recollection of Innocence in Experience: or, The Katzenjammer Kids, Middle-Aged, Remembering their Happy Childhood in Africa,’ shows that he straddles the gulf between high culture and pop culture in a typically postmodern fashion. In contrast to the great Davie’s one extended attempt to understand pop culture—a misguided essay on the Tolkien craze—Printz-Påhlson sincerely embraced the world of pop. As he put it, ‘you don’t have to be less serious when you write about Superman […] than when you write about the Rosenbergs’ (Matthias 180). No doubt this sensitivity, this ease with existing inbetween the consecrated and the popular, played a role in making Printz-Påhlson so successful in the apparently impossible task of translating John Ashbery into Swedish.

14Inbetween, then, is where we find Printz-Påhlson, even when, as in the present volume, we limit ourselves to work he intended to be read in English. Inbetween is an ambiguous and intriguing space, a place of meetings and exchanges and dialogues and generosity of spirit. No location could be more appropriate.


1 John Matthias, Reading Old Friends. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 179–80.

2 Jesper Svenbro, ‘Thinking Translation,’ Paper given at the Göran Printz-Påhlson Memorial Conference (Clare Hall, Cambridge, 28 June 2010).

3 René Wellek, ‘The Poet as Critic, the Critic as Poet, the Poet-Critic,’ in The Poet as Critic, ed. by Frederick P. W. McDowell (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), pp. 92–107 (107).

4 T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Mariner, 1975), p. 107.

5 Ezra Pound, The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941 (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 49.

6 ‘The Words of the Tribe,’ in Göran Printz-Påhlson, Letters of Blood, p. 55.

7 ‘The Words of the Tribe,’ in Göran Printz-Påhlson, Letters of Blood, p. 55.


A poet and critic whose books include the study Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry (2010) and the poetry collection Home and Variations (2004). He has edited several books, including Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias (1998) and The & Now Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (2009). His writing has appearing in Poetry, Boston Review, PN Review, Pleiades, Chicago Review, and many other journals, and he has received grants and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Swedish Academy, and other organisations. He has taught at Lund University in Sweden, and is professor of English at Lake Forest College, Illinois


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