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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

‘The Overall Wandering of Mirroring Mind’: Some Notes on Göran Printz-Påhlson

Lars-Håkan Svensson

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1Göran Printz-Påhlson first made a name for himself in Swedish literary life in the early 1950s as a prodigiously learned poet and critic and as the chief theorist of a group of gifted young poets referred to as ‘the Lund school’ as they were all students at Lund University in southern Sweden. The ‘Lund school’ was not really a literary movement, however, but simply a circle of friends who happened to share a number of literary interests. Several of them went on to make important individual contributions to Swedish poetry, but at the time they were all associated with the ideas that Printz-Påhlson propagated in his criticism and poems. Under the influence of the tenets and methods of New Criticism, still fairly unknown in Sweden, Printz-Påhlson argued that since all art is fiction and therefore a lie, the best that art can do is to be honest about its ontological status and inscribe this consciousness as deftly as possible into itself. To put it another way: art is art, not reality, and the difference should not be obfuscated. Much of the poetry and criticism that he published during the 1950s was geared to promote this metapoetical programme.

2His first publication, Resan mellan poesi och poesi (The Journey Between Poetry and Poetry, 1955), is a thin pamphlet consisting of six, mostly unrhymed sonnets, whose metacritical bent is suggested by the volume’s very title and further brought out by the fact that the last two poems comment on the first two. Metapoetic perspectives also pervade his first full-length collection of poems, Dikter för ett barn i vår tid (Poems for a Child in Our Time, 1956), which, in addition, shows his skilful treatment of various demanding metrical forms, including the villanella. However, more than anything the collection established him as an accomplished master of irony, almost preternaturally learned and mature for his age. (He was 25 at the time.) The same qualities were discernible in his criticism, much of it first published as articles and book reviews in the local evening paper Kvällsposten, and later reworked into the full-scale book chapters of his magisterial critical volume Solen i spegeln (The Sun in the Mirror, 1958). This study of Swedish modernist poetry, which begins with a long introductory chapter elucidating what Printz-Påhlson sees as a long tradition of metapoetics running from Ovid through Dante to modern practitioners such as Wallace Stevens and Francis Ponge, was immediately recognised as a major critical achievement and remains influential to this day. Even now it is hard to come across a new study of modern Swedish poetry that does not position itself by making reference to the perspectives drawn up by Printz-Påhlson.

3The publication of his poems and, especially, Solen i spegeln resulted in Printz-Påhlson being seen as one of his generation’s most gifted writers. His immediate plans seem to have been to write a doctoral thesis in Nordic languages at Lund—not Swedish or Comparative Literature, as one might have expected. However, this came to nothing. In 1961 Printz-Påhlson moved to America with his young family to teach Scandinavian literature first at Harvard (1961–1962) and, later, at Berkeley (1962–1964). Although he spent comparatively few years in the United States (he left in 1964 in order to take up a position as lecturer in Scandinavian Literature and Language at Cambridge, remaining there until his retirement), there can be no doubt about the deep impact that these three years had on him. He made many friends in the United States and always spoke warmly about the openness he had encountered there, and immersed himself in American literature and culture. Although he claimed to be tone-deaf, he became an addict to bluegrass music; and he wrote articles about, for example, Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, and Marshall McLuhan, at a point when they were virtually unknown in Sweden and certainly not recognised as cultural icons. He also wrote about the beginnings of student radicalism at Berkeley well before anyone in Sweden even knew that such a thing existed. All these experiences affected him deeply and can be noticed in the poems in English he began to write at about this time (some of which are included in this volume).

4Although it is not easy to exert influence, let alone be a vital force in Swedish cultural life without residing in Stockholm, Printz-Påhlson cut an important and highly respected figure, even during his exile in the United States, In the early 1960s he became a regular contributor to the liberal Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, which set the agenda for much of the cultural discussion of the day, and he wrote long and learned articles for Sweden’s leading literary journal Bonniers Litterära Magasin (among them a path-breaking set of articles on Strindberg’s narrative technique). Many of the articles produced over these years were later collected in two major volumes of essays published simultaneously in 1971, Förtroendekrisen (The Confidence Crisis) and Slutna världar, öppen rymd (Closed Worlds, Open Space), the former showing him to be an astute and well-informed observer of contemporary (not least American) society and politics, the latter demonstrating his familiarity with contemporary fiction and popular culture. He also made a name for himself as a translator. In the mid-50s he had translated William Empson and other modern British poets; he now turned to contemporary Americans such as Robert Lowell and John Ashbery, whom he had discovered at an early stage.

5In 1966, Printz-Påhlson published a second volume of poetry, Gradiva, a rich collection which, among other things, contains three poems in English, ‘Superman,’ ‘Bringing up Father,’ and ‘Recollections of Innocence in Experience’—included, so a note tells us, to demonstrate that ‘it is not necessary to be less serious in writing about Superman or the Katzenjammer Kids than when writing about the Rosenbergs.’ The major part of Gradiva consists of two long sections, one consisting of a suite of related poems based on Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gradiva, famously analsed by Freud in his 1907 Dream and Delusion, the other of two minor suites, ‘The Carceri Suite’ and ‘The Automatons.’ Gradiva, probably the most ambitious poetry collection published in Sweden during the 1960s, met with considerable critical acclaim, though in retrospect it is easy to see that its prescient treatment of themes such as automata, computers, doppelgänger, and so on arrived some fifteen years too early. And when these things came to be on the agenda, their proponents in Sweden were not too eager to remember— or perhaps they were simply unaware—that Printz-Påhlson had written about them long before.

6If the tutelary spirits of Printz-Påhlson’s early work may be said to have been William Empson and the New Critics, his thought during the 1960s and 1970s was more attuned to the work of Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode (both of whom he knew at Cambridge). It is clear from the articles he wrote during his final year in the United States that he was already interested in the new definition of culture that Williams, Richard, Hoggart, and others were proposing in Britain. One might have expected that his familiarity with these notions would have made him interesting at home, for in the early 1970s, Swedish cultural life underwent a sea-change, political radicalisation intent on dissolving the boundaries between high and popular culture. However, the kind of wide-ranging and comprehensive intellectualism that he represented was not what Dagens Nyheter wanted; ‘you write in a manner which certainly appeals to readers with a classical education but doesn’t reach out to more than a fraction of our heterogeneous readership,’ a sub-editor told him in a letter of rejection. Printz-Påhlson’s friend, the poet Tomas Tranströmer, found the paper’s idea of its readership laughable; ‘these culture vultures are beginning to sound like disc jockeys—but they are tragic disc jockeys, for they address an audience that doesn’t exist,’ he wrote to Printz-Påhlson. Printz-Påhlson’s own response appears to have been to consolidate his academic career; to write in English rather than in Swedish, and to resort to silence and cunning—he was of course already in exile.

7Fortunately, the Joycean formula served him well. He continued his work as a translator. In 1980 he brought out a volume of Contemporary Swedish Poetry translated into English together with John Matthias. In the following year a translation into Swedish of John Matthias’s long poem Bathory & Lermontov appeared, and in 1984 he published a highly influential volume of translations into Swedish of the work of John Ashbery. And six years later, in 1990, he completed a major volume of translations into Swedish of contemporary English-language poetry, Färdväg (Itinerary), on which he had been working for several years together with Jan Östergren. This volume features important selections from the work of a number of contemporary Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Derek Mahon, as well as a wide selection of American poets from A.R. Ammons and Elizabeth Bishop to Louise Glück, Robert Hass, John Matthias, James McMichael, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky. The common denominator of the poets included in this anthology is their concern with the poetry of place, expounded in a major essay appended to the volume.

8Even more importantly, in 1983 Printz-Påhlson published his collected poems in Swedish, Säg minns du skeppet Refanut? (Tell Me, Do You Remember the Ship Refanut?)—the title is a line from a ballad that the poet had heard his grandmother sing. This volume includes a large section of new poems, some of them his very finest achievements. One—a long sequence commemorating his upbringing in southern Sweden—bears witness to his new interest in the poetry of place. To some extent modeled on Hugh McDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle,’ it is perhaps Printz-Påhlson’s most personal and memorable poem, mixing lyrical passages with wonderfully ironic evocations of regional lore associated with the poet’s native landscape of Skåne in southern Sweden. Its subtle and humorous word-play, its exploration of dialectal expressions and its many references to cultural and political phenomena dating from the poet’s childhood and youth of course make it sadly unsuitable for translation; however, several other new poems included in this book exist in English versions as well and can be found in this volume.

91995 saw the publication of a final major volume of new essays, När jag var prins utav Arkadien (When I Was Prince of Arcadia, 1995) which along with a reprint of The Sun in the Mirror (1996) is testimony to Printz-Påhlson’s continuing importance as a critic and theorist. The most important of these new essays deal with the role of place and memory in poetry. Some of the inspiration comes from Printz-Påhlson’s familiarity with the writings of Seamus Heaney and Jeremy Hooker and the general resurgence of interest in the sense of place in 1970s and 1980s criticism, but his treatment of the topic is inspired by the thought of many other poets, critics, and philosophers; in particular, he relates his sense of place to the notion of ‘primitivism’ also brought to the fore in his Ward-Phillips lectures and also, with a surprising reference to the beginning of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (The Phenomenology of Spirit) and to Wordsworth’s Prelude, discerns another type of mediation of the universal and the individual:

If the individual must have recourse to what is most singular and primitive in order to discover his character and his fate (the Greek term ethos refers us to both directions), the universal and the general is available not only primarily in the abode of his childhood but only there. The conflict that this generates derives from a world that strikes us as increasingly expansive and open, but in which our deepest affinities, in so far as they are at all maintained, remain at an elementary and primary level in the individual’s origin.


10During the last fifteen years of his life, Printz-Påhlson was working on a number of projects. Some were left nearly complete at his death, such as the Ward-Phillips lectures, while others were merely planned—among them a volume tantalisingly entitled The Invention of Scandinavia, and another called The Poem as Process, a study of the work of John Ashbery, André du Bouchet, Paul Celan, and Göran Sonnevi. He also left a plan for a collection of poems in English. The present volume, which is largely made up of manuscripts now in the care of Lund University Library, is compiled from several of these projects.

11The Ward-Phillips lectures entitled ‘The Words of the Tribe: Primitivism, Reductionism, and Materialism in Modern Poetics,’ constitute Printz-Påhlson’s most ambitious effort at developing his views on modern poetics next to The Sun in the Mirror; as such, they are also to be related to the ideas set forth in some of the later articles referred to above. It is of course fair to ask if a set of lectures which necessarily cannot make use of recent discussions can be of interest to us today, particularly when one knows that their author was always very keen to refer to, and profit from, the latest developments in the field that he was working in. I think so. As restored and edited by Robert Archambeau, these essays strike me as eminently readable and relevant. They discuss issues which are as much with us today as they were when the original versions were being prepared; they do so very elegantly and with great critical tact; they bring together a vast number of materials not usually discussed in the same text; and they make use of some of the best insights of the structuralist and post-structuralist era while nearly always calling a halt before succumbing to any of the many exaggerations and delusions of this heady period. Their value is enhanced by the editor having very helpfully identified the very diverse sources referred to in them, sending the reader now to Aristotle, now to Sir Peter Medawar, now to John Ashbery.

12Much the same may be said about the various individual articles that follow—except that they do not in the same way adhere to Printz-Påhlson’s main theoretical concerns but address topics of a more specific nature. Some of them—such as the pieces on Strindberg and Kierkegaard— illustrate Printz-Påhlson’s impressive ability to bring his familiarity with the international discussion of such disputed concepts as ‘realism,’ ‘style’ and ‘irony’ to bear on these Scandinavian icons while, in the process, making interesting observations on theoretical discussions too. Other articles included here—such as those on the Swedish modernist poet Erik Lindegren (on whom he had written memorably in The Sun in the Mirror) and ‘The Tradition of Contemporary Swedish Poetry’—might be interesting in that they focus attention on aspects of Swedish literature and art usually missed by those who have access only to discussions concentrating on the supposedly major names, whose works are available in translation. The piece on Ashbery—written at a time when Ashbery was not as well-known as he is today but offering perspectives that seem relevant today as well—is interesting also because it gives us a glimpse of Printz-Påhson’s practice as a translator.

13The second half of the volume consists of a poetry collection, Letters of Blood, which naturally invites comparison with the Swedish collected poems. However, while the latter volume is arranged according to a chronological pattern, starting with the most recent poems and going backwards to the oldest ones, the English collection appears to follow a thematic and generic rather than a chronological plan. Of the three sections, one to a large extent reflects the poet’s interest in popular culture; another contains poems written or inspired by his early years in the United States and Britain; the third section is devoted to metapoetical topics; and the final section consists of a long poem, The Green-Ey’d Monster, which combines several of the concerns of the other sections.

14Letters of Blood contains a number of poems that, due to their subject matter and linguistic expression, defy translation into Swedish, while the collected Swedish poems include a number of poems similarly incapable of translation into English. At the same time many of the poems that exist both in Swedish and English raise the question of which came first. The amusing anecdote told by Archambeau about the three versions of the Beaumont and Tocqueville poem likely reflects the complex coming into existence of some of the other poems in section two (written at a time when Printz-Påhlson was beginning to feel confident about writing poetry in English). It is easy to see that the subject matter is common to both the Swedish and English version of the poem and that the execution of individual lines, phrases, and images is adapted to the particular demands and possibilities of the language used—and to the audiences addressed. These poems question our conventional notions of original and translation. In my view, they are all originals, which in its turn suggests that all translations are originals too, not copies. To a Swedish reader, used to thinking of poems such as ‘Turingmaskin,’ ‘Joe Hills sista dagar,’ ‘Remember the Rosenbergs,’ ‘Sestina Vertumni’ and ‘Komiker’ as classics of Swedish poetry, it is disconcerting— as well as enriching—to realise that they may have existed in English before the Swedish version was written down, or that the Swedish poem came into being at the same time as an—almost but not quite—identical English poem. The author of the poems would no doubt have been amused at our confusion as to whether we lie or tell the truth when we refer to them as originals and translations.


Professor Emeritus of Language and Culture at Linköping University, Sweden. His main publications are on Renaissance poetry (Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser) and contemporary American and Irish poetry. His three interviews with Göran Printz-Påhlson are included in the latter’s När jag var prins utav Arkadien (1995). He is a critic as well as a translator (among others Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Sir Philip Sidney, John Matthias, Paul Muldoon, and Les Murray). He lives in Lund


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