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Letters of Blood and other works in English

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Göran Printz-Påhlson

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Part Nine. The Tradition of Contemporary Swedish Poetry

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1‘…and what are poets for in a destitute time?’ was a question asked by Hölderlin in a famous elegy, a question which prompted one of Heidegger’s most penetrating late essays. Wozu Dichter [‘why poetry?’] is a question of perennial importance. ‘What are poets for in an affluent land?’ might be suggested as a possible emendation, perhaps more pertinent to our times and our culture, and in particular to a country like Sweden which has for many years suffered from a reputation (albeit largely unearned) for almost inhuman levels of social efficiency. It is somehow easier to accept that good poetry should arise from political upheaval and turbulence or from material privation than from the secure contentment of superb social engineering.

2It is nevertheless a commonplace of much longer standing that the most durable tradition of Swedish literature has been a predominantly lyrical one, and that consequently the subtleties of rhythm and imagery inherent in the genius of poetry have fared less well in translation than, let us say, the subtleties of thought and observation illuminating the high points of the literatures of the other Scandinavian countries—in Kierkegaard or Ibsen, for instance. This may come as a surprise to the casual observer who has been exposed in the news media to countless tales of the pragmatic and commonsensical nature of the Swedes.

3Whatever level of legitimacy one is willing to grant to national characteristics—and their unreliability is notorious—it is true that the conflict in the tradition of Swedish poetry between the practical and mundane on the one hand and the mystical and rhetorical on the other is as old as it is real—even for the poetry of the last twenty-five years. One is probably justified in tracing its origin back to the eighteenth century, to the paradoxical fusion of enlightenment, rationalism and otherworldly speculation in the religious genius of Emanuel Swedenborg and of empirical scientific observation and restless seeking after the divine order in the taxonomic genius of Linnaeus. The highest attainments in Swedish poetry—by which I do not mean only what is recognized formally as poetry—have always in some sense been achieved through such a fusion, in the romantic poetry of E. J. Stagnelius and C. J. L. Almqvist, in Strindberg or Gustaf Fröding and, in our century, in the poetry of Vilhelm Ekelund, Birger Sjöberg, Gunnar Ekelöf and Erik Lindegren. One must not forget that, in the highest poetic triumphs of all these somehow broken or divided geniuses, there is something paradoxical and perhaps ultimately self-defeating which is very different from the unrelenting logic inherent in the intellectual development of Kierkegaard or Ibsen.

4Accepting this fusion as the significant emblem of the genius of Swedish poetry—the mystic and the bureaucrat, the efficient engineers of images of transcendental dejection (internationally fashionable examples of figures cast in this mould are not uncommon: Dag Hammarskjöld and Ingmar Bergman come immediately to mind)—we must remember that the most prominent exponents of its tradition have been its victims rather than its exploiters. The relative poverty of this Swedish tradition merely exhibits an over-determined case; it is as much a result of contradictory impulses within itself, often causing irreparable damage to the cohesive powers of the mind or ego, as it is a reflection of the long economic indigence of the country. Hence also the frequent accusations levelled against Swedish literature (and art and film) for its indiscriminate predilections for gloom, madness and suicide. These result from the Swedish writer’s incomplete projection onto a problematic scene of international modernism, and are not to any noticeable degree typical of his image seen from a Swedish viewpoint. There he appears rather to be defending sanity and ‘realism’ against the onslaught of a world gone mad. Hence also the often-deplored suspiciousness in Sweden of those writers and artists who all too easily adapt themselves to the consumer demands of international art and culture. Quite misleadingly, this is often taken, at best, for insular provincialism, and, at worst, for plain old-fashioned envy (known idiomatically as the ‘Royal Swedish disease’). It is no doubt with a genuine feeling of relief that the critic Lars Bäckström remarks on the ‘lucky’ fact that the Swedes at the moment ‘do not yet have an author who is so exceedingly ‘multinationally’ well-adapted and trivially brilliant as Ingmar Bergman appears to be in his films.’ The mood of inward-looking self-sufficiency in this quotation may in its extreme wording be a fairly recent sign of disillusionment with the world cultural market, but it is still compatible with tendencies that have existed for a long time. In any case, it is a long cry from the avowed intentions of Strindberg to launch a ‘conquest of Paris’ and, from that vantage point, of world literature.

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5‘Modern’—‘contemporary’: the choice of terms is not exclusively a question of temporal sequence. Modern poetry and its derivative ‘modernist’ poetry have been with us since at least the latter half of the last century. In spite of the relatively venerable antiquity of modernism in its worldwide context, the phenomenon as a consolidated mode of experience or style is of fairly recent appearance in Sweden. Modernism on a broad basis came to that country, together with peace, prosperity, existentialism and the incipient cold war, just as ‘heresy, hops and beer’ to England in the old jingle, in ‘the very same year.’ This belated arrival of modernism is of the utmost importance for the formation of the Swedish poetry that we now regard as ‘contemporary.’ The ‘modernist breakthrough’—in contrast to Brandes’s ‘modern breakthrough’ in the 1870s and the 1880s—was an intensely compressed cultural event, taking place during a few years after World War II, in a period of auspicious publishing policies and economic optimism. Its coinciding with the social upheaval caused by the Social-Democratic reconstruction of Swedish society gave it a heroic aura and almost official sanction. Modernism became the language of poetry and literature: the ties with traditional forms and values were severed in a much more effective way than in countries where modernism had been a continuous process rather than an event.

6This may account for some of the peculiar, and to some observers unattractive, aspects of contemporary Swedish poetry. As modernism proved to be not so much a mode of experience as simply a temporal event, soon exhausted and remaining only as a paradigm of bravery and moral fortitude, so it had to be replaced by strategies, often much more ephemeral, borrowed from outside the indigenous traditions. Shifting and fashionable attitudinizing, journalistic glibness and media-oriented trendiness have an undeniable presence in post-war Swedish poetry. ‘Modernism’ is always in danger of being replaced by ‘modernity,’ and, as Paul de Man has shrewdly reminded us, it may be that literature (as a self-reflecting activity) and modernity are, in fact, incompatible concepts.

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7Even a reader who has some previous acquaintance with Swedish poetry may have difficulty in establishing points of reference in the flux of ideas and events that constitute its more recent history. The literary scene has been extremely diversified but at the same time more vulnerable to external influences than would be the case in a less self-conscious cultural environment. (One noticeable characteristic of the Swedish writer in recent years has been his professionalism: the organizational practice of the Swedish Writers’ Union (Författarförbundet) has served as a model for similar activities in other countries.)

8During the years from 1950 to 1980, one can discern at least two important shifts in the intellectual awareness of the Swedish poet. The opening up of the world that occurred with the end of the war, gaining increasing impetus during the affluent fifties, ultimately resulted in a disillusion with the very forces that had created it. The more intimate contact with other—and in particular non-European—cultures, facilitated by the increased opportunities for travel and by the ever-growing flow of information in the sophisticated reporting of foreign affairs in Swedish newspapers (tendencies which existed elsewhere in the fifties and sixties, but gained importance earlier in Sweden) established the Swedish author in an often unenviable role as a self-appointed intermediary or spokesman for the Third World. The global conscience of a small and still comparatively isolated nation may easily incur the scorn of countries which have had longer-lasting relations with the more remote parts of the world and may lay it open to accusations of smugness and holier-than-thou moralizing. It cannot be denied that breast-beating and exhibitionist self-lacerations have played their part in some of these manifestations. On the other hand, it created the opportunity not only for some brilliant journalism and painstaking documentaries, but also opened domains of poetry that could have been reached in no other way. Spanish, Latin-American and Francophone African poetry were introduced into Sweden and had an influence on Swedish poetry long before their impact was felt in America and England: the poems of Ingemar Leckius and, to some extent, Tomas Tranströmer bear witness to this.

9The Vietnam war and what was known in Sweden as the FNL movement (also known by the more derogatory term ‘Vietcong’) had, I believe, a deeper impact on intellectual life in Sweden than in some countries more obviously concerned with the war itself. The development of an international political consciousness seemed at the time at least to be a mass movement. The supreme example of the appeal to political conscience is found in Göran Sonnevi’s moving and subtle poetry that has had—considering its pure and uncompromising nature—an amazingly large following. His poem on the war in Vietnam created almost overnight a demand for this kind of poetry that has hardly diminished even though the situation has altered. His book of poetry, Det omöjliga (‘The Impossible,’ 1976) which runs to an impressive 431 pages, was chosen as Book of the Month and was printed in an initial edition of 10,000 copies.

10The main formal influences of the militancy of the FNL-years are not, however, found in poetry as strongly as in the activities of small independent theatre groups like Pistolteatern and many others, and in the hybrids of traditional fighting songs and rock lyrics among various left-wing splinter groups. The major shift of emphasis came with the 1969–70 LKAB miners strike. Interest turned, almost imperceptibly at first, from global injustices to the equally real but more closely observed shortcomings of the capitalist system in the nominally socialist Sweden. Social, environmental and ecological issues in politics have for a long time been a matter of concern to many Swedes. The test case for this second phase of political consciousness in Sweden came during the 1976 elections when the industrial use of nuclear power was one of the most important election issues. Although it apparently resulted in a victory for the abolitionists, die struggle still goes on. As a political movement this ‘ecosophical’ awareness is riddled with contradictions and internal antagonism: obviously, it is difficult to reconcile the demands for devolution of environmentally detrimental energy sources with equally legitimate demands for full employment.

11If this new awareness still seems to be struggling with its political persona, it has certainly proved to be very fertile in poetry. Göran Sonnevi again provided what seems to be the locus classicus of the political struggle against nuclear power in his poem ‘A mother stands in front...’ The more broadly ‘ecosophical’ issues are found especially in Gösta Friberg’s thoughtful and beautifully modulated poetry, for example in the global and interplanetary scenery of ‘The Growing.’ It is a tendency which is at the time of this writing, 1980, fast gaining in importance.

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