Monday, March 24, 2008

Brief History of Swedish Poetry and avant-gardism

[Someone asked me if I could tell him about the history of Swedish poetry and its relationship to euro avantgardism and how Aase and I fit into this, so I wrote an incredibly reductive history:]

Some of this can be seen in an issue of Typo (an online journal) that I edited a while back. I will also send you a special issue of the journal 14 Hills that I edited a while back as well.

Basically, the most important figure for Swedish avant-gardist poetry was Edith Sodergran. She was actually Finland Swedish, but grew up in St Petersburg, and never even visited Sweden. She had the Russian influence, and then read a lot of French decadence/Baudelaire as a young woman, then she got TB and was sent to Switzerland to recuperate. In Switzerland she read Nietzsche and a whole slew of German Expressionist poets (and according to one scholar currently researching the matter, Emily Dickinson). She returned and wrote pretty outrageous poetry and that was the start of Modernism//avantgardism in Scandinavia. She died young in rural Finland after the Bolsheviks had ruined her family. There are a couple of books of her poetry in translation.

She led the way to Diktonius and Gunnar Bjorling, both heavily influenced by various European and Russian avantgardists (Mayakovsky etc) in the 1920s. [Note: these guys loved American poets Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, who they saw as American proletariat avant-gardists]. In the late 20s, Bjorling fell in love with a young Russian kid named Henry Parland, who helped Bjorling bring Dada to Swedish poetry. But Henry died at 22 and then Bjorling went on to have perhaps the most important avantgarde career in Scandinavian poetry, developing a very strange, erasure-based lyric.

At the same time, the French influence became pronounced. Gunnar Ekelof lived in Paris as a young man in the 1920s and brought Surrealism with him back and for about 30 years that was a big influence on Swedish poetry. It merged with a kind of Romantic nature poetry (result: Tomas Transtromer). Although I don't like this part of Swedish poetry, it did result in a continually strong influence of French literature, and in particular Surrealism.

In the early 1960s a revolutionary left wing movement -the New Simplicity - took over Swedish culture and remained in charge until the 1980s more or less. A lot of their stuff has been translated - Goran Sonnevi is the most important of them, still remains the most sort of canonical living Swedish poet. They were pretty intense. Very much anti-nature poetry, anti-surrealist. Their journals are full of Althusser and such, often more politics than poetry. As you can tell from the name, they were in certain dialogue with various avantgarde movements of political activism from the 1920s.

At the same time -mostly in the early 60s - there was a Concretist group of incredibly experimental, McLuhan-obsessed, LSD-dropping poets and artists. The most important one was Oyvind Fahlstrom. Some of his work has been translated because he became an internationally renowned artist in the 60s. He's been a big influence on my work. This group also included Ake Hodell, somewhat famous for his experimental music (Sonic Youth played on a tribute album). In the early part of the 60s they were part of the same "movement" as New Simplicity - gathered around Leif Nylen's journal Rondo. At this time, the "simplicity" had much to do with the French New Novel (Robbe-Grillet etc), but by mid-60s -when the journal ended - it had become Marxist, and move that intensified over the late 60s and early 70s. At some point around 1966, Lars Gustafsson - who later ended up in Austin, TX - declared Concretism dead for the normal reason: it was decadent, a-political, bourgeois experimentalism, pro-Americanism etc.

Concretism was really a very intermedia movement - Fahlstrom is more of an artist (happenings, games, paintings), Hodell an artist and experimental composer. It was also in touch with Rauschenberg and New Yorkers - largely through Fahlstrom (there's a Raymond Johnson collage named after Fahlstrom, Rauschenberg has constistenly been a big Fahlstrom supporter over the years) - and an interest in pop art - but as a politically radical phenomena (as Huyssen describes in After the Great Divide) - and actual pop art (Bob Dylan for example).

One of the great independent figures of the 60s was Gunnar Harding, who published Underground Poetry from the US (published in the late 60s), which introduced O'Hara, Ashbery and the Beats to Sweden, and that had a big influence on the 70s youth poetry. Harding is also an interesting poet in his own right; I once heard Ashbery read one of his poems, saying it was a favorite of his.

Also, during the 1960s Lars Noren - now internationally acclaimed playwright - wrote some amazing Surrealist/concretist books of poetry. Teenage genius. That whole bit. I like those books a lot. And they were a big influence on Aase and Johan Jonsson, another young Swedish poet I've translated.

Perhaps the most popular poet probably in Swedish history is Bruno K Oijer who wrote in the 70s, and he is a mercilessly, drammatical Surrealist - part bob dylan, part Rimbaud, part Breton. He was a big influence on my writings, but until recently the Swedish critics have dismissed him as a "beat"-imitator. Don't think he's been much translated (until the next issue of Action, Yes). But he had a huge cultural impact - performs with alterna rock groups like Kent in stadiums (still, in his 50s). Had a big influence on my favorite childhood band Imperiet, a kind of Weimar-ish synth band with decadent lyrics that was the big pop band in the 1980s. He's really uncool now (Jesper Olsson's is that he was simply too popular, in a mass-culture way, the way Ginsberg is uncool for the same reason).

In the 80s two really important women poets came around - Katarina Frostensson and Ann Jaderlund - part decadent, part surrealist-ish, part grotesque. Jaderlund in particular was big influence on Aase. In the late 80s there was the so-called "Ann Jaderlund Debates" - where the critical establishment (still Marxist) attacked her in all the big daily papers for her obscure hermeticism. She was just totally savaged. But then many young women poets defended her and that generation kind of grew out of the Jaderlund Debates. The 90s was a decade largely shaped by young women poets - including Aase.

Aase actually came out of a hard-line Surrealist group - THe Surrealist Group of Stockholm. They have a web site. They're very prominent in Surrealist circles internationally. But Aase left the group, primarily from what I gather because she didn't agree with the more violent aspects of their ideology etc. Because of this association, mostly Aase's work intitially drew from French Surrealism - Artaud, Bellmer, Michaux - not Swedish poetry at all. Also, Plath. And Eva-Kristina Olsson, a wonderful poet of the Jaderlund Generation, whose work has just gotten stranger and stranger. I'm a big fan of her work (my book Pilot is to some extent ripped off from her).

Later in the 90s she was influenced by the introduction of a bunch of American poets - Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe. They were introduced as part of OEI I think. OEI was a journal Jesper Olsson started, in large part inspired by having been a visiting grad student at SUNY Buffalo with Charles Bernstein and seeing all the activity among the grad students there. That journal has now become rather prominent - even receiveing a write-up in Art Forum the other month. It still has a fairly prominent American influence, but more on what can be seen as the neo-conceptualism of people like Kenny Goldsmith. Though I think the best description of it is a return to the pre-political New Simplicity, to Rondo.

My favorite poet of this crowd is Johan Jonsson, but he doesn't really entirely fit in squarely with OEI, even though they publish a lot of his books. Throughout the 90's he was part of a small avantgardist theater/performance group called Teatermaskinen, whose work was largely influence by Heiner Muller's "Hamletmachine" etc. His work - collected as "In the War Machine" - came out on a small small press throughout the 90s. Teatermaskinen put on these really obscene performances in northern Sweden, as well as conducting workshops in rural and working class schools (a big tradition in Sweden since the New Simplicity).

Aase "re-discovered" Johan when she was briefly in charge of the big literary journal BLM. Johan does have quite a bit in common with OEI and American poetry as well. When I was last in Stockholm he described to me how he had read Bruce Andrews using a dictionary. Sounds like the right way to do it. You can only wish that Americans would do the same to Johan's work. Fortunately they won't have to since a book of my translations are slated to be published this fall/winter.

Basically Sweden has gone through periods of incredibly cosmopolitanism and periods of intense insularity. That's the lot of a provincial country.


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