Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thomas Transtromer, New Simplicity and Swedish Poetry

I'm currently writing a review of Tomas Tranströmer's selected poems - The Great Enigma, translated by Robin Fulton, published by New Directions - so I thought I would say a word or two about Swedish poetry.

For those of you who may not have read Tranströmer's work, here's a beloved stanza from "Elegy" (1973):

I open door number two.
Friends! Your drank the darkness
and became visible.

I pick it as an example not only because it’s beautiful but also because it gives you a good idea of his brilliant us of metaphor. The magic of his metaphors - showing the somewhat clashing influence of both Surrealism and Swedish nature mysticism - is that they are strange but strangely not estranging.

Thus it is quite different from Surrealism ("I watch a door slam like the corsage of a flower..." - Breton). Another difference: In Benjamin's essay on Surrealism he argues that it doesn't follow the bourgeois paradigm of "contemplating" art. Well, Tranströmer is definitely all about contemplation (mysticism). Or to use Bernstein's paradigm: it's incredibly absorptive.

The info that comes with the book claims Tranströmer is "the most important Swedish poet." Here again is this interesting word "important." What does it mean? I see it on blurbs a lot. I may even have used it myself from time to time.

Perhaps it means influence? Well in that case, the statement is not correct. From what I can tell of Swedish poetry, Tranströmer is not very important at all. His collected poems top the bestseller lists when they are published, but as far as having an influence on the way people write in Sweden, he's not an important. (Though it may simply mean, he’s the most important Swedish poet in the US.)

In some ways his influence was isolated by the 1960s, when Swedish poets began to call for a politically engaged poetry. These poets recognized Tranströmer's brilliance (included him in anthologies and such), but did not follow his example, and at times criticized his lack of engagement.

The major poet of this generation is Göran Sonnevi. Here's an excerpts (translated by John Matthias and Göran Printz-Påhlson, Rika Lesser has wonderfully translated an entire book of his work, A Child is Not a Knife, and I included some of his recent poetry in my Swedish-issue of Typo a while back):

The war criminal McNamara
has now
left his post as
US Secretary of Defense, and instead
emerged as
President of the World Bank - in the cold
spring light of 1968
During the autumn
elections were held for
the UN organization
for world food supplies, FAO
After a long struggle
including political blackmail
against he candidate
of the poverty stricken countries
a European from Holland
was elected
thanks to Swedish support
and with the blessing of the US
The African candidate was unacceptable...

This something of an extreme case. He doesn't only detail political injustices, though it's a significant part of his ouevre ("a child is not a knife" is a beautiful poem protesting US imperialism in Central America).

Here's excerpts from a poem by Sonnevi's contemporary Göran Palm (same translators):

What's happening in the world, what do they say about me?
Calmly and with concentration I began to write an article
All the relations were cowering in the cupboard
Bloody typewriter
While I was eating it suddenly came to me just how logical positivism really hang together
A man came walkign by with sheets
A minibus goes racing through the hallway
Why don't I get anything done

A lot of what was written by this group of writers would actually fit in quite well with contemporary American poetry. Juliana Spahr's "This Connection of Everyone With Lungs" for example is very similar to Nyenkelheten, both in its persona (valiantly struggling in an alienating late capitalist world) and the stylistic juxtaposition of facts, newspaper headlines and poetic lines.

These poets have a lot of prominent descendants among the young poets in Sweden. Perhaps the best example of this is Lars Mikael Raattamaa. I wish I could find a copy of this one poem he wrote but I can't seem to locate it - the chorus was something like "Israel are murderers." Well here's an excerpt of a Ginsberg-homage about the US called “Muddy Water Taking Back the Sentence”:

:a few days toward the end of august 2005: america : america what have you done with my kidneys : they’ll come and pick us up : on Monday : do you believe in all of this : there are two americas : what have you done with my small intestine : america walks down the street : water is flowing : america is a utopia : not the soviet union : scientism is the symptom of the soviet union : america is utopism : brazil has a big comte quote on its flag : america : what have you done with my spleen :… the soviet union killed : america killed : what are we supposed to forget : america walks down the street : it’s so warm here : they’ll come and pick us up on monday… so what are we supposed to forget : the banishment of the volga-germans : the banishment of the five civilized tribes : trail of tears : the extermination of the Iroquois….

[rough translation by me]

These poets are also somewhat connected to the American Language poets, as some of them (not LMR) have studied at Buffalo. They also have done quite a bit of critical work on the Concretists and Öyvind Fahlstrom, about whom Marjorie Perloff is currently writing. In fact some of their work is quite obviously neo-concretist. Here are some examples of Concretism and its descendants:

I used to see a kind of opposition between Swedish concretism and the simplicity, but I have increasingly come to see that opposition as an exaggeration, that they were/are in fact much more similar than they are made out to be in the books of literary history. But more about that some other time. I've got to go. Mostly I wanted to mention this strand of Swedish poetry because it seems to have so much in common with a lot of contemporary American poetry. I’m going to run some errands but I’ll write a little more later on.

One last thing: I have ambivalent feelings about a lot of this poetry. The Swedish poetry I like best is a kind of neo-decadent strain – including Bruno K Öijer, Ann Jäderlund and Aase Berg, a poetry that seems more interestingly political than the New Simplicity with its often programmatic politics. Well, more about that some other time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this really interesting - what you say about Transtromer, and the context you put it in in terms of Swedish poetry.
The Swedish nature mysticism thing interests me. Is this an artistic, literary, philosophical, religious thing??

6:09 AM  
Blogger Michael Peverett said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Michael Peverett said...

This is great, write more of it please.

I somehow didn't expect you to like TT - he's an important poet to me, I find it interesting how difficult it is to write his kind of poem, I just can never come up with anything like that.

About reviews: Blogs and listservs ought to be good places for critical discussion but the discussion is often a letdown; not too many people have the knack of philosophising with a hammer. Of course I must still stand up for reviewing! I think John Latta made a good point yesterday about the pace of thinking:

"Problem of the overweening public-ness of the age: any “band of comprehenders” is immediately up-suck’d into the maw of the moment. No opportunity (impetus, inclination) to lay low in the hothouse of low-circulation ideas, there where letters accumulate. (Is anybody working out ideas today sub rosa, through some years of letters (think Olson / Creeley), in a postal zone and clime—that is, with a send-and-receive rhythm that allows that slow-ripening focus and cogitation? I doubt it.)"

I suppose when I'm writing a review I like to think of it as a slow letter.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Nature mysticism is a strain of Swedish poetry, probably going back to Romanticism. Some times it's more pronounced, as in Vilhelm Ekelund (early modernist poet) or Transtromer, but there's a touch of this in a lot of Swedish poetry.

Sonnevi is really a bad example of new simplicity because he writes a lot of nature-mystic poetry - not just poems about McNamara. And many of them are quite beautiful.

2:44 PM  

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