Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Robert Archambeau's Swedish Poetry and my Childhood

Here is Robert Archambeau's review of Fredrik Nyberg and Lars Gustafsson in the Boston Review.

Here is John Gallaher's response to that review.

I think this is a pretty good review. I think for example that he picks up on the similarities of these two books that in Sweden would be considered radically different.

There are a few things I would say about it. The primary being a pretty obvious one: Bob wrote on his blog that his review told "Everything you ever wanted to know about Swedish poetry" or something like that. And that's not true, even if it is written as a joke. Pick any two books (one by an older poet like Merwin or Louise Gluck and one by a younger poet like Christian Hawkey) and try to make those representative of American poetry. Gustafsson has very little to do with Swedish poetry right now. He's an old Merwin-like character.

Secondly, I would say that there are a lot of connections between Swedish and American literature. However, I think 1) we should resist the temptation to turn everything into just another version of our own literature and 2) these are not mere parallels, it's a similarity that has a history.

What I mean is that if Gustafsson reminds Bob of American poetry, it might be because he indeed lived and taught in America for a long time (and was never all that typical of a Swedish poet). More interestingly perhaps, Nyberg is a part of the journal/press OEI, an organization that was to a large extent created by Jesper Olsson, who studied at SUNY Buffalo with Bernstein, and who received a lot of support from Bernstein when Jesper returned to Sweden and set up the press. As Archambeau notes, there is an influence of American poetry on Nyberg's work.

One little correction: Gustafsson is not exactly Tranströmer's generation. Tranströmer made his debut as a very brilliant, very young poet in the 50s as part of a very Romantic-Surrealistic-influenced generation of poets. Gustafsson didn't really come around until the 60s, as a part of a generation that was not, as Bob claims, mostly Sartre-reading and Bergman-watching. This generation in Swedish literature (and art) was highly politicized in a very linguistic-turn way. There was a lot of discussion about the politics of language etc in the journals from this era. It's basically all they talk about. Gustafsson was the editor of BLM, perhaps the biggest literary journal in Sweden, and in the late 60s he had special issues dedicated to Althusser and Foucault.

The dominant aesthetic that came out of that era was "Nyenkelheten" ("New Simplicity"), which started out as an approximation of the New Novel in France but which soon led to a discussion of the politics of representation and language. Gustafsson's poetry is not that representative of this generation and he was always it seems a slightly odd character with one foot in the academy and one foot in this radical upheaval.

And the radicalness of early Simplicity soon became just a boring morass of self-reighteous/Marxist quietism. (See Par Backstrom's article about the reception of Bruno K Oijer in Action, Yes.). For the best example of the radical early Simplicity you can read the journal Rondo (1961-65)if you have access to a Swedish library and Rika Lesser's translation of Goran Sonnevi's early work if you do not (a lot of anti-US pieces, his most famous poem is an anti-Vietnam War poem that doubles back on Sweden).

This is also the cultural moment that spawned Swedish progg rock and various theatrical spectacles toured the country to raise class consciousness. For exampel National Teatern:

The editor of Rondo started a rock band called Bla Taget. Here's their critique of the capitalist nature of the welfare state:

In the 60s and 70s Tranströmer was frequently criticized, not for not being "human" enough, but for being too humanist and not political enough, and for being escapist (see entry below for more about this sort of thing). A critique that includes both linguistic-turn criticism of the political nature of language and the kind of more direct criticicsm that was leveled against Ashbery during the Vietnam War protests in the US.

Swedish culture during this time was very political and very leftist. And Culture gained a much more powerful political role than I think it did in the US. In part because the art was far more propagandistic while still being popular. When I was a kid we listened to Nationalteatern's children's record "The Island of the Robber King" and went to anti-nuclear puppet theaters and such. My family would go to parties where famous leftist artists and singers would sing their leftist songs. For example, these guys (the song is called "The People's Struggle is The People's Hope" it's from a pro-ANC concert in the 80s):

This New Simplicity also seems to have turned really Quietist in the 70s (while still being populist/Marxist/engaged). I'm not sure what happened there, but the poetry becomes not as good anymore.

The anarchist who lived in a shedd in our backyard for example was very pleased when Vi (a kind of leftwing, mainstream, cheesy lifestyle magazine) published a poem he wrote about me called "The Little Anarchist" (because my parents believed children should be allowed to do whatever they wanted I would always dress in weird clothes and wear boots in the middle of summer etc).

Archambeau's connection of Gustafsson and Nyberg is very relevant because what OEI has largely done is to go back and read the early more radical New Simplicity (and Concretism) through a Bernstein-influenced critical framework. For example Jesper's thesis (which then became a book) on Fahlstrom and Concretism makes extensive use of Bernstein to read poets that were writing decades before Bernstein's articles. The results are pretty good but a bit Americanizing (ie he sometimes turns them too much into contemporary American poets and looses their particularity). Johan Jonson's poetry (buy Collobert Orbital at SPD) is perhaps the best example of someone who's gone back to this radical root of the New Simplicity creatively(and Collobert Orbital was published by OEI).

So anyway it's a good review, but perhaps this adds a bit more nuance to the claims Bob makes.


Blogger Archambeau said...

A pleasure to be schooled on this. I bow to your superior firepower!


2:23 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No no no... this isn't meant to be that kind of post. Think of it as an addition to your review.


5:04 PM  

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