boundary 2 29.1 (2002) 15-17

Gunnar Björling:
Poetics and Poetry

An Introduction by Fredrik Hertzberg

Gunnar Björling (1887–1960) was arguably the most radical Finland-Swedish modernist poet, yet he was also, in some ways, the one who adhered most to the poetic tradition. Born in Helsinki, Björling studied philosophy, struggling to find an outlook on life that could carry him through it. After working briefly as a schoolteacher, he began writing poetry full-time, living a life more or less in poverty in a Helsinki basement overlooking the sea. Björling was an outcast partly on account of his homosexuality, the practice of which was legally a crime throughout his lifetime. Though his poetry was seen as obscure and incomprehensible by the general public, he had many friends and supporters, not least a number of younger poets and other [End Page 15] artists from all over Scandinavia, some of whom regularly visited him in his basement.

Björling's debut, Vilande dag (Resting day), a book of prose poems and aphorisms, was published in 1922. He published another twenty books of poetry, the last one, Du går de ord (You go the words), in 1955. At one point, in the late twenties, he labeled his poetry "Universalistic Dada-Individualism," and from the early thirties elaborated a poetic practice sometimes referred to as "leaving out parts of sentences," or "breaking up the syntax." Bengt Holmqvist's account, from a 1949 introduction to Björling's poetry, is more nuanced: "On the whole, it seems as if Björling's sensitivity for words is mainly of a different kind than that which is achieved by a style based on effects created by images. He has realized this himself, when over the years he has increasingly restricted his images and instead directed his efforts at liberating the syntax itself from the schemes of everyday language. In this lies his great and innovative achievement." 1

At the same time, the everyday—or, as Björling might have put it, the "day"—and everyday language are at the center of his poetic project. (A recent study of his poetry, written by Anders Olsson, is characteristically titled Att skriva dagen [To write the day].) As for many other modern poets, language, for Björling, constitutes the poetic medium. What sets him apart is his technique of using only the most ordinary words, insisting that "my language is not in the words." There is in his poetry a skepticism of language—the despair that "each explanation is delimiting closuring, each word leads astray"—paired with a struggle against skepticism and a strong faith in language, which makes reading it an extraordinary experience.

I have prefaced my translations of Björling's poems with a few selections of poetics, taken from various sources. The first two quotes are from a 1928 essay called "Universalism," the third from a 1947 essay called "Min skrift—lyrik?" (My writing—poetry?), the fourth is from the 1934 collection Fågel badar snart i vattnen (Bird bathes soon in the waters), and the last one from a contribution to the Finland-Swedish modernist periodical Quosego. The poems are taken from the following collections (the numbering is my own): 1, 7, and 17: Luft är och ljus (Air is and light) (1946); 2, 3, 18, 19, and 20: Du går de ord (You go the words) (1955); 4 and 5: Där jag vet att du (Where I know that you) (1938); 6: Att i sitt öga (That in one's eye) (1954); 8 and 12: Ett blyersstreck (A pencilstroke) (1951); 9: Korset och Löftet (The cross and the [End Page 16] vow) (1925); 10: Kiri-ra! (1930); 11: Ord och att ej annat (Words and that not other) (1945); 13: Vårt kattliv timmar (Our catlife hours) (1949); 14: Solgrönt (Sungreen) (1933); 15 and 16: Ohört blott (Unheard merely) (1946).

Finally, a few words on my approach to the translation of the poems. Since Björling's poetry resists a smooth syntax and constructs its music through such resistance, I have chosen to bring out this angular, material aspect of the text, thereby perhaps occasionally exaggerating its "foreignness." What appears strange in the Swedish original may easily become even stranger in English, but this should perhaps be seen as an opportunity rather than a drawback. Philip Lewis, in coining the term "abusive fidelity," advocates a fidelity to the abuse of the original text, that is, to its abuse of conventional forms and language. Amplifying the foreign aspects of the original serves to refresh its (time-worn) material opacity. What has guided my hyperliteralism here is the thought that Björling's poetry should be taken on its own terms, by attending to its textual conditions rather than explaining the poetry or making it (seem) easier to digest.

Fredrik Hertzberg has a Ph.D. from the poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He is working toward the F.D. in comparative literature at Äbo Akademi University in Finland. His most recent publication (a collaboration) is Pappaboken (Dad's book, 2001). He has taught for several years in the Department of Comparative Literature at Äbo Akademi and reviews books for the main Finland-Swedish newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet.


The work of Gunnar Björling is printed with permission of Finlands Svenska Författare-fšrening – Society of Swedish Authors in Finland. The Society of Swedish Authors in Finland (FSF),founded in 1919, is the central organization of Swedish-language writers in Finland. It is a professional union of Þction writers and essayists. The purpose of FSF is to safeguard the interests of the Swedish-language writers in Finland and to promote Swedish-language literature in Finland. The number of members is 186.

1. Bengt Holmqvist, Kritiska ögonblick: Essäer, artiklar 1946–1986 (Critical moments: Essays, articles, 1946–1986) (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1987), 133.