boundary 2 29.1 (2002) 35-45

Five Poets of the Nineties

An Introduction by Anders Lundberg and Jesper Olsson

Cracks in the Consensual Hallucination:
Swedish Poetry at the Turn of the Millennium

What is the poetry of the 1990s? Rarely has the zeitgeist of poetry been as invisible as now, wrote a critic in a major Swedish newspaper in 1998. It was a valid question, since the poetry in Sweden at that time—at least compared with the by then prevalent ideas of poetry from earlier decades—seemed heterogeneous and in lack of a dominating poetics. But the question also discloses a logic that seems to regulate the conditions of poetry in a minor language such as Swedish. The possibility of different coexisting poetry-cultures is limited. It is more accurate to talk about a continual movement between opposition and normalization (usually identified with the succession of new generations and decades), a movement that has tended to be a very clear-cut and easily discernible process. Of course, changes take place, but for each separate period a hallucination of consensus is established. Everyone—publishers, poets, critics, readers—seems to be very much in agreement about what poetry is, can, and should be. This is due to the fact that the poetical infrastructure is highly restricted. On the [End Page 35] whole, one could say that it consists of one or two big publishing houses and a handful of papers and magazines. That all the poets introduced here are published by the same publisher (Bonniers) is, then, not a sign of bias on our part but a symptom of this hegemony in Swedish poetry culture. Other stages (small presses, magazines, e-zines, and the like) are rare and are not really considered an effective alternative. And in contrast with the United States, for example, poets rarely hold any positions at universities—the first and so far only university-based creative writing program in Sweden was established just a few years ago. All of this, of course, has to do with tradition and leads to a situation where you have to join the only poetry game in town or perish. No alternative routes are open. And in general, everybody, poets as well as critics, seems to be satisfied with this condition. Now and then, stirrings take place, but with a few exceptions, everyone's idea of poetry seems to gravitate around one specific center. This doesn't mean that no interesting poetry is published. And poetry does still play a prominent role at the cultural sections of the daily papers—actually, almost all new poetry is reviewed! But innovative or challenging forms (and typically all kinds of Web-based poetry and poetics) are sparse, or even nonexistent.

Causes and effects are not the issue here, but it's no surprise that among Swedish critics as well as poets the conceptions of poetry since romanticism have mostly been grounded in a tradition of lyric poetry. The supposed characteristics of an expressive lyrical I (sometimes posing as a we), such as intimacy, voice, and personal tone, are highly valorized. Intimacy, identification, and recognition are the favorite tropes or figureheads of reading and writing poetry. Consequently, everything that implies distance, play, or even humor is regarded as somewhat suspicious. Form must be subordinated to content and thematics and has to be harmoniously in sync with this subject or I that is the poem's ultimate reference. Musicality and well-crafted, coherent metaphorics is good; dissonance, noise, and formal awkwardness is bad. To put it crudely. The best example of this is perhaps the fate of Swedish concrete poetry in the 1960s. It was intensely discussed for a couple of years but in the end had to be put aside as an anomaly or at best as an interesting but unproductive dead end.

Another important aspect of this poetics is the intimate link between the lyricist line and the extremely influential tradition of nature poetry in Sweden. Swedish postromantic poetry has almost always had an eye for the beautiful landscapes of the countryside. And just as nature is a kind of imagined reservoir of authenticity in contemporary society, and a threatened area as well, poetry is considered a last resort for true personal feelings and [End Page 36] thought, a holy place not to be stained by anything that smacks of artifice. It is worth considering, in this context, that even the most formally radical poet in early Swedish modernism, Gunnar Bj–rling, had no trouble mediating between this solid tradition and his own disruptive poetics. Dada in nature. Why not?

The history of Swedish literary modernism has been written before, but a few remarks are worth making here, as it most certainly has an impact on poetry today. The first modernist displacements of poetic discourse actually took place in the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. In the poetry of Edith S–dergran in the mid 1910s, influences of German expressionism were perceptible, and some ten years later, both futurism and dada infiltrated the poetics of such poets and writers as Bj–rling and Henry Parland. With the Swedish translation of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land in the early 1930s, and with the orientation toward French postsymbolist poetry and surrealism in such writers as Gunnar Ekelöf and Artur Lundkvist, the ground was laid for a modernist breakthrough in the years of the Second World War. Contemporaneous with a literature that dealt explicitly with the political situation, a massive introduction of modernist poetry and prose emerged. Translations proliferated and varying writing practices related to early French and Anglo-American modernism were integrated into the works of such Swedish writers as Erik Lindegren and Karl Vennberg. Even though some poetry was accused of being incomprehensible (and actually caused a debate on the hermetic poetic language of modernism), a certain form of high modernism turned into literary doxa during this period.

When a new generation was formed in the early 1950s, a backlash took place: The only way to transgress the supposed radicality of an earlier generation was through restoration. This being a kind of textbook cliché, it is necessary to point out some exceptions. In certain underground circles, the introduction of modernism was intensified. The French connection was expanded to include such names as the Marquis de Sade, Comte de Lautréamont, Antonin Artaud, and Henri Michaux. The first readings and translations of Gertrude Stein's poetry appeared. And not until now was the relationship to futurism and dada more extensively elaborated. Worth mentioning, too, is the manifesto of concrete poetry, "Hipy Papy Bthuthdth Thuthda Bthuthdy" (1954) (the title from A. A. Milne's books about Winnie the Pooh), by the poet-artist ÷yvind Fahlstr–m, and the writings of the Estonian-Swedish poet-critic Ilmar Laaban. The contemporary reception of their work was, however, nonexistent. Its effects weren't to become visible until the next decade. [End Page 37]

Despite this integration of modernist writing practices into Swedish poetry, radical linguistic experiments were rare. With the exception of Gunnar Ekelöf's debut sent på jorden (Late on earth) from 1932 (and some of his later nonsensical verse) and the extremely disruptive syntax and elliptical poetry of Björling in some of his collections from the late 1930s and onward, the explorations of the twilight zones of language were yet to come. In the beginning of the 1960s, an opposition against the symbolist and romantic brands of modernism was formed. This opposition took two different, but not completely unrelated, directions. To reduce them to their designations: new simplicity and concretism. Poets from both camps wanted to open up poetry to linguistic forms and practices that had been neglected by earlier poetry. While the new simplicity explored the forms of everyday language and natural speech, concrete poets such as Bengt Emil Johnson, Jarl Hammarberg, and Åke Hodell turned their interest toward radical artifice. Later in the 1960s, when the political engagement became imperative, aesthetic radicality had to be subdued. This was the choice of popular realism that put its mark on the poetry of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s—with some brilliant exceptions, such as Lars Norén and Erik Beckman.

If discussions of form were anathema during the 1970s, they became the talk of the town in the 1980s. The need for poetological reflections was urgent. And through the work of some young critics and scholars, an intellectualization of poetry and criticism occurred. Poststructuralism, deconstruction, and hermeneutics coalesced and formed a new frontier, but it was a rather specific version of this mix that was established. If the formally innovative poetry of the early 1960s had something in common with the politicizing of poetry in the late 1960s and the 1970s, it was the interest in what one might call a minor literature. The investigations of the liminal zones of writing (in concrete poetry and text-sound compositions, for example), as well as the ideas of a "democratization" of poetry from a class perspective. Both indicated a certain displacement of a romantic and high modernist canon. The theoretically informed discussions of form in the 1980s tended, however, first and foremost, to reestablish such a canon. It was very much a continuation of romanticism through other means. Not surprisingly, Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Celan became a center of gravity for poets as well as critics. And, not surprisingly, there was a renewed interest in a select group of early Swedish modernists, such as Ekelöf and Björling, who lent themselves to the reading models in vogue.

This development proved extremely productive for poetry as well as for criticism and not the least for the interchange between them. Many [End Page 38] cogent poets entered the stage in these years, such as Stig Larsson, Katarina Frostenson, Ann Jäderlund, and Ulf Eriksson. But today, it seems as if it was the opening of the field of theoretical reflections that was the most important legacy of the 1980s and the restricted canon that was promulgated, although it proved to be fruitful at a certain moment, soon became a kind of straitjacket. And it is in this vacuum, in the paralyzing shadow of a select group of poets from Pindar to Celan, that the poetry of the 1990s has developed, and it is here one can find the roots to the low voice and the unobtrusiveness that has characterized much of Swedish poetry from these years.

Stig Larsson (b. 1955) made his literary debut with the novel Autisterna (The autists) in 1979. By then he had already founded the magazine Kris, which was to become the most influential theoretical venue for a new generation of writers and critics. Larsson's first collection of poetry, Minuterna före blicken (The minutes before the gaze) was published two years later, and since then he has published another fifteen books of poetry. Besides poetry he has written novels, plays, and screenplays, and has also directed two films. Even though his position is controversial, to say the least, he is no doubt one of the most influential Swedish poets since the 1960s. As the enfant terrible of contemporary Swedish literature, he has, through his writings and through innumerable provoking moves in mass media, annoyed fellow writers and critics as well as the public. Larsson's writing is characterized by an extreme sensitivity for styles or manners of writing, and is marked by a continuous effort to avoid getting stuck in a recognizable form. As soon as a style is discernible or possible to identify, it must be erased, and the writing must find new paths. Another decisive and related trait has been the figure of mania that is explicitly staged in the poem "Mania" from 1987, a poem that ends, "It seems as if I'm writing down everything that comes into my mind. Am I? Help!" The poem discloses a conception of writing as a flow of words or linguistic matter, beyond the control of the writing subject. The result is a double movement, combining a manic, overstrung, expansive, and exorbitant writing, incessantly transgressing the norms of what is appropriate and suitable for poetry, with a relentless probing into the style and the mode of writing. The ostentatious, verbose, and awkward babbling exposes an acute sensitivity to the valors and tones of spoken language. But while this may appear as a natural speech, it is everything but natural. Maybe it is more accurately designated as a "hyper-speech," as an artificial elaboration of the idiosyncrasies and oddities manifesting "the strangeness of the ordinary." What is at stake is an expansion of poetry toward its [End Page 39] other. It is a poetry at war with the smooth surface, one that dares (or even seeks) failure and doesn't try to cover up the errors and delusions occurring in the process of writing. In this sense, it can be described as an antipoetics. As a consequence, Larsson's pursuit to escape the refinement of poetry has, through the 1990s, led him to venture writing "bad" (a project explicitly focused in the poem "Distress or a deaf," from Natta de mina [Tuck one's own to the night], translated here). As a logical consequence of this project, Larsson, in 1995, declared that he had stopped writing poetry. Since then, he has published four books of "poetry" concerned primarily with biographical material and displaying an explicit intention of writing the authentic—the truth—as opposed to fiction. This is, of course, not to be confused with a naïve and unreflected truth telling. If anything, Larsson's poetry went even further into a labyrinthine performative reflection, a "hyper-reflection" on the workings of the text, staged as preemptive and strategic manipulations of the reader's reactions and expectations. The text becomes a laminar flow of digressions and metareflections, of voices and textual levels, making it fraudulent to decide one fundamental level or voice.

Ann Jäderlund (b. 1955) published her first book of poetry, Vimpelstaden (The streamer city), in 1985 and has since published another five collections of poetry as well as a children's book. In her debut, Jäderlund quoted a passage from Wittgenstein, and this has been evoked as well as disavowed by critics ever since. But there are reasons to acknowledge this reference. In relation to the Wittgensteinian poetics in late twentieth-century American poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has discussed in her Wittgenstein's Ladder (1996), one can propose that Jäderlund, in her elaborated play with grammar and syntax, uses a similar strategy of estrangement to displace some of the foundations of the lyrical tradition sketched above. Not the least in her first book, one can perceive a subtle and perhaps "Wittgensteinian" critique of the supposed alliance between linguistic meaning, subjective inwardness, and lyrical expressiveness. When Jäderlund's second collection of poetry, Som en gång varit äng (As once was a meadow), came out in 1988, it caused an intense and in part virulent debate. The starting point was an accusation of incomprehensibility, which led to a divide between more conservative male critics and a younger generation informed by postmodernist theory. Her poetry was considered by some of the latter as an example of "écriture feminine." Even if this debate proved to be productive for young women poets, it also led to some reductive and stabilizing interpretations of Jäderlund's poetry. Som en gång varit äng showed emphatically how she was engaged in a critical scrutiny of a Swedish tradition of romantic lyric [End Page 40] poetry, especially the conventions and mechanisms of nature poetry and love poetry. By using a small vocabulary of poetically and erotically charged words, where shifters and fillers are almost completely abandoned, and by substituting syntactical and grammatical patterns for rhythmic and sonorous constellations, her poetry stages an ironic pastiche of the expressive subject as well as the animated landscape of the nature lyric. The poems show almost no traces of localizing markers, of signatures and dates. Inwardness and emotions are replaced by a flat economy of words, where established patterns of meaning begin to move and float in different directions. Through cuttings and patchings-together of words, visually acute and artifactual neologisms are formed (see, for example, the translated poems from Snart går jag i sommaren ut [Soon in the summer I walk out] from 1990). Jäderlund's treatment of language as sensual matter, her tasting of words and their sound and sense, does often echo nursery rhymes and the child's play with words as well as the permutations of concrete poetry. In her later poetry, she has intensified, even more, the exploration of rhythmic figures and the possibilities of working with reduced verbal material, which is obvious in her sixth and latest collection, Kalender röd (Calendar red) (2000).

If Stig Larsson and Ann Jäderlund have become established as major figures of the contemporary scene in Sweden, Jörgen Gassilewski (b. 1961) is still considered by some critics as a kind of poetry prankster. Since his debut with Du (You) in 1987, he has proven to be a far more heterogeneous poet than the others presented here. His first collections bore traces of John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath and exhibited an active use and disfiguration of established modernist poetical forms. But in the same way as Stig Larsson has engaged in an exploration of hyper-speech, Gassilewski has, during the second half of the 1990s, moved toward similar, but much more strict and artificial, investigations of everyday language. In his later poetry, his background as a conceptual artist has become more visible, and he is also one of a few poets today who has explicitly acknowledged the legacy of the concrete poetry of the 1960s. This is shown in his pleasurable play with sound similarities and permutational techniques. In his poems, he subtly works with disturbances and noise on different levels of the text and produces dislocations and abrupt changes of perspective. Shifts in scale and in focus, as well as borderline clashes between different contexts or motifs, can also be put forward as important devices in his poems. Even though the poem translated here, from the collection portarnas bilder (The images of the gates) (1999), is a kind of strained artificial tailing of the workings of [End Page 41] a "natural speech," he often elaborates a more radical parataxis, and the visual arrangement is always an integral aspect of his poetry. The materialistic stance in his work does, however, go far beyond a mere formalistic approach and is informed by an acute awareness of temporality, mortality, and bodily decay.

"Poetry comes rather from the hand than from the mouth. A way of breathing offers a way of writing, a syntax—that is cultivated into a personal language-forming: a form . . . Through the labor of the hand appears this new body of text, that is thrown back to me from the sheet of paper like an unknown other." Thus writes Helena Eriksson (b. 1962) in the introduction to an anthology of poetry of the 1990s, published in 1998. Eriksson's first book of poetry, En byggnad åt mig (A building for me) (1990), as well as the second one published two years later, was marked by a visionary or orphic stance that could be traced back to a postromantic tradition from Arthur Rimbaud and surrealism. This modernist current had a strong renaissance in the Danish poetry of the 1980s, which most certainly attracted Eriksson at that time. From the mid-1990s, however, her poetry has made a decisive turn toward more reductive and minimalist forms, a reduction of the romantic lyrical imagery, that first and foremost has been staged as a turning away from the symbol and the metaphor, no doubt informed by her readings and translations of contemporary French poetry, above all Anne-Marie Albiach. This reduction has since then been driven further and further until all that is left of the imagery is some fragments of archetypal and mythic figures and attributes, Gothic and exotic kitsch and knick-knack, which creates ironic edges when combined with the harsh and austere forms. Eriksson's method seems to be based on the cut, on graphic, rhythmic, and syntactical caesuras. Her poems discard musicality in a traditional sense and disclose a distrust of every form of poetic beauty. The linguistic cuts in her texts create edges or joints, awkward and idiosyncratic encounters between minimalistic parts and more talkative passages. Her poems often appear as silhouettes and set pieces, where the significance of the white spaces, the cutouts, the voids, or the blanks is insistent and carries a crucial charge. Instead of narrative forms or metaphors, her texts are open compositions organized through graphic constellations and acoustic figures, where the word's position on the page is as important as its semantic coordination. A consistent theme in her work is related to the threat against the vulnerable body, an imminent violence. One could characterize Eriksson's poetry as an austere and fierce sensualism.

The first book of Lars Mikael Raattamaa (b. 1964), Ur krakars gäld [End Page 42] (From the debt of the wretched), was hardly noticed by the critics when it appeared in 1989. Last year, when he published his fourth collection of poetry, Helgonlegenderna: väv (The legends of saints: Texture), it was the most critically acclaimed book of poetry that year. If his early poetry showed marks of a certain modernist melancholy, his two latest books exhibit an acute receptivity and openness toward all kinds of texts and technologies that regulate the machinery of contemporary society—a tendency that is continued in the poems published recently in the magazine Ord&Bild. Last year, Raattamaa presented a short poetics statement in the largest daily paper in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter, where he dismissed the idea of poetry as a dialogue and instead proposed the idea of poeisis as an investigation into what cannot be contained in the dialogue's work of reducing alterity and oddity. Instead, poetry can drift toward social, cultural, and linguistic noise, and thereby evoke the strangeness of the ordinary. The poetry of Raattamaa is also aware of the political implications of poetical forms and juxtaposes the flow of modern information society with patterns transposed from traditional forms of verse. Different materializing linguistic operations and sampling are used in pursuit of a writing that can respond to and serve as a critique of today's culture. As a professional architect, his interest in urban spaces has also informed his writing. The geopolitical borderlines, centers, and peripheries of today are inscribed and "exscribed" in his texts. Names and dates are accumulated, and the city and the suburban ghettos of Stockholm, as well as the conflicts in the Balkans and in the Middle East, are constantly invoked. These markings do, however, transgress every mimetic procedure and produce alternative poetical geographies constituting lines of flight, de-territorializations of hierarchies and center-periphery relations that are taken for granted and reproduced by the images and stories of corporate mass media. But Raattamaa's poetry is also interfoliated with a manifold of different modes, pitches, and textures clearly displayed in the poem translated here, "The Children That Float," where matter-of-fact observations are torqued and mixed with sublime exclamations, mockery, and bathos. In Helgonlegenderna: väv, meditative reflections, narratives, and suggestive, rhyming lullaby-like poems produce counterpoints or relief effects in a political body of poetry.

The selection of poetry presented here can be considered, then, as both representative and unrepresentative of Swedish contemporary poetry. Representative, since all five poets are considered today by most critics and readers in general as important, even though controversial for some. Unrepresentative, since they all seem to distance themselves in different [End Page 43] ways from the central lyrical tradition evoked in the beginning of our introduction and which still holds a firm grip on most poetry published today. Maybe distance is the wrong word. One could say, rather, that they have established an active and problematizing relationship to this tradition. Through a variety of techniques and modes of writing, they all reflect on its logic, its constitutive elements and structures, and try to de- and rework these modes and techniques from the vantage point of the present. The lyrical I, as well as the forms of narration, perception, expression, and representation, is scrutinized and recast in five different ways by these five very different poets. These are not the only poets in Sweden responding to these concerns. At least two other interesting poets deserve to be mentioned. Camilla Hammarström, who started out in the early 1980s with a poetry influenced by Stein and who has explored both the visual aspects of writing as well as the poetic potentials of everyday speech; and Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson, who, more insistently than any other poet in Sweden today, has invested in a parasitical practice of poetry, where sampling, collage, and translation serve as the driving forces of innovation.

A common denominator for all of these poets is an interest in the complex materiality of poetic language and culture and a calling into question of the dogma that certain ways of writing are "natural" or "authentic." By exploring the physicality of the word as well as its traces of social use and history, their poetry dissolves this dogma and opens up new possibilities to think the relationship between language and the world. Poetry has always been characterized by materializing operations transgressing the necessary conditions for informational exchange. But it is nevertheless important to remember Wittgenstein's dictum, that poetry, even though it is written in the language of information, does not partake in the language-game of information. The domain for poetical enactment cannot primarily be the poem's subject matter. Rather, it seems as if the only way for poetry to act, to create an agency that reaches outside of poetry and interacts with culture and society without leaving poetry altogether, is to work on and with poetry's material means—perhaps in the same way that contemporary visual art has multiplied its material means. And in a culture where the global media tend to "naturalize" and recuperate every linguistic and aesthetic representation, and where new (digital) technologies repress their own technicity in fantasies of immediacy, there seems to be a place for a poetic materialism.

In the last years there have been several debates or attempts to discuss the situation of Swedish poetry in this media culture of today. One recurrent theme has been the marginalization of poetry. Although this is obviously [End Page 44] a return of the apocalyptic figure of "crisis," which is an immanent movement of thought in the writing of contemporary history, it may also indicate a change in the infrastructure of Swedish poetry sketched above. Given the globalization and transformations of media at large, it is difficult to see why the infrastructure of poetry should remain intact. There are also signs of such a change worth considering. One can mention the growing interest in public poetry readings in Sweden during the last ten years. If this started on the fringes, in the forms of poetry slam, spoken word, and other related phenomena, it has by now infiltrated the "major" scene. One can also note that some small presses and poetry magazines exploring and introducing other forms of writing have appeared (for example, Lejd, OEI). And even though lamentations can be heard, these are changes that might not be so bad.

Anders Lundberg is a translator and critic, as well as an editor of the poetry magazine OEI. Presently, he is a doctoral student in literature at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. In 1998–1999, he was a poetics program fellow at SUNY–Buffalo.

Jesper Olsson is a critic and translator, as well as an editor of the poetry magazine OEI. Currently, he is completing his doctorate at Stockholm University, where he is writing a thesis on Swedish concrete poetry. In 1998–1999, he was a poetics program fellow at SUNY–Buffalo.