Editorial: The Swedish Army Knife by Robert Archambeau
Bring me back one of those Swedish Army knives, will ya? said the clerk at my local video store when I told him I was going to Sweden for a year. Maybe he was too busy ogling my late fees on the computer screen to pay much attention to what Id said, nevertheless I take his request as a symptom of our pervasive American provincialism, our sad ignorance of all things beyond our shores, especially things as remote as Scandinavia. A game of chess played against Death on a stark bit of beach, or Dancing Queen playing on the radio, or Vikings playing havoc with the occasional monastery. Blonde social democracy and sexually liberated au pairs. Angst. That about does it for the popular American image of Scandinavian culture.
One of the many things an editor cant do in sixteen broadsheet pages is survey the whole state of the art of Scandinavian poetry, which, after all, includes all the poets of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and, depending on how you divide your map, possibly Iceland and Finland. (The Scandinavians increasingly shy away from Scandinavia, by the way, preferring as more politically correct the term Nordic, a word that unfortunately brings the drone of the very un-Scandinavian Luftwaffe to some American ears). The selection of poets here makes no attempt to be representative, although it does cover several generations, a range of styles, and a number of countries. It includes no poetry published in Iceland or Norway, for example, and none of the writing of the immigrant communities that are becoming increasingly substantial in Sweden and Denmark. It is, instead, a collection of personal enthusiasms, which, it is hoped, will encourage readers to look further into the work being done by Scandinavian poets.
One notable feature of Scandinavian culture that we tend not to notice in America is that English has become a Scandinavian language, just as it has become an Indian and an African language. The degree and the universality of fluency in English are quite startling: when I read as part of the annual International Poetry Festival in Malmö, I was stunned not only at the turnout, huge by the standards of most American readings, but by the fact that no translator was required for poets reading in English. English is even a literary language for some Scandinavian poets. This issues poems by Anselm Hollo and Göran Printz-Påhlson, for example, were originally written in English, a language in which both poets have written extensively during their long residences in England and America. This bilingualism is not without hazard, though: Printz-Påhlson has, on occasion, been presented with English translations of Swedish translations of his English poems. Life imitates Borges.
If I had to generalize about the character of Scandinavian poetry in the last fifty years, I suppose the important name to start with would be that of the great Tomas Tranströmer who, along with Per Lagerkvist, established the dominant mode of poetry in Scandinavia: meditative, inward, quiet, serious, and unafraid of the important existential questions. This is the main tradition, the fruit of a culture that has grown for centuries from the Protestant faith in the quiet inner voice. While this is certainly the center of gravity, there are a number of poets whose orbit shoots them out into other spaces. Taking Printz-Påhlson again as an example, we can see in his poems in the present issue a concern with American pop cultures icons and energies that lies outside of the Tranströmer tradition. Scandinavian poetry is vast and contains multitudes one is tempted to work up a smorgasbord metaphor for it. The present selection can only invite readers to the feast.
Print more Russians! writes Nathaniel Tarn, sending in his subscription order on a postcard from Bhutan. While the current issue cant offer any poems from Russia, it does feature Masha Zavialovas essay on the Andrei Belyi Prize, awarded for innovative poetry in the Russian language. Many of you will remember Zavialovas report on the Genius Loci conferences in Moscow and St. Petersburg from Samizdat #2. Im glad to say that she will be our regular Russian correspondent, reporting on Russian poetry and its social contexts in a column that will alternate with reports by other hands from other parts of the world. These columns will collectively go by the name The Word From
the word as in news, and the word as in logos, the news that stays news.