Friday, October 31, 2008

The Pocket-friendly Emily Dickinson

This is a handsome little book I bought about a year ago at Norli in Oslo, Norway. It is about 10X15 cm, and fits nicely in my handbag. I literally carry it with me wherever I go.

During train rides, or when sitting at my desk reading and writing notes and dissertations, I often pick this volume up for a break from what I am doing and for some creative input.

You can open this book on any page; originality and depth and striking metaphors will hit your eye in each poem here selected. Most of these poems are from around 1862 when Dicinson was in her most productive and literary interesting period.

Sometimes you just need a bit of comfort, or a sense of kinship, or you simply wish to be astonished by someone's imagination and perceptability, depth of insight and originality of thought.

Yesterday this poem was a gift of comfort to me. No need to say anything about the poem, it speaks for itself.


There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — upon it —
As one within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone.


Ca 1862

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Olav H. Hauge: "Your Way"

After having spent many days listening to the audiorecording of the Norwegian biography on Olav H. Hauge (Mitt liv var draum, K. O. Åmås), I find my mind to be more finely tuned into his language and poetry. His strongly marked dialect, which differs in many ways from my own more general and common form of language, in a way carries a specific personality. It's like his language becomes a poetic effect on its own.

The following is another famous poem here in Norway, and in its simplicity it points to something central to each of our particular expressions of existence. A comforting as well as uplifting poem. At least it is to me.

Your Way

No-one has marked out the road
you are to take
out in the unknown
out in the blue.

This is your road.
Only you
will take it. And there's no
turning back.

And you haven't marked your road
And the wind smooths out your tracks
on desolate hills.


Translated by Robin Fulton

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Children's art on environmental problems

I'm just adding this picture to my blog as I think it is so expressive. It is the winner of the first prize in UN's competition for children in portraying some of our planet's environmental challenges.

The picture is painted by a 13 year old girl (!), namely Charlotte Sullivan from England.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gunvor Hofmo: Central female Norwegian poet

Gunvor Hofmo (1921-1995) is a central poet in Norway's literary landscape. The story of her life is closely connected to the poetry she wrote.
The second world war came to have a significant and lasting effect on her. Her first collection of poems to be published is from 1946 and was called Jeg vil hjem til menneskene, meaning I want to go home to the humans. With this she carved out a sense of meaninglessness and despair many people felt after that most inhuman war.
Part of Hofmo's personal despair during WW2 was that her particular friend, the Jewish Ruth Maier, was deported to Auschwitz where she died not long after. Their friendship was very close, and many have speculated whether they were lovers, although there is no real proof that they were more than friends. Later in life she lived with another woman writer, Astrid Tollefsen.
Maier's deportation may have been a major reason for why Hofmo was hospitalized with mental illness in 1943, with many more years of hospitalization before her. Ruth Maier's death was perhaps the most central event in Hofmo's life. Maier's absence seems to be an emptiness Hofmo keeps circulating around throughout her life, much of it recorded in her writings. From 1955 to 1971 Hofmo stayed at Norway's major mental hospital, and she did not publish anything during those years. But from 1971 she moved into a flat of her own and she again started publishing, continuing this until her death in 1995.
The following poem is one of great simplicity and at the same time great clarity and quiet. It is from a collection bearing the same name as the poem, published in 1991.

Navnløst er alt i natten

Navnløst er alt i natten
Stille, time etter time
legger tingene sine
navn fra seg
Treet og stenen
tolker altets stemme
og mister sin egen

At nighttime everything is nameless

At nighttime everything is nameless
Quietly, hour by hour
the things leave their
names behind
The tree and the rock
interpret the voice of the absolute
and lose their own

In somewhat the same vein is this poem from 1973:

Ingen klage

Ingen klage. Ingenting
Som glasset langsomt
fylles med kostbar vin

fylles vår dag
av naken eksistens.


No complaint

No complaint. Nothing at all
Like the glass is slowly
filled with precious wine

our day is filled
with bare existence.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Edith Södergran: "On foot through the solar system"

This is a poem by the Finland-Swedish female poet Edith Södergran, who lived from 1892 to 1923. Her early death was due to tuberculosis. She lived many places during her lifetime, also in the Finnish forests, composing poems quivering with intense sensibility, emotion and originality. She is one of the definitely most interesting poets of her time. As her brief life was punctured by illness, her poems sometimes have a feverish life-celebrating glow to them while others are marked by a welcoming of death.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, by Swedish-speaking Finnish parents, she attended a German all-girl school in St. Petersburg facing the grand Winter Palace, home of the tzar. Here she was taught German, English, French and Russian - but no Swedish, which was her mother tongue. She wrote her innovative poems in Swedish anyway.

Her verse was free and modern. No doubt she had been influenced by other authors; Nietzsche was of her favourites for a time. But her voice is everywhere clearly a woman's. This in itself must have been a novelty in the early 1900s. She has been described as an expressionist as well as a modernist, but at the same time she is at odds with more central modernist poets. Her poems are often passioned, etheric, visionary, fantastic, feminine (or even feministic) -- all in all different and unique.

I have risked translating a small poem. Seeing as my mother tongue is not Swedish but Norwegian, this is slightly daring, but our languages are so alike that they are almost counted as dialects. Anyone is invited to suggest improvements, though ;-)

Till fots fick jag gå genom solsystemen

Till fots
fick jag gå genom solsystemen,
innan jag fann den första tråden av min röda dräkt.
Jag anar ren mig själv.
Någonstädes i rymden hänger mitt hjärta,
gnistor strömma ifrån det, skakande luften,
till andra måttlösa hjärtan.

On foot my path wound through the solar systems

On foot
my path wound through the solar systems,
until at last I found my red robe's first thread.
I already have a sense of who I am.
Somewhere in space my heart's suspended,
sparks flowing from it, quavering the air,
reaching out to other speechless hearts.


This is one of her minor poems, and I will probably try to translate a few of her other, more famous poems. But when, I do not know.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poetic Playfulness

I would like to launch a theory: A large part of a poet’s or writer's significance may lay in his or her playfulness, her ability to play with language and meaning and creating out of it a sensible whole with surprising turns of sense and imagination.

With this I do not mean playfulness in and of itself as in puns and annoying alliteration (haha), but as part of a larger oevre, with this as another layer of showing a perceptive mind and an ability to use language in a new and original way. Humour shows another meta-layer of language perceptibility or sensibility, and when sense is filtered through a layer of playfulness, this usually adds life to the written work in question.

It is always liberating to see a writer play with his or her own universe, to insert a streak of light heartedness or humour in his/her work. It actually shows a sense of love for language and a sort of return to the reasons he or she became a writer in the first place. Why write, why not paint or play an instrument or act or create in a different way? Language is the writer’s instrument, and through it he depicts every little nuance of what he feels like mediating. Language is also the most diverse and differentiated means of communication we have, which leaves writers with a great and thrilling responsability. Without creative souls reinventing language every day, it would stay static, and professional writers do have an impact on how we perceive reality and our own way with words. I, for one, am happy about this. Thoroughly thought through ways of using language always upgrade the system.

Especially with T. S. Eliot playfulness is a welcome feature. His poems often seem difficult and zig-zawed together from citations and allusions to other literary works. But he has another, more creative side as well, and this is eloquently and enjoyably expressed in his poems in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a work which is quite extraordinarily different from his other works and was meant for children. Here he is inventive and playful and produces a completely different tone from his more austere works like The Waste Land, Ash-Wednesday and most of his plays.

In many ways, writing for children seems to open a vein of creativity in authors. For example, it was not until J. K. Rowling started writing a children’s book that she got published, and why do we love Tolkien’s works so much? Or C. S. Lewis’s books about Narnia? Alice in Wonderland? Fairytales? In them fantasy, imagination and creativity is in free flow! It is a beautiful part of human existence to be able to create new worlds in which many other people feel at home and loved.

Thank heaven for the imaginative writers!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

T. S. Eliot joking about himself

It was almost a relief to find this poem by T. S. Eliot in which he jokes about common (mis)conceptions of him as a person. He was often believed to be aloof, withdrawn, far too formal and rule-abiding. Virginia Woolf has many entries in her diary about Eliot, on how he seemed to dress more English than the English themselves, and how he once took to a strange habit of dabbing his face with green-white face powder. His on-the-whole unhappy marriage to his first wife spawned many malign rumours, and his personal life does seem packed with contradictions and personal oddities. But the more I read about him, the more it seems to me that he was just uncomfortable being around many people, and that in his intimate relationships to women, first and foremost, another, more alive and straightforward Eliot acted out.
In this enjoyable little thing called "Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg" (just the title, it's hilarious!) Eliot shows a ready mind for self irony which is not a common thread in his poems. A timely feature in such a formal being, I find.

Here it is:

Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With a bobtail cur
And a porpentine cat
And a wopsical hat
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
(Whether his mouth is open or shut).


Isnt't it enjoyable?

Or maybe my deep dive into Eliot's life and works has made me blind to what is humurous to those not so into his work...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wallace Stevens: Poetry is the Supreme Fiction

A couple of days ago this poem by Wallace Stevens arrived in my mailbox. I haven't read it before, and I need to look up a few of these words before I completely understand it, but it certainly looks like a poem in Stevens's easily recognizable style.

The following intro accompanied the poem. As it is a good intro to Wallace Stevens, even with a brief biograpy, I simply put the whole thing here:

It's the birthday of Wallace Stevens, born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). Stevens was an excellent student. He went to Harvard. He decided that he would fulfill his father's desires and go to law school. Afterward, he took a job with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, he eventually became vice president, and he remained at the job for the rest of his life. Each day, he walked the two miles between his home and his office, and during these walks to and from work, he composed poetry. Some people thought it was odd for an insurance executor to write poetry. Stevens did not. He said, "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job." In 1955, just months before he died, he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his volume Collected Poems. He wrote:


Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.


Poetry is the supreme fiction. I definitely like the ring of that line.

It is an excerpt from "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman", which according to the Wikipedia article on Stevens is a satirical poem in which Stevens plays with our ideas of religion and what to do when religion no longer holds a central place in our lives and societies. Apparently he wrote that “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." (From Opus Posthumous.) Only to encounter the troubles with finding this fiction, and ultimately concluding that there is no way to contact or experience reality directly. Well, I don't know whether I agree with Stevens on this point, but it is nevertheless an interesting piece of poetic thinking.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Anbefalt: Stefan Sundström

Denne fyren oppdaget jeg da Nästan som reklam kom ut i 1994. Det var et par år etter at Lisa Ekdal hadde feid over diverse etere med Vem vet og alt det der. Siden jeg har vokst opp med Cornelis Vreeswijk, Hasse&Tage, Astrid Lindgren (hvem har ikke det), Bellman og i grunnen hele den svenske kulturkretsen gjennom SVT, er jeg rimelig disponert for å like denne typen musikk. Det hjelper sikkert at mamma er sørlandsviseentusiast og tidligere visesanger og gitarklimprer også.
MEN altså, Stefan Sundström er visesangeren for de litt mer tøffe, unge av sinn, samfunnskritiske - de oppegående, kan man kanskje si. På samme måte som Vreeswijk har Sundström et galleri av personasjer med diverse karaktertrekk. Sabina (Fina Pina), Jan Banan, Nefertite og Galne Gunnar er noen av dem, og rundt dem spinner Sundström sin egen verden. Og den er ikke vanskelig å tre inn i. Det blir som å lese en bok, eller flere fortellinger som springer ut fra et miljø man etter hvert begynner å føle man kjenner.
I tillegg, eller samtidig, er det selvsagt musikken som skaper denne verdenen. Her er det rett og slett rockeviser av høy kvalitet, utgytt med bravur og pondus, men også med en følsom og poetisk åre som kommer til overflaten ganske ofte.

Grunnen til at jeg fremhever et album som er 14 år gammelt, er fordi det er det jeg kjenner best selv. Senere har han gitt ut bl.a. tolkninger av Allan Edvalls viser, eget samlealbum (Greatest hits) og flere andre studioalbum.

Tidligere har jeg nevnt hvordan Lars Saabye Christensen har møbler mye av oppveksten min med tanke på språklig fremmaling og en viss blågrå, halvmelankolsk oslostemning. På samme måte har svensk kultur, sikkert spesielt populærkultur, preget oppveksten min sterkt. Cornelis Vreeswijk og Astrid Lindgren var nok de to viktigste representantene for svensk kultur for meg som liten, og den stemningen disse to skapte er fremdeles sentral for meg, som en slags egen verden i barndomsverdenen. Og da Stefan Sundström came along da jeg var 14, kjente jeg straks at han var en mer moderne og nå-tilpasset rockpoet som jeg umiddelbart kjente meg hjemme hos.

Kanskje ikke noen vits i å si at jeg anbefaler å høre på noe av musikken hans?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Potter Perfect Stephen Fry

An hommage to Stephen Fry's incredible reading abilities

As a long-time self-proclaimed Harry Potter fan, I have read all seven books at least two times, and the last four several more. Which is all fun. But in addition to this I have listened to the audiorecordings read by Stephen Fry an embarassingly high number of times. Sitting there on the iPod they are so easy to access and many a walk, pre-bedtime minutes and times when I feel I need additional comfort, security or just to be surrounded by a sense of family (yes, I know the characters so well I now consider them part of my family), has been graced by Fry's outstanding interpretation of Rowling's Potter world.
I generally like reading for myself better than listening to audio books; nothing above, nothing equal to it. But with Fry's performance I actually think the books gets an extra dimension, or rather that it is so well transmitted through Fry that I stop thinking about that someone is reading aloud, that there is someone else interpreting the characters I know so well from the books. And that, to me, is quite an achievement. Additionally, it is not only me thinking this, but all people I have talked to about this agrees. My mother, whom I had long recommended reading the Potter books, first got hooked when I gave her all seven Potter books on her newly bought iPod. She started out listening to the Norwegian version, but did not find the reading satisfactory (or, perhaps, the translation, as I myself find the books far better in the original British-English than in translation). However, when she - grudgingly, as she does not feel too comfortable reading English novels - started on the Potter series, she could not get enough! I think she raced through all seven books in two to three weeks, something which is quite a feat, considering the length of the last four novels and a packed work schedule. No one was allowed near her iPod as she then might lose track of where she was at in the present Potter story.
This did not surprise me a bit; the Potter novels seem to have that effect on readers. But it did please me, as it allowed my mother some well-earned breaks from her demanding job and probably increased her energy levels.
Isn't it just wonderful that literature can have this impact on people? And how grateful am I that there are interpretors such as Stephen Fry out there. Well, by now you can probably tell ;-)