Archive for September 1st, 2016

Oslo poet Håkan Sandell: “Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies.”

Thursday, September 1st, 2016
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Sweden’s suave poet. (Photo: Dagfinn Hobæk)

Earlier this week, I discussed the Danish poet Ulrikka Gernes. I met her at the same time I met a very different Scandinavian spirit – breezy, debonair, ever so slightly sardonic, as we chatted at the reception for the gala dinner at Sigtuna’s literary festival. Håkan Sandell is one of Sweden’s leading poets … or is it Norway’s? He writes in Swedish, but lives in Oslo. But really, most of the words are the same, he explained to me; the pronunciation is a bit different, that’s all.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill calls him “a stunning poet.” A mutual friend, the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, said, “He’s a modern metaphysical poet, a lover of the world who, while praising it, never stops probing it with his formidable poetic intelligence.”

We met again at the panel discussion he shared with Ulrikka. Afterwards, he gave me a copy of his newest book – as I waited, he scribbled a quick inscription in what appears to be crayon, but what I recall as a very worn pale blue felt-tip (he appears to have signed a lot of books). We corresponded later about the translations in Dog Star Notations: Selected Poems, 1999-2016 (Carcanet, 2016).

“You must remember that the Scandinavian languages are a bit different from English – very musical but also harsher. We tend to flatten out just a little bit in English,” he explained.

Håkan is “one of the chief agents of the renewal of metrical poetry in Swedish,” according to his translator, Bill Coyle. “His most common criticisms of the drafts I have shown him was not that they were inaccurate, but that I hadn’t captured enough of the original’s verse music, that they didn’t sufficiently swing. I hope that the translations included in the present volume do, when all is said, swing.”

The slightly skeptical Swede is optimistic about poetry. As he put it, “Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies.”

Rejoices over the rain on the Faroe Islands,
over rendezvous on the Champs-Elysees at evening.
It rejoices over Japan, over Korea,
over arts refined over a thousand years –
the art of swordsmanship, or of drinking tea.
Rejoices over the poet, that his heart still beats.

Most of his poems are longish, and I looked for a short one to include for the Book Haven. I was sold on his Stanzas to the Spirit of the Age when he told me that he composed each 12-line section (three stanzas, four lines each) during his long walks. Twelve lines is as much as he could remember at a time. That’s an intriguing notion in an era when hardly anyone memorizes anything at all.

I also thought it struck a very different note from Ulrikka’s contemplative poem about an open book in the dark. He added a crisp Nordic bite to a damp Swedish week:

from Stanzas to the Spirit of the Age

xix.

I prefer after raucous Saturday nights
to stroll and at the most nudge with my shoe
the shattered glass and blood left after fights,
rather than joining in the party too.

It’s early June but feels like fall to me.
I cried on the street, I miss my daughter so.
Autumn wind stirs the leaves, and from a tree
a flock of black birds glares down, sated, slow.

This happy, fjord-side, ice cream-licking scene
could I decide, would be dark, arctic cold.
Expansive life, a new beginning’s green,
like this, for these, proved more than I could hold.

– Håkan Sandell, trans. Bill Coyle