Evening Land by Pär Lagerkvist

Poetry continued. It is hard not to notice the fashion-driven nature of goodreads. I wrote the following in late 2009, so four years ago, and it has yet to receive a vote. I have, I might add, over the years, got many votes for writing crap about the right books. Be rude about Harry Potter, rake them in. Poetry, in particular, is shunned, but for a couple of poets like Plath with whose private lives non-poetry readers are obsessed. Arrgghhhhhhhhh!! It drives me crazy. It is such a shame that poetry was taken over by people who don’t like it and turned it into something unreadable and inaccessible. It is not what poetry is supposed to be. By all means do that to long-writing and call it something snobby – ‘literature’, let’s say. But to do that to poetry is a cruel act of deprivation. The odd thing is that although obtuse literature has some fans, the same can’t be said of difficult poetry.

RD Fitzgerald once said:

Among both the learned and the not so learned it is accepted that poetry can be the language of the emotions; what does not gain such ready acceptance is that poetry is a living language whose syllables fall naturally into verse. And yet both these effects may be illustrated simultaneously by the easy experiment of dropping a weight on your toe. Any really prolonged and heartfelt profanity may lack originality but its imagery is elaborately fantastic; and it invariably scans.

Due to some misunderstanding of these very simple principles verse is considered difficult. Some modern poets have surrendered to this belief by writing not free-verse, which is legitimate, but outright prose; though as an act of appeasement to conventions which they affect to despise they saw it unceremoniously into lengths; and some have contributed to the belief by being as unintelligible as possible. It is an illogical belief nevertheless; for written verse is always far more carefully constructed than prose; the ideas are more carefully set out; the words are more carefully selected; the very spacing of the lines relieves the eye and assists the mind in following the sense.

For more of this elegant essay on what poetry is and is not, go to my post here:

The good news about Evening Land is that it would not offend the poetic sensibilities of Fitzgerald. Here follows my original text.

I can’t imagine a more special book of poetry. Start off with the poems of a Swedish Nobel Prize winner. Have them translated by WH Auden. And already you are interrupting. Yes, I know. You didn’t know that Auden spoke Swedish. Well he doesn’t. This book has a go-between, Leif Sjoberg, who gave a plain literal translation of each poem, with alternatives for words when appropriate.

It’s a bi-lingual edition and, as a compulsive researcher who always wants too much information, I have to say my disappointment with this book is that I would like a third version of the poem: Sjoberg’s. Then, without having the ability to speak Swedish I could better judge how each poem has ended up, what Auden has done with them. In fact I spent some time lying in bed on the weekend wondering how to go about this. Might I find the originals in Auden’s papers wherever they are kept? Or Sjoberg’s? I played the literary detective in my sleep.

For I think it is important to know at the outset, this not being explained in the book’s introduction, that Sjoberg is no pedantic dull chooser of words himself. A rivet man he is not. He had an important career as teacher and academic while single-handedly doing more than anybody else in the period to see Swedish literature made accessible to the English-speaking world with the help of many, including Auden.

Upon the death of Sjoberg, the novelist Folke Isaksson, said:

As I write this on a dark November day, Leif becomes again visible to me, a man with light above his brow. There was a fresh wind in his life but also consistency, fidelity to the assignment, his way of speaking at once hesitantly and eagerly, as if each syllable had its meaning. There was something pure-heartedly beautiful in him that one never can forget.

Elsewhere his ‘blinding intuition and liberating humour’ were remembered.

So, I think we can say that it is not unreasonable that this book is listed as having two translators, both Auden and Sjoberg.

There is only so far an Australian could go in terms of a meaningful critique of this book. It is a book of the most delicate laments and gentle regrets that get under your skin and stay there. How to compare it with Ikea and Abba? I just don’t know. And, yes, we do have Bergman retrospectives on TV from time to time, but. Somehow right now as I finish this book, Bergman seems like a chap with a big hammer.

I can’t do better than present a couple that especially moved me.

p. 99

Who walked past the window of my childhood
and breathed on it?
Who walked past in the deep night of childhood,
that still was starless?

With his finger he made a sign on the pane,
on the moist pane
with the ball of his finger,
and then passed on to think of other things,
leaving me deserted
for ever.

How should I be able to interpret the sign,
the sign in the moist afterwards of his breath?
It stayed there a while, but not long enough
for me to be able to interpret it.
For ever and ever would not have sufficed to interpret it.

and

p. 119

My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know.
A stranger far, far away.
For his sake my heart is full of disquiet
because he is not with me.
Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist?

Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the entire world with your absence?

It was serendipity at work that I got to read this book. A customer ordered it, it is missing four pages and thus it is mine. I don’t know how one otherwise goes about acquiring a copy…but if you live anywhere near me and ask nicely, you may borrow it. Well…I think you can…right now I feel a bit like I can’t part with it, even for a minute, but I should get over that.

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4 thoughts on “Evening Land by Pär Lagerkvist

  1. This is all beautifully said. I was searching the web for lagerqvist’s poetry, and found your commentary, which I am very glad of!

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