On Bo Carpelan

Issue 3/1977 | Archives online, Authors

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Ulla Montan

For a small country Finland is richly endowed with poets. Of particular interest, in view of the smallness of the Finland-Swedish population (about 7% of the total), is the number of poets who speak and write Swedish as their first language and consistently produce work of outstanding quality. International recognition of the work of one of these poets came earlier this year with the award of the Nordic Council Literary Prize to Bo Carpelan.

Carpelan’s first volume of verse, Som en dunkel värme (‘Like a dark warmth’) appeared in 1946. Since then he has brought out a further ten volumes of poetry and six prose works (all published by Schildt, Helsinki). It would be difficult, and probably premature, to attempt any detailed analysis of the fusion of influences and inspiration that have come together in Carpelan’s poetry. It is clear, however, that his early work has points of contact with the Finland-Swedish modernism of the 1920s and that he followed with particular interest the 40-talists, a group of Swedish poets active in the 1940s: the influence of their heavy, profuse imagery can be discerned in his early collections.

Critics identify two main periods in Carpelan’s poetry. The first of these is represented by his first volume and by Du mörka överlevande (‘You dark survivor’, 1947), Variationer (‘Variations’, 1950), Minus sju (‘Minus seven’, 1952) and Objekt för ord (‘Objects for words’, 1956). The second period begins with the collection Landskapets förvandlingar (‘The changing landscape’, 1957) and was followed by Den svala dagen (‘The cool day’, 1961), 73 dikter (’73 poems’, 1966), Gården (The courtyard’, 1969), Källan (‘The spring’, 1973) and most recently by I de mörka rummen, i de ljusa (‘In the dark rooms, in the bright ones’, 1976). In all his poetry Carpelan sees life as a mystery, but his approach to this mystery changes and develops. In his earlier works his language is deft, yet at the same time private and intimate, later it becomes sharp and simple.

The town and nature, sometimes the sea, very often his own recollections provide the setting for the themes that come most naturally to Carpelan. The Finland-Swedish critic, Nils-Börje Stormbom, has identified these as the person trapped within himself, the opposites of life and death, the relativity of values and the difficulty of identifying truth and that which is fundamentally essential. The very nature of these themes, which cannot easily be treated separately or in isolation, further emphasizes the infinite complexity of life. Carpelan writes in one of his essays of the significance he attaches to Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’, which he sees as a basic characteristic that has always been present in Finland-Swedish poetry. His own verse displays this ability to extract a creative energy from uncertainty, doubt and failure. It is the very freedom from any kind of prejudice and the lack of any sense of commitment that have been a source of strength for him.

One of his poems begins with the idea that ‘the heart does not recognise its boundaries, nor a poem reality’. The same idea runs through Carpelan’s collection Gården. The theme is childhood during the depression of the 1930s, a childhood spent in a Helsinki tenement, rooms into which sunlight penetrates only briefly each day. The poems describe details and events which the first -person narrator experiences but cannot understand. Carpelan writes of poverty and loneliness, of asphalt streets and a stunted tree growing in the courtyard, and of the echoing passages which connect one courtyard to another. While all these are seen through the eyes of a child, Carpelan weaves into the poems a consciously meditative and analytical sense of perspective. In this way he raises minor details and trivial events to a level of significance: they become the symbols of a way of life that has gone for ever. He employs the same technique in his nature poems, seizing upon things that would escape most people’s notice, upon momentarily experienced feelings, and lets them grow in scale and depth until they become the bond between past and present. Minnets vagn (‘Wagons of memory’), the image he uses in one of his poems for fleeting snatches of memory, frequently slip into his poems and in a single moment the whole form of expression changes.

Several of Carpelan’s books have been translated into Finnish. Outside the Nordic countries he is best known through the English, French and Polish translations of four of his outstanding books for young people, stories which display the same sensitivity as his poetry. The best-known of his prose works, Rösterna i den sena timmen (1971), was originally written as a radio play (Voices at a Late Hour / Les Voix à la Dernière Heure) and won the Prix Italia in 1969. It describes the outbreak of nuclear war and the response of different people as death approaches. Carpelan has also published a thriller, Din gestalt bakom dörren (‘Your shape behind the door’, 1975). His latest work, Vandrande skugga (‘Walking shadow’), which appeared this autumn, is a detective story set in a small town at the turn of the century.

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