The Poet as a Progressive
Why do some poets adopt a chill tone or an intellectual stance, while others bleed in public, clench their fists or bellow with pain? Temperament alone cannot explain this. Poetical traditions, and the current climate, are more influential.
Modern Swedish poetry – in fact all Scandinavian poetry, including that of Finland – has inclined toward German and Continental Expressionism. This is, in essence, a romantic tradition, and there are other, more endogenous romantic traditions, as well, driving poets the same way. In such an ambience any pronouncedly intellectual poet will always seem exceptional. He will risk being accused of aloofness or disdain, be easily damned as a ‘difficult’ writer. Rabbe Enckell and Paavo Haavikko in Finland, Gunnar Ekelöf in Sweden, are cases in point.
Claes Andersson (born 1937) seems to belong to this category. He certainly tells his readers where he stands, unapologetically. But he is also a lover of his language – the Swedish spoken in Finland – and he likes to play intellectual games with the language, to coin a word or a phrase and turn it over, sometimes upside-down, to reflect and comment on the language itself: ‘Words,’ he once wrote, ‘possess hidden valences – shown, for instance, when the word Sodium jumps into the word Water to cool itself, never suspecting what will happen. Hidden tensions may thus be disclosed.’
It is the poet’s business not only to suspect, but to observe, what will happen. Andersson is much more of an observer than an empathist. He does not feel his way in: he seems quite able to select a mood, to adopt it, to evoke it, and then abandon it for another, not in search of some final truth, but in order to register the distinction of feeling. He is easily the most sophisticated of the present generation of Finnish poets who are writing in Swedish.
This must have something at least to do with his educational background. He trained as a doctor of medicine and specialised in psychiatry. Scientific training is bound to modify a poet’s attitudes, and psychological training is likely to inquire into and correct self-indulgence in romantic feeling. Andersson’s critical eye on his surroundings and himself is not, however, cynical: his scepticism or irony is motivated by his dislikes, not by indifferences.
As a writer, Claes Andersson was no early starter. He was twenty-five when he published his first slim volume of poems, which was followed in 1964 by the more important Som om ingenting hänt (‘As if nothing had happened’). For this he chose a (somewhat revised) motto from a story in Dostoyevsky’s Letters from the Underworld: ‘Really, Lisa, I do not need to take anything from books; real life is bad enough. Everything that I have said to you has come from my heart. Is it, then, possible that you are not conscious of the vileness of your present life? Truly, if you are not, then great must be the force of habit.’
This, we know, is a moralist speaking, and Andersson’s application of the quotation is a moralist’s too. ‘The force of habit’ is what he does his damnedest to break. Very soon he became aware that a fascination with words and their interplay was not enough to deliver insight and awareness. He started to widen his consciousness of his ‘present life’. He describes himself, in one of his essential books, Samhället vi dör i (‘The society we are dying in’, 1967), as sitting inside his words: enclosed in small, tight lumps of dirt, looking for gaps and airholes, and slowly wriggling out ‘a little red left hand with its small red left fingers’.
He also wanted to dissociate himself from certain trends of the modernist tradition. As the leader of a somewhat heterogeneous movement of young writers, Andersson vigorously edited a literary journal of the sixties, FBT. (The meaning of the initials has never been disclosed.) One of its aims was to dethrone the last of the great modernists, Rabbe Enckell, and accuse his kind of writer of social indifference.
This process was leading Andersson into other fields besides poetry. At the same time, years as a psychiatrist in a hospital were giving him concrete encounters, impressions and insights: he was experiencing an initiation into the psychological effects of social laws and the social system. The poet, the writer and the sociologist were the same man. Andersson became more or less a follower of R. D. Laing, that awkward indicator and indicter of social pressure and oppression.
His thoughts on psychiatry and society in Finland took the form of a novel, Bakom bilderna (‘Behind the images’), in 1972. Again there was a motto, this time from Maxim Gorky: ‘What do we know? How do we live? Where is the soul? Where? The images – we have the images. But hearts we have not.’ In the sixties, too, Andersson wrote several poems that were sociological in their inquiring look at narcotics, considering their use as a form of social disease.
Another study of the continuum of social interactions is Andersson’s play Familjen (‘The family’), first produced at the Swedish Lilla Teatern in Helsinki in 1974. The subject is an alcoholic’s junction as the scapegoat for his family; when he breaks the symbiosis by recovering, other members become disturbed and upset. Andersson has also adapted the revue sketch to his dry wit. The snappy political review has been brilliantly developed by the Swedish-speaking Finns in recent decades, and Andersson has written or cowritten many barbed and successful items for several of them.
Andersson also embodies current actualities in his latest novel, Den fagraste vår (‘Loveliest springtime’ – sarcastically quoting a common phrase about the time of youth). It is a story about not very young and not very mature people in the 1970s: a deranged girl, a male drop-out, a student trying to find his political bearings, a hospital nurse, and their various friends and interrelationships. This book will probably be remembered for its record of the minds of the thinkers, more trendy than original, who came in the belated aftermath of 1968. (It was doubly belated in Finland, where no student revolt to speak of ever took place.)
As a poet, Andersson is fully matured in his three latest volumes of 1970, 1974 and 1979: Bli, tillsammans (‘To become, together’), Rumskamrater (‘Roommates’), and Trädens sånger (‘The songs of the trees’). Here, as in some of his earlier work, he includes love poetry – a difficult genre, successfully and happily managed. He combines intimacy, and even devotion, with his sure and light Verfremdung touch, as an observer of himself and his partner. The best of his earlier work, including selections from the 1970 and 1974 volumes, has recently been republished in Jag har mött dem. Dikter 1962-74 (‘I have met them. Poems 1962-74’, Soderstrom & Co., 1976).
It seems quite likely that Claes Andersson has still much more development to show us, although he is already one of the foremost Finland-Swedish writers of today. I am inclined to forecast a still more distinguished future for him as a poet, and a somewhat lesser one as an analyst of society. The better he is on the second count, of course, so much the better for letters in Finland.
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About the writer
Thomas Warburton (born 1918) is a translator, scholar and author. He has published books written in both Swedish and Finnish and has translated, among other works, Ulysses by James Joyce, into Swedish (1946)
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