Against the grain

Issue 2/1983 | Archives online, Authors

Gösta Ågren

Gösta Ågren. Photo: Studio Paschinsky

Gösta Ågren (born 1936) represents at least two qualities highly characteristic of Finland-Swedish writers. He was born and grew up in a part of Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia – in the immediate vicinity of the two small coastal towns of Uusikaupunki (Nykarleby) and Pietarsaari (Jakobstad) – which has been the home of many of the most important Finland­-Swedish authors, from Runeberg and Zacharias Topelius through Mikael Lybeck and R. R. Eklund to Evert and Lars Huldén. And like Rabbe Enckell, Oscar Parland and others, Gösta Ågren comes from a family closely associated with literature – two of his brothers, Erik and Leo, are also writers, as was his sister Inga, who died young.

Otherwise Gösta Ågren is an author who in all important respects has gone his own way, often in opposition to the establishments, literary and otherwise, in southern Finland and Helsinki.

By modern standards at least, the Ågren children grew up in poor circumstances, the offspring of a ‘landless farmer’ – the title of an autobiographical novel which Gösta Ågren published in 1956 – in an Ostrobothnian village which itself showed little sign of affluence. He had to give up his schooling when only halfway to the final student examination, but he has since compensated for this by studying at Stockholm University and writing a doctoral thesis on the Swedish poet Dan Andersson, Kärlek som i allting bor (‘Love that dwells in everything’). He was also trained as a film director at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm and, among other things, has directed the full-length film Ballad, based on his brother Leo Ågren’s novel of the same name.

Committed socialism

His first poems, Kraft och tanke (‘Power and thought’) were published in 1955, since when he has published thirteen volumes of poetry, the latest of them, Det som alltid är (‘What always is’), appearing in 1982. In contrast to most of his contemporaries in both Finland and Sweden, he has politically and ideologically been a committed socialist author from the start. The circumstances in which he grew up and the difficulties he encountered in his education provide an obvious explanation for this. But in addition, at a time when it was not very common in Finland, he had taken as his models Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman together with the distinctive Finland-Swedish writer Eva Wichman, who had become a communist at the most inauspicious moment conceivable. That Ågren has not given up his socialism or the fanatical belief in freedom which informed his early poems, is apparent in Vår historia. En kronika om det finlands­ svenska folkets öden (‘Our history. A chronicle of the fortunes of the Finland-Swedish people’), an analysis of Finnish history which he published in 1977. It is an attempt, unique in Finland-Swedish letters, to apply a Marxist and regional – in this case Ostrobothnian – perspective to the history of Finland. But in his poems he is concerned with quite different problems and subjects. In an interview in Vasabladet on 12 September 1980 he says that in Molnsommar (‘Cloudy summer’, 1978) he began to write in a new way. ‘The step I took in 1978 was principally a formal one, but when I think about it, it becomes more and more obvious that there was also a change of content, and existential problems have since received more attention.’

Youthful freshness

It is also significant that in Paus (‘Pause’), the volume of selected poems which appeared in 1979, by far the greater part is taken from poems published during the 1970s. In the interview in Vasabladet he says specifically that he thinks many of his early poems are downright bad. This may or may not be, but at least they bear the stamp of youthful freshness and a spontaneous urge to express himself which makes them eminently readable, far more than mere biographical documents.

However, it is probably true to say that Ågren’s best poems are in Molnsommar, Dikter i svartvitt (‘Poems in black and white’, 1980) and Det som alltid är, and the selection in Paus. These contain neither the high-flown phrases frequently found in his early poetry, nor any expression of ideology, but only the concentrated expression of moods and experience of life. One stylistic feature, perhaps used rather too frequently, is the paradox, the antithesis. A two-line stanza called ‘Jaget’ (Ego) says simply: ‘A man who never changes, becomes another.’ Another short poem, ‘Sammanfattning’ (Summary) runs:

Throughout his life he vainly sought
a path for life.
it was.

With this striving to epitomize his experience of life it is not surprising that Ågren has also experimented with aphorisms – like Edith Södergran, Diktonius, R. R. Eklund, Rabbe Enckell and Gunnar Björling before him. Nevertheless, it is as though he needs the somewhat larger format of the short poem rather than the concentration of the aphorism, which admittedly can show familiar things in an unfamiliar light, but is spent after first reading. On the other hand a poem, at least a good poem, can be read an infinite number of times.

In a poem entitled ‘Yrke’ (‘Vocation’) from Det som alltid är, Ågren has written of the way in which he works:

Work is as when
the evening sky’s bleeding
delta darkens into night.
Every line takes endless time.
The form must be so clear,
that it is not seen. It is
late, the hours pass, but
at last the contents’
deep darkness begins to appear.

It could hardly be better put.

Translated by W. Glyn Jones

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