Out of Ostrobothnia

Issue 4/1992 | Archives online, Authors

This summer saw the publication of Hid (‘Coming here’), the third part of Gösta Ågren’s verse trilogy, which studies and describes the poets roots in Finland-Swedish Ostrobothnia. For Jär (‘Standing Here’), the trilogy’s first part, Ågren was given the 1989 Finlandia Prize, his country’s most prestigious literary award. The second part, Städren (‘The cities’), appeared in 1990.

In a letter to his English publisher, Ågren himself recently commented: ‘I have been working on the three collections for nine years, since 1984. They are, in a way, autobiographical. That is why the titles are formed according to the dialect of my home region. Normally they should be “Här”, “Städerna” and “Hit”.’

That Ågren’s work has come to receive so much critical acclaim in Finland, not only in Finland-Swedish literary circles, but also in the Finnish literary world (his selected poems have been translated by Caj Westerberg), may seem surprising in view of his ingrained hostility to the Finnish cultural establishment, and his long advocacy of Finland-Swedish separatism. Yet there is a kind of poetic justice in the warm reception his recent work has encountered – for his readers’ positive response demonstrates that Ågrens writing is able to speak through and beyond the social and political conflicts from which it takes its energy and vitality. There are many ways in which Ågren is in fact one of the very few genuine living inheritors of the original Finland-Swedish poetic tradition, with its metaphysical concerns and international outlook.

In the socially oriented 1970s, Rabbe Enckell made the following plea for artistic autonomy and integrity during his debate with radicals who saw in his work only subjective meditations that had little bearing on the ‘real’ world’:

Must writers act in prisons, hospitals and places of work in the capacity of teachers, consolers and consultants? Preachers? But am I able to teach, give consultation or preach?… To communicate one’s thoughts and feelings in writing in the form one is seeking and which suits one — that is what being a writer means. As for the rest, each may take up a position according to his or her ability. But on demand? I would rather be considered a rejectfit only for the dustbin than act in a role I have not chosen and am not equal to.

For all his Marxism and separatist nationalism, Ågren has consistently striven to write a verse that speaks not to any particular constituency or minority group, but to human beings in general, and to individuals in particular. In this, he resembles R.S. Thomas, the contemporary Welsh poet whose work he admires and who has been a major and acknowledged influence on him. Another foreign influence has been the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. The didactic strain in the writing of both these poets has left its mark on Ågren’s style. Yet, like them, he is capable of a lyricism characterised both by tenderness and a tough, rhetorical diction that leaves no room for sentimentality.

Another feature of Ågren’s style is its tendency towards an original vision of the world in sensuous, vivid imagery that at times recalls the poems of Pablo Neruda. These echoes and influences of poets elsewhere in the world are not superficial – rather, they suggest a writer who is able to speak to an international audience from within a clearly delineated focus of national and personal concern. Coupled with the undeniable traces of Ågren’s knowledge and understanding of his native Finland-Swedish poetic tradition – the aphoristic concision of Edith Södergran and the sombre reflectiveness of Arvid Mörne are particularly in evidence – they unite with Ågren’s own voice to create a poetry of great power and resonance.

In Hid, a poem which describes a sea-voyage both outer and inner, Ågren progresses towards a consciousness of the disparate elements within him, which seem to conflict but are in fact united by a common humanity that is in the end the only possible reality:

The great synthesis / exists. That is what / it consists of. It has / no other content.

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