Hiking through a poetic universe

30 March 2006 | Authors, Reviews

Lars Huldén.  Photo: Charlotta Boucht

Lars Huldén. Photo: Charlotta Boucht

The gods decreed that Lars Huldén was born on the same date as Finland’s national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877), who wrote the words of the Finnish national anthem – and who has turned into a dead classic. Lars Huldén will never be thought of as a member of the dead poets’ society.

A collected volume entitled Utförlig beskrivning av en bärplockares väg (‘A thorough description of a berry-picker’s path’, Schildts [Finnish translation, by Pentti Saaritsa: Erään marjamatkan seikkaperäinen kuvaus, WSOY]) containing work from the whole of Huldén’s literary career – from his first book all the way to new poems written in 2005 – has been published in honour of his 80th birthday in February 2006. He has published thirty-six collections of poetry in Swedish, and it is a generous, intelligent and (self-)ironic textual universe that unfolds through the volume’s 500 pages.

As I read through the book I’m nonetheless constantly aware that an infinite number of writings remain outside its covers: song lyrics, short stories, translations of Finnish popular hits, occasional poems for academic and other celebrations, cantatas and drama. All the academic articles Huldén has written in his capacity of linguistic scholar also echo somewhere in this immense treasure chamber.

Those who would like to become acquainted with the Swedish language, in all its nuances, might well begin by reading the translation of the Finnish national epic Kalevala which Lars Huldén, together with his son Mats, presented to the world in the year 2000. How ever did the two of them manage to turn the ancient Finnish epic into a contemporary Swedish so rich that one scratches one’s head in bewilderment as one reads it?

There are days when I want to insist that all the world’s institutions which love the Swedish language should elect Huldén as the master of Swedish. I write this as someone who ought to be an academically blasé woman, with little interest in the apparently simple poems of an 80-year-old. Oughtn’t I to value the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer more highly? Or Katarina Frostenson, who is also Swedish? No, I don’t. I am endlessly fascinated by Huldén’s ability to find words, bend them, build worlds with them, and then lead them in, turning everything into a hall of distorting mirrors that make me smile. In his collection Judas Iskariot Samfundets Årsbok 1987 (‘The Judas Iscariot Society Almanac for 1987′) he writes about clowns and jesters. Those figures are probably the most important disguises Huldén has dressed himself in. Wherever sacredness and power are acclaimed, Huldén forces his way inside with poems that use sharp parody to gently reveal the rulers’ evildoings.

There are however two rulers in Huldén’s poems who bring the poet to his knees and make him speak in a humble tone: love and death. They are both unavoidable, and no irony can help in the face of their power. Then Huldén’s poems are down-to-earth and respectful. In the collection Läsning för vandrare (‘Reading for hikers’) of 1974, Huldén takes his textual association with death to the limits. Short epigrammatic fragments (238 in total) are lined up in rows, one after the other, in numerical order. Together the short texts form a chorus of the thoughts of dead people from the grave. As they lie in the ground they think about life among the living, and remember it as they themselves experienced it. Another poet might have been tempted to make the short texts into subtle, elegant aphorisms, but artistic honing doesn’t suit Huldén’s temperament. He chooses the plain wording, which sometimes in its laconic bareness acquires a note of warm humour.

Writing about Lars Huldén makes a critic feel small. One just prefers to pick out one or two of the very finest poems and let them speak for themselves. I want a quotation from Huldén in my obituary. For example, the last two lines of his radiant sequence Sommardikter (‘Summer poems’, 2005):

Thanks, that’s enough, the basket is full.
Now I’m going home to write.

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