Word and non-word

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

For the poet Gunnar Björling (1887–1960), writing was experence, not complete, finished thought. One of his contemporaries, the writer Hagar Olsson, said: ‘Björling doesn’t write Swedish, far from it, he simply writes Björlingian.’ Trygve Söderling introduces the world of his poems, translated into English by Fredrik Hertzberg

Strange tensions and fields of energy exist between words. In the work of the Finland-Swedish modernist poet Gunnar Björling (1887–1960), with its separation of the barriers between them and its re-creation of grammar, the magnetism of words, their attraction and yearning for one another, becomes visible.

You and your eyes forehead
your hair
o you that your hand

Your skin that your hand
that a hand
foot, hand
that a finger

(from You go the words, orig. 1955, transl. Fredrik Hertzberg)

In Björling’s poetry words – often the most ordinary words – embark on voyage of discovery. There are few of them, too few, and so all are needed; even an overlooked ‘that’, att – for Björling, something akin to an emblem – may trigger dramas that feel quite unlike everyday experience.

The ‘defamiliarisation’ – ostranenie – which the Russian formalists of the 1910s and 1920s talked of as a central literary technique, can in the work of Björling lead a simple but repeated word like ‘hand’ out on a journey through an unknown landscape. Or in the words of Shelley: ‘poetry purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity …. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know’ (A Defence of Poetry, 1821).

The love poem, as in the fragment quoted earlier, is an important part of Björling’s extensive production. Love, loss, expectation, sorrow – it is remarkable what a powerful emotional charge can be conveyed almost without words or descriptions: ‘att till din tankes anlet I en tanke och till dig I Så i bävan och åsyn’ (‘that to your thought’s face I a thought and to you I Thus in dread and sight’) (You go the words, pp. 48–49).

Bjoörling’s style has been described in many ways: as a ‘stammering’, as a telegram style par excellence, as a lyrical Swiss cheese in which it is the holes that give the text its aroma. In the early poems, like the ‘4711’ sequence (1928), for example, he makes the words collide in a carnival-like way that is wild and impudent: ‘Our yearning is eveningfrog’s slime and the nose of Helsinki’s archbishop’, or – in a text headed ‘Oscar Wilde’ – ‘You may grimace with death’s red bowstring shooting like a fancy dress costume from your mouth’. He can paint in the expressionist manner:

I want
that cars, breasts split in two
that houses stood on their roofs and
the ground floated in the air
that all lines, forms were thrown up in
the air
like an indiscriminately,
that the colours screamed
kaleidoscopically […]

(from Solgrönt, ‘Sungreen’, 1933)

In Björling’s later poetry his lexicon is much simpler and the collisions tend to take place between word and non-word, between word and expectation.

Much of the evidence suggests that his method was that of reduction: to erase and erase again – not only the non-essential words, but also the essential ones.

On a biographical level Gunnar Björling appears like a Diogenes of Nordic literature, living if not in a barrel, then in a sauna (we’re in Finland!). Financially he seems to have been totally dependent on his better-off brother’s benevolence and on money borrowed from friends (and rarely paid back). Many saw him as an eccentric, and the rumours of his homosexuality did not make his relations with the bourgeoisie any easier.

It took a considerably hard-necked quality to persist in his absolutely original lyrical idiom, to tolerate a reception that at best talked of ‘incomprehensibility’, but often of ‘destruction of language’ or ‘poetry of the madhouse’. During the 1920s Björling, who made his debut with the collection Vilande dag (‘Resting day’) in 1922, was perhaps Finland’s most modernist poet, even lacked support among his modernist colleagues. Recognition came late in his life and when it did come it was largely thanks to the fact of his being ‘discovered’ in Sweden.

At once eccentric and generous, however, he made a strong impression on many younger writers – like Socrates, Björling was in that sense a ‘seducer of youth’. It should also be mentioned that the basement that accommodated his small sauna room is located in the fashionable Kaivopuisto area of Helsinki, and that the view from it of sea and rocks is magnificent.

A porcelain day transparent
o sun-day mildshineclear
a breakingchildlike
you a shore.
Gllimmering balsam
leaf’s light and shadowedplay
scent o brilliance
and mildnesssea’s lighteneddawn
the bird’s flight like scarcely a dared

(From Ohört blott, ‘Unheard only’, 1948)

No biographical anecdotes are needed for one to be captivated by the magnetism in the Björling neologisms, by his indeterminate syntax. At the same time it still feels natural to see his artistic staying power as an aspect of his uncompromising attitude to life in general. Björling renounced things – in language and in life. But at least in language his renunciation was a voluntary one, the erasures deliberate. Björling ‘was not out to crush language, but to open it,’ writes the poet Bo Carpelan, once himself an admiring young man. To open is to open possibilities.

‘My language is not in words’ says Björling himself. Quite true: his language (or style) is probably in spaces between the words, in the desire between them.

Translated by David McDuff

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