Coolness and warmth

21 April 2011 | Reviews

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Irmeli Jung

The coolness on the mountain
streams of water, black forests
in the west a growing light
foreboding sleep

These lines are from Gramina, the twenty-second and last collection of verse by the Finland-Swedish poet Bo Carpelan, which appeared last summer.

The short poem captures much of what was typical of Carpelan’s poetic style: a visually sharp and objective image which juxtaposes the world we see with a sense of something different, undefined. Time the unstoppable, which changes everything, was his central theme, and it also figures here.

Carpelan (1926–2011) made his debut in 1946 and was hailed early on as a renewer of the modernist tradition that in Finland began in the early 20th century with Edith Södergran (1892–1923) and Elmer Diktonius (1896–1961). He combined the Finnish-Swedish heritage of reflective nature poetry with imagistic stimuli from Swedish- and English-language modernism.

Carpelan’s breakthrough came with Den svala dagen (‘The cool day’, 1960). It expressed the cool existential heat that became his hallmark in ‘Autumn walk’, one of his best-known poems:

A man walks through the wood
one day of shifting light.
Encounters few people,
stops, considers the autumn sky.
He is making for the graveyard
and no one is following him.

In his poem Carpelan had already found the characteristic means of expression which he later deepened but did not fundamentally change – the short, condensed form, the clarity of method, the collegial interaction with other poets who had gone before, usually the classical masters.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was of the opinion that one should not devour books. If reading made one forget the outside world, it was better to stop and look around. Books should be a stimulus for one’s own activities – and judged by Emerson’s criteria, Carpelan is a model example. When he reads, the result is not only thoughts but also poems and aphorisms which give his reaction to what he has read. For this purpose he created a genre called ‘marginalia’, which he developed, for example, in the collection Marginalia till grekisk och romersk diktning (‘Marginalia to Greek and Roman poetry’, 1984).

In Gramina Carpelan derives inspiration from Horace, Virgil and Dante, and he comments on their work in lyrical form. ‘Gramina’ is Latin for grass, and it can be interpreted in various ways: as the poet’s own poems, sprouting among the tall classics of antiquity; or as the vitality which in Carpelan’s poetry always survives, beyond the passage of time and great events:

The grass passes over the earth,
over the gentle hills,
over the silent graves,
stops at the sea and sees
waves, as if they stood still.

For Carpelan the classics are at once contemporary, timeless and the way to a distant past. This is reflected in his poetic approach, which may equally adopt the baneful social criticism of Horace, the brutality of Virgil’s battle scenes, or the basic existential questions of Dante.

Gramina is a commentary on some of the greatest poets of world literature, and it provokes a desire to return to them. But the collection is much more than this: the numerous short poems, many of them consisting of only a few lines, gradually grow into a mighty whole. Most of Bo Carpelan’s major themes – time, memory, perception, the ‘you’ addressed in the poem – undergo further variation here, and acquire new life in language. In a fleeting world Carpelan helps us – just as Horace did two thousand years ago – to preserve something of what is essential.

Translated by David McDuff


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