Gunnar Ekelöf 1907–1968
(Full name Gunnar Bengt Ekelöf; also transliterated as Ekeloef) Swedish poet, essayist, and translator.
Ekelöf has often been described as the most important poet of modern Swedish literature. His work, which reflects the influences of the mystical poetry of ancient Persia and the Orient, Taoist and Indian mysticism, and French Symbolism and Surrealism, is complex and enigmatic. Written in the modernist aesthetic tradition, Ekelöf's poetry challenges the reader to abandon conventional perceptions of both poetry and reality. True to the work of the Surrealists, his works also call upon readers to explore the relevance of the subconscious to their thinking. Thus, Ekelöf's work is often filled with fantastic, dreamlike images and symbols which mock rational thought. Against this backdrop, reality and self emerge as Ekelöf's major concerns, while freedom from the dualistic morality of good and evil become his personal and poetic aim.
Ekelöf was born into a wealthy family in Stockholm, Sweden. He described his mother, with whom he never shared a close relationship, as a member of the "petty nobility." His father, a stockbroker, contracted syphilis while Ekelöf was a child; the disease caused him to lose his sanity, and eventually resulted in his death. The loss of his father led Ekelöf to regard himself as an outsider, and the image of the outcast or loner appears frequently in his poetry. Ekelöf's academic career was widely varied. He studied Asian languages in London, England, as well as in Uppsala, Sweden, and in Paris during the 1920s he studied writing, music, and drawing. Both music and the visual arts surface as important influences in his poetry. Ekelöf was elected to the Swedish Academy in 1958. He died of throat cancer in 1968.
Ekelöf's first book of poems, Sent på jorden (1932; Late Arrival on Earth) proved itself an influential work in its time. Written during a period of the author's deep despair and drawing upon the techniques of French Surrealism, the volume presents a bleak, nihilistic vision of a world hurtling toward destruction. This work, Ekelöf's "suicide book," was written at a time when the bourgeois humanistic culture of Sweden was under fierce criticism by such groups as the Marxists, and is considered revolutionary because it attacked not only the bourgeoisie but also "the conventional structures of language and literature." Full
of nightmarish imagery of death and decay, Late Arrival on Earth marks the beginning of Ekelöf's lifelong attack on traditional conceptions of reality as well as of poetry. Dedikation (1934; Dedication), Ekelöf's second book of poetry, reflects the influence of French Symbolism: here, Ekelöf portrays himself as an interpreter or "seer" whose vision extends beyond the perimeters of superficial reality. More positive than Late Arrival on Earth, Dedication shows the author groping toward the truth which he believes lies beyond reality and seeking a "oneness" denied by the moralists' artificially constructed poles of good and evil. Transcendence of such boundaries, Ekelöf believed, allows one to become fully "oneself." In Sorgen och stjärnan (1935; Grief and Stars), Ekelöf denies the existence of reality altogether: concepts, institutions, rules, and boundaries are seen as artificial, the mere inventions of persons struggling to impose order on the chaotic and unending struggle between good and evil. Ekelöf regarded Färjesång (1941; Ferry Song) as the culmination of his thought. More intellectual than his previous works, Ferry Song displays the influence of Symbolism and Romanticism. Attempting to reconcile the ideal and the real, the poet questions the validity of our traditional conceptions of both the self and reality. One of Ekelöf's most frequently discussed works is En Mölna-elegi (1960; A Mölna Elegy). Reminiscent of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, the Elegy consists in part of the poet's intricate musings, revolving around a single day he spent on the Mölna jetty outside of Stockholm, and contains an abundance of literary and historical allusions, including obscene lines from ancient Roman poetry. In general, Ekelöf's later poetry pursues themes similar to those of his earlier works, but in a different style and manner. In many of these works, there is an absurd element and an apparent attempt to eliminate all but the most necessary words and images. On numerous occasions, Ekelöf himself denied that these works were even poetry. The most widely-known examples from this phase in Ekelöfs career are Diwan över Fursten av Emgión (1965; Divan about the Prince of Emgión), Sagan om Fatumeh (1966; The Story of Fatumeh), and Vägvisare till underjorden (1967; Guide to the Underworld.)
Many critics have acclaimed Ekelöf as a profound thinker and have praised his ability to incorporate diverse influences into a coherent pattern of thought. Some commentators have expressed admiration for Ekelöf as a distinctly Swedish poet whose works are permeated by the sentiments and landscapes of his native country. Ekelöf's poetry has been characterized as innovative in form and technique, particularly in its adaptation of musical forms to verse. His poetry, scholars have concluded, is distinguished by its originality and its relevancy to the reader concerned with problems of the modern age.
Sent på jorden [Late Arrival on Earth] 1932
Dedikation [Dedication] 1934
Sorgen och stjärnan [Grief and Stars] 1935
Köp den blindes sång [Buy the Blind Man's Poem] 1938
Färjesång [Ferry Song] 1941
Non serviam [I Will Not Serve] 1945
Dikter (collected poems) 1949
Om hösten [In Autumn] 1951
Strountes [Nonsense or Try flings] 1955
Opus incertum 1959
En Mölna-elegi [A Mölna Elegy] 1960
En natt i Oto ac [A Night in Oto ac] 1961
Diwan över Fursten av Emgión [Divan about the Prince of Emgión] 1965
Sagan om Fatumeh [The Story of Fatumeh] 1966
Vägvisare till underjorden [Guide to the Underworld] 1967
* Partitur [Score] 1969
*En röst 1973
Other Major Works
Promenader [Walks] (essays) 1941
Utflykter [Excursions] (essays) 1947
Blandade kort [Shuffled Cards] (essays) 1957
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SOURCE: "Allusions in the First Part of En Mölna-Elegi," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 4, November, 1965, pp. 293-323.
[In the following excerpt, while tracing the literary, mythological, and historical allusions in A Mölna Elegy, Sjöberg discusses Ekelöf's fascination with the theme of time and his connections to James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.]
If there has been a major shift in poetic theory during the past two centuries, it has been from an emphasis of the external world (around us) to the internal world (within us). Thus, for a long time the consciousness of man has been the primary target for a vast number of writers and poets. The great variety with which these consciousnesses are described may be illustrated by a brief consideration of three outstanding examples. In his Ulysses (1922), James Joyce devoted more than a quarter million words to revealing the complexity involved in the passage of a single, ordinary day, and later, in Finnegans Wake (1939) used as many words to dramatize a single night of a single character. Eliot, on the other hand, concentrated his discussion of The Waste Land to just over four hundred lines. At about the time when Joyce began preparing Finnegans Wake for the press, Gunnar Ekelöf (b. 1907) began to write En Mölna-Elegi, which was finally published in 1960. In an introductory note in...
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SOURCE: "Gunnar Ekelöf: The Poet As Trickster," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 42, No. 4, November, 1970, pp. 410-18.
[In the following excerpt, Ekner examines the ways in which Ekelöf's shorter poems often seem embedded in an intricate, "larger context," details of which the reader might only discern in the future, when recalling the poem.]
Gunnar Ekelöf was not a brilliant conversationalist, but when he felt at ease he could be very entertaining. He would talk about his life and his reading, about people he had met, and he would do it laconically and drastically, in short snatches. Eventually, after a long pause, it often happened that he would finish with a sharp and penetrating comment and glance quickly at his listeners to see if they understood. It was not always easy to do so, since he enjoyed being cryptic and making allusions: he took for granted that his listeners were acquainted with many languages and different cultures, and that they had had experiences which anyone would be reluctant to talk about quite openly. He did not like to explain his cryptic remarks, for it would have meant destroying his point, and if he saw that the person with whom he was conversing did not understand, then he preferred to make small talk or to fall silent.
In his poetry he was natural in his own way: he expressed himself exactly, without bothering to explain what in his own eyes was expressed...
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SOURCE: "The Later Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf: Diwan and Fatumeh," in Mosaic, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter, 1970, pp. 101-15.
[In the following excerpt, Sjöberg explores Ekelöfs blending of Eastern mysticism with the Christian figure of the Virgin Mary in two of his later poems.]
In his prose works, the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968) often returned to memories and dreams, some-what as Proust did. What triggered Ekelöf's memory might be a fragrance, a tone, or a certain light. He described childhood experiences, his observations from travels in the Mediterranean area or in Lapland, his fascination with people, books, and pictures. Certain of these themes appear quite frequently in his poems. In the essay "En outsiders väg" ("An Outsider's Way," 1947) he gives part of his lyrical autobiography. When he calls himself an autodidact, he does not mean it in the proletarian sense. "My childhood environment was well-to-do but so far beyond the normal and so alien to life, that there was plenty of room for a peculiar kind of want." And it is on this lack, in the midst of abundance, he says that he has lived.
"Music has given me the most and the best," he stated. It was Oriental mysticism, however, that engrossed him during his years of awakening. "I learned to hate Europe and Christianity and during morning prayers at school I began to mumble my "Om mani padme hum" ("The...
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SOURCE: "East Meets West—Gunnar Ekelöf in English," in Moderna språk, Vol. LXVI, No. 2, 1972, pp. 124-30.
[In the following excerpt, Otter offers a mixed review of Selected Poems as translated by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg, arguing that while some of the translation decisions made in the volume are imprecise and misleading and indicate "a certain lack of feeling for Ekelöfs mysticism and his style, " it is useful to have an English translation of Ekelöf's later poems which has the potential to "reach a very wide public. "]
One of Gunnar Ekelöf's earliest attempts at revolt against society and Christianity took the form of muttering to himself during school prayers "Om mani padme hum". This youthful protest, blended with mysticism, is evidence already of his interest in the East, which he later fed to the full at the Royal Library in Stockholm. Here, through Heidenstam's Endymion, he was led to a book which for a time was to become his favourite, and which was to remain a recurrent source of inspiration to the end of his life: the Tarjúmàn al-Ashwáq ("Translator of the Desires") of Ibn al-'Arabi, called Muhyi al-Din, a 12 13th century Sufi mystical poet. This book, a collection of mystical odes of platonic love expressed in erotic terms, first taught him, he said, what symbolism and surrealism really were.
Three attempts to leave Sweden "for good" in...
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SOURCE: "Listening to the Voices," in Voices Under the Ground: Themes and Images in the Early Poetry of Gunnar Ekelöf, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 1-34.
[In the following excerpt, Shideler asserts that the poem "Voices Under the Ground" serves as a commentary on the absurdity of death and as a reflection of the dialogues which occur within one's own consciousness.]
Gunnar Ekelöf's poem "Voices Under the Ground," published in In Autumn (1951) has been only casually touched upon by Swedish critics, yet it is one of Ekelöf's major poems. In it many of the crucial themes and images of the first twenty years of his poetry reach full fruition, for, with complete technical mastery, he draws upon the unconscious to symbolize and to identify his concern with dreams and with man's alienated and mortal consciousness. At first this poem seems like an incomprehensible dialogue between voices under the ground, with some unidentified observer above the ground. Upon further analysis, however, the poem has the unified structure of a dream and the dialogue represents a dialogue within the narrator's own consciousness.
This seemingly unstructured poem has a rather clear framekwork that can be outlined in musical terms, but the full depth of the poem is illuminated only when we see how Ekelöf uses symbols such as the bird and the stone within the structure of a dream. Ultimately,...
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SOURCE: "Swedish Poetry of the Twentieth Century," in Essays on Swedish Literature from 1880 to the Present Day, edited by Irene Scobbie, University of Aberdeen, 1978, pp. 125-72.
[In the following excerpt, Scobbie traces the development of Ekelöf's poetic career, focusing on its complexity and allusiveness, and noting the poet's interest in mysticism, Asian culture, and music]
[Ekelöf's] first published collection of poetry, entitled sent på jorden (1932), was advertised as Sweden's first Surrealistic poetry. Reluctant as ever to be categorised, Ekelöf declined to accept the label "Surrealist"; nevertheless, in spite of his claim that 'jag arbetade aldrig surrealistiskt', the description seems accurate to most readers. Images are linked in striking but unexpected combinations and create a dream-like atmosphere reminiscent of paintings by Salvador Dali; it is as if the poet's subconscious were addressing the reader direct, missing out the normal, conventional logic of speech:
Ekelöf indicated that sent på jorden was influenced greatly by Stravinsky he would play records of The Rite of Spring repeatedly while writing and called the collection 'en självmordsbok'. The final poem, "apoteos", opens with the much-quoted line 'ge mig gift att dö eller drömmar att leva' and ends with a wish to dissolve into the absolute, the last line 'till intet' being followed by...
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SOURCE: "Gunnar Ekelöf's A Mölna Elegy: The Attempted Reconstruction of a Moment," in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook, Vol. 1, 1979, pp. 199-214.
[In the following excerpt, Sjöberg analyzes literary allusions modern as well as Classical in The Mölna Elegy and discusses the poem's predominant theme of time.]
Muriel Rukeyser's translation marks the first English publication of Gunnar Ekelöf's En Mölna-elegi (Stockholm, 1960). Classified as 'work in progress' for more than twenty years prior to its publication, the Elegy demanded nearly a decade for the location and identification of its learned allusions and borrowings and nearly two decades for its publication in entirety in the English language.
Ekelöf's poem 'concerns itself with the relativity of time and time-experience, perhaps also with a kind of Lebensstimmung. It is not a description of a time lapse but (theoretically) is supposed to occur in one moment. In other words: it is a cross-section of time instead of a section lengthwise', wrote Ekelöf in a note in BLM in 1946. Later he warned against attempts to overemphasize the 'one moment'. He added:
Time and time, What is it? It is supposed to occur not in a lapse of time but outside [of] time, in a mood of passivity and receptivity towards one's self, when everything and anything is possible...
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SOURCE: "A Cull of Trance-Roamers," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall/Winter, 1984, pp. 192-212.
[In the following excerpt, Birkerts reviews Songs of Something Else: Selected Poems, and analyzes three poetic styles—surreal, mystical but conflicted, and lyrically spiritual—represented in Ekelöfs work.]
"Poetry is something which is only done by the whole man."
Gunnar Ekelöf came to poetry by a circuitous route. He first studied music in Paris, and when he abandoned that, it was to move to London to pursue Oriental Studies. It was not until illness forced him to drop his plan of travelling to Asia that he finally turned to poetry. He did not relinquish either interest and the poetry of his later years has often been characterized as a kind of Eastern music but many years had to pass before such a synthesis could be effected. First there came a surrealist phase, and then, for decades, lyrical and metaphysical impulses merged to shape a unique and constantly changing idiom. This "middle phase" forms the bulk of Ekelöf's production and is crucial to any tracing of his full trajectory. Leonard Nathan and James Larson have made a judicious selection and a careful translation of poems from these decades (1938-1959). In Songs of Something Else we now have for the first time a full sense of...
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SOURCE: "Now and Absence in the Early Ekelöf," in Scandinavian Studies Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 319-30.
[In the following excerpt, Fioretos focuses on "osynlig närvaro" ("invisible presence"), a poem which appears in Late Arrival on Earth, as a pioneering example of Swedish modernism.]
Gunnar Ekelöf's poem "osynlig närvaro" ("invisible presence"), first published as the fourth entry in sent på jorden (1932; late on earth), bears upon questions of poetic articulation. As such, it must be understood to express concerns that generate the texts of Ekelöf's debut collection in general. Demonstrating a paradoxical relationship between visibility and invisibility, the poem conveys a disturbingly impenetrable presence. The lack of a substantial core in this presence, intimated by the title and recurring in other late on earth poems, permits a rotating motion of polarities, such as those of sight and sound, interior and exterior, presence and absence. The vacillating between these polarities will be the concern of this paper.
The poem reads:
gryningen kom med brusten blick,
fönstret stirrade länge
i ögonblicket som föll bort
då väckarklockan ringde …
en gäspning släpade sig över golvet
och drunknade i lavoaren,
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Benedikt, Michael. "Critic of the Month: IV." Poetry 113, No. 3 (December 1968): 188-215.
Brief discussion of Robert Bly's English translation of Ekelöf's poetry, entitled I Do Best Alone at Night.
Harvey, Steven. "The Changed Name of God." The Iowa Review 25, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 1995): 40-6.
Compares Ekelöf with poet John Logan.
Lesser, Rika. "Gunnar Ekelöf and Hjalmar Gullberg: 'But in Another Language … ". The American Poetry Review 10, No. 5 (September/October 1981): 42-7.
A positive assessment of Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg's 1979 English translation of A Mölna Elegy.
Mattsson, Margareta. Review of Songs of Something Else, by Gunnar Ekelöf, translated by Leonard Nathan and James Larson. World Literature Today 57, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 122.
A generally favorable review of Songs of Something Else.
Merwin, W. S. "Into English." The New York Times Book Review (March 17, 1968): 6.
A largely negative review of Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf, as translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg....
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