Ekelöf, Gunnar (Bengt)
Gunnar (Bengt) Ekelöf 1907–1968
(Also transliterated as Ekeloef) Swedish poet, essayist, and translator.
Ekelöf is often described as the most important poet of modern Swedish literature. His work, which clearly reflects the influences of the mystical poetry of Persia and the Orient, Taoist and Indian mysticism, and French Symbolism and Surrealism, is both difficult and demanding. In the modernist aesthetic tradition, it challenges the reader to abandon conventional perceptions of both poetry and reality. As is true of the work of the Surrealists, Ekelöf's poetry also urges readers to explore the relevance of the subconscious to their thinking. In keeping with this aim, his work is often filled with fantastic, dreamlike images and symbols which mock rational thought. Against this background of thought, reality and self emerge as Ekelöf's major concerns, freedom from the dualistic moral conception of good and evil, his personal and poetic aim.
Ekelöf's first book of poetry, Sent på jorden (1932; Late Arrival on Earth), was an influential book of its time. Written in a period of the author's deep despair, it presents a bleak, nihilistic vision of a world hurtling toward destruction and employs techniques of French Surrealism. This work, Ekelöf's "suicide book," was written at a time when the bourgeois humanistic culture of Sweden was under fierce attack by Marxist and other groups and is considered revolutionary in that it attacked not only that culture but "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 both reality and poetry.
Dedikation (1934; Dedication), Ekelöf's second book of poetry, reflects the influence of French Symbolism in that the author portrays himself as an interpreter, or "seer," one whose vision and insight extends beyond the perimeters of surface reality. More positive than Late Arrival on Earth, this work shows the author groping towards the truth which he believes lies beyond reality. Ekelöf seeks a "oneness" that the dualistic moral conception of good and evil denies. He expresses if not hope, then at least a belief that one must not give up the struggle to transcend the limitations of reality as moralists have conceived it. Transcendence of such boundaries, Ekelöf believed, allows one to fully become "oneself." In Sorgen och stjärnan (1935; Grief and Stars), Ekelöf's third volume of poetry, the poet 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 considered Färjesång (1941; Ferry Song) the culmination of his thought. More intellectual than his previous works, Ferry Song in its style shows the influence of Symbolism and Romanticism. Attempting to reconcile the ideal and the real, Ekelöf here examines the natures of both self and reality and questions the validity of our traditional conceptions of them. He concludes that in a world where the forms of reality derive solely from the compulsions of persons caught in the mire of the imprisoning battle between good and evil, "only as a wit-ness to this struggle does a person exist." Ekelöf then categorizes "witnesses": the innocent, whom good and evil play upon; the moralists, who propagate the dualistic system, taking sides and creating forms and structures to aid their cause; and the uncommitted, who recognize but refuse to participate in the war between good and evil. By withdrawing from the struggle that structures all cultures and societies, however, the uncommitted must pay the price of complete isolation.
Ekelöf's later poetry pursues themes similar to those of his earlier works, but in a rather different style and manner. In many of these works, there is an absurd element and an apparent attempt to shear his work of all but the most necessary words and images. On numerous occasions, Ekelöf himself denied that such works were even poetry. Critics nevertheless address them as such. The most renowned examples of this phase of Ekelöf's writing are Dïwān över Fursten av Emgión (1965; Divan of the Prince of Emgión), Sagan om Fatumeh (1966; The Story of Fatumeh), and Vägvisare till underjorden (1967; Guide to the Underworld).
Critics describe Ekelöf as a profound thinker and praise his ability to incorporate diverse influences into a coherent pattern of thought. Some also marvel that he remained, in spite of these influences, a distinctly Swedish poet in that the landscapes and aura of his native country haunt most of his work.
Ekelöf's poetry is described as innovative in form and technique, especially in its adaptation of musical forms to verse. His poetry, some feel, will have a lasting place in the history of modern literature because of its originality and its relevancy to the reader concerned with problems of the modern age.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary].)
Gunnar Ekelöf's poetry shows more sudden turns than that of any other poet in the Thirties' group [in Sweden]. In his five books of poems he appears in turn as saboteur, seer, romantic swan, blind beggar and ruminating ferryboat man on the river of death. But his personality is so strong in all these guises that we ought to speak of his different phases in the same sense that we speak of the phases of the moon. His books may also be compared with acts of a play: they develop out of one another in an almost dialectical way, bringing one another into relief, and supporting one another as do the poems of no other modern Swedish writer.
Ekelöf is a late romantic and a modern intellectual with a scepticism so deep that from the Western point of view he can be defined as an anarchistic mystic—one who doubts reality in the Eastern way. In fact, he is influenced by Persian, Indian and Taoist mysticism. At the same time, he is in the highest degree a product of European culture, both classical and modern…. The [Swedish] poets he reminds one of most are Stagnelius (in his romantic feeling for life), Almquist (in his mingling of innocence and arsenic) and Fröding (in his anti-moralistic thought). He further reminds one of these men in his remarkable gift for form, which shows itself above all in the fact that he is more self-reliant in form than any other living Swedish poet. This in turn is contingent upon his concern with music....
(The entire section is 3142 words.)
The inward thought of the Orient and the surrealist poetry of France have been [Ekelöf's] deep concerns, and have provided foundations for his own poetry. Yet his poetry is perfectly Swedish. His imagination in "Trionfo della Morte" for example reminds one strongly of his younger contemporary, Ingmar Bergman. There is a similar walk on the borders of religion and witchcraft, and inside the work of art visual images that seem to float.
In America, we assume that only a cracker-barrel sort of poetry can be popular. Swedish poets, particularly Ekelöf, do not follow this old rut of thought. Ekelöf is the most difficult Swedish poet, and yet his audience is large…. In his poetry there are linked successions of thoughts which are difficult to follow. These thoughts are embodied in high-spirited and colorful language. He is an uncomfortable poet, who tries to make the reader conscious of lies. His work attacks the moralistic personality. He divides all personalities into the innocent, the moralistic, and the uncommitted. The innocent temperament is primitive and intuitive; the uncommitted is the most highly advanced. The moralistic personality, overpowering today in numbers, sees in life only the fight between the dragon and the knight. It does not see the virgin at all. But the virgin who does not participate in the battle is life itself. What is behind and beyond the battle between good and evil is more important than either. As he...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
[Sjöberg is the principal translator into English of Ekelöf's work and has provided a significant amount of critical commentary on his poetry.]
When Ekelöf's Färjesång was published in 1941, it was in some respects a return to the sphere and manner of Sent på jorden with its use of thoughts and elements from various sources. This allusion technique has been extended and developed further in Färjesång where there are thoughts from Buddhism, Taoism, mystic writers, folklore, and modern rationalism. Partly because of this technique Ekelöf's name was linked with Eliot's. Some critics have attempted to establish Ekelöf's indebtedness to Eliot…. It is somewhat embarrassing for some Swedish critics that Ekelöf [himself had to point out the fact that what he has to say is entirely different from what Eliot has to say]. Ekelöf's art of pre-Christian and post-Christian mysticism, i.e., non-Christian, must of necessity differ widely from Eliot's meditations, which are clearly within the bounds of Christian thought, at least from his Ash-Wednesday on.
In Färjesång Ekelöf presents "a third position, the objective one." The key to this position, I think, can be found in the key poem "Tag och skriv." This poem, which consists of five movements, was conceived during the winter of 1938–39 at Hölö, outside Södertälje, where Ekelöf lived...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)
Ekelöf is a poet of surpassing stature, one of the masters of modern poetry, yet little known in America. [Selected Poems, translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg, 1967,] contains a wonderful selection of the Swedish poet's work. In it, three themes—time, death, and self—recur. In poem after poem, these themes are explored, expanded, and modified, but seldom is an idea, an image or an attitude repeated, so varied are Ekelöf's feelings and so skillful is his recording of them. His poems seem grounded in a sub-atomic physics whose laws unfold in a resonance of wild and strange language.
John Demos, in a review of "Selected Poems," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, July, 1967; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1967 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 92, No. 13, July, 1967, p. 2584.
(The entire section is 136 words.)
To find a new poet who speaks as we speak, who says the things we need to hear, but in another language, is to be filled again, to find the next place. And if he is a world-poet living in our time. And if he brings us a strange music, music of our own thoughts and nights, a sense of light-struck magnificence and of the horrors, of stubborn affirmation; and the filth of cruelty, death, and sexual madness. And if his poems fall into their riches, lyrics, long coherent processions, a kind of theatre, amazing new and sudden lyrics, reaching us in another way, like a new touch on us? This is Gunnar Ekelöf. (p. 5)
Fierce, magnificent music is given to us by Ekelöf, past the building of joy and the imperative which ends [the poem] "Euphoria." "He attempts to free himself from the dualistic moral conceptions," says Johannes Edfelt …, "and find a 'third' point of view."
If one climbed the hills to the top hills of a watershed and found there a yellow door, not set in a wall but standing free in air; if one could see the further hills and all the streams flowing away on the other side; but set hand to that door, opened it, and walked through, to find all different-colored, differently lit, otherwise, on the far side, that would be something of the change these poems make, that unique resonance of a new and formidable poet. (p. 8)
Muriel Rukeyser, in a foreword to Selected Poems of...
(The entire section is 300 words.)
It is true that Ekelöf occasionally may appear "absurd" in his later poetry, but to call him "absurd" is inaccurate. He is beyond categorizations of that type. Whether he would approve of the most recent offshoots of the "absurd school" is questionable. Whatever "absurdism" he has is by no means absolute…. Disbelief and skepticism are in fact more typical of Ekelöf than mysticism and absurdism. Skepticism requires an observant, analyzing mind, which is precisely what he has at his disposal. With all his outward success, and with all his analytical ability, however, he finds little but meaninglessness around him. (p. 18)
By being interested in fundamentals Ekelöf has had to make some painful reductions, he has had to start from scratch, without any expectations at all…. Instead of the superstructures, so typical of our civilization, he has often investigated substructures, basic conditions and concepts. The outcome is rather alarming, at least to those with fixed positions and values. In fact, he does not consider such rigid positions as real possibilities. He must have been struck by the many conflicting elements in his own personality which tended to cancel each other out. The extent to which he has experienced these conflicts has been so great that he has questioned the existence of the self. (p. 19)
As a consequence of [the] conviction ["there is no I"] the poet can...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)
Many critics consider Gunnar Ekelöf to be the greatest living Swedish poet. He reached out early in his career to two sources outside the Scandinavian tradition: to the mystical poetry of Persia in particular, and the Orient in general, and to French poetry, especially the surrealist poetry of the late 'twenties. His poetry has deep roots also in Fröding, Almqvist, and the Swedish fairy tales.
In Swedish literature there is a much firmer division between the 'country' and the 'city' writing than there is in America or England. There has been a succession of great writers in Sweden each of whom has taken his place naturally in one of these two groups. Gunnar Ekelöf very clearly belongs to the second group, the writers that are Europeanized, ascetic, intellectual; and he is a supreme example of the greatness possible in that tradition.
Some of Gunnar Ekelöf's poems are made of linked successions of thoughts not easy to follow. We have no poet like him in English or American poetry. The subtle thoughts are embodied in high-spirited and eccentric language…. He is an uncomfortable poet; he tries to make the reader conscious of lies and of the unstable and shifty nature of the human ego.
His poems float along like souls above the border between religion and witchcraft.
We find him urging the reader to 'give up power', admonitions like those found in Persian mystics or in the Tao...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
If there has been a major shift in poetic theory during the past two centuries, it has been from an emphasis on the external world (around us) to the internal, night 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 many ways in which these consciousnesses are suggested may be illustrated by a brief consideration of three outstanding examples, in the works of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Gunnar Ekelöf…. 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 as experienced by a single character. Eliot, on the other hand, limited his discussion of The Waste Land to just over four hundred lines. At about the time when Joyce began preparing Finnegans Wake for publication, Ekelöf began to write En Mölna-elegi…. [Ekelöf's] theme was a single, extraordinary moment. This moment of Lebensstimmung, this second, comprises images from a number of centuries and from various cultures and religions of the past and the present; it deals with the West as well as the East and with the primitive as well as the sophisticated, and it was "work in progress" for more than twenty years. (p. 9)
(The entire section is 690 words.)
[Ekelöf], the unique poet of his generation, led a self-tormented existence, to which his elegant, impersonal poems rarely furnish a clue. His family background, reminiscent both of Ibsen's Ghosts and Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata, left him to the mercy—one should perhaps say to the mercilessness—of the private pledge and the dream, to an obdurate alienation from his own culture. "I learned to hate Europe and Christianity," he confessed. By dint of application, he learned to hate a large surface of the inhabited globe, present and past. (This is the authentic, but concealed, virgin spring of the Swedish Middle Way.) Ekelöf's immersion in Oriental languages, from which derived the fabulous poems in [Selected Poems, translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg, 1971,] was as ambivalent as his other commitments (e.g. his fine translations of French poets whom on principle he otherwise repudiated)…. Such wholesale immolation drove him to the border of suicide, in fact and artistically, when, in the Fifties, he fashioned a style of verse so exiguous as to be incommunicable—frozen, calligraphic, touched with obscenity—comparable in its way to the inhibited, self-abusing cinema of Bergman. In this frozen desert he nurtured a snowflush out of which incredibly bloomed the exotic penultimate poems, Dīwān over the Prince of Emgion and The Tale of Fatumeh. The first of these poems was allegedly inspired by a...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
One could speculate on Ekelöf's position among contemporary poets if his mother tongue had been English or any other "world-language," but one should then keep in mind the force of another, strangely similar Scandinavian, the Dane, Sören Kierkegaard. In due time Ekelöf will prevail and conquer. He stubbornly returned to the same themes with original imagination utilizing international and intracultural imagery. Much of what he has to say is placed on the sharp edge of paradox. Some music might be lost in translation but some might even be gained, for it is my experience that he is eminently translatable because the meat of his thoughts so often is merely suggested between the lines and in the clash of metaphors.
As a student of Ekelöf's works, it was only natural that I would devour his autobiography [En självbiografi. Efterlämnade brev och anteckningar] in search of clues to supposed riddles. I ran through it feverishly in order to get to know him better—but I put away the book with a feeling of disappointment. Upon rereading it I realize that the disappointment had its roots in my greediness for novelty and sensation. There is very little here that Ekelöf has not revealed earlier in his works. He was already transparent. What the book does is stress his sincerity. It is yet another Ekelöf volume bearing witness to his alienation in the modern, superficially structured world and to his familiarity with painful,...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Dreams are a central motif in the poetry of Gunnar Ekelöf, and throughout his writing he uses images from them to present insights unattainable through reason or conscious thought.
Ekelöf reflects qualities of both French symbolists and Scandinavian nature-lyricists. Rimbaud's famous declaration that the poet must make himself a voyant, a seer, affected not only the surrealists, but also led poets such as Ekelöf to explore the darkness within themselves. Ekelöf's fascination with Rimbaud was so profound that he translated a large selection of Rimbaud's prose and poetry and wrote a well-researched introduction for his translations. In this introduction Ekelöf suggests that we see Rimbaud as a sacrifice to the primitive dreams which modern man must retain if he is to stay in touch with his emotional life.
The surrealists also explored dreams, and Ekelöf had a clear affinity for those revolutionary writers living in Paris while he himself was there. Although Ekelöf disavowed much direct influence from the surrealists, some of his major themes parallel their obsession with the "unconscious." A major path to this hidden life, as Rimbaud had revealed, was through dreams. As an escape from oppressive reality, or as a return to the innocence and openness of childhood, dreams opened the doors, for all of the poets in this group, into the borders of a life often more confusing, but more meaningful, than daily...
(The entire section is 1141 words.)
LEONARD NATHAN and JAMES LARSON
In both subject and style Ekelöf belongs among those poets we call "modern," that vague but handy term which allows so considerable a variety within a comfortably large category of likeness. Applied to poetic practice, "modern" suggests a deliberate rejection of or radical departure from convention, literary and social. The declared modern author characteristically addressed subjects that disturbed, when they did not offend or scandalize, most nineteenth-century readers, and not because such subjects sometimes violated sexual taboos, but because they would have seemed, by accepted standards, subliterary or, better, unpoetic. Modernist styles would have also seemed calculated to bewilder this same audience, denying them clear, orderly development of ideas, familiar cadences, and a common stock of allusion. (p. 6)
One of the marks of modernism is that it so easily crossed borders to create a sort of higher European intellectual culture to ward off what then passed for barbarity. As a culture of opposition, European modernism drew much of its impetus from its adversary passion: the adversary—the new barbarism—was the middle-class society whose cultural strongholds were the established schools, academies, and museums; it is no surprise that these institutions, as well as the kind of art and literature they fostered, were the most visible targets of modernist mockery and outrage. Yet is it not ironic or paradoxical that many...
(The entire section is 2240 words.)