(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

To discuss Gunnar Ekelöf’s poetry is to discuss more than poetry: His books of poems also document evolving stages of Ekelöf’s vision, the quest to resolve the great paradoxes of life and death and the boundaries of time. In his grappling with metaphysical questions, Ekelöf followed the path of the “contemporary mystic,” in Eric Lindegren’s words, and it is this quest which gives Ekelöf’s poetry its distinctive character.

“En outsiders väg”

In 1941, Ekelöf wrote an essay entitled “En outsiders väg” (an outsider’s way), and readers have followed his lead in classifying Ekelöf’s perspective as that of an “outsider.” Certainly, the Byzantine and ancient Greek settings of his last books of poems are far removed from the life and landscape of his contemporary Sweden. One of the central themes in Ekelöf’s poetry is the plight of the individual, both isolated and imprisoned within the conscious ego and subjective will of the “I” and “locked out” from all other people and things. The poet’s first duty, Ekelöf has stated, is “to admit his unrelieved loneliness and meaninglessness in his wandering on the Earth.” It is paradoxically this awareness, this outsider perspective, that allows the poet to create, for only then is the poet resigned enough to be uninhibited, to write truthfully—and thereby to be of some use to others. In typical Ekelöf fashion, total alienation and dejection are turned upside down to provide the starting point for genuine communication. Ekelöf never veers from his personal vision, his outsider’s way, but at the same time he never loses his audience. His personal vision is expressed with such uncompromising honesty and conviction that his private questions and dilemmas assume universal significance. Thus, however cryptic and arcane his verse becomes, it...

(The entire section is 756 words.)