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].)