Harry Martinson Christopher Howell - Essay

Harry Edmund Martinson

Christopher Howell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first thing one notices about Harry Martinson's poems is their precision and over-all exactitude…. Always the precision takes on its own life, moves from impression to expression but without disturbing its own clear-pond-like surface…. [His] attention to actual "things" is nothing less than reverence, the everyday magic that keeps banality out of the everyday and out of Martinson's poems. Thus he can write a difficult (borderline sentimental) Wright-like elegy like "No Name for It" [in Friends, You Drank Some Darkness] with almost frustrating ease….

The second thing one notices about these poems is stillness. It is the blood of every word Martinson writes, and it winds without a seam around a major theme in Scandinavian literature from Strindberg to the present: the holy solitude of travelers. The small lyric "March Evening" … is a made-to-order example…. (p. 76)

Using precision, stillness, and the solitude of travelers, Martinson strings a tense, thin field between the mechanized, human-dominated world and the dance of nature. Like all lyric poets, Martinson draws heavily on his place in the natural flow. Nature, therefore, is in his poems true power. All else is counterfeit. In the poem "Hades and Euclid," it is the human world, the mathematical and mechanical one, which is flat and burning. Life, in Martinson's work, is depth, depth is power, and power is at its most luminous in the natural world. Though this conviction can be seen in nearly every poem collected here, nowhere is Martinson's moral ecology more explicitly outlined than in the poem "Winds of Passage."… [The] source of the tragic in Harry Martinson's work [is that new worlds do not exist—but in the world being left behind and in dreams]. It is not personal tragedy … but the unutterably huge sorrow of our species and, ultimately of our gleaming planet as well. (pp. 76-7)

Salvation? If Martinson believes in it, he locates it in the solitary mind, the unconscious surfacing from deep down without letting go the soil-clogged roots of existence. All things (even planets, species) die, but the deep-given perceptions of a reverent life stop time and are deathless…. (p. 77)

Christopher Howell, "Swedish Mystics," in Moons and Lion Tailes (copyright © 1976 by The Permanent Press), Vol. II, No. 1, 1976, pp. 75-82.∗