Maintenant #91 – Gunnar Harding
An interview with Gunnar Harding by SJ Fowler.
It is too easy, and often, it would seem, far too tempting for the assumption to be made that it is just longevity itself which accounts for the repute and esteem of certain figures in poetry, whose influence seems so fundamental and ubiquitous within a nation’s poetic culture. Yet Gunnar Harding, as much as many a near legendary poet, has influenced so many and built such an immense following precisely because of his remarkable ability to make his poetry one founded on renewal, on tone, on intricacy, on inhabitation – to strike the reader with an original voice no matter their generation and poetic taste, whether they read his first published book in 1967, or his last, a third volume of selected poems. For nearly fifty years Harding has been at the forefront of Scandinavian poetics, rising from the generation of so many great poets in the 1960’s, a former artist and jazz musician, his fluid, energetic, deeply intelligent poetry has been a consistent inspiration to his countrymen and many poets who do not have five decades of writing behind them. For the 91st edition of Maintenant, Gunnar Harding.
3:AM: You have often inhabited the body of poets to recapitulate something essential about them, and remarkably, in so doing, have shed light on your own poetics as perhaps being even more individual and idiosyncratic than those who declaim their influences. Was this is a deliberate vehicle for you, to embrace other poets as a crux of subject to establish your own uniqueness all the more?
Gunnar Harding: Yes, I have never tried to hide my gratitude to poets who have been important for my own writing. Edward Young wrote: ”We are born originals and die as copies.” I don’t agree. Our language is born in communication with other people. With those we love and have confidence in we talk in a more personal way. As our voices get influenced by the person we talk to, we also become more personal. It’s the same with literary influences. Voices that mean a lot to us are stimulating our own. We develop into originals in communication with people who have something important to teach us about ourselves.
3:AM: And with Rosetti and Apollinaire and Shelley, this seems to be a recurrence throughout your 45 years of writing. Is this mode of poetry something essential to you? To the reading you do, and have always done, as a poet?
GH: As a young poet I identified myself with Shelley, an idealist who collided with the hard facts of life. I loved his poetry, but it took me around 25 years before I thought that I had technical skill enough to translate it. Fiftyfive Spenser-stanzas only in ”Adonais”! But I did it. Rossetti for me was something else. He came in much later. I had spent many years introducing the modernist poets who rebelled against Victorian poetry. Why not listen to the other side? I see Rossetti as a personification of the forgotten poet, a poet who once was a central figure and now is falling out of the anthologies. Being an old man now I suspect that this might happen to most of us. Or, as Rossetti put it: ”Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; / I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell…”. Beautiful.
Around 1980 I had become quite bored with my method of using different personas in my poetry. I wrote a poem with the elaborate title ”Agatha Christie disappeared for twelve days in Sussex in the disguise of her husband’s mistress”. That was the most extreme but also, I thought, the last of my masquerade-poems. To appear in the disguise of a woman who herself was in the disguise of another woman – there I had reached the limit. I wanted to become myself again. That I chose for my persona a woman who herself had committed an innumerable amount of murders of fictional characters was not by chance. Well, I know, I wrote my ”parlour-pieces” on Dante Gabriel Rossetti some decade later, but I am not a fundamentalist.
3:AM: Your practise as an artist and a musician before your poetry came to prominence seems to have made itself felt in your poetry too, and with great deftness you have inculcated the trace of musical rhythm and artistic technique into poetry. Has this synthesis of interest been a natural process for you? Did it occur organically, or did you seek a fusion of pre-occupations across mediums?
GH: I started to write poetry during my military service in the then still mounted Swedish cavalry – The Royal Northern Dragoons. The cavalry gave you few opportunities to paint, bur very generously gave you time for meditation as a stable-post, guarding the horses at night. The poems I wrote there contained very little of the manure-stinking surroundings though. It took me some years to find my own voice. Tomas Tranströmer’s poems really struck me with their visual metaphors, and they showed me a way to transform my experiences from painting into poetry. (I have heard Americans calling Tranströmer ”Transformer”, and that is what he was for me.) The visual quality in poetry has always been important to me. And that led me to Apollinaire, who tried to transform the Cubist painters’ methods, like the collage, into poetry.
3:AM: And what legacy has jazz specifically had on your practise as a poet? For so many writers and poets it seems to have exerted a lifelong influence…
GH: In the seventies I wrote ”ballads”, long poems telling a story. They often started with a theme, followed by freer ”improvisations” and then returned to the theme, now coloured with the improvisations. Of course, this is how a traditional jazz-tune is built up. I never planned the poems like that deliberately. It’s just afterwards I have noticed the structure, but I guess music you listen to influences your thinking of form in an intuitive way.
For more than two decades I was touring with jazzbands, reciting my poems to the music. I also made a LP-recording of it in 1980. But as I mostly performed with a New Orleans-band, it was only a few of my poems that could be used, as New Orleans-jazz contains so much local colour of it’s own. But we had a lot of fun.
3:AM: You have been rightly lauded for your contribution to Swedish poetry over the last decade or two. Was it always this way? Did you always receive such recognition in Sweden, or has it been ‘top heavy’ as the years have passed?
GH: My early books had some influence on poets about ten years younger than myself, but literary critics weren’t so impressed by them in the sixties and seventies. And the poets I translated in those days were often associated with the beat-generation, which was ridiculed in Sweden then. And the French poets I translated, like Apollinaire, Cendrars and Max Jacob, were looked upon as ”old-fashioned” modernists, as Swedish poetry then was dominated by two schools – the new simplicity (antimetaphoric) and Concrete poetry. In later years I have felt more appreciated, yes. Also for the poems from my youth.
3:AM: You emerged from a generation of Swedish poets, which from the outside, appears quite eclectic and wide ranging in form and style. Looking back now, was your generation in Sweden, and in Scandinavia in general, trying to move away from certain established trends that have perhaps maintained themselves none the less, like a poetics primarily engaged with nature?
GH: Just as love has been the dominant theme of poetry in Latin countries, nature has traditionally been the main subject of Swedish poetry. A friend of mine actually wrote an (not so serious) essay where he pleaded that in Northern countries with four very distinct and different seasons poetry about nature was dominant – Sweden, Russia, Finland, Japan. And he added that the poets there often had names made of components from nature, like the Swedish Ekelöf (Oakleaf), Aspenström (Aspenstream), Tranströmer (Cranestream). In the seventies new nature-poets appeared, writing about pollution and other threats against nature. Being ornithologists they also pointed out facts like that the skylark is not singing because it is happy. Being an old romantic myself I still think Shelley had a very good understanding of the skylark.
3:AM: Were you perhaps taking elements from the generation previous like Ekelof and Martinson?
GH: Gunnar Ekelöf is the most celebrated of the Swedish poets from the last century, and he has had a large influence on other poets. Something like T. S. Eliot in the English-speaking world. Ekelöf was certainly a great poet, but didn’t really influence me. Every fifth year or so I reread Harry Martinson’s books and get impressed by how good he is. I didn’t say ”great”, as it is really his short poems that impress me, very nearsighted and exact observations of nature And filled with charm. But an influence, no.
3:AM: And what influence did American and British poetics have upon you?
GH: American poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were very important to me when I started out as a poet. I then tried to read all books I could find in City Light’s Pocket Poets Series. But I never even dared to try to become a ”prophetic” poet like Ginsberg, and his Metropolis-visions from the McCarthy-era were hard to adapt to the peaceful Swedish society. I felt more at home with the British poets and the poets of the New York School, who like me tried to develop influences from early French modernism into something contemporary.
3:AM: The event to taking place in a few weeks time in London is a really remarkable conflagration, perhaps happening only once for my generation to witness, with you and Andrei Codrescu and Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth. What are your perceptions of the event and its significance?
GH: In the mid-sixties I subscribed to Evergreen Review, the leading American avantgarde-magazine in those days. There I found Blaise Cendrars’ poem ”The Trans-Siberian Railroad and Little Jehanne of France”, translated by somebody called Anselm Hollo. It was the greatest poem I had ever read – and I still think so. But who was Anselm Hollo? Then I translated a young Canadian poet, Lionel Kearns. He wrote me a letter asking me to send the translation to his friend Anselm Hollo in London, who knew Swedish! That’s how I came in contact with Anselm. He adviced me to read (among other things) Charles Olson’s essay on Projective verse, the most important theoretical text for me: ”ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” etc. This seemed to correspond exactly with what Cendrars did in his poem. ”Keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.” I also asked Anselm about the new English poets and he sent me several books. The best new poet in England, he wrote, was Tom Raworth, even if he hadn’t any book out yet. I started to correspond also with Tom, who sent me poems to translate. His book ”The Big Green Day” was very important to me, so full of imagination, fantasy, strange events, something like a poetic ”Sergeant Pepper”. And I visited Tom and Anselm and their families in Colchester, London and Isle of Wight in 1967– ¬68. We have been close friends since then.
So, I really look forward to meeting them again and to perform with them at the horse hospital. Andrei Codrescu I have never met, but we communicate on e-mail and I am very impressed by his book on Tzara and Lenin playing chess.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 15th, 2012.