A Tour through the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Gösta Ågren


History is thought, a
pattern that conceals the
true story, where
the swallow grows bloody
from flying through the
murky bombast and
facts stand like a higher
race above the souls’
morasses, and the annals
challenge in vain. The object
of this wild conversation is
the community, a magic behemoth,
a togetherness with no other shield
against the fire than ashes.



The sunrise resembles
a religious idea; so
helpless is our existence.
Sometimes the sparse death
thickens to war. Then
the names sink away in
their own mass. Outside
society awaits bondage,
where the slaves’ sick hearts
at last pound themselves
apart. But in here the freedom has shrunk to
decrees, and words are now so
clear, they signify only
sound. The silence is silenced
by music, but here
too you must



God is a simplification
and the word soul says plainly
that human beings are only
symbolic, as if
there were houses without
emptiness. Alas,
nothing is compensated
in the eternal accounts. The
murdered are chosen,
the whipped still
burn. A rival overturned
Theagenes’ victory statue, and came
finally first to the finish, crushed
beneath its weight.


Spiritual Laws

That which is limitless cannot
be seen. It surrounds you
with its emptiness, which
slowly dissolves you like
a carnivorous flower
its prey. Only the quest
sustains you. Without
ideals no one can keep

their memories pure. Without
certainty and actions
the laws of matter take
over and turn
this wild event
into something lost.



Love is a message
from the skin. Hands
begin to long for their meaning.
A story awaits, but
the one who has nothing
to lose does not dare
to losing that,
too. Only the one who has everything
to gain, is not afraid
of his courage. He has been
pitiable. Now
he turns
against himself. The heart pounds
like a helpless child,
but he writes his
bad poems. They cry
as wordless
cranes cry
in spring.



Words of command
remain like a direction
in the silence. We must
obey or refuse
to obey. There is
no choice.
When words are clumsy
and hesitant like unfamiliar
footsteps on parquet,
they say something. When
they are handsome as enemies
they hide something. Do not
play with them: they are
laden. Only
friendly words say
nothing special.
They contain only
friendly words.



Between the high years we glimpse
the ocean. Yet we must
arrange our life in a line,
for the present is merely something
constant; everything else
changes. We have control
of memories and plans,
two branches without a trunk,
but both require courage, great
as fear, and the steady
rhythm of the heart, that does not
constitute a symbol but is
a gymnast in the world of
the senses, whose only routine
consists in keeping the powerful
tree running.



Heroism is a state
of cruelty, the hawk’s sudden
line towards earth. Then all
that is cowardly risks fading, as though
history were something different
from life, and the days merely
sand beneath the weight of years.
But when the hero flees to the deed,
beside himself with contempt, trembling
like an engine with fear,
cowardice protects the seed as though
it were a sensitive emotion
in the sea of weeds, and thereby
keeps the escape route open for
the true route.


The Oversoul

The soul is a daydream
outside our name, a garden
for the god, where mind
and will hysterically
degrade. Afterwards, the present
is too big; we dare not
fall asleep. Who can sleep
with a god in his soul,
an oversoul, that uses
us to be, and is itself
free? We should be operated on,
but no knife cuts him
apart, and never will
the spiritual heal
its victims. We ourselves



The circle has no centre:
it is a demented cell
that swallows everything, even
the emptiness that assails
feelings and days,
and the forgetfulness that
preserves everything. For
the essayist the circle is

life, but for the poet only
a horizon without habitations,
where people conceal themselves
by being, and the everyday
is inscrutable as a ritual,
the meaninglessness
a strange


The Intellect

The intellect is a room without
years and walls. You have to imagine
them. Well-worn footprints
point to principles, but
they are old now, prisons
waiting for their prey.
You have to go as
a stranger would go
into your brain and there
declare all the accumulated
commands invalid and expand
it to a lifetime without
the altar, a chapel where
you can think as though
everything was sacred.



How could decorative
messages compete with
Altmira’s bulls? They stand
in the darkness, sketches

of the body’s drama. Art
is magic, but the light
in the museums glows as if
they had nothing

to hide, and the young
rebel against rules
as if form possessed
meaning. When the artist

fought the pictorial creature
in faltering torchlight
he was wild and pure
as arrogance. The journey

was towards the inner creature,
his real strength.,
that waited for him,
patient as his shadow.


The Poet

The seventeenth century was everywhere
but some still escaped
as though they were
in disguise, and only
needed to think in a
hitherto unknown way
in order to become empty
and pure as strangers.

In their poems form protected
many weak
lines, but suddenly
a verse could vibrate,
desperate as a wing
seeking its bird.



What we leave undone
is a part of our action.
Without the dreamed ship
the bark boat would capsize.
Without all that we merely
pass by we would never
get there. Even
the boredom is laden

with existence. Its emptiness
is only a form of
patience. The work
waits like an adversary,
and the footsteps begin
to point again.



The events are small, but
the chains endless. There is
a wildness in every name,
an I that wants to go and leave
the shackles behind. But flight

too is only a link:
the chain cannot be broken.
Where you go, into the latent,
you always meet
the same figure.



Long ago people saw
that seriousness threatens small talk,
and began to smile the silence
away. Many

also sought protection in
phrases, but phrases
are words, and cannot
be revoked. At last

fellowship became sheer
politeness. They understood
finally how important
it is.



A giver tries to grow
greater, not with the help of
the recipients’ gratitude
but by diminishing them

with his gifts. Fame
or beauty work in the same
way, even if all they give
is their aura! When

a gift has permeated
the inscrutable defence
and reached the entrails’ warm
hatred, the recipient

convinces only by making
his face and voice
manage on their own.
He himself goes. His back

is stiff as a shield
and his clothes do not hide him,
they reveal him. At
the roadside another back

sprouts when wings unfold.
It shimmers like blue
metal. Only the beetle is
its own present.



The cattle’s language has only
one word. They think with its
meaning, an older and
wilder pilgrimage than ours:
it can only continue
and the goal is the beginning.

October burns like
a palace. Fate is larger
than in May, all darkness
higher. We approach
the lower, ruling
layers, where conversations

are dark chambers,
the arguments without other logic
than their existence, and the bodies
simplified to pilgrims while
the cries merge to become
a single word.



The word power means
violence. The words of the laws
are not symbols but
real. In the ruins of Ctesiphon
the state remains, a rainbow
of concrete. We are

masses; we have no
other choice. When we seekingly
look around us, we meet
only Medusa’s poor,
cold gaze, but turned to stone

we still manage to think
our dream, the only finished thing
in the crude sketch
in which we live.


Nominalist and Realist

Whoever denies the real
confirms its power. Revolt
is hard. Whoever affirms
reality drains it
if death encounters no resistance
it is merely a clump of dust
where we slowly gather.
With theories as wings
we fly with no other
direction than away. But here
on the tenth line I begin
to hesitate. The denier has
perceived that if everything exists,
nothing else exists;
the affirmer says deep withiin
that perbaps everything
is something else.


New England Reformers

There is an indifference,
empty and dead as strict
demeanour. It surrounds us,
a pain relief, which those
people who fight apparently
refuse. Yet they are
totally dependent on this
poverty. Without it

reality would
conquer them with its
limitless masses, where
the individual is only
a throat, turned
towards their teeth.


A Resumé

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote
his two volumes of essays
in order to become calm. Thoughts
are an unease that seeks rhythm.
They must be turned into waves
through the opinions; if
they harden to principles
they will be broken
apart on the shore’s
reality. They are not
incorporeal: the metaphors
make them visible, brutal
as walls or gentle
as sleepy hands,
but every time we sense
that the description
is incomplete.


this translation copyright ©  David McDuff 2017

For the Tree’s Sake, by Karin Boye


I am sick with poison. I am sick with a thirst
for which nature has not created any drink.

From every field leap streams and springs.
I stoop down and drink from the earth’s veins
its sacrament.

And the heavens overflow with holy rivers.
I stretch up and feel my lips wet
with white ecstasies.

But nowhere, nowhere…

I am sick with poison. I am sick with a thirst
for which nature has created no drink.


At last I stand near the mountain of the fates.
All around like stormclouds
crowd formless beings, creatures of the twilight,
Shall I stay? Shall I go? The road lies dark.
If I stay peacefully here at the foot of the mountain,
then no one will touch me.
Calmly I can see their struggle like a play of the mist in the
myself merely a lost eye.
But if I go, if I go, then I shall know nothing more.
For the one who takes those steps
life becomes legend.

Myself fire
I shall ride on coiling snakes of fire.
Myself wind
I shall fly on winged wind-dragons.
Myself nothing,
myself lost in the storm
I shall fling myself forth dead or living, a fate future-heavy.


You call for people of great stature. What gives great stature
to a person?
To become nothing and forget oneself for that which is greater
than she.

The unrepentant call out. They themselves would grow into giants
the moment they bowed their knees in the shadow of the immense

But raise your voices until the gods awake, until new gods
rise up and answer!
When no one asks for people any more, then your people will be


Also you, who suffer the agonies of everyone’s condemnation,
also you are called to your place among the cherubim –
with lion’s feet, with wings of sun,
with venerable human head:
They call after you: ‘Impure, impure!’
Because they were never afflicted by purity.
Flame, gather your sparks out of the corners,
the forge awaits, and the hammer that welds you to lightning
will teach you the lightning’s swift purity
and your name among the cherubim.


No breathless summer night sky
reaches so far into eternity,
no lake, when the mists lighten,
mirrors such stillness
as that hour –

when loneliness’s limits are effaced
and the eyes become transparent
and the voices become simple as winds
and there is nothing more to hide.
How can I now be afraid?
I shall never lose you.


The night’s deep violoncello
hurls its dark rejoicing out across the expanses.
The hazy images of things dissolve their form
in floods of cosmic light.
Swells, glowing long,
wash in wave upon wave through night-blue eternity.
You! You! You!
Transfigured weightless matter, rhythm’s blossoming foam,
soaring, dizzying dream of dreams,
blindingly white!
I am a gull, and on resting, outstretched wings
I drink sea-salt bliss
far to the east of all I know,
far to the west of all want,
and brush against the world’s heart –
blindingly white!


Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking.
Why else would the springtime falter?
Why would all our ardent longing
bind itself in frozen, bitter pallor?
After all, the bud was cover all the winter.
What new thing is it that bursts and wears?
Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking,
hurts for that which grows
and that which bars.

Yes, it is hard when drops are falling.
Trembling with fear, and heavy hanging,
cleaving to the twig, and swelling, sliding –
weight draws them down, though they go on clinging.
Hard to be uncertain, afraid and divided,
hard to feel the depths attract and call,
yet sit fast and merely tremble –
hard to want to stay
and want to fall.

Then, when things are worst and nothing helps
the tree’s buds break as in rejoicing,
then, when no fear holds back any longer,
down in glitter go the twig’s drops plunging,
forget that they were frightened by the new,
forget their fear before the flight unfurled –
feel for a second their greatest safety,
rest in that trust
that creates the world.


A stillness expanded, soft as sunny winter forests.
How did my will grow sure and my way obedient to me?
I carried in my hand an etched bowl of ringing glass.

Then my foot became so cautious and will not stumble.
Then my hand became so careful and will not tremble.
Then I was flooded over and carried by the strength from fragile


You are the seed and I your soil.
You lie in me and grow.
You are the child expected.
I am your mother now.

Earth, give your warmth!
Blood, give your sap!
An unknown power requires today
all the life I have had.

The flowing warm wave
knows no dam on earth,
wider it wants to create,
breaks its way forth.

That is why it hurts to the living quick
inside me now:
something is growing and breaking me –
my love, it is you!


If I could follow you far away,
further than everything you know,
out to the world-loneliness
of the outermost regions go,
where the Milky Way rolls
a bright dead foam
and where in dizzying space
you seek a home.

I know: it is impossible.

But when from your baptism
shivering blind you rise,
all throughout space
I shall hear your cries,
be new warmth for you,
be a new embrace,
be close to you in a different world
among things with unborn names.


Blonde morning, lay your soft, smooth hair
against my cheek and breathe undisturbed in your silence.
The earth opens wide and wider your giant chalice,
born anew in closed darkness.
On bright wings
the Miracle lands like an immense insect
to lightly graze against unsuspecting
awakening pistils.

Morning on the seventh day…


Ripe as a fruit the world lies in my lap,
it ripened last night,
and its rind is the thin blue membrane that stretches
and its juice is the sweet and fragrant, streaming, burning
torrent of sunlight.

And out into the transparent universe I leap like a swimmer,
submerged in a baptism of ripeness and born to a power of
Consecrated to action,
light as a burst of laughter
I cleave a golden sea of honey that desires my hungry hands.


I would like to have woken you to a nakedness like a naked
evening in early spring,
when the stars brim over
and the earth burns beneath melting snow,
I would like to have seen you just once
sink in the darkness of creative chaos,
would like to have seen your eyes like wide-open space,
ready to be filled,
would like to have seen your hands like flowers unfolded,
empty, new, in expectancy.

You are going, and nothing of this have I given you.
I never reached to where your being lies bare.
You are going, and nothing of me are you taking with you –
leaving me to defeat.

Another farewell I remember:
we were hurled from the crucible like a single being,
and when we parted, we no longer knew
which was I and which was you…

But you – like a bowl made of glass you have left my hand,
as finished as only a dead thing is and as changeable,
as without any memories other than the light imprints of fingers
that are washed away in water.

I would like to have woken you to a formlessness like a
formless flickering flame
that finds at last its living form, its own…
Defeat, oh, defeat!


Now I know how much you hid and kept silent about.
That was your shell.
But why have you hidden yourself so well from me?
The thought grinds still.

I know. I remember: one single case,
where judgement was mine to wield –
and then your inner world’s enchanted land
was forever concealed.

As long as our love has one chance left,
if even only one,
that long will our love be a closed hand –
and to us justice be done.


My skin is full of butterflies, of fluttering wings –
they flutter out across the meadows and enjoy their honey
and flutter home and die in sad small spasms,
and not a grain of pollen is disturbed by light feet.
For them the sun exists, the hot, immeasurable, older than the

But under skin and blood and inside the marrow
heavily heavily imprisoned sea-eagles move,
broad-winged, that never let go of their prey.
How would your tumult be in the sea’s spring storm?
How would be your cry, when the sun annealed yellow eyes?
Closed is the cave! Closed is the cave!
And between the claws twist white as cellar sprouts
the nerves of my innermost being.


There grows a tree beneath the earth;
a mirage pursues me,
a song of living glass, of burning silver.
Like darkness before light
must all weight melt,
where only one drop falls of the song from the leaves.

An anguish pursues me.
It oozes out of the earth.
There a tree suffers deeply in heavy layers of earth.
Oh, wind! Sunlight!
Feel that agony:
the promise of fragrance of paradise miracles.

Where do you walk, feet, that tread
so soft or hard
that the crust cracks and yields up its prey?
For the tree’s sake, have mercy!
For the tree’s sake, have mercy!
For the tree’s sake I call you from the four points of the

Or must we wait for a god – and which one?


Our eyes are our fate.
So lonely you become, poor eyes,
with stars that refuse to have mercy
in a living, earthly way.
Had I seen less,
I would think other thoughts,
and an outcast grows slack,
abandoned to the just.

Holy, holy, holy
is the truth, the terrifying,
I know it, I bow down,
and it has a right to everthing.
But flesh and blood shiver,
the living seeks life,
and warm is humans’ company
and cold their contempt.

And praying I wander
among freezing light-years,
seeking for help
ro rise from my grave.
Remember with ardent tenderness
eyes far away,
also those that are lost
in the sea of loneliness.

Then I cannot complain.
Then I must give thanks.
With them I have shared
what I know, what I remember.
And through the darkness I sense
home and company.
Beloved sister eyes!
You existed. You exist.


Never meant to be a rebel,
and yet it was forced on me.
Why is my fate not private?
Why can I not let it be?
Or, if now I must fight,
why is there torment there?
Why not with sounding music,
when at last I am forced to dare?

Blood of my blood, that judged me harshly
and cast me out into shame,
I knew when I was ejected,
that I broke on a whole all the same,
felt a sacred communion
behind the condemning words,
knew with anguish: you are I –
and was bowed down to the earth.

But as I lay and believed myself mute,
I heard the darkness whine.
Souls from the same torments’ room
were breathing by my side.
I heard my own cry for help
rise up from deserts void,
knew with dread: I am you –
and could not be quiet.

Cowardly, cowardly, thrice cowardly,
All the same, I must fight,
be struck to the ground and rise again
with all my nerves snapped.
must feel like branding irons
the judgements of the stark –
and obey and obey a scorching fire
that blossoms out of the dark.


Merciless one with eyes that have never seen the dark!
Liberator who with golden hammers breaks blocks of ice!
Save me.

Straight as thin lines the flowers’ stems are sucked into the
nearer to you will their calyxes tremble.

The trees hurl their strength like pillars towards their glory:
only up there
do they spread out their light-thirsty leaf-arms, devoted.
Man you drew
from an earth-fixed stone with blind gazes
to a walking swaying plant with heaven’s wind about his forehead.
Yours is stalk and stem. Yours is my backbone.

Save it.
Not my life. Not my skin.
Over the outer no gods dispose.
With extinguished eyes and broken limbs
he is yours, who lived erect,
and with the one who dies erect
you are there, when darkness swallows darkness.
The rumbling rises. The night swells.
Life shimmers so deeply precious.
Save, save, seeing god,
what you gave.


Young wills whine
like masterless spears.
Fear has hurled them
into space’s spheres.
Trembling with battle
and strength in surfeit
they seek targets to strike
they seek powers to worship.

But wills that ripen,
they become trees and strike root,
ready to shield
a land at your foot,
a small stretch of ground,
but necessary, like life,
where something precious grows,
torn by the winds’ strife.

If the glade seems narrow
against space without end
and the tree perhaps lifeless
against spears that blind,
then forget not the leaf
with its life-green colour,
and forget not the sap
that seethes through the marrow.

Be not afraid, be still
that harvest night,
when the voices say:
‘Your bounds are set.
You too shall be silent
among the watching faithful.
You also shall strike root,
and become tree, and ripen.’


Too many times have I passed through the doorway.

It rises so high and is erased in sunlight,
and under the arch one hears passing
eternal winds in eternal spaces.
The threshold is made of promise-stones, the staircase to an
to which he slips through who consecrates himself to a gift
with his past time and his time to come
and a will that is whole.

Too many times have I passed through the doorway.

And yet I pray:

Watchman at the door, lord of all beginning,
let me through! I still have strength.
As truly as I never hid anything away,
take, but take to the last fragment.
The day I divide, the day I reckon,
bar my way and cast me into the melting-oven.
All is a door. All is a beginning.
The axle of life is in your hands.

Whole I pass under the dizzying arch,
and eternal winds in eternal spaces
drink my gift.


Your voice and your footsteps fall soft as dew on my working
Where I sit there is spring in the air around me from your living
You flower in my thought, you flower in my blood, and I wonder
that my happy hands do not blossom into heavy roses.

Now the space of the everyday closes around us two, like a soft,
gentle mist.
Are you afraid of becoming a prisoner, are you afraid of drowning
in the greyness?
Do not be afraid: in the everyday’s innermost depth,
in the heart of all life,
there burns with quietly humming flames a deep, secret festival.


For the hour of great humiliation I would also give thanks,
the hour when one sees that one is naked
and without a muddying vestige of pride
lets oneself be arranged
like a speck of dust in the gleam from wondrous worlds –
wondrous everything, wondrous health and life,
wondrous shelter, bread and water,
and more than anything wondrous the undeserved favour
of a human being’s eternally established trust.


Transparent, bright and ardent,
beautiful mantle, flare,
slip your way close as water
round my body, waiting here.
I stand bound and quiet,
have no unshed defiance.

Have no resistance left,
no futile strugglings.
Thus in anguish without air
comes the peace that waiting brings.
Here all hope is laid over,
wants nothing other.

Like an aspen leaf my body,
my soul like a flickering flame,
and there far away inside
I am free all the same.
Great silence moves me
beyond all that destroys me.


Invulnerable, invulnerable
is he that grasps the primordial saying:
There is no happiness and unhappiness.
There is only life and death.

And when you have learnt it and ceased to chase the wind
and when you have learnt it and ceased to be frightened by the
then come back and teach me one more time:
There is no happiness and unhappiness.
There is only life and death.

I began to repeat it when my will was born,
and will cease to repeat it when my will has ceased to be.
The secret of the primordial sayings
we acquire until our death.


All the cautious ones with long nets
meet with the sea’s giant laughter.
Friends, what do you seek on the shore?
Knowledge can never be captured,
can never be owned.

But if, straight as a drop,
you fall into the sea to dissolve,
ready for any transformation –
then you will awake with mother-of-pearl skin
and green eyes
on meadows where the sea’s horses graze
and be knowledge.


Here in eternal gales
dwarf pine works its way up from the stone,
bends wearily,
knots itself defiantly,
creeps subdued.

Black against the evening’s stormy sky
twisted ghostly outlines are drawn.
Monster is seized by loathing
for monster.
A groaning passes through the torn crowns:
Oh, to look one single time
straight towards the light,
to rise, a royal oak,
a boyish birch,
a golden virgin maple.

Hide your dreams, cripple.
Here are the outermost skerries. As far as the eye can see:
dwarf pine.


Around me float terrible mouths.
The suburban train is thudding.

These are mothers.
Mouths of predatory fish,
locked and tensed in greedy fear:
to eat or be eaten.
Themselves eaten away (no one has noticed)
they lug their entrails in string bags.
Dead eyes, dead fear,
mouths of predatory fish.

This is the lover.
Paint-swollen mushroom mouth
sucks for prey.
The shame of having given herself, the shame of the cheated
sucks for revenge of a thousand triumphs,
is never sated,
settles in layers of tortured impudence
around a wet mushroom mouth.

This is the pious man,
who with holy pursing
hides and denies his lips.
They cannot be seen, do not exist –
God himself cannot see them.
Why is he afraid of his lips?
What do they look like when he is asleep?

This is the happy woman,
she who became a possessor.
Among all those who struggle
she is the one who prevailed.
No lever will ever force open those jaws,
screwed tight around life’s prize.

But over there by the window,
flowers a mouth that captures nothing.
What do you breathe over the wide world,
so world-estranged?

When will you be scared down there into the deep
to predatory fish
and sucking mouths,
snatch wildly after hunted prey,
slash desperately at the others?
if you want to live.

So I will take my staff and wander
and seek another world for you,
a world where mouths are allowed to be flowers
and breathe like flowers
their life’s breath
and flow like flowers
from deep sources
and stand like flowers
happily open.

Around you snap our deep-sea mouths.
The suburban train is thudding.


Sea swell, come washing,
let me taste that sound’s round, salty flow,
the sound that was given me
as primordial name aeons and aeons ago!
Words that no mortal
lips can tell
lie hidden
in the fresh, cold swell.

Long, too long
I starved on human words too easily told.
I want to rise up,
I want to satisfy my mouth at my mother’s board.
Like a child in loathing’s remorse
lost far away to roam,
I turn hungrily round
to the songs of my home.

Let me drink
the speech of speech from a dull roar that never abates.
Let me clear
to your resting depth of light that creates.
Within soul and spirit
I hear your song.
Rise in my blood, and flower
in my tongue!


The way is narrow that two must go,
inhumanly narrow, it can seem sometimes,
and yet it is a human way, even so.

From buried things’ primordial slime
rise monsters woken by the warmth,
and bar the way where you would climb.

No flight can make you free at last.
They appear again by new waysides.
You have no choice. You must go past.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way is steep that two must go,
a way of degradation, it can seem sometimes,
and yet is a way of victory, even so.

Lonely path goes round in rings,
the same mirage in the same sand,
the same thirst for far-off things.

For two that strive, one gain know I,
more solid, heavier than the hermit’s dreams:
the difficult growth to reality,

yes, all the way in to the innermost core,
where the person grows out of splintered nerves
and becomes a root and a mountain there.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way is long that two must go,
a lost way, it can seem sometimes,
and yet has its goals and signposts, even so.

Has its angels, in lightning dressed.
They touch our dust with burning hand,
and heavy chains become breezes and mist.

With burning feet they touch earth’s floor,
and create it anew in the morning glow
and full of health and solace and cure

and full of power over approaching fate
and intimate light, that two acquire.


You weigh with false balances
and measure with false gauges,
not before the qadi, who judges criminals,
but before Allah, Allah, blessed be his name,
he who has created life.

A thousand dates you buy for one small pearl,
but I, who hungered in the desert,
am weary of my pearl-sewn belt,
that gives no nourishment,
and I, who pined away in the sand,
will not recover the splendour in my dagger hilt,
decked with jewels
that slake no thirst.

Still in this city of minarets, far from the desert,
I will bow not before those proud portals,
those golden gates,
but before those lowly, those out-of-the-way wells
to where dusty herdsmen lead their herds,
when they bring milk in the evenings.


Your warmth, your tender warmth
I ask to share,
that streamed long before man
on earth was there.
In the deep primordial forest’s
downy bird’s nest
that same protective warmth bore
life’s founding rest.

From anguish-burning heavens
we sink down where
in the nest’s darkness, life
asks nothing more.
For the clouds’ games are a mirage
and mirror spray,
but all that is born and bears
is what depths give away.

Day dawns, and the skies resound
with rushing of wings.
The soaring bird rejoices:
On light I live! he sings
But hidden in the silence rests
his weal and woe.
Your warmth, your deep warmth
gives me a soul.


Over the city’s sighing towers
sank all the earth’s distress:
fire, plague and hunger,
war and sudden, cruel death.

The people thronged in the churches,
bowed their knees in fear,
heard the priests pray to God
for strength his penance to bear.

The mothers by the well
despaired, and help they missed.
‘For the children’s sake, for the children
mercy must exist.

Though in sin they were born,
to us they are very dear,
they are much dearer to us
than heaven’s glory in there.’

A white-haired stranger,
one step before the rest,
beckoned them to follow,
began to wander thence.

Swarming out through the gates
more and more followed on.
In the city’s midst stood a house.
A staircase there led down.

Hard-trodden floor of earth,
stool and wooden bowl.
Clad in a cloak of hair
a man knelt in that hole.

Humble veneration
burned in every gaze:
‘The city is wealthy yet!
Here a holy man lives and prays.

There in intercession
his face is upward-turned;
the marks in his careworn features
by our sins have there been burned.’

Bitterly the old one laughed.
‘What is it you behold?
A great, holy love,
and beyond that, nothing more?

A face’s open bowl
of patience, blessed, sane,
that rises up in hunger
towards the flood of pain –

an ardent spirit’s chalice
of bleeding rubies that shine,
waiting here devoutly
for the Lord’s wrath’s wine –

a desire to suffer
the beloved’s worst punishment —
and does no one see the lightning
down from heaven sent?

The city gave an echo
and in the same sound shook,
when he, the man strong in prayer,
his lord subdued.

Pull up all the poppies
that ask for springtimes of pain!
Cut down all the black trees
that yearn to bear tears’ rain!’

Then from the crowd there stepped
a man full of fiery dread,
felled the old one to the ground –
she fell and there lay dead.

They crossed themselves, they crept away,
the daughters and sons of men.
And up to heaven’s angry vault
the holy man’s prayers rose again.


An eternity long
our summer was then.
We roamed in sunny days
that had no end.
We sank in fragrant green
depths without floor
and felt no fear
of eventide’s hour.

Where did our eternity go?
How did we forget
its holy secret?
Our day became too short.
In strife we form,
In spasm we rhyme
a work that shall be eternal –
and its essence is time.

But still timeless drops
fall into our arms
at a time when we’re absent
from goals and names,
when the sun falls silent
over straws there alone,
and all our striving seems to us
like a game and a loan.

Then we sense that condition
we once received:
to burn in the moment
that living bequeathed,
and forget the temporal
that lasts and endures,
for creation’s second,
that no gauge ever nears.


Sweetly singing maidens, my limbs can no longer
carry me – o would, would that I were merely the kingfisher,
when, carried across the foam of the waves by the halcyons,
he soars with sorrowless heart, the sea-dark, sacred bird!

Note. The ageing chorus leader alludes to the legend that the
kingfisher, when he grows old, is carried by the females, the

Karin Boye: För trädets skull (1935)

-translation © David McDuff 2011

Over the Water I Walk, by Pia Tafdrup (2)


The disintegration of the aesthetic ideals of classicism began when French symbolism embraced a new conception of beauty derived from a modern reality which existed at a great distance from harmony. Baudelaire claimed that beauty always consists of an eternal and immutable element. I would say of beauty that it is a dance on a knife-edge between the eternal and the mutable.

A particular conception of wholeness has survived far away from the idea of classical harmony, but even in a work of art which signals splitting or the simultaneous presence of several instances, a perfection must make itself valid. Brightly shining, beauty still flowers, and this in spite of the fact that art no longer takes it upon itself to stand guard over traditional values. If emptiness is not to conceal itself behind beauty, and deadly tedium not to lurk behind the good and the true, these phenomena must today have dimensions that are at least miraculous.

Of the beautiful Rilke says: Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen… Here beauty is connected with terror, because the perfect is static and unchangeable, and as such is an expression of death. The terrifying and unendurable experience of beauty and terror in combination is fundamental to this century, in which the lack of beauty is no less than it was in Baudelaire’s time.

If beauty has to meet an aesthetic need alone, it becomes slack, and the poetry narrow. The beauty lies in the formal devices poets use. Rilke’s angel is not beautiful, it is terrible, but the elegies are among the most beautiful things that one can read. And, like all beauty, they yield a resonance in the body.


The art that encounters resistance or is reproached for being ugly will undoubtedly be accepted later, when the work’s innate beauty will come through in even the most far-reaching experiments. The new and the different are seldom experienced as beautiful – and certainly not that kind of art which struggles against order, the art that expresses disharmony, norm-breaking, illness, abnormality or annihilation.

The conception of beauty is conditioned by a number of circumstances, including events in the field of science, e.g. in mathematics, the paradigm shift that has led to the revision of chaos theory. Just as chaos and order prove to be related, so beauty is unthinkable without its opposite. To yearn for pure beauty is to be two hundred years too late.


The conversation with the classical works has changed meaning. What once they were, they are not today. They are, but they will always be something other, and yet they can preserve their intensity across historical time – a most important quality. At some points the connection is integration, at others a distance, but the dialogue never ceases to acquire a new character.

The ‘old ones’ are interesting not because they are old, but for the simple reason that some of them are masters. What makes their works classics is not only that they are executed with artistic precision, but that they contain a universal value. They are still able to make an impression and set our minds ablaze, they still urge us to read and re-read them, and to reconsider them. New poetry that really wants to be challenging must take the poetry of earlier times seriously.


The idea of a tabula rasa is an illusory one. All that we know, we know through language. Even our thoughts can never really be said to be our own. To a certain extent, therefore, tradition is already forced upon us. It would, moreover, be extremely foolish to try to ignore the past, or pretend to have lost our memory. Why not examine what the art that now exists looks like? Why not find out where it can be carried on from? For how otherwise is one to contribute something new and never seen before?

An epoch is characterised at least as much by what it reads as by what it writes.


The new does not consist in an overturning of the older poetry, in fact the new exists only by virtue of it. Ideas may take a rest and acquire topicality again, or with intervals of years may prove to be unexpected challenges. The question is not: what would my poems look like without a tradition? But: would they exist at all, had not poems been written before?

For something to be able to call itself new, it must be new in relation to something else. If I want to seek the new, it will not happen unless I have first made discoveries in what has gone before, or at any rate the new will not allow itself to be embraced with a flight from the past. Knowledge of tradition is required if I want to step over that tradition and not run the risk of writing poems that have already been written. Only by acquiring an insight into the poetry of earlier times can I have any hope – starting from my personal universe – of continuing the aesthetic articulation that all art is.


Every reading of the classical works adds new knowledge to what one already has. Thus one book is more than a book, it is a conscious multiplication, for the greatest works are born of many other readings and are therefore bearers of an insight and a memory at which no one would be able to arrive at, no matter how long they lived.


The poet who has run out of ideals is finished.


Thoughts and ideas do not become exhausted in the age in which they were born. The past is constantly present, so that even though I live in the twentieth century, I am confronted with earlier epochs. ‘Of course one is part of an age,’ Karen Blixen said. But she added: ‘Well, I can’t really say of myself that I belong to a particular generation, for ever since I was a child I have read – well, the classics – Dante and Shakespeare and Euripides…’


It is not a question of how far nowadays it is possible to reproduce older verse forms or rhetorical figures. Classical aesthetic ideals should not be abandoned, nor should they be sentimentalized, but only employed if they have a justification for it. A quest for original values can easily assume the character of compulsion or sterility – free access to the sources, on the other hand, is something quite different.

When two ages confront each other, a further dimension may be added to the poem. A number of traditional features still exist in poetry, fully deliberate, but they enter a new complexity, where the pulse is different and where, for example, the measure is taken of the peculiarly musical quality of the Danish language. To work one’s way into this field of tension is a challenge, a charged and condensed place to be.

Someone has set a level that cannot be ignored. The classical starting point – for me Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Rilke, Celan, Char and Sachs – determines actual new creation. It is in interaction and contrast that my lyrical profile comes into being. At any rate, I cannot possibly avoid writing under the influence of what has already been written. I write my individuality in an attempt to synthesize past and present. I ‘cut my sleep shadow in the darkness. Drag my wings through the mire.’


If people now talk so paradoxically about reinventing tradition, it is because the classics have lived a suppressed existence. It has long been the vogue to take a critical attitude, which in practice has meant that many have been so preoccupied with breaking tradition that they have not had much to do with it. Others have as a matter of course taken the classics into their intellectual orbit, quite simply because eminent works have been written before our own time. The reinvention expresses itself mainly as a rereading, but in some cases also as a rewriting.

Dialectics in art arises in the field of tension between tradition and experiment. By all means call it modern to criticise the criticism that has set the modern works alone at the centre. The cultural context is that the works exist side by side: the new books and the classics.


I live between the echo of the poems that went before, and the whispering and murmuring that is already being heard from poems that are still to be written.

When my generation of poets were publishing their first collections, I quite often heard other poets muttering from the sidelines: is it really new, what they’re bringing out? But surely life, love, loss, longing, death and decay are subjects still worth writing about? Isn’t it the task of all human beings to discover for themselves the things that have always existed? No one can ever lay claim to the experiences of others. The only possible avenue of progress is to fight one’s own way forward. Could the resistance of those poets have had something to do with the fact that the thought the world and mankind were new?

What is given is a supply of collective raw material from which I as a creative individual create the personal subject-matter of my poems. Alternatively, my subject-matter may simply be seen as part of a common stock of raw material. It is the same ontology and possibly also the same attention-radius, but my focus is another, my contexts and interpretations are different, as their existential context takes the form of a specific era in history. And again: my poems are coloured by my nature and temperament.


The modern should not be viewed as the loss of a past. On the other hand, however, one can may hunt about in the modern in order to see what existed in the past. In the modern it survives in a new and unexpected form. For no idea that is brought into the world ever leaves it again. Something can be forgotten, but then reappear and be reactivated. Books influence one another, but the notion that one great common work is being written is a utopia. The idea is a clever one, but it implies a united, shared perspective that is no longer applicable to our time. On the other hand: now and then I am seized by the mad idea that the planet is kept floating in space, constantly rotating and held aloft by all of us writers… As long as we write in the remembrance of the origins of our unique position.


In art, revolution inevitably leads to classicism, as Mandelstam put it.


The books that have meant the most to me? The Bible, the Anatomical Atlas and the Dictionary of the Danish Language.

-translation © David McDuff 2011

Sjón – 10 poems

all the things we learn in the sixty-eighth form

today business is booming at the east side printing house
and the same thing is true of the entire planet

repeat after me:
priests who travel by underground
are called passengers …

all the curling balls in hanover
all the chandeliers in osaka
all the cats’ footprints in nuuk
when I awake all this shall be yours!

where the bat hangs in the clocking-in clock
− that is your home


repeat after me:
the left hand has five toes:
honey, fart, kattegat and bessi…

all the work gloves in wimbledon
all the tail feathers in seyðisfjörður
all the sugar bowls in Harare
when I awake all this shall be yours!

where the meat-grinder manufacturer’s daughter bathes
− that is your home


repeat after me:
in the three thousand one hundred and eighth copy
of the third edition of halldór laxness’s novel independent people
bjartur í sumarhúsum is called karlotta mayer

all the bus tickets in rio
all the lower lips in kirkut
all the coat hangers in basle
− when I awake all this shall be yours!

where the Plough is reflected in the soup spoon
− that is your home

when the flea and the blue whale meet in the encyclopaedia
they are the same size
when the colours vanish from the national flags
the earth begins to flutter


an icelandic economist in soho

orange tents
sprout up
around the pub

and he wonders
if the flies that seek his beer
are real


the world’s economy is governed by a giant infant
that extends between the oceans

when it cries the shares fall one after the other

like snow buntings
over snow
in a snowy winter
like snow buntings
over a snowy winter
on snow
like snow
over snow buntings
in a snowy winter
like snow
over a snowy winter
on snow buntings
like a snowy winter
over snow buntings
on snow
like a snowy winter
over snow
on snow buntings

and the change in his pockets grows lighter


the gust of wind
that crosses the square
and is meant for him alone

it opens the tent flaps
so that the listening device
comes into view

and he wonders
if the girl at the cash desk
isn’t a bit mechanical in her movements



i’ve been hit on the head by a stone – my ex-wife has been hit on the head
by a stone in my presence – my old school friend has been hit on the head
by a stone – at noon today i saw a colleague hit on the head
by a stone – i saw a cat avoid a stone that was aimed straight at
its head – i saw a stone come through the kitchen window and land on
the cook’s head – i saw a bull die within quarter of an hour of
being hit on the head by a stone – the vet who dissected the priest’s dog
believes that the cause of death was probably a stone on
the head – the eldest son of a peasant on the farm where i grew up was hit on
the head by a stone and died – i encountered four stones in the main street yester-
day and three the day before – i am corresponding with members of the mineralogical
society in london – when they read my reports of
icelandic stones they doubt that they would survive one day in
reykjavík – i replied that I’m still hanging on so educated
men like them ought to be safe here too


About the alchemist

He sits in an old sickbed
unstitching the seams in his pyjamas
someone has sprinkled wheat over him
so that now he resembles a moth
His head touches the wall
on his forehead a film is shown in slow motion

A blonde with drunken lips
sings soundlessly


news from wonderland

a medical wonder:
a blood-tree that walks

it thrills
from the heart’s roots
all the way to the fingertips

though there’s no flesh
and no bone marrow

a fact of love-science:
a blood-tree that walks

and its leaves

don’t glitter

without you


family life

after doing the washing-up the man stumbles
across a reindeer
that is lying under the coffee table
it notices him
and rears up in fright
starts running out of the parlour
along the passage
where it jumps
over a pair of sandals
and a woman’s shoe.
he chases it into the bedroom
the beast creeps
the double bed
he gets down on all fours
watches it
join the herd
it grunts
and the man disappears


self portrait

seven fingers on a coffin lid
teeth buried in an out-the-way place
bird-wings nailed to the joint

I count my eyelashes
in the room where you were born

don’t take your revenge


the stone collector’s song

i remember the thirst and the darkness
i remember one-way streets
i remember closed alleys
and you

you pointed to a cellar door
there used to be a pub there
which we visited
a lot

here it is you said comfortingly
your stone collection
it isn’t

in the shelves behind the bar
waits the iceland spar
all my

sulphur – pyrite – opal
and jasper – dear friends!
none of you have i

and up there on the ceiling hang
the obsidian sacks
heavy with


that is the poem I sing
as I squat under house-walls
when the winter denies me shelter


The apprentice

on the borders of day and night
an old man sits
an old man with the face of a child
nature’s apprentice.

And when he dies his training is complete.


9:14 am

Two suns behind a cloud
the pyromaniac rummages in the ruins
I sleep in the stationary train

-translation © David McDuff 2011

The Cool Day, by Bo Carpelan

Autumn walk

A man walks through the wood
one day of shifting light.
Encounters few people,
stops, considers the autumn sky.
He is making for the graveyard
and no one is following him.

Silent trees

Will an unknown hand raise the continents
and the song transfix the bird,
the tide abandon the shores
or wash them with a light that will endure?
And I who form the shadow
that my soul casts over things,
will I exist in this poem
or be read by no one?
It is almost midnight,
the trees stand silent.

In the June dawn

Early in the June dawn he rowed
fully dressed, imprisoned by a tie, with rolled-up trousers
over the calm bay, lingered, looked back:
there lay the island, there slept wife and child,
the trees, the winds were resting there,
the first morning breeze came and broke the mirroring water.

Morning, evening

The grass rests cool,
it is morning, evening
in your life.
Near your ways
goes the last day
perhaps hidden in the leafage of the tree
or in those silent cities
where your cry is not heard.

The mute grass

The heart does not accord with its bounds,
nor the poem with reality,
nor reality with God’s dream.
What sort of a dialogue is it that transforms you
without you yourself being transformed?
Do not seek in the mute grass, seek the mute grass.


There, by the pale tree,
he stood listening to my mother’s footsteps
The mortal is our love and tenderness,
the day that goes miraculous because it never returns.
I who listen to your footsteps in the grass
and you who stand close to me,
perhaps in the grey twilight
they will remember who now dream?


Fleeting is the dawn, fleeting the day, but the cool evening
brings its twilight, goes like the water of the bay
among the dark trees where they stand, unmoving.
Arid among waves from a mileswide distance reach us, slowly,
voices, fragments of words that sink through the air —
fleeting, fleeting is our day but the evening lingers in a summer warmth;
cool summer warmth, linger on in the blood that here will darken
under the trees’ crowns, under the open, boundlessly open gaze of heaven’s eye.

Old woman and road

A radiance lay over the ground, where from
we could not see. Everywhere plains, forests
under the blue-lilac sky. Goldlike shimmering
stood the dead reeds by chill water.
By the shore an old woman stooped down with a pail
and walked away through the wood without seeing us.
Then our journey began.
First we learned to follow the woman’s footsteps,
her road was lost in the wood.
Then we heard the reeds before the wind reached us.
At last we saw the radiance from the sky,
interpreted that light that comes out of darkness
and smiling dies.

Under the heavenly signs

The darkness thickens and cannot be seen,
your image is reflected in the window.
The wind is beating under the stars
against the invisible in your life
and on the icy road are heard
carriages that were ordered for your death.
If you are moving through your life,
if the wind is beating against your life,
may everything change when you meet
yourself under the heavenly signs
that sway in the darkness?

The mortal

How thick that green that in recall
clothes heavy trees whose cruel shadows
clawlike stretch across the human mind.
How miraculous mortality and grass,

the sunken waves that raise themselves again,
winds that go and then return at end,
birds that flew but once more send
their song new spaces arch and vault.

You break, you die; like coolness your words
brush near the sleeping one who bears your name.
And in upon this time of joy, of fear
you seek your way, into the changes’ haven;

a darkness lasts, falls, lifts and falls.
A hair that lifts and falls now covers you;
a moment’s space, a depth that speaks
of the lost things that are hidden in you,

of the world like a grass, of the grass’s star.
The heavy winds like darkened carriages
draw you past. Thus count your hours away,
least miracles of the miraculous day.

Morning wash

After words about words were said all still remained,
that which was moved by winds, bloodred sank
and again stood in morning stillness before the low eye,
before the hedgehog’s snout and the shadows.
With life’s mobility and indecision the poem seeks
air currents and stillness, unsuspecting waters,
the dark earth, and creates in its flight
wholeness. There in my morning rest parts of me
like the stones by the shore.
There the one I love is washing the morning’s wash,
cleaner than words, with morning water.
There is my son moving through my life
and all these images that are things and living beings
have already said about the word
what the word cannot say and what the bay says.

Outside the emotion

Outside the emotion, outside the explanations,
outside our greed, our peace and our despair,
the doing-down in print, the wisdom and its teeth:
the nights with voices like candle-flames
and your breathing.


No voices speak.
The great heavy worlds like stardust rise,
silent they look past us, inaudible, reflected
in night’s springs.
And all the clarity life ought to have
is here concealed,
as if the roads of childhood were closed by the darkness.


They came to charge you with your life,
the sunlight brushed against one of your hands like a part of your soul, slipping away,
in your other, remains of the earth that was you and belonged to the darkness.
Your life altered when they spoke, when they divided
body and soul and you were consumed by longing for the one or the other;
the sunlight sank and it became night and you said:
‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’
as every human being cries in life’s silence,
as a bird, a bird you will see, never more.

Between the verses

Between the verses and the life,
the abandoned day and the abandoned paper,
days when you see that love is not merely wind over grass:
this is ‘life’s day’
and perhaps broken,
the day lives and is part of its own dark side
turned towards nothing.

Ski journey

I have succeeded my fate,
the snow drifts over the coarse sand,
the ice-channel cannot be seen, nor the years,
the visible cannot be seen, you see yourself,
that void that is you in yourself,
by glimpses, poling itself along
inong left-over twigs and poems
where not even the snow is enough for any fire of roses
in your confirmed soul or the dark December.

The cool day

One day in my life I could not see my life,
only skin and sinews, that soil I belong to,
as long as the day’s shadows do not rest.
They moved above me, birds or perhaps creatures
from the earth to which I seek my way.
All that was autumn stood not at all alien,
gave as springs give, leaves or shadow,
and a sharpness in the one
who no longer loves but protects the tenderness
took the objects from me, returned them to me in absence.
The leavetaking birds stretched into silence.
So goes a life from our day,
the cool day.

The boy who ran through the rushing water

The boy who ran through the rushing water
has vanished in the mountain. He shouts no more.
You see yourself, perhaps, but cannot hear his voice.
Perhaps you cannot see him in the summer darkness either.
His mother shouts for him.
Now all the flowers stand frail with frost.
It is the winter’s snow that falls on the other side of the mountain
and someone who already awaits his image printed in the mountain’s side.
It is in the unaltered landscape’s shadow
where death’s birds raise their bright song
calling his voice to mind.

The carriage of memory

The clear road that goes through childhood’s forest
is cool as the coolness in your limbs.
Infinitesimal is the weight of the ripening years.
And like a secret movement the carriage of memory glides
past the words and disappears
into the forest that has come to an end and put out its fires.

In the bright night

In the bright eye, in the bright night
the sea sounded like an echo,

of a darkness from the hard breaker
under the shadow of your mountain, my native region;

but your mouth was silent and surely spoke softer
than a wave that broke on the shore

in the bright nights, in the summer nights
when the cool wind returned.

And your heart beat like the leaves of the shore,
gentle and quick in the summer dusk,

faster, then slackening slowly
towards a sleep, as deep and free as death’s;

and from the bay came scarcely a murmur,
scarcely a murmur from the cool blood.

The road down from the mountain

The road down from the mountain
to the house, cooling dusk
between the trees’ trunks and their voices,
the silent, heavy, wonderfully young.

The years

You have arrived, the morning’s boat is here.
The years buzz like bumble-bees in the summer warmth.
Death and flowering — words
for the beetle, lightening in the mown grass,
silent in the darkness.

In timelessness

The walkers disappeared among the shadows,
their voices faded and also you
more distant from yourself,
yet near, as though the words
had lingered among the trees like trees,
or like the image of the trees.
It was in timelessness
where islands rest on water-levels of the hand.

And when the silence lasted you heard
father’s and mother’s voices;
then a bird followed on,
then their voices became one voice.
It was in the silence when still the forest
adorned life with its leaves
and the day gathered.
Short is the time when we may live.


It was the summer’s time,
a door open for the night’s breeze.
Never had you walked gentler ways
in the morning’s dew,
past sleeping shores.
A cloud came,
someone woke up,
you heard the dear voices
and the night’s shadow, the last one,
brushed against you.

You who have left us

You who have left us and where the grass
no longer in the evening dimness shows
footsteps that have returned — dark
among the trees stand the metallic flowers

and your eye sees no more that light
that gently in its hand held the earth
you created. A sea-wind
blows out the nightly candles,

the jasmine stands dim at the gate
that never opens.

The great cloud

The great cloud shaped like a wing
descends slowly in front of the sun
like a blood-red leaf from death’s tree.
And over the sea’s surface glides the evening’s bird,
touches the water’s surface with its wings,
changing, as though there were no movement
and only the miraculous song, silence.

March snow

Snow under the March sky’s flickering light —
over your life rests its dust with the savour of disappearance.
Already for you the murmur of springtimes is past.
You listen, as though a word
had issued from death, from the high expanses
and not been touched by snow.

Winter’s day

I write one winter’s day,
write off the day and the night, the planets,
go into my house from a harsh sun
and extend those shadows that are swordlike aimed.
It is a day of drifting snow
and with a voice from that which is I
or was.

The bumble-bee in the grass

Louder than the thunderstorm the rester hears
the bumble-bee in the grass that recalls
the small boy, the great cloud
and the water-enveloped years.

They came like birds and were silent,
became fruits and fell
down into that which is not darkness
but a sound in the grass.

And the revolutions of the great worlds,
and the fear of the lesser stars
can be destroyed by nothing, not even the summer
when the children play in the grass.

And you who dreamed of Atlantis,
you who glided over icefields like a bird of rediscovery,
descend into this cool silence,
into this dream, so near

that its hand is a wind that cannot be lost,
a grass that will constantly grow.

The evening

The evening is near the grass,
the bay is moved gently by winds.
The sun sinks its fire
in the cloud.
Clear, without stars, is the sky.

Bitter voice

At some turning, on the way
from the day, through the forest,
in the landscape of the year
an image of the chill sea opened.
No uncertainty lingered like this one,
lay, like a bitter voice in your eye
when already new days had arrived, other voices were heard.

The early morning

The early morning and the early grass,
the roads silent, farms and meadows wide,
the shadows familiar, parts of the light
and we parts of the stillness, the lingering mind.

Through the evening

Through the evening stars shine,
a bird keeps watch.
The trees move in a child’s eyes,
the bird keeps watch
until the wind is silent.
Voyage over silent waters,
light when the shore darkens,
the islands wander and the clouds.

The inconstant

The autumn’s ice, your body out of the shadows,
the inconstant that also is love
and unknown.

Another world

Another world? Another sunlight,
another stillness?
I love that which cannot be chosen.
Two lives did not choose me,
not evening, not break of day.

Simple songs

Simple songs, morning clear —
how many lives and thoughts have set
so that these should rise,
grass, flowers, day, mortality.

Under the same clouds

Shadows mingle with shadows,
the grass with her hair,
dead rests someone, someone who died
under the same clouds.

Boats were setting out their lanterns

It was dark, boats were setting out their lanterns,
fish were being pulled from the water, pale as your skin,
how silently moved boats and men, the sea closed like your gaze,
a world was effaced.

The day opens

The day opens,
birds hover over the water,
a cloud moves by
and I take up my work again
in order from two words to win back one.

The horses

The horses stood with bowed necks. When they stretched
he saw the play of their hide in the summer light.
The darkness in their eyes absorbed June’s greenness.
He stood and watched them. Suddenly
they caught wind of him, dashed off towards the horizon,
that light space under a pale, distant moon,
as though he had frightened them with his certainty.

At the table your figure

At the table your figure,
over your hand the shadow of the child’s head, a fruit,
your gaze through the window fixed to the trees’ movements,
the movement mirrored in the knife that cuts the bread,
the use and clarity of things.

The lips

The lips
broken out of the mountain,
an echo
raised to the day.

The army

Reflected in a shattered windowpane
the army passes by and disappears
in the town that closes up,
in the wound that never closes.


Conversations built over the years
or traces of your love —
I go into the pinewood’s greenness,
with the clarity of a spring the light
streams towards me like a newly-woken memory
of your perished voice —
tranquil, all-enveloped love,
sprung forth from bitter visions,
trees quietly gathered, twisted:
peace you found, Horace, and this mosaic’s pattern
that between the greenness of the trees broke on your floor
while their deep shadows settled
over eyelids and the night’s vigil.
Friendship, echo,
I see you like a figure of distance
near this fire that is lit by the earth
and like your words in coolness lingers.

Broken pattern

Where have you been, you who were well-known?
— In a darkness,
abstract, crazed.
There walks he who must be transformed
and like dogs
the winds run through his limbs.
You resemble him. From you I can expect nothing
but suffering that is consumed happiness
and near the utmost darkness
the happiness that is consumed suffering
and breaks the pattern.

The flock of birds

The one that has sung grows silent.
Lights go out, clouds
glide over scrubby treetops and through me
the silence follows the distant,
ever more distant flock of birds.

Tell me

Tell me before you leave me to you
about the tiredness I have felt even at night,
about the world that never slumbers, footsteps
that move towards the same goal —
tell me before you leave me
if anything has been said or unsaid,
you who know everything and do not answer questions
but move above the fields like a heraldic bird.

Speaking rivers are silent

Speaking rivers are silent, the first bright
flakes whirl through the naked days.
In the way that an autumn dies also the harsh
stars’ brilliance is silent and our conversations
grow still in a wintry circle where formerly wild the song was sealed.

Long night

Some day when the border between the day before and the day to come
is a scarcely perceptible change of light
and the trees stand like guards outside the window,
some evening in the age of your ripeness a cold wave washes
slowly through you.
You know nothing of that darkness that has settled;
it is God who observes you and turns away, in moonlight,
and the life you live is, compared to this night, short.

People and clouds

With wings the light spreads in the June greenness.
People and clouds cross over the boundaries of beauty,
like the darkness over the evening vault,
the water over the bursting deeps.

The green tree, the blue sea

The green tree holds above the child
its still arms.

The blue sea is silent, its breathing
mingles with the child’s.

It is years ago. You see:
the tree, the sea remain,

the green,
the blue.

The child walks through the grass

The child walks through the grass.
Child, I have sought you
with hands like cotyledons,
with blinding dreams,
through the earth, the tree
I seek you, the sea’s tone
and the lifting wave.

The child walks through the grass.
I follow his path
and enclose him in darkness.
Free me! the child calls
through the earth, the tree,
breaks out of life for a dream,
heavier than life and with its knowledge.

The child walks through the grass.
Out of the summer his voice sounds
to grass and earth
like overflowing rain,
the whole of my country stands clear,
mountains shimmer green,
waters freeze still,
the autumn draws near and sees my eye.

Beside water

Beside water
is perhaps the place where silence was born.
When this childhood broke from memory
broke also the memory of him, Christ,
for this nocturnal world
that is his heart.


The swallows that have gathered in the first cold
are silently leaving my landscape.
It is a time that grows more brittle and breaks at my steps,
a gentle autumn ice.
In the morning my fever has left me, I see:
a table, a mountain, a tree.
Thus days go, clear without consolation.


In the light coolly blooms
the snow,

blue is the shadow that falls
over your eye

where you dream of the mountain’s
clear as the sky,
followed by shadows.

The gull

The landscape must be transformed.
the moon be transformed to blood in a black sky
and the leaves on the trees become bronze.
It is your eyes that are tormented,
die and are reborn in that abyss
that divides your world from the world.
You throw yourself over it like one in despair.
Perhaps, when you fall, these your landscapes
are torn from your eye
and you are you and nothing but the gull in the black sky
with the sound of death.

In another Umbria

In another Umbria, amidst drifting smoke
the wind approaches you and you see a clarity,
the light. We rest beneath its vault.
Nothing in life is strange here where you put
your hand over mine on the spring ground,
in another Umbria, in the shadows.
With murmuring water the morning goes
imperceptibly, down the valleys
where other birds sound to the one who is silent,
the sorrow that has grown to calm,
that has held out against the changing of the light.
The day soon tall and the grass tall by the road.

-Bo Carpelan: Den svala dagen, 1961

-translation © David McDuff 2011

Andalusian Blueprints in November, by Susanne Jorn


Susanne Jorn


la simple
a pesar de todo,
tiene una eternidad que no se asusta

Pablo Neruda – “Oda a la envidia”
Odas elementales, 1954


Furiously boiling November sun
and yellow, red, brown, black
earth colors everywhere
in Eras del Lugar valley.

From dark mood
to light mood.

Pastel Yellow Photosensitivity





The pulse of
the silence throbs
while the enchanting
Eras del Lugar valley
chimes paper-white
in the total blank
of Nothingness.

The pulse of
the silence throbs …


The silence’s
State of

The scorpion’s

The deep azure
of the Mediterranean,
The light azure
of the Mediterranean

Piedra de Villazar beach
its yellow-brown sand
Piedra de Villazar beach
its coarse-grained sand and

ink-blue peace of mind.


Are cicadas singing in chorus
when darkness falls.

Are crickets singing in chorus
when darkness falls.

No, they are holding singing contests
in Andalusian eveningsoundwalls.


That eardrum-splitting gale here in the night desert
reminds me of way back when I was so angry about everything.

There was no way round it, and I jumped in the air
so my anger-satellites sparkled in all the heavens.

The shutters flap against the walls of the houses. Distant stars shine on
the desert sky. On the horizon I think a little anger-satellite is blinking.








Most wonderfully lovely pomegranate tree.
Most wonderfully beautiful pomegranate.
Love’s pomegranate-red fruit.

Nothing more.


It is said
that pomegranates
cleanse the body
of hatred and jealousy.

If it is said
that poetry
is the breath of the soul
then pomegranates must
be love poems
all of them


Granada is the place
where many pomegranate trees grow.
Granada is the place
where the Alhambra palace is.

I got lost in the Alhambra.
suddenly stood
in the Alhambra’s secret chamber.

In one corner of the chamber I could sense
a man’s presence in the thick darkness.

I sat down in the opposite corner of the chamber
and whispered my secret to him.

Only then
could I
continue along
that fate-determined road.




In endless, deep minutes
of penetrable transparency
I’m united with my poems in koans

two ink-black daytime-owl-eyes
stare and stare and stare
straight through me




Mountain path
Balsam poplars

Mountain path
Orange grove
Barbary fig

Mountain path
Passion flower.




Green Lucky Dragons are asleep
in the caves of Francisco Goya’s mountains
and grumblemumblehummingsinging sounds of snoring
can be heard from far and near… Today
I saw wild magic eyes in feather-clouds,
a rare sight in November.


That lily-white poet of passion
No, that cerulean blue poet of hope
Flame-red poet of non-violence
Night-black poet of tolerance
Erik Stinus –
died on 13.11.2009.










The alcoholic’s
empty bottles
hurled down
from a mountain slope:
La hora de la verdad.













The Sierra Cabrera mountains
in the morning mist.

Then thousands of diamonds
on the Agua river


white magic
in it.





Like celestial carpets
of stars,

Like walls
of cypresses,

Like walls
of fig trees,

Like walls
of orange trees,
joie de vivre.

Like walls
of pomegranate trees,

Like walls
of olive trees,
universal peace.

Like screens
of poems,

Like the hoopoe
against the windowpane,

-Susanne Jorn: Andalusiske øjebliksbilleder i november, 2010

-translation © David McDuff 2011

Over the Water I Walk, by Pia Tafdrup (1)


My poetry comes into being between two poles: between hunger for life and fear of death, between excitement and thought, language and silence. The process is never the same, but – stretched quivering between extreme points – it contains a compelling necessity which seldom allows itself to be explained in any other way than: I can do nothing else, so I must do it.


Before the poem, a restlessness arises: spontaneous, unreflected and completely irrational phases, in which unknown energies are at work. Sleepless nights and convulsions, momentary irritation, melancholy, aggression and other conflict-ridden states. Seldom is it a harmonious situation that releases the poem. Very important, before the restlessness, a position of waiting, and endless patience. This period may last a long time, but may also be decisive in its invisibility. Associated with the patience is a humility, which is perhaps the real beginning?


The phase of pre-articulation with its different stages may easily be undervalued or quite simply overlooked, but what happens here is crucial as to whether the amorphous state will be released in a poem. Or: there are seldom poems without this phase, for what is involved is a degree of attention that is almost intolerable. It may be short or long, be scarcely perceptible, but it is here that there is an openness for anything that wants to find its way under an irritable layer of skin, here that sudden plunges under the surface of thought take place. Only afterwards does it become clear that the restlessness was the beginning of something new that was on its way. The state of pre-articulation may have so strong a grip that when I do eventually write, I no longer have any sense that it is me. Like an anaesthesia, an intoxication. Someone else or someone else in me, something else or something else in me acts, while I look on. Something that is more than me, or something that also exists in me,writes. What happens cannot be explained – thence the dizziness, but it is a question of reaching that point in the process where one forgets one’s own personality and is able to eliminate the private.

Inspired by French symbolism, Paul la Cour called this phenomenon depersonalisation: ‘In all great poetry there is an element of depersonalisation. It will not master you with individual soulfulness, but will shine into you with impersonal spirit.’ Inger Christensen has called the phenomenon derealisation. Both definitions aim at the same thing, they touch on a fundamental relation in all poetic creation: a generalisation of the subjective. In Mallarmé’s sense the depersonalisation is an aesthetic and metaphysical dimension in which the intellect leaves the space in the poem in order to let its own universe emerge – or as Rimbaud says of the poem’s subject:

Car je est un autre. Si le cuivre
s’éveille clairon, il n’y a rien de sa faute. Cela
m’est évident: j’assiste à l’éclosion de ma
pensée: je la regarde, je l’écoute: je lance un
coup d’archet: la symphonie fait son
remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d’un
bon sur la scène.

And elsewhere:

C’est faux de dire: Je pense:
on devrait dire: On me pense.

An attempt to take the direct route to the representative will only lead to poems that are vague. Only when the personal sets itself out over the private can the general emerge. It is not our emotions but the patterns we create from our emotions that are the essential thing, as T.S. Eliot pointed out.

I say: the angel dwells on the other side of subjectivity.


A man once said to me at an exhibition, where we were looking at paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘Your body is so classical. As I look at these pictures, I can recognize it everywhere.’ What he meant by this inverted declaration of love was: these studies of the body contain all human beings – or at least a half of mankind, all women. An artistic representation of the body is more than the individual body, it’s an expression of the body’s essence.

The poem must likewise be more than the writing subject. It is the movement inwards that leads past the subjective and towards the universal, like Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious. There exists an expectation of the general place that poetry must reach, but at the same time the poem exists by virtue of its specific character. If it doesn’t smell of skin, what use is it?


There can never be talk of art unless the private material is worked over and even the darkest events or most shocking experiences transformed into light. The poem has no value of its own until I leave it. It must be possible for it to be read independently of my individuality, which means that I must not be present as a private person. The partial must not oppress the universal. The poem only becomes real to the reader when it is possible for the reader to enter into a relationship with it.

The fact that I must never lock the poem does not mean that it is only valid if it has breadth: it’s better to reach a few people and affect them deeply than to reach many only superficially. Universality and breadth are two categories that are qualitatively different.


Inspiration is an invasion of forces that reach far beyond what is generally known, both physically and mentally. I have seen violent, almost superhuman energies manifest themselves in people shortly before they died. Although those people were ill and drained of strength, they were suddenly able to perform huge physical tasks such as the moving of objects that are normally immovable. In its own way, inspiration is likewise an overwhelming physical transformation. It can also have certain points of equivalence with the most searing love, with sorrow or fear, but unlike these instances, the energy is channelled into something else.

Whether the forces that break forth arise from within or from outside cannot be ascertained. Sometimes the possession lasts a few seconds, at other times it’s a question of long intervals. Something wants out, but why through me? And why do I want this something out? Sometimes what I try to summon fails to turn up. Instead something unexpected arrives. The process always contains an element of the miraculous. I am not an instrument for something, but the place where this something can grow. In that state I may have the experience of the poems writing me.

In the moment of inspiration I don’t only see further and more clearly than usual, but also differently and LIGHT-awake. This state exposes the microscopically small extent of what is normally seen and perceived. But to open the mind in the dimension that is part of inspiration is something that can only be done for a short space of time.


The Romantics and their successors maintained that inspiration is the making visible of a whole. I would say: if not a whole, then at least a glimpsed connection between things that normally appear to be separate. The Romantics were able to set their sights on an order that was already given. The task today is, for a moment, to create order in chaos, for no whole is any longer apparent.


It is almost becoming a dogma that art must arise from within. In certain cases, though, there is a freedom in allowing oneself to be bound by an idea that comes from outside. Someone wants something of me, and this expectation can sometimes take me further than I myself would have dared. There needs to be a dialectic involved: I must be able to illuminate the idea. Thus in a way to work outwards from inner stimuli…


I can adopt a seeking stance, or try to summon something forth, which is the same thing. If inspiration is to be present, what is involved is a sharpened attention, a special way of living. I write because I cannot help it. Either through fate or unwittingly, I have spent my whole life preparing for this. I am seen. So there is no way back.


Either I go out of myself and let myself be swallowed up by the alien other, or I receive the alien other into myself. The first movement dominates mostly in childhood and youth, the second in adult life. The ideal is to be able to do both, and what is involved is of course only a spiritual dimension. To devote oneself to the world is a precondition for being able to create a world. I receive the world into me at the same time as I exist in the world, and I produce a world at the same time as I exist in the midst of the world.


Without a beating heart, no poetry. Even the poems that express absence or emptiness are like the moment of falling in love — if not an expression of the imparting of meaning, then at least an attempt to keep meaninglessness at bay. For falling in love and the situation of writing contain something inside them…


In all talk of aesthetics, the birth of the poem is a principal consideration. Writing about how a poem announces itself is very different from what happens when a poem appears. In addition, each poem has its own subtle history, which complicates the whole matter further. It is only afterwards that the reflections are of interest. Why did I do this and not that? Only by standing outside the process can it be described.

On the one hand I may have the sense that the whole thing – or at any rate part of it – was already there before the poem itself came into being, it was just that I couldn’ t see it. As though the words were simply waiting to be brought forth. On the other hand, I was the person who put these words together, who gained mastery of new images which I will understand only later, or will never really know where they came from, for that happens too. I have written poems I actually did not understand, or where the process of their becoming visible was unexplained: the sense that something had suddenly been given, something I had to continue on my own.

As a prelude to one of the sequences in my collection Intetfang (Noembrace), I quote Rilke. He described the gaining of mastery as a process that begins before one is aware of it, in a phase in which sense-impressions invade the mind before concentration takes place, and when thoughts and expressions come shooting forth:

Werk des Gesichts ist getan,
tue nun Herz-Werk
an den Bildern in dir, jenen gefangenen; denn du
überwältigtest sie: aber nun kennst du sie nicht.

These lines could be about any of the poems I’ve written since the angel broke its silence. For it was in that first book of mine that I discovered poems need not refer directly to something that is already familiar. One of the paths in that first volume is built of poems which are based on familiar material, but as poems they’re not interesting, because the aesthetic manoeuvring in them usually blocks new perception. The other path is the one I subsequently followed and took as my starting-point in many directions — the one that involves a surprise, the momentary quiver of something that hasn’t been seen before: why did I suddenly write this, and where did it come from? It’s about trying to do more than what one thinks is possible, about hurling oneself out into the most challenging places. It’s in those places that one has the sense of fear and being overwhelmed, the sense that anything may happen, but it sometimes happens in a region where one almost cannot bear to be.


I don’t know who whispers the words, and I don’t always know what is being whispered, only that the words announce themselves in order to be written down. I write without inquiring. It is always too late to turn round. There is nothing to hold on to except what already exists in myself, and what is thrown over me in waves as I write.


The poet’s work is linked with an ability to lose himself, to temporarily set himself outside society and history. The writing of poems is a matter of authenticity, of forgetting about other things and other people. And of being oneself, with all that this requires.


There are situations where for a moment the material takes control of the writer. And if the control is not won back, one goes insane. Or worse: risks death.


The sensuous and the emotional are not enough to create a poem. At most a diary. It was only when I read Edgar Allan Poe that I realized the degree to which self-restraint and a methodical approach are involved in the poetic principle. The fire must be met with cold.

In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe comments on the birth of his great poem, “The Raven”: ‘It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition – that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’

These lines express a modern approach that jettisons quite a few myths, as there is a widespread belief that poems only come into being in a state of intoxication, madness or headlong ecstasy. I’m especially familiar with the enabling energy that is a first step in the process, but at some point self-oblivion and direct outreach must be replaced by a very high level of self-awareness.

Poe’s method is to set certain goals for himself in advance. That is why there is so little mention of intuition in his writings. I doubt that he is right in what he says about spontaneity. At any rate, I don’t have an explanation for every device I have used. Although I like the idea that an essential part of the process is a dispassionate overview, not everything in the process can be explained.

The birth of the poem is not only determined by expressive impulses, but also consists of contemplative states. Emily Dickinson encapsulated this type of inspiration in the following image:

On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot


Strictness and wildness are irreconcilable dimensions that must be reconciled in the process of writing.


The precondition for writing poems is to be able to rise, let the dream move one’s body. My best writing times have always been accompanied by dreams of flying, in countless variations. I can stay in the air for ages, and can travel in this foreign element without any trouble at all.


Writing is a longing for the present, a longing to be allowed to exist. It is about being captured, daring to devote oneself to opposites. Pleasure and pain mingle together, and there is no more damming-up of the words that flow out ineluctably. Writing poems is above all being in the present tense, while also simultaneously being aware of other times and tenses.


At times when the moon and the stars are especially favourable, everything points to what is being written. The work on a book is not very different from falling in love. I am sensitive and receptive in a new way. Things that are apparently indifferent can’t avoid having significance asctibed to them, and coincidences arise between the strangest phenomena. Words are – at least temporarily – in chaos. What before were chance events now become signs.


In absorption things change. Most often it is a slow process, in which only small details alter. At other times there is an overwhelming vitality, and suddenly something shockingly new and unexpected is on the paper, something that now and then anticipates what I will develop years later.


What forms the beginning of a poem often ends up being deleted, either because the poem grows, and overshadows the beginning, or because the starting-point is possibly too private. Only when whatever it was that gave rise to the poem has been crossed out does something that is worthwhile begin.


The process of the poem belongs to the moments when I think: that is why I am alive… On the other hand I also know the dread of beginning, because there are periods of writing when I must enter places that are full of dread.


The poem is brought into the world and is thereafter, in principle, accessible an infinite number of times, while I become aware of my own mortality, but also of the fact that with each poem I am left with a remnant, that after the poem I am also confronted with something that could not be written into it. The poem stands there shining, and every time I will be whirled into places from which I must drag myself, empty and exhausted, back to the same darkness, the same inarticulate sphere. Once the poem begins, there is only one thing for it: to give up everything else and hurl oneself into what is taking place, without compromise. A process has begun. It can go only one way, and that is forward. Neither life nor poem nor society permit any slowing down.


It is essential to be able to endure prolonged uncertainty and doubt, as a poem will never allow itself to be forced.


Creation is not the possession of all the wisdom in the world, but the ability to be constantly born. ‘I am not yet born, but bearing am redeemed,’ Sophus Claussen says.


Sometimes I cannot gain access to the receptive space where I can forget everything, and the poem can be given birth, where I can form a shell around myself and be at peace. I may try to do so from many angles, but I will not succeed in finding the entrance to the room I know is there.


The process of the poem is a being-alone-with-oneself.


The poem sometimes begins in a dream-moment, of its own accord, or when two words collide and instantly set off a larger movement:

Between always and never
it is that things happen
in a breathless second
when one least expects it
the world changes.

Something that was not there before and contains a new being in itself, appears. Or the process may begin almost imperceptibly with a sound, a rhythm, a musical motif, a fragment of something almost forgotten or a misreading. Even the experience of absence may set language in motion.

A modern physicist would say that atoms have always existed, that something has always been given. Something is there, but whatever it is, it can be extremely diffuse. There exists a material, an amorphous structure, which by means of transformation is brought to take on a number of forms, but most importantly: poems are not created from nothing. Something is. Just as at birth we have the impressions of nine months already behind us.

The thing that was the poem’s original starting-point, and is often discarded, exists nonetheless as an invisible place, and has its special function in the poem.


Poems occupy themselves with the impossible, with the writing down that of which one cannot speak. The opposite to Wittgenstein’s Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. But this is precisely the barrier that poetry seeks to cross, by writing out new universes. All that about which nothing final can be said, and which reveals new, unspoken aspects each time something is formulated. Poems set words free. They constantly move the limits of language, and yet are never able to say everything…


While the draft of the poem is coming into being, I feel that I have been put outside of time, although that phase has its beginning and its end. The place I am in is forgotten, as is my identity. A state of seeking, almost weightless. Like a pure floating.


“Storm and stress” is often considered a virtue, but stands in contrast to meditation or absorption. If I am absorbed by the outside world all creation is rendered impossible, because in that case it is the world that uses me to act. In the process of the poem precisely the opposite becomes true: it is I who am the agent. A bombardment of impressions may be sometimes be of importance, but in the phase of writing the direction goes from inside to out.


All the handwritten revisions, the basic sensuous experience of moving a pencil or pen across the paper are incredibly important, as are the subsequent fair copies, because they have the character of being finished, and therefore call for corrections and improvements in a way that is different from the first hasty sketches. A rationalization of the process would not produce more good poems — at most, it would give rise to a great many bad ones.

Between the individual sketches hours, days or weeks, sometimes months may lie. One can’t bully a poem, or it locks up and will not obey. Where a poem is concerned, it is not the writing down that takes time. On the other hand, the intervals between the productive phases can be of long duration. But during the time that the poem is resting, something happens. Or I am given new eyes to see with.


The material or the emotions may pile up, ideas and images grow out of proportion, the potential may assume dimensions which cannot possibly be of any benefit. There is nothing to be done except to overcome one’s resistance and carry on. Poems demand will, a fact that conflicts, perhaps, with many an old myth, but the poem does not come into being with the wave of a magic wand. In a society, the will is one of the most invisible things – there it is always the finished result that counts, or the final product that is presented. But will, which is not to be confused with mechanical toil, apparently exists on a perfectly equal footing with other instincts, and should not be undervalued. Will and endurance may go very far in determining my fate, but they are not sufficient to create art. At most, these forces are a forward operating base.

Lastly, the exertion must not be detectable in the finished work. ‘It’s from diamonds like yours that I know the sweat they are silent about!’ Per Højholt writes in The Moon’s Gesture. A Sophus Claussen Identification.

Anyone can experience inspiration, but few have the courage and discipline to go further. It is above all here that the artist stands out from others, who let happy ideas evaporate the instant they are born. It is the stubbornness that is enigmatic, like the will to life. Where does the strength to go on have its source?

At the times when I am preoccupied with a poem, I cannot be the person I would like to be. I wound and offend, I demand the impossible, or do things I later regret. I can see what I am doing, but cannot act differently. All my strength moves in one direction: towards the poem. All my passion is gathered in one single point.


Perhaps the poem needs me?


The poem ‘Meditation Fountain’ in Bridge of Seconds speaks of two forces that are present at every birth, a gathering and a spreading. Creation and destruction are aspects of the same process, and so destruction is an important element in art. Nothing comes into being without something else simultaneously being destroyed. Rejection and precision are deeply interconnected.

There is a paradox in the sense of being enriched after deleting, word by word, the thing that at one stage one tried to persuade oneself was a poem. It’s a happy experience to have written a good poem, but at least as happy a one to have avoided writing a bad poem..


‘Poetry can be defined as a series of encounters which have chance as their fundamental law’, Per Højholt writes in Cézanne’s Method. The degree to which it is chance that determines the encounter can be debated. Is an external compulsion involved, or is it an inner necessity? Is it I who grasp chance – or does chance draw attention to itself? It is sometimes hard to decide where the borderline is between two such contradictory quantities as miracle and chance. Our birth may, for example, be said to be determined by a very predictable encounter, but why that particular ovum and that particular sperm cell and not one of the other millions of possible ones, and why that particular lovemaking that day between just those two people… Does the poem approach me or do I approach it, that is the question. Of course the process goes both ways, and it is a matter of indifference whether as a writer I am fertilized by Providence or chance. Holy ghost or ovulation – what does it matter, as long as a poem comes out of it…


Where does the poem open? It opens where the unknown starts. If I only write about familiar material, I limit myself and present an obstacle to all the things that could be written meanwhile. New perceptions must always be able to come up behind me, impulses that bring me to an unpredictable place.


A poem must close. It has its own end built in to it, but must at the same time point beyond itself. It is only when the definitive move is made that the ending becomes visible. In what the definitive consists cannot be said, as each poem has its own move, which points towards closing.

While it is far from invariably possible to explain what started a poem, the decisive move can as a rule be made clear during or immediately after the work. Later it is probably forgotten, but the fact remains that beginning and the end must be in a supple relation to each other. A poem can be so short that it does not manage to develop, but can on the other hand run the risk of being so long that it loses precision or becomes diffuse.

A poem must stop in a convincing way, so that it can start in the reader.


The title of a poem functions as an orientation point. I don’t remember numbers, they don’t tell me anything. Number-blind, I stumble about in the dark. But a title is important, because the poem is recalled by it. On the other hand, titles should not signal too much. They should be more in the way of hints than titles which make the poem top-heavy. It’s a relief when a title gives itself, for usually it is the title that causes the greatest difficulties. This is especially true of book titles, which ought to be a miniature of the whole work. The strange thing about book titles is that they converse with one another. The title I gave my first book has had direct consequences for the others. Like names in a group of brothers and sisters.


Visible or invisible poles exist in my poems, but the number three is the magic one. It hides everywhere in their composition, and in the books’ inner conversation.

Springtide and White Fever constitute two poles, while Bridge of Seconds became the third quantity, which could not have been devised without the preceding ones. Viewed like this, the three works are related to one another as thesis – antithesis – synthesis. The poem ‘Moving sculpture’ in Bridge of Seconds is a hidden poetics for the three books mentioned here: King, Queen and dauphin. The dauphin is an unexpected result, which again must mark off a new figure which lies outside the material that is given. A continuous dynamic praxis.

The figure three also plays on another motif. The poems do not merely articulate an I-you relation, a poet-reader relation: a third instance is present between the two.


In the poem the limits of the unsayable are investigated. Not everything must be made visible, for when the mystery vanishes, obviousness and the one-dimensional begin. A poem’s mystery should not be exchanged for a hard shell of something unapproachable, nor with unnecessary mysticism or chronic sentimentality. The hermetic, which alone shuts the poet in and keeps the reader out, is not desirable, but on one level poetry is always an oracular monologic discourse: the possible transformations of expression, all the many layers and structures that demand repeated readings. A good poem has an inborn character that calls for movement and continually steers towards greater understanding.


Where art is concerned I do not doubt for a moment that fidelity is a necessity. It is not imposed on me. I choose it myself as the only valid way of relating to poetry. It is a precondition in all seeking for a true artistic language, it is the condition for creation that steps beyond itself. Fidelity is an openness that obliges, but also a risk, for with it I stake everything.


After the poem: a violent exhaustion, but also an inexpressible relief that this something has found its way out. For a time, a great happiness… Or a hibernation-like state sets in, a physical condition in which all sense-impressions glance off or are neglected. If there was an element of something that growled like a beast of prey in the pre-articulation phase, now the beast scratches behind its ear again.


The condensed energy or trembling nervous state that exists before the words appear returns again for a time after the poem. I find myself indeed in a place of whose existence I could not possibly have had any idea before the poem, but am again hurled into fear and darkness, once again alone with what is greatest.


The insightful poet must be able to parody himself.


What decides if the poem is a successful poem? Time.

translation © David McDuff 2011