Week Before The Festival: Littfest in Sweden

Scandinavian Design

On the Movement of Contemporary Poetry in Sweden, Denmark and Norway

/ by Mats O Svensson

In 2014, Swedish literary critics noticed that something was happening on the other side of the southern border. Critical focus was momentarily shifted from the national literary field to a group of young Danish poets, most of them educated in Copenhagen’s writing school, who all made their debuts in recent years. People in and around the Swedish literary scene started to talk about the Danish poetry as if it was undergoing a new wave, and mostly young critics – myself included – saw another idiom in Danish poetry that was lacking in its Swedish counterpart: A poetry that spoke more directly to its reader, and wasn’t afraid to be personal, and speak from a clearly-defined “I.” An “I” that wasn’t separated, but intertwined in political, technological and ecological configurations.

Theis Ørntofts Poems 2014 [Digte 2014] (2014), Yahya Hassans bestselling Yahya Hassan (2013), and Asta Olivia Nordenhofs The Simple and the Lonely [Det nemme og det ensomme] (2013) were widely talked about and reviewed in Sweden, before they came out in Swedish translation. In the beginning of 2015, the critic Viola Bao wrote a long article about this new phenomenon in Svenska Dagbladet. Bao described the new Danish poetry as “booming,” and saw in the hype an opportunity to open up the Swedish literary field to new impulses. That is: The possibility to alter the Swedish poetic idiom, an idiom which, over the last decade – to express it very bluntly – had been dominated by a more language-critical and conceptual approach, in some sense more intellectual than emotional.

The new wave of Danish poetry influenced literary critics and poets. Victor Malm wrote, in a review of Asta Olivia Nordenhof’s poems in February 2015, that almost all of his literary friends talked about it as an inspiration for their own writing. Exactly how Swedish poetry is influenced is difficult to say, and demands a larger overview of the last couple of years. Poetry is a slow art, and if critics are eager to describe trends, poets often take more time. We will probably need another few years to be able to see the effects.

Influence doesn’t go one way, and in the same way that Danish poetry influences Swedish (and Norwegian), Swedish poetry influences Danish. A poet like Julie Sten-Knudsen told in an interview that translating the Swedish poet Jenny Tunedal was a way to “open up the Danish language and widen what one was allowed to write about in Danish,” because she found Danish poetry “a little bit too happy.” Through translations, poets find a way to appropriate other ways of writing. Translation becomes waves of influence, or ingestion of literary nutrition, into the literary field. Without translation, the national literature is endangered, to wither and become stale. And although the Nordic languages are so close, translations between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are frequently published, mostly due to the closeness (translations are more available to more people), but also due to generous support from the national cultural institutions.

Nordic poets share mutual arenas where they meet, exchange ideas and hear how the neighboring poets write and read their poetry. Many smaller, independent literary reviews publish material in all three languages, poets meet at readings, and attend the same writing schools. They are connected through shared infrastructure and a cultural, geographic and linguistic intimacy that smooths out and folds space, placing influential writing schools, such as Forfatterskolen in Copenhagen, Litterär gestaltning in Gothenburg, Biskops Arnö outside Stockholm, and Skrivekunstakademiet in Bergen next to each other; and the poets educated in these schools become colleagues, with sometimes more in common, aesthetically and ethically, than their national colleagues outside of this specific system.

Does all of this make it meaningful to speak of Nordic poetry in the same way we speak about crime fiction from the Scandinavian countries as Nordic noir, or furniture and fashion as Scandinavian design? Yes, and no. Nordic poetry is, unlike the two others, not a commercial label that can or will contribute to an increasing sale of poetry collections. But it does make sense in the way it describes a heterogeneous entity, an open system with an infrastructure where text, creators and influence can flow more intensely and easy. A both imaginary and real field that captures the interconnectedness of transnational cooperation and translation, but which is less abstract and fluid than European or World poetry. After all, Swedish poetry is no less heterogeneous than the Nordic: Several different aesthetic approaches and traditions exist inside the national field.

There are common, shared poetic movements in all Nordic countries, movements which of course cannot be isolated from the global and expanding capitalism, nor digital and technical development. In her book, New Nordic. Poetry in the 21st Century [Ny nordisk. Lyrik i det 21. århundrede] (2016) Louise Mønster goes through some of these tendencies: The expansion of poetry into non-print media, return of traditional forms, like the sonnet, into contemporary poetry, preferences for long poems instead of traditional collections of poetry, as well as similarities in subject, like lyrical investigations into bodies or gender and apocalyptic themes.

Although its title stresses the Scandinavian aspect, Louise Mønster’s book focuses on contemporary Danish poetry, but as she writes, it seems almost impossible to write a national narrative of the literary development without taking the other Scandinavian countries into account. The same narratives are told in Peter Stein Larsen’s Lyrical Expansion. On Contemporary Nordic Poetry [Poesiens ekspansion. Om nordisk samtidsdigtning] (2015), a predecessor to Mønster that covers more or less the same tendencies.

One important actor contributing to these developments in Scandinavia was the Swedish literary review OEI, the title of which comes from the extraction of the vowels in the Swedish word for poetry. It’s impossible to describe Nordic poetry the last decade without mentioning OEI and the impact it made on Scandinavian poetry. OEI is an avant-garde magazine that was founded in 1999 – with influence from American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-poetry, the French group Oulipo, and Swedish concretism – which since then has examined conceptual writing and publishing. Several of the poets and critics in this loose collective established themselves quickly in the literary field, not only the Swedish, but also the Norwegian one, where OEI played a particularly important role.

In one of the most important Norwegian cultural magazines, Vagant, editor-in-chief Audun Lindholm and former editor Bernhard Ellefsen asked – in an article that called for a Nordic public sphere – if it even was possible to write about Norwegian literature in the first decade of the new millennium, without talking about the great influence the Swedish magazine OEI had on young authors and critics. It is said that, at one point, available copies of OEI in Norwegian book shops were sold out immediately. Another example: In 2010, one other important magazine in Norway, Vinduet, asked critics and authors who the most important Norwegian poet was in the 00s. Author Gunnar Wærness answered “Fredrik Nyberg.” A choice that wouldn’t be worth remarking on, if it wasn’t for the fact that Fredrik Nyberg is a Swedish poet – published by OEI.

OEI still exists, but has lost some of its influence on the contemporary poetry. This is probably an effect of the fact that poets and critics have been searching for new expressions, but also because OEI themselves started to become more interested in the international art world, and less interested in the development of the national literature. The climax of the position of OEI in Swedish poetry can be seen in the anthology 32/2011, published by biggest and most influential Swedish publishing house, Albert Bonniers. It collected 32 poets from last decade, three out of four editors, and almost all of the included poets were in some way connected to, written about, or published in OEI. The periphery had become the center. And, therefore, maybe less interesting.

A short article like this can hardly cover all the flows between the three countries Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and one if its main disadvantages is that it leaves out the other Nordic countries (mainly Finland), which are also part of the continuous exchange of text and influence. Further, it fails to describe the complexities and multitudes of the heterogeneous Scandinavian poetry, which is not one but many.

“Scandinavianism” is a powerful idea – some would say myth – founded in the 19th century when Swedes, Danes and Norwegians (Norway was, at that time, a part of Sweden) discovered that they shared a common history. The birth of this movement is normally placed at Lund in 1829, when two of the most important Swedish and Danish poets, Esaias Tegnér and Adam Oehlenschläger, met in the cathedral. Tegnér dubbed Oehlenschläger as “the greatest Nordic poet” and read a poem, where it said that the “time of disruption had passed,” and declared the two countries as brothers.

Since then, the cultural exchange between the countries has gone in waves. Sometimes we are more interested in our neighbors, sometimes less. And the relationships are nowhere near a harmonious or an equal one. Franco Moretti once pointed out that world literature, like global capitalism, is one, and unequal. Literary power relations between countries are determined by economic, military and demographic factors. Norwegians seem more curious about their neighbor’s literature than the so-called “big brother” Sweden is. But unlike the global economic or military complex, the literary one is more fluid. A literary boom in Denmark can influence Swedish literature, as well as Norwegian. A single author can change how literature is viewed, read and written. And the intimacy between the three different countries facilitates those kinds of impacts.

Mats O Svensson

was born in 1987 in Linköping, and is a Swedish literary critic based in Berlin. He holds a master degree in literature from Uppsala University, and is specialized in poetry and modern German literature.