In the middle of the world, is one answer. In the whirlwind of time, with the finger on the pulse of language.
‘I have taken part, I still take part. It belongs to the inevitable’, Göran Sonnevi writes in his magnificent Oceanen (The Ocean, 2008). It’s an attitude which does not only summarise Sonnevi’s own poetics, but also says something about poetry in general. To take part, take a stand, be part of – that is a task several of the present-day poets have undertaken.
‘I write the greater belonging, / and we must be given a place’, Jörgen Lind says in Hägn (Auspices, 2008), with wishful words which sound like a nod to Sonnevi.
In these distressed and crazy times of ours, it is reasonable to ask what the response from poetry could be. Does poetry have a mission? Does it have a message? Well, it’s obvious that poets are reacting to what is happening.
Ever since the beginning of the new millennium, the strained global political situation has led to a sharpened political position in poetry. To a larger extent than with novelists, poets have taken on the role as time witnesses. It has become rather usual to consider the poet’s responsibility not just to reflect society, but also to try to change it.
Today, it’s not merely the question of what poetry can be. It’s also the question of what poetry can do.
The activist poetry many thought was buried along with the utopian visions of the 60s and 70s has resurrected with a renewed self-confidence and vitalizing anger. Browse some of the most cherished poetry collections from the latest years and you’ll find all the urgent issues of our time. You’ll read about warfare, refugees, racism, sexism, LGBT issues, social inequality, climate change, postcolonialism, animal rights, working conditions.
Around the year 2000, a critic in an article in an evening paper wondered where social reality had gone and requested a more prosaic poetry. A little more than ten years later, the very same critic was worried about the high degree of political engagement in young Swedish poetry and warned against the ideological use of literature.
The notion of political poetry is still closely connected to the spirit of the symbolic year of 1968, when poetry went to the barricades. As a reaction to lyrical poetry, heavy with symbols and metaphors, came the wild experiments of the 60s: Jolly happenings, culture radicalism, concretists focusing on language as material, as well as a new simplicity. Instead of whispering visions, we had plain-speaking through megaphones. The 70s are associated with left-wing political struggle and international solidarity, the 80s, on the other hand, with post-modernism, intertextuality, deconstruction.
But there is no reason for over-simplified dualistic thinking. Political poetry can, of course, be both socially-engaged and language-focused: It can be funny, angry, philosophical, straightforward, and sometimes even lyrical. In this spectrum, we find Jenny Wrangborg’s catchy agitation for struggle; Lars Mikael Raattamaa’s sprawling cut-up; Aase Berg’s razing of hierarchies; the ecocritical visions of Jonas Gren; Johan Jönson’s furious attacks on capitalist society, language and himself; Ida Börjel’s Ma, a dark alphabetical catalogue of everything going wrong on the earth; Emil Boss’ Acceleration, a conceptual report from a cashier’s desk, printed on a receipt roll.
One of the most infected discussions about poetry in the 2000s concerned the orientation away from traditional lyrical forms. The conflict between those who found elitism, obscureness and incomprehensibility in contemporary poetry and those who esteemed the openness and freedom in the experimental poetical practises has, for a long while, formed the image of Swedish poetry, also when it has moved in new directions.
But no doubt the concept of poetry has blurred; poets are pushing the boundaries, aiming for broader forms and widening the definition of poetry as a genre. The typical contemporary poetry book is often conceptually composed as a unity or variations on a theme, and may contain long parts of prose, essayistic elements or dramatic dialogue.
With the ambition of capturing the present, poetry books have expanded. If you look at contemporary Swedish poetry collections, you will note that size matters. It’s not unusual that at a work of poetry resembles a novel, a thick one. ‘It was my striving always / To take in everything / Everything I am able to’, Göran Sonnevi says in his new 300-page book Sekvenser mot Omega (Sequences towards Omega); his previous book, Bok utan namn (Book Without Name), counted 800 pages. In Atlantis, stopping at 370 pages, Marie Silkeberg writes: ‘Everything is sliding, everything is a dark and disorderly flowing stream’. Johan Jönson holds the record with his trilogy of nearly 4000 pages: med.bort.in (with.away.in), mot.vidare.mot (towards.further.towards) and dit.dit.hään (there.there.away). In the latter he claims: ‘I have nothing to offer’.
Poetry as resistance does not necessarily mean poetry as a political instrument. It can be working on a much deeper level; bringing attention to what we do with language, what language does with us. Reflecting on the ideological shifts of society, how thinking forms the speech and how words form the thinking.
In our world of newspeak, poetry faces challenges. Can a poem undress the distorting language of power? Bring down hierarchies taken for granted? Give new life to expressions that has been kidnapped and corrupted?
‘Right now, with everything that happens, the political poem is the only possibility’, Kristian Lundberg declared in a debate article 2013, referring to Göran Sonnevi as a role model. In Sekvenser mot omega (2017), Göran Sonnevi himself writes: ‘To me no language is taboo, / no language worn out or compromised / Everything is possible to dynamic play / off against the other / Also the language of stillness’.
If we, for a moment, leave the question of whether poetry can change the world, we have another acute concern to deal with: Who reads poetry today? Is there anyone who cares?
Swedish poetry today exists in the tension between engagement and marginalisation. Commercial interest in poetry is as good as zero. Fewer and fewer poetry collections are published by large publishing houses, especially when it comes to debuts. If you walk into a bookstore, it will be difficult to find any poetry at all – if you even find a bookstore, that is. It’s a situation reflected in Johan Jönsons fixation on the economic realities of writing: ‘So this should be the last poetry book I write. I can’t afford it’.
At the same time, alternative scenes and publishing houses are popping up, and poetry is lively as a discussion topic in smaller communities. With self-confidence, poetry makes its voice heard in the public arena. Typically, one of the most debated radio broadcasts in recent years was made by the poet Athena Farrokhzad, who transformed a cosy, popular show into a thunderous political manifesto.
So where is Swedish poetry heading right now? Trying to write literary history in the moment, it is possible to see a trend quite opposite to the political engagement. An ironic, nonchalant and discouraged poetry, fostered in our artificial digital world and cultivating an anti-aesthetic where pop-cultural simplicity meets the postmodern view on the unstable self.
On the other hand, there is movement turning against the shiny screens of virtual reality, and maybe also against the cold, distant gaze still defining much poetry of the 2000s. A sensual, physical focus on the body, often with a feministic, sometimes burlesque, perspective and a gluttonous fleshly fascination.
Of course, there are completely different ways for poetry to engage. Together with an ecocritical awareness comes a wish to turn away from the cacophonic present and remind us about the significant things beyond the everyday bustle. Pär Hansson, for example, urges a sensory attention:
It is not to late
to pick up
a black stone from the bottom of the river
let the stone dry
lighten in the hand
But can poetry really change the world? In a sense it always does, since it changes the way we look at the world, the way we think of the world.
Poetry is different from everyday language, the politicians’ language, management language. Poetry is the difference.