Author of the Week / 19 April 2024

Some tendencies in contemporary Swedish poetry

Author of the Week: Sweden

Polarisation and irony

The Swedish poetry debate seems to thrive on dull polarisation. In the early 2000s, two opposing camps were pitted against each other, where one (the ‘retrogardists’) defended a traditional way of writing and the other (the ‘linguistic materialists’) engaged in word-play and meta-poems. The debate did not make anyone happy, and the conclusion soon crystallised that good poetry can be written both by those who use traditional means and innovative methods, not to mention all the good poetry written by those who managed to maintain a position in each camp.

One such poet who published his first book in the middle of the debate was Malte Persson, who has since been a breath of fresh air on the Swedish poetry scene. Apart from a few ‘pure’ poetry collections, his contribution has so far consisted of hybridbooks between prose and poetry, and this spring he published his latest book Skapelser (Creations). Mixing traditional verse forms such as sonnets and the terzine with puns and anagram poems, he allows his poetry to be a container for a writing that taps into the creative potential of experimentation. It is a maximalist aesthetic that does not accept any boundaries between playfulness and seriousness – so his previous collection of poems Undergången (Doom) ended with a 60-page long poem (‘The world increasingly rapidly rewinding’) that begins with COVID-19 and moves backwards through world history to ‘disappear into / the point where time no longer takes place,’ and where ‘all that remains is possibility.’

Anyone involved in the Swedish poetry scene inevitably encounters the recurring poetry debates. Often they are about the incomprehensibility of poetry ­– a debate that is incomprehensible in itself – or about the alignments that occur when so many debutants have studied at one of the country’s prestigious writing schools: Biskops Arnö, Skurups folkhögskola or the Valand Akademi. Earlier this spring, the magazine Lyrikvännen initiated a debate based on a survey about the state of contemporary poetry and criticism. It culminated in a long-winded exchange that came to be about ironic poetry having become the norm precisely at these writing schools, a generalising statement that can be considered both correct and incorrect. In the limelight was Elis Monteverde Burrau, a prominent figure on the poetry scene. His poetics is somewhat similar to Malte Persson’s, in that they both approach language as a depository of pranks, amusement and irony.

So what does this alleged influence look like? Are the younger Swedish poets Monteverde Burrau’s epigones? For the past seven years, I have sat on the jury of Borås Tidning’s award, since 2001 the largest Swedish debutant award (Persson was nominated in 2003, Monteverde Burrau in 2017). In addition, I have followed the publication of an anthology curated by Skurups folkhögskola, a writing school that has nurtured several of the poets who are now gaining prominence. It is, in a way, easy to dismiss the charge against the debutante poets that their writing has been harmfully influenced by a single poet. Nor am sure if the charge in itself would bother them. Monteverde Burrau himself has been open about his role models – including artists such as Olle Ljungström and The Tough Alliance, film directors such as Harmony Korine, as well as poets such as Tao Lin. Malte Persson makes no secret of his admiration for earlier Swedish poets such as Erik Beckman and Lennart Hellsing. It is not possible to draw a uniform and categorical picture of how the younger Swedish poets write: their ideals move in different and sometimes contradictory directions and touch on both irony and seriousness, and although this may have come from their having read Monteverde Burrau, it would be much more productive to discover how they draft an individual and original poetics.

How thick can a poetry book be?

In 2008, Eva-Stina Byggmästar, one of the biggest names in Finnish-Swedish poetry, published the book Men hur små poeter finns det egentligen? (But How Small Poets Are There Really?) I would like to paraphrase this title by asking how thick a collection of poems should be. Johan Jönson distinguished himself in the 2000s with several books of almost a thousand pages, a project that was expanded with ProponeisiS 2021 (2000 pages) and Nollamorfa 2023, which was in the A3 format. This seems to have set a new standard, as four poetry books published this spring have a page count approaching 400 pages, something that was previously extremely rare for Swedish poets.

Malte Persson’s above-mentioned book Skapelser (Creations) takes this maximalist approach. It is a book that thematically follows in the footsteps of the previous one, which had doom as its topic. Persson’s poems alternate between the nonchalantly scribbled down and the carefully edited, where playful puns are juxtaposed with formal sonnets. The book is dominated by the mixture, the juxtaposition, not to say crossing the borders between the cerebral and the sensual. It is fair to call the approach ironical, but it is an irony charged with seriousness and a commitment to societal matters. Leif Holmstrand made his debut the same year as Persson (2002), and has published a long series of books since, in a difficult-to-examine oeuvre that includes novels as well as poetry collections. He is also active as a visual artist. His latest book Community is labelled ‘poems and lyrical drama’ and consists of a flow of words that are only tied together by the covers. He takes a look at current affairs switching between fantasy and reality and giving free rein to his most private dreams and desires.

The translator Gustav Sjöberg has previously published books mainly in Germany and Italy, and is now publishing Laguner blomma (Lagoons Bloom), a collection of his own poetry that portrays man in collaboration with nature. Sjöberg’s collection of poems alternates short lyrical parts with long passages in prose, a methodology that is recognisable from, among others, Jönson’s earlier books. It may seem that the irony is far-fetched to those who subscribe to Sjöberg’s message about an alternative approach to nature which we take for granted. That is, if anyone still thinks that irony has a destructive influence on Swedish poetry.

But of course not all newly published Swedish poetry is longform. In parallel with the major presses, micro-publishers put out poetry booklets and chapbooks. One of these small outlets is Pamflett, whose first long book happened to be Pooneh Rohi’s Genljud, and there are presses such as Chateaux, Pamphilus, and Herkulesgatan’s poetry club, active as an underground movement in Gothenburg. The underground scene dates back at least to the 1950s Metamorfosgruppen, the 1970s Guru Papers and the 2010s Fame Factory, each producing some important names, from Paul Andersson via Bruno K. Öijer to Elis Monteverde Burrau. There are still poets who write short poems and publish thin volumes. In recent years, the veteran Ingela Strandberg has garnered well-deserved attention with her poems about the countryside with mythical overtones. När jag var snö (When I Was Snow) is her latest book, and it depicts the loss of a beloved family member Caesar the cat. Ylva Gripfelt’s, one of the debutantes with degrees from Skurups writing school, debuted last year with Det gudomliga tillståndet (The Divine Condition), another book with a strong focus on the unspoken and implied, in poems that maintain steadfast concentration and evocative atmosphere. These short books resemble a resistance movement against the tendency to make everything as comprehensive as possible.

The criticism about the criticism

Because Swedish poetry publishing is so heterogeneous, it is difficult to find an overview. Since 2017, the poetry site Örnen och Kråkan (The Eagle and the Crow) has collected its annual output in anthologies, but one of the issues that was raised in Lyrikvännen’s survey was precisely the difficulty for books from smaller publishers to gain traction with the culture sections of the newspapers promoting books from the larger publishers. How much truth is there in the claims about the marginalisation of poetry? For all complex questions there is probably both a shorter and a longer answer. The shorter answer is an unconditional yes, it has become increasingly difficult for smaller publishers to last. Teg Publishing, one of the smaller publishers that, among other things, specialises in poetry, has recently announced that they no longer have the financial resources to continue publishing books.

That said, there is a worrying tendency to wax nostalgic about how things were back in the day, in the golden age when reviews in the daily press were longer, better written and appeared more frequently. It is quite possible to find many examples that speak for the opposite, that reviews used to be shorter and more similar to product declarations than committed texts that engage in dialogue with the books under discussion. Anyone who bothers to read today’s critical texts on poetry will discover how many different perspectives and approaches that are, that perhaps it is poetry in itself that encourages these empathetic texts and that poetry as a genre invites personal and unpredictable readings. A danger of poetry criticism is that it becomes too reverent, that the critics put on kid gloves because it is a genre with so few readers compared to the novel. But it is a disservice to poetry to call all books good, and it threatens to make poetry redundant in the long run. Good literary criticism cannot just praise uncritically, it must be as brave and ambitious as the books it deals with, and that mission includes valuing the quality of a work.

My contention is that irony will not threaten Swedish poetry in the long run, and that poets such as Elis Monteverde Burrau exert a beneficial influence. As in the debate about linguistic materialism versus retrogardism, skilled poets can manoeuvre between different starting points in their writing. It would be calamitous if something as vibrant and unruly as poetry were to take a single path. At the same time, those who follow Swedish contemporary poetry must be on the lookout because there is extremely good poetry being written that flies under the radar of the major publishers. An example is Marie Tonkin, whose poems from the recently mentioned Pamphilus, Black Island Books and Lejd attracted minimal attention. Her latest book Sulamits bekännelser (The Confessions of Shulamite, 2023) with its religiously-coloured poems is probably as far from irony as you can get, but I would find it as difficult to overlook it as Monteverde Burrau’s latest collection, Ironi för änglar (Irony for Angels, 2023).

In the early 1990s, concerns were raised that poets like Katarina Frostenson and Ann Jäderlund would make all Swedish poetry unreadable and incomprehensible. With hindsight, both Frostenson and Jäderlund count among the most eminent Swedish poets from the last fifty years. In other words, I am convinced that both Malte Persson and Elis Monteverde Burrau in fifty years will still be relevant for anyone interested in poetry.


Björn Kohlström

Born in 1967 in Umeå in the northern part of Sweden, Björn Kohlström moved to Jönköping in the southern part in late 1900s to begin a career as a teacher in language and literature in an upper secondary school. Since 2006, he has published online book reviews under the moniker bernur (Early Old Swedish word for his first name, which translates as ‘bear’). In 2010, he published Virginia Woolf, a life and letters book length study. In addition to being a teacher, he works as a freelance writer for several newspapers and magazines. Some authors he has written extensively about are, apart from Woolf, Clarice Lispector, Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Flannery O’Connor. In 2021, he was awarded the Madeleine Gustafsson prize for literary criticism. Frequently, he puts down work in different jury groups for Swedish literary prizes and awards. 


Photo by Jore Dirgelaite