Malte Persson

- Sweden -

Malte Persson (born 1976) is a Swedish poet, novelist, children’s book author, translator, columnist and literary critic. He has published four books of poetry, among them the sonnet collection Underjorden (The Underground, 2011) and the playfully contemporary Till dikten (To Poetry, 2018); but his poetic work also includes satirical verse published in newspapers or performed on television. He has been awarded a number of literary prizes, and he is featured in a recent anthology of Swedish poetry through the ages. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

Malte Persson is unlike most contemporary Swedish poets: if the term ‘public intellectual’ still had meaning it would perhaps better describe the relationship most readers have with him, as he frequently enters the day-to-day cultural debate to add a shrewd angle that few of the regular talking heads would ever be able to conjure. 

A few decades ago this wasn’t an unusual pursuit for Swedish poets, but now most of them have left the public sphere, either willingly or due to competition from the limitless supply of interchangeable media pundits. Persson, writing from Berlin, hasn’t. Spending a couple of eerily warm autumn weeks immersed in his sentences, rereading his work, has convinced me that he’s an utterly original poet as well. 


Perhaps because I caught hold of something I hadn’t noticed before. A kind of general theme, unnamed and latent though present in each of his books: the experience of being marooned in one’s own head – and of trying, failing and again trying to reach out, make contact, using language.


More precisely: on the surface Perssons books – spanning from historical metafiction and conceptual poetry to an ostensibly old-fashioned book of sonnets and experimental lyrical poems – are all plainly unalike one another. A reader more critically inclined than I may liken his writings to a sample card, displaying an author not yet set on how to write, still searching for his stylistic fingerprint. But that’s overlooking, missing or simply ignoring what is both interesting and beautiful in his work.


By continuously trying on new ways of writing, forms and methods, never rehashing the same style or voice Persson seems to demonstrate that, sadly, no particular way of doing literature is more adequate, truthful or necessary than any other. This could, of course, be described as a way of poetically inhabiting a specifically late modern condition, sometimes designated with Henri Michaux’ phrase la grande permission: there are no rules, anything written by a poet can be called a poem, no standard exists from which that status can be denied. Through minor gestures Persson suggests that this great freedom is also a prison-house – akin to the curse of what John Ashbery once called “the Midas-like position” into which our sad present has forced the poet, who now turns any jumble of words into poetry by the trivial act of signing it. 


Or as Persson puts it in his most recent book, Till dikten (To Poetry 2018): “Har samtiden inte pågått länge nog nu? / Nu är det ju så att jag inte är Goethe / och då är egentligen allt meningslöst, / men man måste ändå försöka” (Hasn't the present moment gone on long enough now? / The fact remains that I’m not Goethe, / which makes all this kind of pointless, really – /
all the same, one must make an attempt.


But more importantly, Persson’s writing adds an existential weight to all this, perhaps best phrased as a dismayed paradox – nothing is conventional enough, everything is too conventional – which should be understood in relation to the experience of loneliness I mentioned above, given poignant expression by the wildly unlike, yet unmistakably kindred David Foster Wallace in The Pale King: “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”


Persson’s writing – obviously more than just words – seems to carry this experience at its core. 


Not, however, as an articulated theme or motif but rather as a soft kind of sadness occasionally gestured towards in, for example, poems about the Stockholm metro (Underjorden, 2011). An aloneness lightly worn and swiftly bared in, for example, his playful and deceptively jovial metapoems (Till dikten). 


It’s what makes his writing wonderful.


Persson’s writing doesn’t carry clear a moral lesson, it doesn’t unveil any societal injustices, and it’s not instructing us in how to be less cruel toward each other. But rereading it I found a distinctly literary mode of instruction: it gives expression to a profoundly sad, all to ordinary experience – a loneliness difficult to otherwise exact, even talk about – without brooding, without ever wallowing in melancholy or self-pity. Reading it makes me – as he once wrote of the late Wallace – feel less alone. 


He made is debut with the bendy, not-quite-a-novel Livet på den här planeten  (Life on This Planet) in 2002 and has since published two more books of as peculiar, delightful prose – the great historical metafiction Edelcrantz förbindelser (Edelcrantz's Liaisons) from 2008 and Om Ofissim (Regarding Ofissim) from 2016, a hardly classifiable work on the philosophy and poetry of Ofissim, an eccentric intellectual either entirely fictive or a distorted mouthpiece for the author himself. 


Persson has, however, always considered himself a poet first and foremost. Beginning with the conceptual Apolloprojektet (The Apollo Project, 2004) he has, to date, written four books of poetry, each an improvement on the former but, as said, without establishing anything that should be described as a “style” or “voice”. Stretching from the experimental, perhaps even LANGUAGE-like, to formal verse, Persson’s poetry shows a range that few contemporary Swedish poets are capable of. Not forgetting that some of his best work has in fact been occasional poems, published in the Swedish daily Expressen. 


“Efter ännu ett terrordåd” (After Yet Another Attack), written in response to the vile acts of terror that shook Paris and Europe in November 2015, is particularly fine example – widely read, even printed and taped to office doors at my place of work, a university in southern Sweden. 


Solemn, measured and superbly simple, the short rhyming poem distilled both hope and solace. And imparted itself profoundly on at least one reader, who months after it was published – not at all with the occasion it was written for in mind – found himself wandering the small town of Lund mumbling: “De dödas språk kan ingen översätta. / De levandes är svagt. Vad som än sker / är det som gäller dock detta: att fortsätta. / Att fortsätta, det är det enda rätta” (You can’t translate the language of the dead. / And ours is feeble. Still, we must continue, / regardless of what comes or what is said. / Yes, that’s our task: to continue on ahead.)


Written by Victor Malm