Wednesday, 27 July 2011

“Two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein”

That’s a quote from a review by David Orr in the New York Times, 2008, of Modern Life by the American poet Matthea Harvey.  Not exactly today’s news.  I think I found it when I was reading Harvey’s first book, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.  You can read the title poem from that book here: weird, eclectic, fluent, its syntax wrong-footing the reader.  She is among the eighty-something US poets in the anthology Legitimate Dangers, which is one place to find out what younger generation Americans are doing.  I heard about the book from Roddy Lumsden, who knows a lot about this. 

That’s fairly typical of my forays into the American jungle of younger contemporary poets – a recommendation, and one book leading to another.  Which is enjoyable, if unsystematic.  Anyway, at the end of this trail was David Orr’s article, and it was this extract that struck me:

“..Harvey’s technique is a variation on the trendiest contemporary style, which relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles (“The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four”), quirky diction (“orangery,” “aigrettes”), flickering italics, oddball openings (“The scent of pig is faint tonight”) and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent — basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode, which is one of the reasons so many people make use of it.”

(He goes on to say that Harvey does this very well, and rises above it in the book being reviewed.) 

For a Brit, even one with easy access to the Poetry Library in London, there aren’t many signposts in this jungle and the trails are faint.  So grand generalisations like Orr’s are helpful.  It probably makes sense to anyone who’s read Legitimate Dangers, which is where I also found out about Brenda Shaughnessy whose first book I discussed here a few months ago. 

I like the ice-cream metaphor because this kind of poetry is rich with lots of colourful bits, some of them hard to identify, and I can’t always decide whether I like the flavour that’s the sum of these parts, or even what it is. 

Harvey’s second book, which I’m reading at the moment, is called Sad Little Breathing Machine, and full of poems that live up to this title and meet Orr’s definition.  Here’s the beginning of ‘If you like sugar I’ll like sugar too’:

I’m making a little machine.
Not everywhere do cows move

slowly among the trees like ideas. 
Not everyone gets a dollop

of cream & some ground glass
to look through.  It’s a spectacle

all right.  Help me attach the prism
to the jump rope.  I sold the chapel

because it contained no nouns –

The poem continues similarly for several more stanzas, leaping from idea to idea, some easily associateable and some not, like a surreal skipping chant.  I love the cows/ideas bit – so simple, and a satisfying mixture of abstract and concrete.  I like the chapel and am intrigued by its lack of nouns, but do wonder whether I’m meant to understand something more from it than a representation of subconscious associations.  Overall, I find the parts more interesting than the whole.  Looking through the book, the same applies.  (A couple of whole poems from the book are here and here, and more of Harvey’s poems here.) There are some very lovely sound bites:

Center your swan on the pond.   

          ...the fish that live
in a plastic bag think the edges

of the world pucker.


In the back they are collecting
bullets so do you really want to talk

about love? 

There are also a few poems I like the whole of, such as ‘Machine for Jean Rhys’ which starts

It’s all lit up with handfuls
& eyefuls & it doesn’t want you

because that’s what you want.

The prose poem ‘Once upon a time: a genre fable’, the life story of Narrative, nearly had me fall into the gap between the platform and the train at Waterloo East as I stepped out reading it:

For a while Narrative formed a trio with two malleable girls whom she happily ordered around, but then they turned thirteen & Poetry & Art began to behave unpredictably in the presence of boys.  Annoyed, Narrative withdrew into television – mainly sitcoms & after a particularly explicit documentary about slaughterhouses, changed her beloved pony’s name from First Pet to Glue. 

When I pick the book up I read a few poems and appreciate the really good bits – made easier as many of the poems are in couplets, giving room to breathe – but soon get a surfeit of multi-coloured bits and of the tone, which is as described by Orr.  Then I wonder whether I should work harder, try to make more sense of the book.  It is carefully ordered, with six sections each with an introductory poem to something (eg Eden, Circumference).  Or whether it’s a matter of an acquired taste and I should take Harvey’s own advice, in the book’s first poem, ‘Introduction to the World’, which I like, and which ends:

If you’re lucky

after a number of
revolutions, you’ll

feel something catch. 

That may apply to other books in the American jungle too.  I’m grateful that the jungle is so vast, and I’ll never be able to read everything in it.  There’ll always be something new to discover.  Here is an extract from a sequence called ‘The Future of Terror’ in Harvey’s most recent book Modern Life (I’ve taken it from Orr’s article; haven’t read the book yet, though this bit makes me want to):

The navigator’s needle swung strangely,
oscillating between the oilwells
and ask again later. We tried to pull ourselves
together by practicing quarterback sneaks
along the pylons, but the race to the ravine
was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.’s
and roses carved into rock. Suddenly the sight
of a schoolbag could send us scrambling.

***      ***      ***
This blog is going on holiday, so there won’t be any posts for a couple of weeks.  I’m taking The Ground Aslant, a Shearsman anthology of radical landscape poetry, and the latest issue of The SHOp.

*** STOP PRESS *** A petition to restore the Poetry Society has just been launched… You can read it, and sign it, here.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Counting: poets, butterflies

Poets first.  302 for, 69 against, 11 abstentions.  That was the vote on a motion of no confidence in the Poetry Society’s board, at the EGM this afternoon. 

The board had already said at the beginning of the meeting that they’d resign anyway – in time for a new board to take over at the AGM, which will be brought forward from November to the week of 12 September.  In the meantime, there will be a nomination-and-voting process to elect the new board, involving sending out papers, putting stuff on the PoSoc website, etc.  

The feeling of the meeting was, I think, that the board should resign now.  An expert on charity law sitting with the board said they couldn’t do this, but could co-opt 3 new members to fill current vacancies from now until the AGM.  The board will co-opt three out of four new members proposed by the floor: Cary Archard, founder of Seren Books, and former editor of Poetry Wales; Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library and Chair of the Literature Forum for Scotland; Professor Michael Schmidt, founder of PN Review and Carcanet Press (all requisitioners’ candidates); and also Edward Mackay, whose job I think is to do with conciliation.  (I was hoping Laurie Smith of Magma would be one of the names as he did an excellent job as the requisitioners’ procedural expert.)  Two current board members could have resigned, gracefully, on the spot to allow 5 instead of 3 new members.  This they all declined to do.

The board gave their version of events.  So did the finance manager who resigned in May, just after the director, but is still working out his notice.  You can read his account here, if you haven’t already.  It got a lot of applause.

There were lots of questions.  Emotions were running quite high on all sides, not least shock in the audience at what we were hearing, but it didn’t degenerate into a fight.  The acting chair fielded nearly all the questions, and was put under a lot of pressure.  The rest of the board mostly just sat there. The main conclusions to draw from the Q&A seemed to me to be:

The director of PoSoc and the editor of Poetry Review had had a dysfunctional relationship which, when it came to a head, the board had (as they moreorless admitted) handled very poorly, and not in accordance with good practice.  The board said they were now in discussion with the (ex-)director, but wouldn’t respond to questions about her possible reinstatement.

The board had spent £24.5k plus VAT on legal fees – I make that £29.4k – in anticipation that the director might sue, which the board said she had threatened, verbally, to do.  This constituted 20% of cash reserves.  The board wasn’t aware of other resources, like free / very cheap legal advice for voluntary bodies, and the option of ACAS was considered but not followed (not sure why). 

The board had been over-cautious in response to legal advice that they shouldn’t communicate what was going on. 

The Arts Council had concerns, which it communicated to the board in early June, about “governance, management, leadership, reputational risk and reasonable care”, and wanted these addressed before the next £78k tranche of its existing grant was paid out in early July.  It appears their concerns were not shared with the finance manager, or members who asked about it.  The finance manager said he’d been asked by the board yesterday about arranging an overdraft facility; and if the Betterton Street HQ had been valued recently.  The board didn’t really comment on this part of the finance manager’s story (unless I was wool-gathering at the time). 

I wonder whether the Arts Council will hand over the grant now, or hold off until September, and if the latter, how long the Society can carry on.

That’s enough of that.  I’ve written this very fast and left out lots of stuff that was interesting but, I thought, less important.  The minutes will be published.  I’d guess that most people left the meeting feeling much better informed, but also very concerned.  The requisitioners, anyway; there were few interventions in support of the board, so we didn’t really hear from the people who voted against the no confidence vote.  

Holly Blue (
Butterflies...  1 Holly Blue, 1 Small White and 1 Gatekeeper visited my garden in a 15-minute period a few days ago.  I love Blues, it’s as if a small piece of sky has come down, even though they’re not sky blue.  And Gatekeepers are so flamboyant but also decorous, in their eyeleted orange with a brown border. 

I’m going to count more butterflies this weekend as part of the Big Butterfly Count.  You can spend 15 minutes counting in any one place, and then contribute to a butterfly map of Britain and Ireland, a shimmering spread of wings…  A useful as well as beautiful thing to do, and easier than writing a poem, arguing about the Poetry Society or sorting out the Euro. 

Gatekeeper (

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Poetry Society and organisational behaviour, again

The Euro is in crisis mode.  The US faces budget deadlock.  News International’s scalp count keeps going up.  The Arab Spring is in trouble.  The world population is about to hit 7 billion.  Only three more days until the PoSoc EGM. 

Romantic ruin no.4, again
This post is an update on one I wrote a few weeks ago about the Poetry Society resignations.  For anyone new to this blog: I don’t know any of the people involved, but I have an MBA specialising in organisational behaviour and will write from that perspective.  I can only draw on one side of the story – the one outlined by Kate Clanchy some way down this page on the requisitioners’ website.  We haven’t been told the other side.    

Kate says she has verifiable information (not from the director) that the PoSoc board met in April in closed session, and decided to change the organisational structure at the top of the Society so that the editor of Poetry Review would report straight to the board.  Previously, the editor had reported to the PoSoc director. 

The director was told about this afterwards – after news of the increased grant from the Arts Council, which was a big success for PoSoc and for the director.  She resigned, and the board decided against a hand-over; instead they kept her out of the building and cut off her email.  
Romantic ruin no.3, again

£26k has allegedly been spent on legal fees, even though PoSoc already had an HR indemnity policy.  The director hasn’t taken legal action so far, but this could cost a lot more. 

I don’t have views on the structural change itself; I don’t know enough about it.  But if the account above is accurate, there are problems with how the change was carried out:
a)   Management.  Even at junior level, it’s good practice to consult staff before changing who reports to whom.  That way, one gets their input on the changes, and it’s more likely they will accept them and be prepared to work well in the new structure.  At top level in a charitable organisation which is membership-based and receives public funding, not to consult seems extraordinary.  It’s without common sense.  It sends the message that the board lacks respect for top staff, doesn’t value their opinion and thinks it can treat them like children.  It is very likely to cause personal resentments.  It may demoralise other staff. It will look odd to the outside world.  It is probably legally questionable.  I could go on. 

b)   Policy.  This is less clear.  Perhaps the board prioritised the requirements of Poetry Review over those of the rest of the organisation; they share resources.  PoSoc’s charitable objects are: TO ADVANCE PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE STUDY, ENJOYMENT AND USE OF POETRY”.  Of course Poetry Review plays a part in these.  But there are other good poetry magazines; the educational work PoSoc does, and for which it got the increased Arts Council grant, is its main contribution to Keeping Poetry Alive.  One should beware, though, of scenarios that involve conflict between two polarised views of PoSoc’s future: see the (now ex-) director’s comment on the Eyewear blog.  What is clear is that the board’s actions have put at risk PoSoc’s ability to secure and spend the grant. 

c)   Money.  £26k is a lot for a charity to spend on legal advice.  It would be good to know what it was for and why. If the bill goes up and the Arts Council grant doesn't materialise, PoSoc's future must be in doubt. 

(A side issue is that the Poetry Review editor’s tenure, originally for three years, was made permanent in 2009 without this being announced.  Three years seems too short and forever too long for the PoSoc magazine.  Either way, it’s odd that no-one was told about the change, but this fits with the pattern of poor communication.) 

Romantic ruin no.1, again
What next?  The EGM is on Friday.  People are concerned that the board, having failed to be open with members so far, will react defensively to what no doubt will be a lot of pent-up frustration and may hide behind legal stuff.  It has not yet, despite the wording in the requisition, conceded that a vote of confidence may happen. 

The board may already have lost members’ confidence irrevocably (maybe more than is justified, but as they haven’t told us anything, how do we know?)   PoSoc’s staff are unhappy.  A couple of staff, the PoSoc president, a vice-president, the chairman of the board and another board member have resigned.  I wonder what the Arts Council is thinking about it all. 

In case of a no confidence vote, Kate Clanchy has got together a list of distinguished people who’d be willing to serve on an interim board until the next AGM in the autumn and to work with the former director, who could be brought back to carry out her plan for the grant she won.  They’d surely have the Arts Council’s confidence.  This may lead to accusations that a coup is being planned, but voting something down isn’t enough.  The voters-down would need to offer an alternative, and the Poetry Society needs to be able to carry on, not least to finalise the grant.   

Romantic ruin no.2, again
Anyone who can’t come to the meeting on Friday but wants to vote can appoint a proxy.  You can do this by email, and the deadline is 2pm on Wednesday.  See here for how.  That link also has various people who’ve offered to act as proxies.  I’m one of them; you can contact me at fionamoore dot aetos dot freeserve dot co dot uk if you’d like me to act for you.  The proxy form can be downloaded from the Poetry Society website. 

I’ll put any further updates in the comments below, as I still don’t want this to turn into a blog about the Poetry Society…

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Redrafting. Elizabeth Bishop and ‘One Art’

When John Ashbery reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems, he called her “a writer’s writer’s writer”.  Her famous attention to redrafting could be one reason.  Redrafting is difficult.  It can be depressing and frustrating, if the poem won’t take off; if it won’t find, say, its form or its ending.  This can lead to doubts about whether any poem will ever take off again.  And time spent on redrafting can seem utterly pointless and solipsistic – moving the deckchairs / commas around on a nano-Titanic.  The opposite of what poetry ought to be about. 

Elizabeth Bishop’s example is both inspiring – who wouldn’t work on a poem for 20 years if it turned out as good as ‘The Moose’ – and depressing, when one lacks any hope of such an outcome. 

Here is a spine-stiffening quote from the American poet Richard Tillinghast:

The willingness, the ardent desire even, to revise separates the poet from the person who sees poetry as therapy or self-expression.  To revise is to improve, and I suspect that the desire to improve hints at a longing for perfection, which shows how related the formal and spiritual sides of poetry are.  The impulse to improve is also a sign of humility.. learning how to be worth one’s salt as a writer.

And one of a different sort from Ted Hughes, which I think is relevant to revision:

The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.

And a lovely one from Michael Longley:

Technique is important.  I think that if most people who called themselves poets were tightrope-walkers they’d be dead.

A tightrope-walker needs to practice; the famous ten thousand hours, or ten years.  Nurture over nature. 

Magazine editors and poetry tutors tend to say that many poems they see aren’t finished.  The writer hasn’t gone the extra mile, or ten thousand miles.    

Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle ‘One Art’ went through 17 drafts but was written in a couple of weeks, unusually fast for her.  The drafts, which are typed, are in her archive at Vassar College, where she studied.   They don’t seem to be online now, though I must have read some of them online in the past, when I typed out the whole of the first draft and some later bits; maybe there’s a copyright issue.  There are some photos here.  A book edited by Alice Quinn called Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop contains the drafts of ‘One Art’.  There's a good review of it here.  The book has attracted criticism on the grounds that Bishop would not have wanted her drafts published.
Elizabeth Bishop (from the MAPS)
Extracts from the ‘One Art’ drafts are quoted in a very interesting article by Brett Candlish Millier at the Modern American Poetry Site (which has lots of good stuff).  The first draft isn’t a villanelle and is partly in note form, but it’s already a list of things lost from small to great and the poem’s tone is already identifiable – that blithe, bright tone that has desperation and disaster lurking behind it.  This draft could almost be a runaway monologue for a character in a play.  It is called ‘How to Lose Things’ or ‘The Gift of Losing Things’.  It starts:

        The thing to do is to begin by ‘mislaying’…
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned…

and then:

– This is by way of introduction.  I really
want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things…

The list expands to include houses, towns etc and

        a good sized bay,
a good piece of one continent, another continent,
the whole damned thing!

One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one average sized not especially exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally
                                beautiful and the hands looked
                                intelligent) the fine hands
but it doesn’t seem to have, at all…
According to Millier there are rhymes for the villanelle written in the margins of the first draft, so Bishop must have heard a villanelle coming by then.  The second draft is already a villanelle, with the first line in its final form, and this and the next few drafts sort out the earlier stanzas, the list of things lost and the rhymes.  Then further drafts address the final stanza, and work towards a way of both controlling the emotion and breaking that control:

The art of losing’s not so hard to master           [draft 5]
But won’t help in think of that disaster
No – I am lying –

All that I write is false, it’s evident                  [draft 9]
The art of losing
isn’t hard to master
oh no
[anything] at all anything but one’s love (Say it:

So many things seem really to be meant           [draft 13]

And losing you now (a special voice, a gesture)
doesn’t mean I’ve lied.  It’s evident
the loss of love is possible to master,
even if it looks like (Write it!) like disaster. 

There are more versions of the last stanza in Millier’s article. 

‘One Art’ meets this poem test, set by Bishop in a 1962 letter to Robert Lowell:

If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one.

Reading the drafts could have the magic-removing effect of being shown how a conjuring trick works.  Instead, understanding the difficulty of composition only adds to the admiration I feel for ‘One Art’.  Villanelles are very hard to write and have to be perfect to earn their keep, the poetry equivalent of tightrope-walking from skyscraper to skyscraper.   

Note: the Richard Tillinghast quote is from an essay called ‘Notes on Revision’.  The Michael Longley quote is in The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations.  I can’t find the source of the Ted Hughes quote, though it’s in books (and all over the internet, with slight variations).  The quote from Bishop’s letter is in One Art, the Giroux-edited selected letters.  Her letters are wonderful. 

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Living with Edith Södergran


The world is mine.
Wherever I go
I throw roses at everyone.
The artist loves every marble ear that hears his words.
What are pain, misery to me?
Everything has fallen with a crash:
I sing.
So rises pain’s great hymn out of a happy breast. 

When poetry reviewers rummage in their box of adjectives and pull out ‘risky’ or ‘risk-taking’, they should think of Edith Södergran and delete it at once.

The temptation is to describe her life before looking at the poetry, in the hope of finding explanations for how a Swedish-speaking Finn who lived mostly in rural Karelia where she experienced the Russian civil war and nearly starved, who had limited contact with her contemporaries, contracted TB in her teens and died in 1923 aged 31, became one of the first and greatest Nordic modernists.  There is a good account of her life and work online: David McDuff, who translated Södergran’s complete poems for Bloodaxe, has put the introduction on his blog.  All the quotes here are from McDuff’s translations from the Swedish.  

‘Roses’ seems to encompass vastness.  It mixes grand statements and emotions with vivid imagery and sound.  The reversal of the artist/audience relationship (roses being thrown in the wrong direction) is surprising.  All this stimulates the reader to make his or her own associations, taking over the poem.  The ear and the crash make me think of the crash of the revolution Södergran was living through (‘Roses’ was published in 1919), but also of Easter Island.

De Chirico could have painted this poem.  I suppose Södergran might have seen his work as she visited Florence before the war, shortly after he’d been living there.  When her roses have a colour it’s red, so these feel red by association and red/white imagery recurs in many of Södergran’s poems.  It’s hard not to think of her TB, blood coughed into a white handkerchief.  Also the Reds and Whites of the Russian civil war.  Also passionate love, and coldness or death.  Though death is not white but shows the symptoms of TB, as in this passage from ‘Life’s Sister’:

Death does not lie green-white with her face to the ground
or on her back on a white bier:
death walks about with pink cheeks and talks to everyone.

Karelian lake by Valaam
Södergran’s poems are full of images drawn from her low Karelian landscape of forests and lakes, stars and snow; and from fairy-tales.  Many seem to express despair, or exaltation, or both.  An early poem, ‘The Mirroring Well’, opens

Destiny said, white you live or red you die!
But my heart resolved: red I live…

All day I sit resting my arm on the marble rim of the well,
when they ask me if happiness has been here
I shake my head and smile:
happiness is far away, where a young woman sits sewing a
                                                              child’s blanket,    
happiness is far away, where a man builds himself a cabin in
                                                              the forest.
Here red roses grow around bottomless wells…

Södergran can also be very plain and direct.  These extracts are from ‘Life’:

Life is
.. thousands of steps we could not persuade us to take…
Life is to be a foreigner to oneself
and a new mask for every other person who comes. 
Life is to be careless with one’s own happiness
and to push away the unique moment,
life is to think oneself weak and not to dare.

Poems such as ‘Vierge Moderne’ with its first line ‘I am no woman, I am a neuter’ shocked a readership new to modernism (and to women who’d say things like that, no doubt).  Others are simple and disquieting, such as this last part of ‘The day cools…’

Raivola forest by Sennaya
You looked for a flower
and found a fruit.
You looked for a well
and found a sea.
You looked for a woman
and found a soul –
you feel tricked.   

‘Love’ starts like this

My soul was a light blue dress of the sky’s colour;
I left it on a rock beside the sea
and naked I came to you and resembled a woman.

but later

..smiling you took a mirror and bade me look at myself.
I saw that my shoulders were made of dust and fell apart…

There are poems of love and longing, which tend to have a melodramatic, sometimes obsessive tone and elaborate language; she had a few intense, unrequited attachments.  I don’t find these successful – she’s a poet of images, thought, life and death, large emotion and abstractions, but when the emotions get channelled into personal relationships the effect is overpowering.

Other poems, on the strength and power of poetic vocation, melodramatic and declamatory, may be as hard to take today, at first reading, as when they were written.  Then she was accused of being unbalanced, commentators taking the ‘I’ of the poems literally.  Some critics have associated such writing with the feverishness of TB, isolation and half-starvation.  Maybe, but Södergran was also living in a war zone through events that shook the world, and there is a much broader apocalyptic element to the poems.    This is from ‘Premonition’, one of her later poems:

This lightning sits in my hand and one day it will flash forth,
men will see its blue gleam and comprehend.
I am only one among others and others are stronger than I,
but I am the shield people shall look to…

Occasionally the real world arrives less filtered; this is from ‘The Trains of the Future’, very futurist in sentiment, but with humour:

Tear down all the triumphal arches –
the triumphal arches are too low.
Make room for our fantastic trains!
Heavy is the future – build the bridges
to the limitless.
Giants, bring stones from the end of the world!
Demons, pour oil under the boilers!
Monster, do the measurements with your tail!

Old house in Raivola, by Sennaya
Whatever the subject, the poems are marked by their declaratory style and confidence.  It’s hard to understand how revolutionary Södergran’s unrhymed and free verse must have seemed at the time, to Finland’s  literary world that was, McDuff says, provincial.  She had experienced life elsewhere, at a German-language school in St Petersburg (near the Winter Palace where demonstrators were massacred by troops in 1905, while she was there) and three years at a Swiss sanatorium before the first world war.  But mostly she lived in Raivola, a village of Russian-style wooden houses just on the Finnish side of the border, with her mother (her father having died of TB).  She did occasionally meet other Swedish-Finnish writers, some of whom supported her; others derided her work and her poetic claims.  She read widely; McDuff names Rimbaud, Whitman, Russians including symbolists such as Blok and the futurists Mayakovsky and Severyanin, and the German poet Else Lasker-Schüler as among her influences. And Nietzsche, though in her last few years she became attracted to Rudolf Steiner’s nature mysticism. 

In one of her last poems, ‘The Land that is Not’, Södergran wrote

My life was a hot delusion.
But I have found one thing and one thing I have truly gained –
the path to the land that is not.

I called this piece ‘Living with ES’ because it seems to me that’s the best way to experience her poems – to read them, and nothing else, for a few days, on the train, in spare moments everywhere.  It takes time to become absorbed in her poetic world, and her extremes of emotion and  experience:

On foot
I had to cross the solar system
before I found the first thread of my red dress.

The same applies to her real world, which is fitting subject-matter for a novel or a Nordically grim biopic, a literary angle on Nordic noir.

Her poetic world has connections which aren’t as familiar as maybe they should be, which leads to interesting discoveries: I’ve kept the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics beside me while writing, to look up symbolists and futurists and Russian, Swedish, German and Swedish-speaking Finnish poetry movements (oh, and there’s Wikipedia for when the Princeton definitions are hard).  Not that I’ve put any of this in here, because that would take days, weeks and many pages.  

Garrison at Raivola, 1930s

I recommend McDuff’s detailed account of her life, which tells her dramatic story  and discusses how her poetry developed over time.  The biographical information here mostly comes from his intro.  The Bloodaxe book is in the London Poetry Library and available online second-hand, at a price.  I emailed Bloodaxe a couple of years ago to ask if they’d reprint it, but they didn’t reply.  There is an interesting piece on ES by Johannes Goransson in Octopus Magazine.  Several of her poems, including ‘Pain’, are here.  There’s a small, lovely poem in this June’s Poetry.  

These lines from Södergran’s last poem, ‘Arrival in Hades’, are on her gravestone in Raivola –

See, here is eternity’s shore,
here the stream murmurs by,
and death plays in the bushes
his same monotonous melody.

While researching this piece, I discovered I'd been through Raivola, now in Russia and called Roshchino - it has a station on the Helsinki-St Petersburg railway line. 

Raivola lake by Sennaya
To end, here is ‘Roses’ in the Swedish original.  Anyone who has German can follow most of it, reading in parallel with the English.  The ‘å’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘caw’ or ‘fall’, but deeper, throatier. 


Världen är min.
Vartän jag går
kastar jag rosor åt alla.
Konstnären älskar varje marmoröra som uppfattar hans ord.
Vad är mig smärta, elände?
Allt störtade tillsammans med ett brak:
jag sjunger.
Så stiger smärtans stora hymn ur lyckligt bröst.