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. 


  1. Excellent discussion, Fiona. Many thanks (kiitoskian paljon, in Finnish) from another Sodergran fan.

    - Nancy Mattson

  2. Could someone read her poem in Swedish and in English, and post it on youtube? It would be fun to contrast them I'm sure the sounds are very different.

    Piers Coleman

    1. Thjere's a new collectiion of readings out on CD.
      "Marit Bergman läser Edith Södergran"
      on Amazon UK

  3. Nancy, thankyou! It's good to know there are other fans.

    Piers, I'll be on the lookout for someone who might do that.

  4. One crucial aspect of Edith Södergrans poetry is its sheer musicality and beaty. Like any truly great poetry, it defies translation. To appreciate her work you need to study readings, in the original Swedish. One source I can throughly recommend is this recording:
    "Stina Ekblad läser Edith Södergran"
    CD, (c) 1994 Tintomara AB GAMM 550, ISBN 0177125509

    To look for readings on the web, search for "läser Edith Södergran"

    The complete poems can be found on Project Runeberg

    1. Thanks Jonathan for the useful link, and for the Swedish search term, both of which I'll be pursuing. This blog post is an old one but it still gets read quite a lot (as you've demonstrated), and I'm sure readers will find them useful too.

    2. Further comment from Jonathan, which for some reason I can't publish as from him: There's a new collectiion of readings out on CD. "Marit Bergman läser Edith Södergran" on Amazon UK.

      Thanks for that also.