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What the Swedes Read: Erik Axel Karlfeldt

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Erik Axel Karlfeldt

Daniel Handler
15 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Sweden, 1931)
  • BOOK READ: Arcadia Borealis (Selected Poems) translated by Charles Wharton Stork

I was chatting with a poet recently when they referred to the novel—a literary art form I happen to practice—as “new-fangled.” Like a lot of statements from poets that make me roll my eyes at first, it’s absolutely true. Even by the most generous of estimates—recently I learned about another contender for First Novel Ever, a 1570 thing called Beware the Cat—the novel’s basically a new gadget. And as with a new gadget, we might not know exactly how it works, but we know what it’s doing. Since its invention the novel’s occupied a particular slot in the culture. Its importance may wax and wane, depending on the times, and the novel has endless variations of utility (entertainment, philosophical instruction, etc.) and approach (narrative, fragmentary, etc.). But it’s all still a novel. We basically know what it is.

Poetry, though, is so old its trail vanishes every which way—into music, ritual, history, and community. Some of our oldest scraps of writing are things we call poems, even though they didn’t call them poems, or maybe they did, or maybe we don’t know, and anyway it’s cheating by centuries if not millennia if you start with the written tradition.

Something that wide and that deep is never going to reach a consensus about what it’s doing—it’s doing everything, is what it’s doing—which is why statements about poetry, even if they’re not particularly sweeping, collapse almost instantly. There are those who love to say, for instance, that modern American poetry has walled itself into a rarefied environment, which might sound true until you think about “My Heart Will Go On” or “I want my babyback babyback babyback” or “Jingle bells, Batman smells,” which, if you’re thinking about modern American poetry, totally counts. Extremely different novels—let’s say video-game novelizations and David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, for instance—resemble each other much more closely than, say, Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and no shirt, no shoes, no service. Whenever I think hard about poetryI begin to lose my mind, which is both why people started making poetry and why people wanted it to be made, and all this is to say that I’m finding it difficult to form an opinion about Arcadia Borealis, the selected poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, without trying to figure out what it’s for. Like check this out:

There’s dancing on St. Lawrence Day
Till dim the candles flare,
And wearily the waltz tunes play
That stir the sultry air.
But doors swing wide, again the whoop
Of fiddlestrings is keen:
’Tis Julia, ’tis Jup-, Jup-, Jup-,
’Tis Julia Juplin!

Hurrah! She’s floating in upon
The dance floor, zephyr-light
And radiant of the moon and sun
As summer’s goddess bright.
Like ardent bees now group on group
Is gathering round the queen,
Round Julia, round Jup-, Jup-, Jup-,
Round Julia Juplin.

These are the first two stanzas of “Julia Juplin,” and although a few lines struck me as I read the poem—“like ardent bees now group on group” is one of those lines that startle the eye as it moves along—it’s difficult to fully engage with all those “Jup-Jup-Jup”s hanging around. The poem has a short explanatory subtitle (“St. Lawrence’s Feast Day is the Tenth of August”) that helps not at all, so I put “Julia Juplin” into Google, to see if she was some Swedish cultural figure that might give the poem a little more context, and lo and behold Julia Juplin appears to be… the subject of a poem by Erik Axel Karlfeldt, winner of the Nobel Prize. So I was on my own.

Now “Jup-Jup-Jup” aren’t the most troublesome words I’ve come across in reading poetry—try a little Leslie Scalapino next time you’re in the mood to be bamboozled—but they trip me up in a way that all the oddball scansion or punctuation trickery or obscure references don’t. Those tricks still look like poetry. “Round Julia, round Jup-, Jup-, Jup-, / Round Julia Juplin” looks like an old folk song, maybe, or something children sing when they’re jumping rope. My edition of Arcadia Borealis even looks like one of those old folk-song compendiums, with awkward color illustrations and sections called things like “Convivial” and “The Changing Seasons.”

But surely Arcadia Borealis is different from some collections of traditional lyrics, Jup-jup-jupping along with clogging villagers or women washing laundry on rocks. It’s serious poetry—right?—by a man so renowned that he is rumored to have refused the Nobel Prize the first time it was offered to him, just some years after—hey, wait a minute!—he became an elected member of the Nobel Institute. So it shouldn’t be something that might be sung at a square dance, right? Or are these the same thing, really?

Casting about for context, I started looking at poets writing at the same time as Karlfeldt, and stumbled across Alfred Noyes, an Englishman about whom I’d completely forgotten but whose work I could recite. His famous poem “The Highwayman,” a staple of countless anthologies including the one I had in fifth-grade English class, has stanzas like this—

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

—which sounds like a pretty good match for Jup-jup Julia. Midway through Arcadia Borealis I had to stop and wonder what this kind of verse does. No one calls Alfred Noyes one of England’s greatest poets, and yet there I was remembering the words even before I found them on my screen, that repetition of jewelled that I thought was so cool, some thirty years ago, how you could just use the same word to draw out the similarities between a hero and the sky he rode under. And it is cool. It is in fact the powerful application of language. That’s the kind of thing I say about all sorts of inventive, highfalutin literature, but I forget about the multiple ways language works, the way anyone uttering the word fair play in English is quoting Shakespeare, or the way a simple verse can stick in the head for reasons or purposes that might be obscure to an outsider. Or as the Nobel Committee said, awarding Karlfeldt the prize just a few months after he died (and that’s one more reason to accept the prize the first time, dude):

If an interested foreigner were to ask one of Erik Axel Karlfeldt’s countrymen what we admire most in this poet and on what qualities his national greatness depends…the Swede would say that we celebrate this poet because he represents our character with a style and a genuineness that we should like to be ours, and because he has sung with singular power and exquisite charm of the tradition of our people, of all the precious features which are the basis for our feeling for home and country in the shadow of the pine-covered mountains.

Sung. “Jup-Jup-Jup.” I don’t know what it means, but after reading him I know it means something.

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