This is an edited version of an interview published in Leva skrivande.
Finlandssvenska författare samtalar ('Living by writing.
Finland-Swedish writers in conversation'), edited by Monika Fagerholm
Bo Carpelan is one of the most translated of Finnish writers; his
novel Axel (1986) attracted international attention when it was published
in English translation. Here, in our occasional series of interviews
with writers, he is in conversation with fellow poet Mårten
Mårten Westö: The American writer Paul Auster has said:
'A young person who wants to be an artist or a writer is above all
influenced by art. But a young writer has nothing to say. One has
a love of literature, but one can only imitate other writers to begin
with. It takes a long time before one finds one's own way.' What do
you think of that statement?
Bo Carpelan: Of course there's a lot in what he says. At the same
time I am convinced that one must have at least the shadow of one's
own voice from the very outset, otherwise what one writes turns out
to be merely plagiarism. But to start with one does probably tend
to work in close association with tradition. That was also true of
me, but in my own view I didn't continue – as has often been
asserted – in the wake of Finland-Swedish modernism. It is of
course quite possible that later on I returned to it, but the basis
of my activity was probably the American New Criticism: the large
anthologies on criticism and poetry that I read in the 1950s. Those
influences have left their clearest traces in the very comprehensive
bibliography of my academic work on the Finland-Swedish poet Gunnar
Björling. In the last chapter of the dissertation I also tried
to draw my own guidelines as to what I mean by poetry: that it is
concrete and synthetic.
What relation did those theories have to the poetry you yourself
When I wrote my poetry I never had the sense that I was theorising,
although it's quite obvious what an influence Wallace Stevens had
on me, for example, both in my collections Objekt för ord
('Objects for words', 1954) and in Landskapets förvandlingar
('Transformations of a landscape', 1957). But when I wrote I tried
to ignore those books. I also felt a strong impulse to make my poetry
sound musical. They contain a lot of material that in my view is still
At around this time painting also entered
my writing. I remember how struck I was by the impressionists during
my visit to Paris in the early 1950s. In the Louvre it was above all
the Dutch painters – and among them Vermeer – who had
the strongest appeal for me. In Objekt för ord there is
a short sequence – 'On contemplating some old Flemish masters'
– that is based on those impressions. Starting with that book,
painting also became the great source of inspiration for my writing.
Going back to the 1950s: have you any memories of how you worked
at that time? How long did it take you to write a collection of poetry,
It didn't take long: I was quick. I wrote down fragments of poems
on small pieces of paper, rarely corrected them but let them lie and
then used a lot of the material I'd written down. Sometimes I was
able to make ruthless alterations in order to get hold of the form
I was after. Poetry didn't cause any major problems. I got 'electric
shocks' from much of what I read, I wrote it down spontaneously and
tried to preserve it in as spontaneous a state as possible. It was
no more complicated than that, really.
What you say makes me think of a passage in the Swedish writer
Lars Gustafsson's memoirs Ett minnespalats ('A palace in memory'),
where he writes: 'My poetry has always been like a zone apart, an
activity with more degrees of freedom than the others. I have always
written it for myself and never for anyone else. I have never had
a sense of planning it, hardly even of writing it.' Is there, in general
any way of explaining how poems arise?
No, there is usually nothing left over. One can never properly explain
why or how one has written or shaped a poem. It's a matter of an internal
labour that one finds it hard to explain even to oneself. What is
more, I'm not always sure that it is so useful to show the seams of
the poetic labour. One can possibly also analyse the finished result
oneself, but the process as such is rather hard to grasp. In my case
it's very much a question of working on an unconscious level, of spontaneous
'images' that pop up – it's a little as though I were a photographer.
I've always liked concrete things in poems, so that the things and
people in a poem contribute to making it all less abstract. But it's
hard to find the right balance.
Much of what I read in the 1950s seemed
to me a kind of 'routine modernism', by which I mean that it was really
prose cut up into lines of verse. There was none of the element of
music or rhythm I find so important. There needs to be a kind of inner
rhythm in a poem which one immediately notices and which shows that
the poet is not only working with words but also with something else.
It's hard to explain. But I understand extremely well what Gustafsson
means. For me, too, poetry has represented my own 'important' and
innermost region. When I write prose it's not my 'own' in the same
way at all; then I'm working on something quite different, something
wider that is much less 'personal' than poetry in a way.
Have you any explanation as to why it can sometimes take years
to complete a single poem, while other texts seem to write themselves,
and it's impossible to alter anything afterwards?
No, that is a very strange thing. At the end of my collection Dagen
vänder ('The day turns', 1983) there is a poem called 'On
the August veranda'. It was written on the veranda of a house on our
summer island in Masku on the west coast of Finland – and in
precisely that spontaneous manner that is so hard to put one's finger
on. Actually, a great many of my poems have been written that way
and have then ended up going into books without the slightest alteration.
That isn't true of the short poems in the collection 73 dikter
('73 poems', 1966). They weren't, as one might suppose, originally
long poems that were subsequently filed down to their present form;
rather, the poems' final expression took shape inside my head. Incidentally,
I would very much like to return to this short and extremely concentrated
format some day. It's something one can find in the ancient Japanese
and Chinese poets, or Ungaretti, for example. To achieve that pared-down
expression without it seeming like an impression of nature –
that in itself is a challenge.
The length of the life of an unpublished poem can also be very
That's true. Sometimes a poem lies around too long. There's a strange
limit; you may write good poems, but if you leave them lying around
too long, they may indeed still seem good, but they're no longer your
own poems; you have gone on, and meanwhile left the texts behind you.
When I find myself in such a situation I usually mercilessly get rid
of the material.
But there are also examples of the opposite.
The second part of the collection I det sedda ('In the seen',
1995) contains poem-portraits of various people. I have a feeling
that they've survived better than many other texts. If you write a
poem about old stallholder women at the indoors market with 'hands
like potato peel', it becomes a kind of photograph; it's not something
about you, it's something you've observed. A poem like that can retain
its freshness even when it's three years old.
If we look back at the generative process behind one of your prose
works: the novel Axel (1986) was a project that stretched over
a great many years, wasn't it?
It can be said that the work began in 1967 when Professor Erik Tawastjerna
published the second part of his Sibelius biography, in which Axel
Carpelan also appears. Even before this, I had already been thinking
about the fate of my paternal grandfather's brother, and what a remarkable
person he really was, for no one in my branch of the family had ever
been particularly interested in art, and then suddenly Axel popped
up! He possessed real musical talent, but his nervous illness brought
to nothing the plans he had in that direction. But in his distress
he did this: he did not take his life, but he wrote a letter to Sibelius.
And so began a relationship which was to endure for the last nineteen
years of his life. When he realised that he could not live himself,
he chose to live through someone else.
So that was the theme that was in your mind from the very beginning?
Yes. The hard thing was to construct a childhood and boyhood for Axel.
After all, he was over forty when he wrote his first letter to Sibelius.
The problem is that I am a truly wretched researcher of sources: I
don't have the strength to go through the state archives or the collected
letters. In this case I complemented the material I had with a few
contemporary descriptions of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku from 1860
to 1890. And then I made use of photographs. In a way I made soup
out of nails – but they were nails that yielded a nice bouillon.
The experience taught me that it is
much harder to write a good work of prose than to write a good collection
of poetry. And if one writes a work of prose one must in most cases
have some kind of map and compass to hand before one gets going.
Did you ever dream of breaking out and becoming a full-time writer?
No. Never! I realised that I wouldn't be able to live that way; I
suppose I was rather 'bourgeois' and needed a regular income. For
me it was quite simply a matter of managing one's budget, and I realised
right from the outset that it wasn't possible to live by being a writer.
When I began to write we were living in a dark two-room flat on Uudenmaankatu
street. It was therefore natural to me that I had to do my bit and
earn money so we could get by.
The first poem in Gården ('The
courtyard', 1969) is about that need to save one's skin. In those
days there was no grant system either. Possible blessings consisted
of small prizes and grants which one could get if one was lucky. The
Swedish royalties were also of great importance.
It also became clear to me very early
on that it was impossible to make a living by this kind of activity,
especially as I had a family to support. Nor could I rely on obtaining
other writing work, as my journalistic talents were not much to shout
about. But for me this wasn't really a conflict situation; I always
knew what I wanted to do and in that sense I have been fortunate.
Also, I don't think it's a bad thing for a writer to go out and work
for a living with other people; quite the contrary.
As a writer, does one sometimes orient oneself according to one's
circle of readers?
My view is that as a writer one has a certain amount of responsibility;
not to stay silent about things that are true or to prettify reality,
but to write so well that – even though the theme may be minor-keyed
and gloomy – the reader is left with a sense of liberation.
The world of my ideas also includes the possibilities literature has
to console people in difficult situations. That doesn't necessarily
mean that one must write a happy, light-hearted comedy that puts people
in a good mood; indeed, it has often turned out that people who are
ill want to read books that don't present a superficially cheerful
picture of existence – even if on the other hand they don't
want to read something that takes away their hope entirely; just think
of the amazing artistic experiences that took place in the concentration
camps and contributed to preserving at least a tiny bit of joy in
life in the midst of the wretchedness.
Even Samuel Beckett – whom many
see as black as night – has always represented something positive
for me: when in my day I read Molloy or Malone dies I
was very exhilarated. I remember having a public argument with the
Finland-Swedish essayist Hans Ruin, who asserted that Beckett was
an incurable pessimist, while I pointed out that for me Beckett represents
something quite different, and definitely has his merits – this
concerns not least his incredibly supple style and his very concrete
visions of the people he depicts.
When one reads a good book, no matter
how cruel or gloomy, a sort of purification process takes place. In
spite of Primo Levi's tragic fate, his descriptions of his escape
from the concentration camp are sublime reading. The life of Cesare
Pavese also ended in suicide, and yet his diaries are a first-class
work of art. In spite of their respective tragic fates, in their books
these two writers succeed in doing something valuable and essential.
It is true that some people consider that all talk of consolation
in connection with literature is humbug. In their opinion, art must
show the bare reality in unembellished form, which on the other hand
may easily become an excuse for the pornography of violence. But I
have always seen the strength of art partly in its ability to respect
the value of human beings, and partly in the possibility of inspiring
hope or consolation.
In an interview a few years ago you said you thought that drama
was the hardest thing to write. Compared to drama, isn't poetry concerned
with direct moral statement?
No. In poetry one should not present any 'program' or 'explanation'
– a poem is not an 'explanation' of anything. It's just there,
like a description or a picture of oneself or one's outlook or experiences.
I have always thought it interesting that the word 'experiment' really
means something 'learned', or 'witnessed'. I don't think that truly
experimental art is something loose, of the type: 'I shall think of
something no one else has ever done' – but that it involves
a process of experience that leads to an expression which no one has
ever experienced before. At the same time, however, it still has its
roots in something that has been; it doesn't float freely in the air.
That is perhaps why superficial experiments – like the 'automatic
writing' of the surrealists – can be fun to read, but don't
give one much more than that. Even when a poet like Lorca is most
radical in his poetry, his roots go down into Spanish folk poetry.
It is a centuries-old tradition that suddenly takes shape in his highly
The German writer Peter Bichsel has talked about contemporary man's
lack of original experiences; since most things today are 'like on
TV' or 'like in such-and-such a film' it is, he thinks, the writer's
human duty to create these original experiences.
I have often said that the writer's task – if at all possible
– is to stimulate all five of the reader's senses. At any rate
the faculty of seeing, which for me has always been the most important
of the senses. One of the basic requirements for writing is that one
should be immensely inquisitive about existence and at the same time
precise about what one sees. I have a good quotation from Boris Pasternak
that precedes the collection 73 dikter: 'If the riddle of beyond
the grave can be solved / I do not know. / Life, like the silence
of autumn / is exactitude.' I think that is well said. The word
'exactitude' embraces a form of honesty and personal striving –
not to try to be more or less than what one is. That's exactly how
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