What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • 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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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