Monday, May 22, 2006

Speaking at Delphi

Last month the Swedish Academy awarded its Nordic Prize to the contemporary Danish poet Pia Tafdrup. Regular readers of A Step At A Time will be familiar with Pia's work, some of which I've translated. At the award ceremony in Stockholm, the Swedish literary scholar Horace Engdahl gave a Laudatio speech which I think characterizes Pia's writing very clearly and succinctly. At the invitation of Gyldendal, Pia's publishers, I translated the address. I want to post it here in several sections, the first of which begins now.

The Poet of the Joy of Touch

by Horace Engdahl

In her early collections of verse, and for a long time subsequently, Pia Tafdrup had a predilection for writing a poetry of short lines. A mounting, impatient rhythm, to which the language accommodates itself without resistance. Each time a new line of verse begins, the poet blows the breath back into her universe, reconnects with her invisible “you”, waits a split second for its silent “yes!”, and continues.

The first time I heard Pia Tafdrup in real life, she sounded different. She had then just taken a step into poetry of long lines, speaking as if she were in a trance, turned inwards towards her visions, rocked on the waves of a pantheistic rhythm: a Delphic priestess, a Pythia. It was at the Nässjö Poetry Festival of 1994, and the poems of her collection Territorial Song were new. It was irresistible: I had never heard anything like it. The effect has been described many times by literary commentators with apprehensive delight. The Tafdrup style of poetry reading is an emblem of contemporary Danish poetry.

If one spends much time with her books in quiet, alone, one discovers that this elevated, hymn-like tone is only one of the many pitch-ranges of her voice, and not the primary one. But the characteristic authority is there right from the start, in that outwardly unassuming pamphlet with the fascinating title When An Angel Breaks Her Silence, published 25 years ago. Nor did it take her long to convince colleagues and critics of her stature as a lyrical poet. Only eight years after her literary debut she was elected a member of the Danish Academy.

This has given rise to an anomaly. Rule No. 1 for a modern poet is to stand outside. “To be understood is to prostitute oneself,” writes Fernando Pessoa in Book of Disquiet, and the statement is to some extent a representative one. A certain brokenness is part of what is expected from a first rank talent. It was with amazement that one saw in Pia Tafdrup a young poet who seemed to be doing well, who radiated social confidence and was not ashamed to take her place on her country’s Parnassus while being fully alive – a poet who confessed that even as she began her first book she thought of it as the first building block in a life’s work.

She belongs to Denmark’s poetry miracle, that grouping of young poets who blazed a path for themselves during the 1980s. But she soon turned from being a generational phenomenon into a universal one, more reminiscent of Rilke than of Bob Dylan. Perhaps the role of outsider is less imaginable for a talented writer in Denmark, simply because of the smallness of the country. Where is one to go? Sweden is big enough for almost all its writers to be able to stay outside.

(to be continued)
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