What Edith Södergran taught me about reading poetry

SLS, 2014/1990

I was contemplating on following my typical format of book reviews for this bind-up of all Edith Södergran’s works until I realised that I had no idea what to write. I cannot summarise the plot, for there are too many; I cannot compare Södergran to other poets, for I haven’t read many; and I most certainly cannot pretend to understand what the poems are “really about”. Instead I offer you my scrambled thoughts on reading – or at least trying to read – Edith Södergran’s poetry.

Edith Södergran (1892–1923) is considered to be one of the greatest poets of Finland. Similarly to the creator of Moomin series Tove Jansson, Edith Södergran was Finnish-Swedish and wrote all of her poems in Swedish. However, Södergran was educated in a German school and read both German and French, which gave her access to the literature of the time and partly contributed to Södergran being one of the first modernist poets in Finland – as a movement, modernism became more prevalent in Finnish literature in 1950s. Especially remembered from her post-humous collection Landet som icke är (‘The Land that Does Not Exist’), Södergran is a name often referenced in the Finnish literary scene. My first encounter with Södergran’s poetry was the title poem of Landet som icke är printed in my high school textbook, which sparked an interest to read more of her works. Fast-forwarding several years to the end of last year, I came to realise that despite the fact that I was reading a variety of different genres, I didn’t really read different forms – and should give poetry a honest try. Thus when I came across this beautiful paperback bind-up of all Edith Södergran’s published and unpublished works (in Swedish, might I add), I knew where I wanted to start.

Now, some of you who are more seasoned poetry readers might be shaking your heads at this. Typical beginner’s mistake: I knew next to nothing about Edith Södergran, I wasn’t fluent in Swedish, and I didn’t realise that tackling a 350+ paged poetry collection wouldn’t be as easy as reading a novel of the same length. However, I was motivated to give it my best try and everything was working fine – for the first month or so. I started reading the bind-up in March and read the first two collections in few weeks –  often in bouts. My process would begin by reading the first ten poems with full-on concentration, re-reading the poems again and again until I got some sense out of them. Then, having spent a lot of energy on a few poems, I often ended up skim reading the next twenty or so until I found something that really spoke to me and hit me so hard I had to stop reading just to think about them. I savoured those poems, committing long passages into memory, and they also gave me the sense of gratification – I finally understood poetry! However, as March transitioned into April and then into May, I noticed that I didn’t look forward to the moments that I dedicated for poetry. Although I enjoyed most of the actual reading of the poetry, taking the steps to do so felt taxing.

Edith Södergran was one of the first poets that embraced modernism, aside from T.S. Eliot, and according to Tavern Books, her poetry shows influences also from French symbolism, German expressionism and Russian futurism. Except in her earlier poems, Södergran rarely uses rhyme schemes or other traditional poetry formats in her poems. Her poems move in the realms of fantasy, myths, and nature, and the latter is particularly prominent in all of her collections. Gosh, we Finns really do love to write about nature. Many have described Södergran’s poems as lovely daydreams, but for me, her best poems were those that dealt with our relationship with ourselves as well as how that self interacts with other people. It’s simply stunning. But confession time: most of the time I honestly didn’t know whether Södergran was really talking out flowers, or if it was just a metaphor. And that’s what hard about poetry – sometimes you really don’t know. With novels you often have several hundred pages of text from which you can try to deduce the intention of the writer, but with poetry you often have only one page. It’s seems that more than anything, poetry is about reading between the lines.

As I mentioned above, I read Södergran’s poems in the language that they were written, namely Swedish. This was because 1) the bind-up was only available in Swedish and because 2) I’ve been actively trying to read more fiction in Swedish in order to improve my skills in said language. However, I was wholly unprepared to the change in language that has happened between Swedish in 1920s and in today – the language of the twenties was almost greek to me. There were many times that I had to read a single poem again and again and hope to find a lead that would pull me in. Sometimes I found it, and sometimes I didn’t. All in all, it was a rather tiring process and reading in small bouts, it took me from March to mid-July to read through the entire bind-up. The few poems that completely won me over, however, made the struggle worth it and reaching the end of the book made me feel at least a tiny bit accomplished. And what did I learn from this? Don’t read poetry in a language that you don’t fully master, unless you’re intentionally studying it – the sense of enjoyment will diminish every time you reach for the dictionary.

I hope I haven’t scared all of you off by now, because despite my struggles with poetry, I still think that Edith Södergran was on to something great. If you’re interested in modernism, feminist poetry, or Finnish authors, here are few places where you can read Södergran in English. For starters, Edith Södergran has her own Poetry Foundation page, which features five of her poems. Translator David McDuff has translated two books of Södergran’s poetry – her debut collection Poems (1916) and an edition called Complete Poems – but you can also read some of his translations online at http://englishings.com/nvinprint/sodergran-poems-1916.html. From Goodreads I spotted Stina Katchadourian’s translation Love and Solitude: Selected Poems, 1916–1923 and On Foot I Wandered Trough the Solar Systems, translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellenstrom. The most recent collection is We Women, which is translated by Samuel Charters and was published by Tavern Books in 2015.

As for the future of my poetry reading, I will continue to persevere for those small ‘heureka’ moments and hopefully one day I can return to Södergran with much more understanding of the language that she speaks.

Vierge Moderne (tr. David McDuff)
I am not a woman. I am a neuter.
I am a child, a page and a bold resolve,
I am a laughing stripe of a scarlet sun…
I am a net for all greedy fish,
I am a toast to the glory of all women,
I am a step towards hazard and ruin,
I am a leap into freedom and self …
I am the whisper of blood in the ear of the man,
I am the soul’s ague, the longing and refusal of the flesh,
I am an entrance sign to new paradises.
I am a flame, searching and brazen,
I am water, deep but daring up to the knee,
I am fire and water in free and loyal union …


4 thoughts on “What Edith Södergran taught me about reading poetry

    • Thank you! I think I agree with you on the modernist part – should have probably started off with something a bit easier to grasp, but oh well. It’s also fun to sometimes really push beyond one’s comprehension.

    • Thank you for your kind comment! I’m glad that you found her interesting – I love sharing books and/or authors with other readers who might not have heard of them before.

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