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By Martinson, Harry
Translated by Robin Fulton
Introduction by Staffan Soderblom
Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2010
192 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett

October 2013

While this was a delightful book to read, it presented me with significant difficulties. The author was not out of the typical background of poets I’ve read, and thus his topics and attitudes toward the world presented some difficulties for me. In addition the poems are in translation from the Swedish, and almost all are rooted deeply in Sweden and its culture and landscape or in the world of a sailor sailing the seas of European, Asian and African waters. At times I definitely struggled with my own limitations of my knowledge of both those worlds.

Nonetheless, I was fascinated by his bold work which grapples with giving the reader the living and deep sense of experiencing a world which he brings to life.

Harry Martinson’s early life was very difficult. He father left the family early on and not too long after his mother also left, leaving the children as wards of the state. Martinson only had 8 years of education and soon after left as a sailor, a work he did for many years. When he finally settled back in Sweden and became a writer he wrote both of the sea and of many topics of life in Sweden that were nearly as unfamiliar for me as were his descriptions of the sea. Yet he has a gift of engaging the reader, bringing to even someone as alien to his world as me, the visions and feelings of these strange but fascinating worlds in which Martinson lived.

He was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974.

His poem, “On the Congo” contains vivid images of what it was to ply the Congo River in the early days of the 20th century.

Martinson’s poetry leave me sensing a real loner, wandering Swede on or very simple transport, going primarily where there are no people, and communing in a very deep sense with nature and human abodes abandoned in hard times.

From: “Ocean Nocturne”

“Clear winter night,
the stars sparkle coldly;
a boy who longs to go to sea
stands in the still deadly cold with shaking legs
on the bare tabletop of the pier:
he’s not counting the stars
but the ships anchored on this earth.
He hears the suspicious shuffle of the watch on deck.”

In the long poem “Trade Winds” he writes of the 15th-18th centuries, the age of discovery until there were no islands left unknown. But in this poem of 1930s he can’t quite imagine anything like our age now.

“All that was remote will be easily come by and worn down.
The exotic will sink and die
like a final Atlantis like a submerged Godwanaland.
People will call then for a lost distance.
They will call for new worlds.
They will call for a Virginia of the stars.
But bound to the earth they will fly in circles. . .”

“The Prodigal Son” seems like a family reunion at first, but the reader soon experiences this loneliness or exile that seems to define Martinson’s poetry.

I don’t know who chose the title for this compendium of selected poems, but when nearly half way thought the volume I came across the title poem “Chickweed Wintergreen” I was impressed by the title choice. The poem seems like nature’s match to the person of Harry Martinson.


“Never luxuriates
Yet manages, sparingly
and neatly in the moss.

The flowers are delicate
but know nothing of the sweet pliancy
you would foist on summer.
The determination of the fragile is no less than that of the oak.”

In the magnificent poem, “Swedish Folktale” he paints a picture of a loving, if brusk young couple who begin life on a remote mountain farm which sort of swallows them up forever, yet they went on. The title suggest it is his own image of Sweden.

“Thrall Woman” is a powerful poem of a but loving woman. She simply has to confront her man.

“She tossed her hoe aside and went up to him saying:
Don’t waste too many years
on the stone of your stubbornness that no one can budge.
Linger now and then with my heart in the dew and listen to thrush and cuckoo. The evening sun going down will soon find us old enough
to keep it company forever behind the ridge.”

The poetry of Harry Martinson leaves me breathless with wonder, yet with a deep sense of sadness. I have never read an author who conveys such a sense of loneliness, darkness, struggle, hardship yet does it in such a way that he brings out the beauty and magnificence of the struggle for survival going on heroically everywhere he looks. He is an amazing poet.

Three short poems which display some variety in Martinson’s work. Much of his work is dark, somber, lonesome and brilliant. But he’s certainly not fully a one-track poet. Here are three short poems which illustrate the somber, the uplifting and the humerous:

The Cemetery

“Two leafy groves enclose the cemetery
In summer’s soft voice they spell out
What cannot be called back.
In the grass the wind looks for something lost.
But time has walked out
Through the gates of iron.”

The uplifting:

Li-Ti’s Advice

“IF you own two coins, said LiTi on a journey,
buy a loaf and a flower.
The loaf’s purpose is to feed you.
The flower you buy means --
that life is worth living.”

Now and again he is genuinely funny!

Lacking Strength

“In a forest once I found an axe stuck into the ground wedged right in
As if someone had wanted to split the earth into two with one blow.
The will had not been lacking but the handle broke.”

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett