Prose from Poetry Magazine

Translator’s Note: “Your Hair of Snakes and Flowers” by ​Håkan Sandell


Håkan Sandell must be the only contemporary Swedish poet to have founded, or at least co-founded, his own movement, Retrogardism. Om Retrogardismen (On Retrogardism), which Sandell co-authored with fellow poet Clemens Altgård, was published in 1995: the book's argument was that poetry had become too insular, and, in the case of Language poetry, too contemptuous of its own medium, to communicate meaningfully with the public. The remedy the authors proposed was a return to techniques and genres that Modernism had rejected or neglected.

Talk of poetry as communication worries poets and critics for a variety of reasons, some good, some not. Those who view language itself as essentially suspect will see that definition as either naive or deceptive. Others might read "" as a coded demand for accessibility. Sandell is aware of both objections, of course, and sympathetic to the second. He has made it clear in his critical and polemical writings that he is not looking for poetry that is populist or socially and politically useful.

Anyone who dubs himself a Retrogardist is being as much playful as provocative. The poetry itself, moreover, has nothing stuffy or curatorial about it. What Sandell has done is not to enslave himself to the past, but to give himself permission to plunder its resources at will. There's a stylistic generosity and openness in his work, where everyday and vatic diction, high and popular culture, modern and ancient technologies, jostle amicably. There's a generosity of spirit, too: even the saddest and angriest of his poems tend toward praise.

In the two translations included here, I've tried to retain as much of both Sandell's meaning and his meter as possible. The rhymes and iambics of "Your Hair of Snakes and " are familiar enough devices, but the meter of "Poetry " combining as it does a strong stress line with assonance in place of end rhyme, is something I've not seen before in Swedish poetry—or in English poetry, for that matter. If Sandell is a traditionalist, he's one who extends the tradition by renewing it

Originally Published: March 27th, 2008

Bill Coyle's first collection of poetry, The God of This World to His Prophet (Ivan R. Dee, 2006), won the New Criterion Poetry Prize.

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