Unafraid of Magic: Two Norwegian Poets

Unafraid of Magic: Two Norwegian Poets

We inherit from antiquity the image of the poet as bard and storyteller—one who sings, or sang, the narratives of the tribe, preserving the collective memory of his or her people. This is the kind of poet most literature textbooks like to open with—as if all poets emerged out of one blind man’s mouth. But there were other kinds of poets as well: those who chanted, cast spells, shrieked or whispered seeming nonsense or fragments of words or images, making magic come into being through language. There were poets of eros (think Sappho) and poets who helped with their keening before burying the dead (think wailing songs). While the western tradition has seemingly favored the first image of the bardic poet, we do also get a glimpse of the other (think the witches’ songs in Macbeth, the poems of Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Paul Celan, and so on).

I thought of these poetics when I read Tone Hødnebø’s lines such as:

NOT the whispering branch,
Nor the cool wind
Nor the weak heart

But a voice saying: go

There is a kind of foreknowledge in Tone’s work, a kind of assuredness of speaking in tongues:

PEOPLE don’t change
But constantly reveal themselves
And I close the book
Then the words can be wasted:
Mainspring, impulse, reason

There is no right way to endure
For what returns
Is not what is written

There is also a kind of intimacy in her relationship to nature:

You draw a cloud, and look up
…who will be what you do not see,
not a wonder in the book
without the pages disappearing.
Good night, you said, no promises.

She seems to look at the nature and find new laws, a kind of gravity that physics is still negotiating:

THE SKY is a generator
Humming night and day
The sky builds a system
Catching every little movement
From leaves, insects and people

This is poetry that is unafraid of magic, of finding new ways to see the world through language.


The work of Tone Hødnebø’s contemporary, the poet Steinar Opstad, has similar concerns. He takes what might (to someone else) seem mundane, and asks: What is metaphysical in all of this? Where does our subconscious reside in such a moment? Where is astonishment in our time? He writes:

I was not the sick but the prophet
And I was not the prophet
But the twofold person
Who held his hands in front of him
Now and then someone stroked my arms
It was my mother and my father and they smiled
Because inside my eyelids a congregation stood ready
To lay me down or lift me up

How does one do it? How does one find a larger meaning in a simple object? Or, in an imaginary object? Here is how Steinar looks at a Water House:

You talk about the water house
In the forest
And you say we must go there
And one day we go to the water house 

You say that it’s as if the hosue
Could contain everything from a bomb to a prophet
Just as the eye can contain everything
Except that we can say neither “bomb” nor “prophet”

We are standing in front of the water house
And grow weak in the eyes
From imagining that the house bursts
And that a profane speech arises
And we become an audience of prophets
Who can only be silent.

But here we can do even more than find the metaphysics in the world around us. He can show us the metaphysics in our emotions, our feelings:

Her name was “Mother,” you say,
Not this name in delicate letters
Sorrow is overpraised and I say
“Let us go our own ways”
I read words like “angel” and “holy”
And later: a white sheet of people
On which no name is listed, not your own
Not your mother’s, but mine
And I have been drawn in
As a figure: A son. 

What I also admire in his work is his ability to find humor and hilarity in our moments, even in moments of tragedy.

When the US Secretary of State
Was about to give an account of the invasion of Iraq
They realized that Picasso’s Guernica
was hanging on the wall 

And then, this hilarity attains a larger meaning:

…Guernica did not stop
the Secretary of State holding court
the covered picture became a picture
of what we should have known.

And then, at the end of this poem, he gives us the full complexity of our situation in this tragic political moment in time:

I write and so I participate
And since I participate
Aren’t I a true witness
Or in other words:
That I love and suffer proves nothing. 

But we, the readers, see the proof: the proof of these two wonderful poets standing witness to the fact that there is spiritual, meaningful, tender, passionate relationship between ourselves and the world.


Poetry International hosted these two poets, along with the literary activist, editor and writer Birgit Hatlehol, in the Spring of 2017. Founder and Festival Director of Oslo Poetry Festival, Hatlehol had also directed Poesi Film festival – a celebration of digital, visual and performative poetry – the largest event of its kind in the Nordic countries. She is a former Director of Kapittel festival in Stavanger and Artistic Director of Norwegian Literature festival at Lillehammer. Ms Hatlehol started her career as an editor of several cultural journals and has also worked as a journalist and editor of some of the main newspapers in Norway after studying literature, philosophy and media at the University of Oslo. We are grateful to Ms. Hatlehol for her generous introduction, and moderation of these Norwegian poets’ visit, and for her tireless work on bringing together poets from various countries, languages and communities.

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