This article appeared in the 2010:2 issue.
We were, fittingly, a diverse and international group of individuals who came together on one of the hottest days of the year in the Richard Eden Room at Clare Hall, Cambridge, to celebrate the life and work of poet, translator and scholar Göran Printz-Påhlson (1931-2006), known among my peer group at Cambridge simply as PP. In this pleasant room with its long windows open onto a beautiful walled garden, the participants readily formed into a mini-community for the occasion, with many reunions between old friends and colleagues, though others were meeting almost everyone for the first time. Former pupils and colleagues rubbed shoulders with the poet’s friends and associates from Lund, the United States and Cambridge; PP’s widow Ulla and their children Finn and Unn had travelled from Malmö for the event.
As we went round the table introducing ourselves, many memories surfaced. A number of those attending worked in the 1960s and 70s on the independent fiction and poetry magazine Stand, and recalled the generous hospitality provided by the Printz-Påhlsons whenever they travelled down from Newcastle to sell the magazine on the streets of Cambridge. Elinor Shaffer invoked her time publishing PP’s work, and being inspired by him, when she was editor of Comparative Criticism, and he one of its board members.
The event as a whole was the brainchild of John Matthias, poet and teacher at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who first met PP in Cambridge in 1971 and was his valued long-term collaborator, though Matthias spoke to us self-deprecatingly of his baffled and minor role as co-translator. In his opening remarks, he set the inclusive tone, pointing out that this day was many things: an academic event, a poets’ event, a translators’ event, and a memorial event for friends and family. His wife Diana was a wonderfully friendly but self-effacing hostess throughout the day, too.
The theme of bridging or ‘inbetweenness’ was continued by Robert Archambeau, Professor of English at Lake Forest College, essayist, poet and translator. The concept of ‘inbetween’ (apparently often appearing in his manuscripts as one word) was very important to PP. He located himself between languages; between poetry and criticism; between generations: the erudition of the high modernist generation and the popular culture of, say Andy Warhol; and between different poetic traditions, the plain-speaking (Wordsworth, Larkin) and the cryptic (Hölderlin, Celan). Archambeau recalled the words of Max Weber on what it means to be an intellectual: ‘I am not a donkey, and I do not have a field’.
With the help of email and many of those present, he has been assembling and editing a collection of PP’s lectures, poems and essays, some previously unpublished, under the working title The Words of the Tribe, Letters of Blood and Other English Writings. The volume, now virtually complete, seeks both a publisher and a snappier name.
Lars Håkan Svensson was a Lund contemporary of PP and is now Professor of Language and Culture at Linköping University; he is a translator of the classics, and of poetry from many languages, into Swedish. He and John Matthias read a number of PP’s poems in both English and Swedish, including the witty, summery ‘Comedians’/’Humoristerna’, in which a sceptical little girl having swimming lessons indignantly complains of being used as a metaphor; but she is mistaken, says the poet, for a poem ‘if it is any good at all/ is never about writing poetry: but rather about/making jokes, or love; or deceit (Dikten, om den nu är/värd någonting alls, är aldrig om att skriva poesi utan/snarare om att skämta, eller älska eller bedra).
PP’s Lund contemporary Jesper Svenbro, poet and member of the Swedish Academy who is now moving back to Sweden after four decades spent in France, spoke of translation, influence and PP’s lasting legacy. Richard Berengarten read a personal memoir which, with his kind permission, is printed in its entirety after this piece.
After a break, the evening session for a slightly different but overlapping audience was a celebration of contemporary poetry: performances from a collection of major poets who had never before all read together at the same venue, some of whom had been involved in the setting up of the Cambridge Poetry Festival. For some present this was a re-creation of past times with PP, when the common room we were in was the venue for informal poetry evenings, which one senses were collegiate, a little clubby even, a blend of friendly rivalry and artistic hothousing. We even learnt of PP’s skills as a stand-up comedian, the time he presented a highly humourous triptych featuring one poem of his that had been translated out of English and back again, without anyone realising.
Some of the performers read poems of great affection that they had written for, or about, PP. These included Jesper Svenbro’s funny and erudite ‘Snowfall in the Roman World Empire’. This dreamlike sequence conflates a forest setting where a larger-than-life PP in a Boetian felt hat and astrakhan coat is in conversation with Nemesianus (ancient author of a number of bucolic poems) with scenes in which PP joins Jesper in the checkout crush in FNAC in Paris, trying to buy learned tomes on December 23rd 1978:
Big flakes of snow have alighted in his beard
and are now starting to melt.
Father Christmas, I presume?
a voice asks in the crowd.
The question seems apposite today
though he is not wearing a pixie cap
Stora snöflingor har landat i skägget
och håller nu på att smälta.
‘Father Christmas, I presume?’
frågar en röst i trängseln.
Frågan förefaller befogad i dag.
Men han har inte alls någon tomteluva.
Then the season changed again: another memorable listening experience as the evening drew to a close was John Matthias’s ‘Smultronstället’, a poem in English despite its title, which took us back to John discovering Bergman’s Wild Strawberries in the Lane Arts Cinema, Columbus, in 1959:
In twenty years I’d introduce my friend from Skania
to my Midwest as Dr. Printz-Påhlson, poet
A colleague thought that Göran was a royal and
called him Prince. Oh, and Göran hated
Bergman films, all that religious angst, which
everybody asked about, even though his lecture was
on Strindberg. So much for the 80s.
Dwelling for a moment on the melancholy of illness and decay, the poem finally swept up the cast of the film, plus John, Göran and assorted others, and put them all in the car to head south.
‘Father Christmas, I presume’ - a catch phrase whose origins are explained in Richard Berengarten’s memoir - is what we probably all thought, but would never have dared to say. As undergraduates grappling with elementary Swedish, what a sliver of the whole Göran we came to know. We can thank this celebratory event for a more rounded appreciation of his work and influence.
Göran Printz-Påhlson’s Cambridge colleague Gunnel Clark, who reminded us that linguistics was another of his great interests, has suggested rounding off this piece with his poem ‘Broendal’, in his original Swedish and the English version done in collaboration with John Matthias. It is named for Viggo Broendal, Danish speculative linguist of the early twentieth century:
Det regnar inte längre (Vattnet likt en spegel)
Orden är alldeles blanka i munnen.
Vitt ljus på våt asfalt. Språket en spegel
eller ett sätt att andas utåt utanför munnen?
Vi talar och orden är alldeles vita.
Vinden talar med regnet och regnet med havet
och vinden, den blåser också, fast bara lite.
Tror ni att det finns nån likhet mellan språket och havet?
Regnet är helt adekvat och man vet
att vinden blåser exakt. Ord regnar i havet
och inte drunknar orden.
Vi samlas här i grupper. I vinden
orden visslar rent och ömt
havet glömmer det som alla andra glömt
Raining no longer. (Water like a mirror)
The words are all bright in your mouth.
White light on the wet pavement. Language a mirror
Or another way of breathing outside your mouth?
We are speaking and the words are all white.
The wind speaks to the rain and the rain to the sea
And the wind is blowing, though just a bit.
Do you think language is anything like the sea?
The rain is wholly adequate and one can see
That the wind is precise. Words rain into the sea
And no words are drowning.
We gather here in groups. In the blowing
Wind words whistle pure and tender:
The sea forgets what everyone cannot remember.