Gunnar Ekelรถf Biography: Swedish poet and writer


Gunnar Ekelรถf

 Gunnar Ekelรถf, (born Sept. 15, 1907, Stockholm—died March 16, 1968, Sigtuna, Swed.), outstanding Swedish poet and essayist.

Ekelรถf exerted great influence on his contemporaries. His radically modern style was influenced by such poets as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. In such poetry from the 1930s as Sent pรฅ jorden (1932; “Late on Earth”), Ekelรถf was drawn to the Surrealist technique of automatism (the spontaneous release of the subconscious in the creative act), but his work also reflects an interest in musical forms and Oriental mysticism. A student of Oriental languages, Ekelรถf felt divided between mystical tendencies and rationalism. This conflict is apparent in Fรคrjesรฅng (1941; “Ferry Song”) and Non Serviam (1945; “I Will Not Serve”). Central to Ekelรถf’s work is En Mรถlna-elegi (1960; “A Mรถlna Elegy”), published in several earlier versions from the mid-1940s. Its starting point is within the mind of the poet, sitting at Mรถlna dock on a summer day in 1940. Memories from his individual past intermingle with those of history in an endless panorama.

Life and works

Gunnar Ekelรถf has been called Sweden's first surrealist poet. He made his debut with the collection sent pรฅ jorden ("late on earth") in 1932, written during an extended stay in Paris in 1929–1930, which was too unconventional to become widely appreciated and described by its author as capturing a period of suicidal thoughts and apocalyptic moods. It was in a sense an act of literary revolt akin to Edith Sรถdergran's Septemberlyran of a dozen years earlier. While not disavowing his debut, Ekelรถf moved towards romanticism and received better reviews for his second poetry collection, Dedikation (1934). Both the volumes are influenced by surrealism and show a violent, at times feverish torrent of images, deliberate breakdown of ordered syntax and traditional poetic language and a defiant spirit bordering on anarchism ("cut your belly cut your belly and don't think of any tomorrow" runs the black humorous refrain of a poem called "fanfare" in sent pรฅ jorden; a collection that eschews capital letters). This defiant externalism was grounded in his person. Though he came from an upper-class background, Ekelรถf had never felt committed to it – his father had been mentally ill and when his mother remarried, Ekelรถf strongly disapproved of his stepfather, and by extension of his mother; he had become a loner and a rebel by his teens and would never feel at ease with the mores of the established upper and middle classes or with their inhibitions and what he perceived as their hypocrisy and back-scratching.Swedish critic Anders Olsson described Ekelรถf's turn to poetry as a choice of "the only utterance that doesn't expurge the contradictions and empty spaces of language and of the mind.


Bengt Gunnar Ekelรถf (1907-1968)

Gunnar Ekelรถf was considered one of Sweden’s leading and most important twentieth-century poets who produced deeply intellectual and challenging works that weave in many different languages and cultural influences. A lifelong outsider, he is known for introducing surrealism and modernism to Swedish poetry, and for his late-career Byzantine trilogy, beginning with D?w?n รถver fursten av Emgiรณn (1965) (Divan on the Prince of Emgiรณn), which received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1966.


Portrait of Gunnar Ekelรถf, 1967.
Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelรถf, 1967. Photo: Pressens Bild (Public domain)
1 July 2019 by Jenny Rood and Juliette Victor

Ekelรถf was born in Stockholm in 1907. He studied Oriental languages briefly in London and Uppsala, but never completed his formal education; however, he received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala in 1958.


He made his dรฉbut with a poetry collection called sent pรฅ jorden (1932) (Late Arrival on Earth, 1967), his so-called ‘surrealistic suicide book’ influenced by the music of Stravinsky and a stay in Paris. This ground-breaking volume with free verse and non-traditional word usage was followed by Dedikation (1934) (Dedication, 1975); then came his personal breakthrough collection Fรคrjesรฅng (1941) (Ferry Song, 1975) with his characteristic dualism and leitmotifs.


For some 20 years Ekelรถf worked on En Mรถlna-Elegi (1960) (A Mรถlna Elegy, 1984), a taxing work laden with allusions and quotations, many in Latin and Greek. He ventured into the absurd and anti-poetic with Strountes (1955) (Nonsense) and En natt i Oto?ac (1961) (A night in Oto?ac).


Ekelรถf produced 15 books of poetry, but also four books of translations from several languages (particularly French, German, Latin, Persian, and, notably, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from English) and four books of essays. He was deeply influenced by Swedish poet Edith Sรถdergran, and although his style is difficult to imitate, several Swedish poets from the 1940s onward are in turn in his debt, including the 2006 Nordic Council Literature Prize recipient Gรถran Sonnevi.


Ekelรถf received several major prizes, including every national Swedish award save the Nobel for literature. Most consider his crowning achievement his Byzantine trilogy: D?w?n รถver fursten av Emgiรณn (1965) (Divan on the Prince of Emgiรณn), which received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1966, Sagan om Fatumeh (1966) (The Tale of Fatumeh), and Vรคgvisare till underjorden (1967) (Guide to the Underworld, 1980). Ekelรถf was elected to the Swedish Academy in 1958. He died in Sigtuna in 1968 of throat cancer.


Further reading:

Carl Olov Sommar, Gunnar Ekelรถf: en biografi [Gunnar Ekelรถf: a biography] (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1991).

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