Rolf Jacobsen (1907-1994) is Norway’s first modern poet and is now recognized as one of the greatest Scandinavian poets of the twentieth century.
Garnering the highest praise of critics, Jacobsen won many of Norway’s and Sweden’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Swedish Academy’s Dobloug Prize and the Grand Nordic Prize, also known as the “Little Nobel.” But he also has earned a wide popular audience, because ordinary readers can understand and enjoy the way he explores the complex counterpoint of nature and technology, progress and self-destruction, daily life and cosmic wonder.
He explores life with a distinctive sensibility and voice. Most of his poems are unrhymed free verse and many treated subjects or images are drawn from modern industrial world. He found both beneficial and oppressive aspects in the modern scenes. His poems combine an ancient way of looking- a way that searches for connectedness- with an openness to the new. He is interested in people’s relations to the natural world, their relation to the man-made world, the ways in which these two relations affect each other.
He has a strong sense of world as a mystery and he approaches that mystery with reverence. He is concerned with the spirit of man and the preciousness of life. His writing evinces humility at every turn.
Henrik Ibsen has said, being a poet means being able to see. Jacobsen sees the secret connection between things. There is a sense of great depth in the intervening associations in his poems. Much like a fine composer, he incorporates silence into his works, lending a wonderful feeling of space to his poems. Most of his poems have a deep meditative quality, the sort of feeling that a Zen poem evokes.
The first two poems that I have posted below, “Sunflower” and “Just Delicate Needles”, illustrate the radiant and visionary quality of his poetry. He says the “seeds of fire” in us must have been broadcast by some sower and these seeds will stay in the loam. There is a spiritual aura in this poem.
What sower walked over earth,
which hands sowed
our inward seeds of fire?
They went out from his fists like rainbow curves
to frozen earth, young loam, hot sand,
they will sleep there
greedily, and drink up our lives
and explode it into pieces
for the sake of a sunflower that you haven’t seen
or a thistle head or a chrysanthemum.
Let the young rain of tears come.
Let the calm hands of grief come.
It’s not as evil as you think.
(Translated by Robert Bly)
I wrote a mail to the distinguished translator Roger Greenwald whether the poem ‘Sunflower’ can be taken as a metaphor of the dormant seeds in us that explodes one day as a creative force and the poet is consoling us that the agony of producing that fruit of labor is not all that bad.
His answer is given below:
“Like many short poems, this poem seems unusually rich, this one seems to me to have an oracular quality about it. That is, it is an utterance that can support many interpretations.
I think your interpretation is certainly supported by the poem. I also think one could take the images even more generally. There are forces and impulses within us that we may not know about, that may remain dormant a long while and then come to life, that may seem to serve purposes of their own rather than our carefully laid plans. And what emerges from them may indeed be beautiful — or prickly (the thistle) — or both.
Certainly I think the ending implies that it isn’t so bad that everything in our lives isn’t under our control. Perhaps “agony” is too strong a word. We can bear some tears and some sorrow, the poem seems to say. The opening stanza of the poem, the question, can be taken as a genuine question or a rhetorical one. I think it points to a religious belief: at least that there is some force at work that is larger than us. And this may be why the end of the poem can say that we can bear to suffer some tears and sorrow. In other words, the poet may find some consolation in the thought of that larger force, and may find some humility (or even acceptance, equanimity) in the face of it.”
Regarding “Just Delicate Needles”, I have never read a poem on ‘light’ as gossamer as this one. Every ray of light is to be cherished and treasured.
Just Delicate Needles
It’s so delicate, the light.
And there’s so little of it. The dark
Just delicate needles, the light,
in an endless night.
And it has such a long way to go
through such desolate space.
So let’s be gentle with it.
So it will come again in the morning.
The next three poems were written in the last years of his life. I have selected these poems as I thought it forms an order. All the poems reflect the mood of the poet after the transition of his beloved wife.
The first poem, “Barbed-wire Winter” recalls his wedding day in 1940: it was minus twenty five degree Celsius , the war was already there, the road to church was blocked by barbed wire, the minister told them, “Love is a path you must walk”.
The very same event is poignantly invoked in the second stanza of the poem “Room 301”. This poem made my eyes misty. The poet’s wife is dead and he enters the room. He softly reminisce the stroke of her hand on his face and that thought leads him to the wedding day and how her small hand held the rose against her breast. The last stanza movingly reiterate the brevity of life.
The third and the last poem, “Problem II”, ponders on the limitations of modern machines and pays a heartrending eulogy to his wife. In a powerful and precise statement of our condition in this age, he says:
no matter what we do
Just move the hunger two flights higher,
Now it rests in the heart
The translations of these poems by Roger Greenwald are as pellucid as the original, a literary marvel indeed. They deeply affect any sensitive reader.
When we got married–now, that was cold weather.
At least twenty-five below,
winter solstice, nineteen forty,
war and rinderpest.
Road to the church was blocked with barbed wire.
I remember we clambered over the rail fence of the parsonage.
–Hey, your dress is caught
–no, not there–over there.
We tramped the furrows of an ice-crusted
potato field, up to the minister
who was in his surplice and had
the Scriptures ready.
–Love is a path you must walk, he ways, Yes, we said.
But my lord what muddy feet we had!
When we got in bed that night
we cried a dab–both of us. God
And then the long life began
— All right, you may come in now.
They had dressed you in white.
I held your hand for a time.
It didn’t respond. Never again.
The hand that so often stroked my hair
lately, since summer. All the way
from my forehead to my neck. As if you were looking
for something or knew something
Did you know?
(Your hand , your small hand.)
The other one they’ve laid on your breast,
curved around a rose. Red on white. A bride
but not mine.
Then the time is up. Someone’s waiting.
(Face, forehead, hands)
I walk towards the door;
northern lights, swarm of stars–
Hand on the doorknob.
The final little click.
Steps in the corridor. Clip-clop
Clip-clop. That’s how
A life ends
— no matter what we do
Just move the hunger two flights higher,
Now it rests in the heart
In non-industrial (agrarian societies -which is what Norway was until fairly recently), most people had to do physical work to satisfy their basic needs, such as food and shelter. The hunger they satisfy is physical hunger - for food. When industrialization came in - everything from factory jobs and manufactured goods to "labor-saving" home appliances and the latest generation of electronic gadgets and associated prosperity and affluence met the basic human needs. But modern society doesn't necessarily satisfy emotional needs (which may or may not have been satisfied earlier; the poem doesn't pronounce on that). So we are still hungry, but instead of having hungry stomachs, now we have hungry hearts.
I will conclude by citing a beautiful verse that shows his gifted facet as a nature poet. The poet imagines night as a book and the moon as a reader thumbing through its pages drawing a silvery line on a lake, an empty page in the book.
The moon thumbs through the book of the night.
Finds a lake on which nothing’s printed.
Draws a straight line. That’s all it can do.
A thick line. Right to you.
(Translated by Olav Grinde. Book -“Night Open”)
Rolf Jacobsen may be rightly described as a sower of inner seeds of fire. He writes for those who are still “half-awake”, for those who still have some curiosity left; for those who are able to pick up a book before they turn out the lights.