Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Olav H. Hauge - Norwegian poetry at its simplest (and best)

I am surprised to find that I haven't written about this Norwegian poet before.

Olav H. Hauge is a significant voice in the Norwegian literary landscape. In a fashion he also is a significant voice in the Norwegian geographical landscape, as he in many ways expresses its grandeur and simplicity, its wildness and purity, and the human feeling of separateness from each other and from nature, while at the same time he transmits a sense of unity with everything and everyone.

His poetry varies in form, from sonnets to short haiku-like poems, and the quality varies as well, but he has written a great deal of poems of simple beauty and usually with a meditative approach to all things small and universal.

In addition to a body of hundreds of poems, Olav H. Hauge left many volumes of diaries behind when he died in 1994 and they bear witness of a widely read man. Professionally he worked as a gardener, and it seems almost strange that this single man living alone (for a great part of his life) in the green and mountainclad landscape of Hardanger (Western Norway) read Chinese poetry, French, German and British poetry, philosophy, classics, literary magazines - more than I am aware of, naturally. What a library he must have collected in his house at Ulvik.

He writes in a characteristic dialect, and the special tone this brings to his poems is hard to translate, but I think the following is a good translation by Robin Fulton. More of his translations of Olav H. Hauge's poetry can be found in this book. But here is an example of Hauge's poetry:

Drops in the East Wind, 1966

You've left the big storms
behind you now.
You didn't ask then
why you were born,
where you came from, where you were going to,
you were just there in the storm,
in the fire.
But it's possible to live
in the everyday as well,
in the grey quiet day,
set potatoes, rake leaves,
carry brushwood.
There's so much to think about here in the world,
one life is not enough for it all.
After work you can fry bacon
and read Chinese poems.
Old Laertes cut briars,
dug round his fig trees,
and let the heroes fight on at Troy.

A few lines from this poem bring another towering figure in Scandinavian poetry to mind: Tomas Tranströmer. In fact, the whole poem reminds me of Tranströmer, but especially these lines: "But it's possible to live / in the everyday as well, / in the grey quiet day".

This greatly resembles Tranströmer's "Efter en lång torka" which you can read (in Norwegian, not the original Swedish) here. The last stanza goes as follows:

Det går att ringa upp hägringens ö.
Det går att höra den gråa rösten.
Järnmalm är honung för åskan.
Det går att leva med sin kod.

In translation it sounds something like this:

It's all right to telephone the island of mirage.
It's all right to hear the gray voice.
Iron ore is honey to the thunder.
It's all right to live by your own code.

The poem "Everyday" by Hauge also reminds me of Jack Gilbert, a poet I have discussed earlier (here too).

Again there is a certain Easternness in a poem that attracts me. When I say Eastern, I actually refer to a sense of simplicity which I most clearly see in various Eastern traditions. But in fact this is a quality of existence that every human being can occupy to great extent. You only have to look for it. Simplicity, space, openness and quiet is there all the time - it is just that we are usually looking in other directions.

The following poem is widely famous in Norway, and I think the craving for freedom it expresses translates well into any human language.

It's the Dream
Drops in the East Wind, 1966

It's the dream we carry in secret
that something miraculous will happen,
that it must happen –
that time will open
that the heart will open
that doors will open
that the rockface will open
that spring will gush –
that the dream will open,
that one morning we will glide into
some little harbour we didn't know was there.

There is currently a new volume out in English, with translations by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin.


Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Thekla,

I've enjoyed reading your site. I especially like this line in your article: "Iron ore is honey to the thunder."

Your article on Stevens studies a poem full of difficult words, complex concepts and ideas. Too difficult in my view. It seems strikingly different from the poetry of Hauge.

I am just discovering Norwegian poetry for the first time, after moving to Stavanger recently, so it was a real pleasure to discover your blog.

Poison Shirt said...

Dear Thekla,

I'd like to find your version of "It's the Dream". From which of the two books you link is this particular translation?

Thank you.

Lyle Daggett said...


I found this post, and your blog, when I Googled "Norwegian poetry." I enjoyed this post on Olav Hauge, Transtromer, and the related places you've gone in talking about them here.

As it happens, about a year ago I heard Robert Bly and Robert Hedin read from their book of translations of Hauge's poems, here in Minneapolis. The reading was part of a one-day annual festival of small-press book and magazine publishers that takes place here each October. The reading took place in a large airy room with large high windows around all the walls, a pleasing relaxed reading in late afternoon. It was a nice change of pace from the lively though sometimes densely crowded main room of the festival, filled with row after row of publisher tables and people browsing books.

I enjoy Olav Hauge's poetry, what I've read of it in translation, and I've long had a great love of Tomas Transtromer's poetry as well, again in translation.

During the past year or so -- the last year of my mother's life -- when I would visit her, I would often read poetry out loud to her, work by various poets, and she seemed particularly to enjoy the poems I read by Hauge (the Bly and Hedin translations) on a couple of occasions.

The last day of my father's life, in 1999, I stood by his hospital bed and said out loud (or perhaps more whispered), a poem by Transtromer that I'd learned by memory, titled in Swedish (though you'll need to supply the umlauts and other markings) "Efter Nagons Dod." A rough translation might be something like:

After Someone's Death

One time there was a shock
that left after it a long, pale, shimmering comet's tail.
It holds us. It makes the T.V. picture fuzzy.
It settles in cold drops on overhead wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
The subscribers' names swallowed up by the cold.

It is still marvelous to feel the heart beat
but sometimes the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

The Transtromer translation here is something of a mix of Robert Bly's translation of many years back, and an unpublished translation by Mary Hagen, a friend of many years ago whose family was from Sweden and who studied Swedish at the University of Minnesota.

Thanks for posting about these poets.

Thekla said...

Hello Lyle Daggett, and thank you for your personal remarks on Hauge and Tranströmer.

I too find Tranströmer's poems to be powerful ones, able to meet existence at some of its deepest layers. It makes sense and is deeply moving to hear of your resitation at your father's deathbed. Poetry (the good kind) holds that kind of substance.

And thank you for a glimpse of life in Minneapolis - I get the sense of the quiet from the airy room filled with people and poetry.

The translation of Tranströmer's "Efter någons död" is really quite verbatim and succinct. I like it when particular poems by authors I know are being highlighted by others. And that lead me to reread this poem, and falling for the temptation of writing out the whole poem in Swedish:

Efter någons död

Det var en gång en chock
som lämnade efter sig en lång, blek, skimrande kometsvans.
Den hyser oss. Den gör TV-bilderna suddiga.
Den avsätter sig som kalla droppar på luftledningarna.

Man kan fortfarande hasa fram på skidor i vintersolen
mellan dungar där fjolårslöven hänger kvar.
De liknar blad rivna ur gamla telefonkataloger -
abonnenternas namn uppslukade av kölden.

Det är fotfarande skönt att känna sitt hjärta bulta.
Men ofta känns skuggan verkligare än kroppen.
Samurajen ser obetydlig ut
bredvid sin rustning av svarta drakfjäll.

Thank you, Lyle!

PGR said...

Dear Thekla

I am so glad that you have written about Olav Hauge who is very dear to me as well. His poetry resembles Zen poetry. He has much to give and he gives them in small spoonfuls. The poem that always comes to my mind is titled "Don't come to me with the entire truth"

Don't come to me with the entire truth.
Don't bring me the ocean if I feel thirsty,
nor heaven if I ask for light;
but bring a hint, some dew, a particle,
as birds carry only drops away from water,
and the wind a grain of salt.

Just thought that you may like to read the blog below of another Norwegian poet written by me

Elusive Moose said...

A great Norwegian poet indeed... Do you know 'It’s the Dream Drops in the East Wind'?? A great poem :-)

It’s the dream we carry in secret

that something miraculous will happen,

that it must happen –

that time will open

that the heart will open

that doors will open

that the rockface will open

that spring will gush –

that the dream will open,

that one morning we will glide into

some little harbour we didn’t know was there.

Rebecca Behar said...

Hello, I am a French Poet and Ilike your blog. I would like to know more about "Draumkvaedi".
You can contact me through my web site

Rebecca Behar said...

Hello, I am a French Poet and Ilike your blog. I would like to know more about "Draumkvaedi".
You can contact me through my web site

I Thingvold said...

Wow! I often forget the many dialects of Norway- 120 currently, I believe (and heavily subsidized by the Norwegian govt). I was born to a Norwegian mother in the US and lived in Kristiansund N for 7 years as a child. I was forbidden to speak the local dialect. Now, my mother has rejected the Western Oslo dialect she grew up speaking and taught me [although since my grandmother grew up in Copenhagen, I think I speak a strange combo] and now advocates Nynorsk [which she correctly says was invented to forge a national identity] is the most musical translation of the "Dream We Carry."

Malcolm (Petroc) said...

Olav Hauge's poems are extraordinarily spiritual. I only discovered his poems last week.

This one is a wonderful example.


This is the ocean.
All serious,
vast and grey.
Yet just as the mind
in solitary moments
suddenly opens its
shifting reflections
to secret depths
– so the ocean, too,
one blue morning
may open itself
to sky and solitude.
Look, says the gleaming ocean,
I too have stars
and blue depths.