May 2003

David Grayson


David Grayson David Grayson is an Oakland-based essayist and poet whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Modern Haiku, Cortland Review, Caveat Lector and several other journals. He is also editor of the online literary and arts journal,

Quiet Wisdom: The Poetry Of Rolf Jacobsen

North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen. Edited and translated by Roger Greenwald. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-226-39035-7 (Hardcover)

The Roads Have Come to an End Now: Selected and Last Poems of Rolf Jacobsen. Translated by Robert Bly, Roger Greenwald and Robert Hedin. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2001. ISBN: 1-55659-165-9 (Paperback)

Rolf Jacobsen might finally get the attention he deserves on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, Jacobsen is known as perhaps Norway's greatest poet—credited with introducing modernism into Norwegian poetry—and one of Europe's great twentieth-century voices. But Jacobsen's unique voice and wisdom is mostly unknown in the United States.

All people are children when they sleep.
There's no war in them then.
They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.

Two new books of translations seek to remedy this. North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen is edited and translated by Roger Greenwald, a well-known translator of several Scandinavian poets. The Roads Have Come to an End Now: Selected and Last Poems of Rolf Jacobsen is a collaborative effort with translations by Robert Bly, Robert Hedin, and Roger Greenwald again. Individually, each book is able to present the full range of Jacobsen's distinctive poetic voice. Together, the two books contain over 150 poems from every volume in Jacobsen's oeuvre.

A central quality of Jacobsen's poetry is the mystery the poems retain about the world. Greenwald writes that "Jacobsen's writing combines an ancient way of looking ... Jacobsen has a strong sense of the world as mystery, and he approaches that mystery with reverence":

Sssh the sea says
sssh the small waves at the shore say, sssh
not so violent, not
so haughty, not
so remarkable.
say the tips of the waves
crowding around the headland's
surf. Sssh
they say to people
This is our earth,
our eternity.

This reverential approach includes what Greenwald calls "humility." Jacobsen's poems are not self-focused; the narrator usually does not have a visible presence. Rather, Jacobsen "concentrates on subjects other than the self, treating himself mainly as an instrument for their elucidation." It is where Jacobsen focuses his concentration that makes his poetry so compelling. Sometimes it's focused in an urban setting. In "The Lonesome Balcony," a balcony untouched for years is cut down with an acetylene torch in eight minutes and replaced with a neon sign. Sometimes, his concentration is focused in the natural world, pointing to the smallest things:

So many strange things under rocks.
Creatures that look like paperclips,
knitted socks, snippets
of steel wire or yarn –

This contrasts with popular approaches in American poetry, including first-person confessionalism and an "epiphany-driven" style. In Jacobsen, confessionals and sound bite epiphanies are less common than simple observation: "A path through grass / worn as an old hoehandle." Jacobsen's poetry is pleasantly slow-paced and quiet.

This signature quietude shows through clearly in both books, among all three translators—Robert Bly, Roger Greenwald, and Robert Hedin. You feel like you are reading the same poet. For example, the poem "Old Age" is translated by both Bly and Greenwald. Here is the translation of the first stanza—first from Bly, then from Greenwald:

I put a lot of stock in the old.
They sit looking at us and don't see us,
and have plenty with their own,
like fisherman along big rivers,
motionless as a stone
in the summer night.
I put a lot of stock in fisherman along rivers
and old people and those who appear after a long illness.


My heart's with the old folks.
They sit looking at us and don't see us
and are content on their own,
like fisherman along big rivers,
still as stone
in the summer night.
I'm very fond of fisherman along rivers
and old folks and those who come out after long illnesses.

The translations are similar both literally and in terms of feel. Both Bly and Greenwald make use of simple, earthy words like "folks," "old," and "stone." And each translation evokes Jacobsen's characteristic calmness.

Comparing the two books, Greenwald's North in the World is much more comprehensive: it presents 121 poems, sampling from every book in Jacobsen's oeuvre. It also includes a critical essay on the hallmarks of Jacobsen's poetry. The Roads Have Come to an End Now contains 73 poems. I counted 32 poems common to both books: 20 of these are by different translators; the other ten are translated by Greenwald and come from Jacobsen's last book, Night Watch.

Either book is sufficient for those who want an introduction to Jacobsen. The advantage of North in the World is its volume and breadth. The advantage of The Roads Have Come to an End Now is the diversity of translators, which can be an illuminating way to read an individual poet. However, this is minimized because the translations are not dramatically different. If you really like Jacobsen, both are worth buying, because each offers something unique.

In Europe, Jacobsen is considered on par with the more familiar names of twentieth-century Europe: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Ted Hughes, and Miroslav Holub. Despite his international stature, Rolf Jacobsen has remained relatively unknown in American poetry. Hopefully, these books will be a step towards changing that.



David Grayson: Poetry
Copyright 2003 The Cortland Review Issue 23The Cortland Review