Goran Printz-Pahlson

Poet and Scandinavian scholar
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The Independent Online

Göran Printz-Påhlson, poet, translator and critic: born Hässleholm, Sweden 31 March 1931; Lecturer in Swedish and Scandinavian Studies, Cambridge University 1964-89, Head of the Department of Scandinavian Studies 1982-89; Fellow, Clare Hall, Cambridge 1969-98 (Emeritus); married 1954 Ulla Thelander (one son, one daughter); died Malmö, Sweden 27 July 2006.

Göran Printz-Påhlson may be said to have led two lives and to have had at least two simultaneous careers. Raised in Malmö, Sweden's third largest city, situated in the very south of the country, he rose to early fame as a prodigiously learned critic and a singularly gifted poet while still a student at Lund University.

Having published two collections of poetry and a remarkable study of modernist Swedish poetry, in 1961 he moved to the United States, where he taught Scandinavian literature at Harvard and Berkeley before taking up a post as Lecturer in Scandinavian Literature at Cambridge University in 1964. A Fellow of Clare Hall, he spent the next 34 years in Cambridge, while keeping in close touch with Swedish literary life as a poet, translator and critic. In 1998, he moved back to Malmö, where he was living at the time of his death.

Printz-Påhlson first became known in Sweden as one of the country's first proponents of New Criticism. As a poet, translator and critic, he showed a close affinity with English-language poetry but was by no means parochial in his interests. His brilliant study of Swedish modernism Solen i spegeln ("The Sun in the Mirror") - which came out in 1958 when Printz-Påhlson was only 27 - was introduced by a general chapter revealing his intimate familiarity not only with Wallace Stevens but with the then little-known French poet Francis Ponge.

What Printz-Påhlson valued in these poets was their intellectual honesty, their refusal to pretend that a poem was anything but a poem. In his own work, he put similar ideas to brilliant use, acquiring a reputation for being a witty, learned and formally accomplished poet. Together with a group of poet and artist friends, he made Lund a vital artistic centre during the second half of the 1950s. The "Lund school of poetry" remains well known in Swedish literature to this day.

Very early, Printz-Påhlson was aware of the political, intellectual and artistic forces that fomented change in American culture and preceded the events of 1968. From Harvard and California, he continued to contribute articles to Swedish magazines and newspapers about many of the new thinkers, artists and political ideas that were to become familiar to the rest of us much later. He translated John Ashbery as early as 1961, wrote probing essays about Paul Goodman and Marshall McLuhan and - which was perhaps more surprising to those who did not know how wide his interests ranged - introduced Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan to the Swedish public.

Having settled in Britain, he introduced Raymond Williams to Swedish readers and discovered the poetry of Seamus Heaney as it first appeared. One of his most important contributions as a translator into Swedish was a big volume called Färdväg ("Itinerary", 1990) which introduced some 30 American, British and Irish poets (Heaney pre-eminent) whose work exemplified what Printz-Påhlson referred to as "poetry of place". His work as a translator was not one-sided, though: together with the American poet John Matthias he brought out Contemporary Swedish Poetry (1980).

The fact - or fate - of writing in a small language such as Swedish was something that began to weigh on Printz-Påhlson in the late Sixties. Having published a remarkable collection of poems in Swedish in 1966, Gradiva, which did not get the attention it deserved, he began writing in English, producing a number of remarkable poems, sometimes in the form of letters addressed to friends. At the same time, he continued to write scholarly essays in English and Swedish on Scandinavian literature. Some of the finest of these deal with Ibsen and Strindberg; towards the end of his life, he was putting together a volume of essays on "Strindberg, Ibsen and the emergence of modernism" but was prevented by illness from completing it.

The rationalisation of academic life brought by the Thatcher years meant that the study of Scandinavian languages and literature was discontinued at Cambridge. This was a great disappointment to Printz-Påhlson, who was by then Head of the Department of Scandinavian Studies at Cambridge. On a more private level, the late Eighties and the Nineties were a period of great activity for him. He was invited to deliver the Ward-Phillips lectures at the University of Notre Dame in India, choosing "The Words of the Tribe: primitivism, reductionism and materialism in modern poetics" as his topic. He was made an honorary doctor by his Alma Mater, Lund University.

In 1984, he published his collected poems in Swedish, Säg minns du skeppet Refanut? ("Say, Do You Remember the Ship Refanut?") including a splendid "poem of place" of his own, in which he poetically deconstructed the myths of his childhood and youth. He also saw the reissue of his early masterpiece, Solen i spegeln, and brought out a new magnificent volume of essays in Swedish, När jag var prins utav Arkadien ("When I Was Prince of Arcadia", 1995), which powerfully made the case for "the poetry of place" as Printz-Påhlson understood it. More volumes were to follow.

Göran Printz-Påhlson will go down in history as the author of some classic poems, a brilliant translator, and one of Sweden's most learned, innovative and sharp-witted literary critics. His many friends and pupils will also remember him as gentle, unassuming, witty and extremely generous.

Lars-Håkan Svensson

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