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Lars Gustafsson


Lars Gustafsson was born in Västerås, Sweden, on May 17, 1936. He studied at Uppsala University, where he earned a licentiate degree in philosophy in 1960 and a doctorate in theoretical philosophy in 1978. His writing career began in 1959 with the publication of his first novel, and the following year, he published his first poetry collection, Ballongfararna (Norstedt, 1962). Also in 1960, he began working for Bonniers Litterära Magasin, a prestigious Swedish journal, serving as the associate editor until 1965 and then as the editor-in-chief until 1972.

One of Sweden’s most frequently translated contemporary poets, Gustafsson was the author of several volumes of poetry published in the United States, including A Time in Xanadu (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), Elegies and Other Poems (New Directions, 2000), and The Stillness of the World Before Bach (New Directions, 1988).

Gustafsson’s poetry is known for its philosophical questioning and clarity of observation; he has at times been called a “mathematical lyricist.” He wrote of his career, “I do not know what is most important to me: my literary work…or my philosophical work. Sometimes I cannot see any sharp boundary between these fields and I tend to regard myself as a philosopher who has turned literature into one of his tools.”

About his poetry, Jane Hirshfield writes: “Lars Gustafsson’s poems hold airplanes and silver mines, dogs travelling into the far north, a small crayfish escaped from his son’s aquarium and found years later pressed between two pages of a shelved edition of Aristotle. They name pieces of classical music, philosophers, medieval Arabic scholars, historical explorers, stone walls, aspen trees, fishes....His poems, at least as they appear in English translation, do not make a fuss about their own poeticness. Instead, they present the voice of a person pondering the inner and outer realms of human existence as seemingly freely as a visitor might wander the stalls of a souk. You read him never knowing if you will next see an array of sandals or of spices, a stream or a library. His books become an anthology of perceptions and experiences that quietly, tactfully, enlarge the world of the possible. The ordinary object and mundane circumstance arrive at the metaphysical as mysteriously as that small, lost crayfish once entered the pages of Aristotle. I’ve learned from Gustafsson’s poems all my working life as a poet; I’ve been moved, startled, and accompanied by them as a human being for thirty-five years.”

In the early 1980s, Gustafsson moved to Austin, Texas, where he served as a professor of philosophy and creative writing at the University of Texas until his retirement in 2006. He received many literary awards, including the Bellman Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Heinrich Steffens Preise, and the Prix International Charles Veillon des Essais. He also published several works of prose, including the novel The Death of a Beekeeper (W. W. Norton, 1981). In 2016, his Selected Poems was published by Bloodaxe Books. He died on April 2, 2016.

Selected Bibliography

Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2016)
A Time in Xanadu (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
Elegies and Other Poems (New Directions, 2000)
The Stillness of the World Before Bach (New Directions, 1988)

The Death of a Beekeeper (W. W. Norton, 1981)
Stories of Happy People (New Directions, 1986)

By This Poet


Elegy for a Dead Labrador

Here there may be, in the midst of summer,
a few days when suddenly it’s fall.
Thrushes sing on a sharper note.
The rocks stand determined out in the water.
They know something. They’ve always known it.
We know it too, and we don’t like it.
On the way home, in the boat, on just such evenings
you would stand stock-still in the bow, collected,
scouting the scents coming across the water.
You read the evening, the faint streak of smoke
from a garden, a pancake frying
half a mile away, a badger
standing somewhere in the same twilight
sniffing the same way. Our friendship
was of course a compromise; we lived
together in two different worlds: mine,
mostly letters, a text passing through life,
yours, mostly smells. You had knowledge
I would have given much to have possessed:
the ability to let a feeling—eagerness, hate, or love—
run like a wave throughout your body
from nose to tip of tail, the inability
ever to accept the moon as fact.
At the full moon you always complained loudly against it.
You were a better Gnostic than I am. And consequently
you lived continually in paradise.
You had a habit of catching butterflies on the leap,
and munching them, which some people thought disgusting.
I always liked it. Why
couldn’t I learn from you? And doors.
In front of closed doors you lay down and slept
sure that sooner or later the one would come
who’d open up the door. You were right.
I was wrong. Now I ask myself, now this
long mute friendship is forever finished,
if possibly there was anything I could do
which impressed you. Your firm conviction
that I called up the thunderstorms
doesn’t count. That was a mistake. I think
my certain faith that the ball existed,
even when hidden behind the couch,
somehow gave you an inkling of my world.
In my world most things were hidden
behind something else. I called you “dog,”
I really wonder whether you perceived me
as a larger, noisier “dog”
or as something different, forever unknown,
which is what it is, existing in that attribute
it exists in, a whistle
through the nocturnal park one has got used to
returning to without actually knowing
what it is one is returning to. About you,
and who you were, I knew no more.
One might say, from this more objective
standpoint, we were two organisms. Two
of those places where the universe makes a knot
in itself, short-lived, complex structures
of proteins that have to complicate themselves
more and more in order to survive, until everything
breaks and turns simple once again, the knot
dissolved, the riddle gone. You were a question
asked of another question, nothing more,
and neither had the answer to the other.