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.