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Houses in the Poetry of Henrik Nordbrandt and Tomas Tranströmer

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 83, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 415-438 | 10.1353/scd.2011.0017

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One always encounters houses. Not only because we constantly enter them, reside in them, leave them, and then return to them, but also because they are impossible to ignore in an engagement with place and the relationship between the self and its surroundings. Houses are undoubtedly fundamental places in the human existence; they shape our first encounter with an environment, serve as a basis for recuperation, and provide an anchor point. Of course, there are also humans whose distinct cultural and spatial experiences—those whose existence is differently rooted or even rootless—give them a separate sense of place. Nevertheless, for the majority of humankind, houses play a very important part. Given this spatial reality, a close examination regarding the meaning of the house is only natural, and perhaps even somewhat urgent. Such examinations can be undertaken from many different angles, and the house has already been subject to analyses by architects, sociologists, and philosophers to name but a few. In this case, however, the approach will be literary: I will discuss the meaning of the house as it emerges the poetic works of Henrik Nordbrandt and Tomas Tranströmer.

The works of these two poets in particular share a common characteristic in that the relationship between the self and its surroundings constitutes an important thematic field. In both Nordbrandt and Tranströmer, place plays a central role, and we are shown that humans and their surroundings cannot be viewed as separate, but rather that they instead constantly interact. An approach grounded in a sense of place, therefore, allows for a greater understanding of their respective poetic universes. Such an approach also allows for a transcendent quality of the poems as they are re-inscribed into a more broadly existential context. Since place constitutes a basic category within Nordbrandt and Tranströmer and as the house constitutes one of the most fundamental places in the human experience, it is hardly surprising that many of Nordbrandt's and Tranströmer's poems contain houses. How are the houses of Nordbrandt and Tranströmer presented, what is their significance, and what do they tell us about the relationship between humans and their surroundings? Before looking at the specific character of houses in the works of Nordbrandt and Tranströmer, we shall first examine how the house can be understood on a more general level in the works of Gaston Bachelard, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Pierre Bourdieu.

Houses in Theory

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has made an exhaustive examination of the house. He describes the house functioning first as a cosmos and as a safe and sheltering basis for our lives. In La poétique de l'espace (1958), Bachelard makes a so-called topo-analysis: an analysis of the psychological deep structures of the places of our intimate lives (Bachelard, Poetics of Space 8). The book focuses specifically on the house in which we were born. Since that house constitutes our initial universe, Bachelard also sees it as the origin of the poetic imagination. Bachelard finds a very close connection between the house, the poetic imagination, and human psychology. For Bachelard, the house is consistently something positive. He focuses his attention on places we love and associate with pleasure, a study he calls "topophilia"—love for the place (Poetics of Space xxxv). In contrast to the assumption that we are thrown into this world, Bachelard emphasizes our initial safety in the cradle of the house. Instead of seeing the world as a house, he stresses the way in which the house constitutes a world of concrete places through an investigation of the different meanings connected to the distinct places of the house such as the roof, the cellar, the bedroom, and the stairs.

These specific places in the house are also the subject of the analysis of Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz who, in a similar manner, underscores the idea that the house constitutes an important place in human existence. Such is the case in Mellom jord og himmel: en bok om steder og hus (1978), which, like many of Norberg-Schultz's works, draws its inspiration from Heidegger and the phenomenological tradition. Here, Norberg-Schulz describes the basic human need to...

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