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  • Ambivalent BeginningsStrindberg, the Artist’s Book, and the Foundation of Swedish Material Modernism
  • Jon Viklund

In Sweden Modernism Comes Late. This statement seems uncontroversial given that poetic modernism is most often defined as a sort of experimental poetic language in terms of formal characteristics. The “breakthrough” of these formal modernist traits did not take place in Sweden until the 1940s according to standard Swedish literary history (see Lönnroth & Delblanc 220–59). This historical account has been challenged during recent decades. Peter Luthersson argues for a horizontal alignment of modernist texts in terms of intellectual history. If poetic modernism were defined more in terms of an intellectual movement—and more to the point, a movement in defense of the individual—then its breakthrough would be earlier: “Modernismens problem ... var ett jagproblem” (Luthersson 94) [the problem of modernism ... was the problem of the self]. In this article, I propose another, previously under-explored point of departure for Swedish modernist poetry in order to challenge both the formalist and intellectual-historical assumptions. I am interested in the book as a material artifact that provides a body for modernist poetic entities and confers value upon them in the literary market. Consistent with this approach, one would thus write the story of Swedish modernist poetry not as a history of poetics but as a history of the poetry book.

Strindberg’s 1905 collection of poetry Ordalek och småkonst (Word Play and Minor Art) is an excellent starting point for such an account. Ordalek och småkonst provides a means of access to a different tradition of Swedish modernist poetry than the one usually associated with it. I will refer to this tradition as Swedish material modernism. Strindberg’s Ordalek och småkonst is one of the first collections to give evidence of a tradition in which the poetic texts are intimately bound up with the [End Page 299] material book and the artistic as well as the monetary value of the work lies as much in the design of the book as in the texts themselves.

In literary studies, the concepts of modernism and the avant-garde are often linked: the material features discussed in regard to modernism in that context are normally typographical experiments and other graphical forms connected to avant-garde movements and poets. But with a broader view of materiality, these typographical trends are just one of many forms of poetic materiality typical of Swedish twentieth-century poetry. From the beginning of the century on, one can observe in many poetic works a closer connection between poems and their bibliographic context. What made these books distinctly collections of poetry was increasingly displayed in the design of the book—for example in the cover, format, illustrations, or typographic face of the book. This intensified alliance between modern poetic styles and graphic design, I suggest, is connected to the birth of the modern book of poetry in Sweden around 1900.

A modern book of poetry can plainly be defined as a collection of poetry assembled by the author and published in a bibliographic setting that reinforces the character of the work and, perhaps, also the legacy of its author. The latter part of the definition includes many artistic ideals that mark modernism. For example, the modern book of poetry is often “self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form” (Drucker 4); it attempts to integrate images and text; it attempts to present the text as a “visible language” (McGann, Black); and, from a more market-oriented point of view, the modern book of poetry creates a desired body for the author on the market by means of an exclusive and/or original material form.

One facet of this modernist tradition of the book is the fact that collections of poetry tend manifestly to emphasize their material design in terms of individuality and uniqueness. These features are demonstrated in limited and numbered editions, artist’s books, and illustrated editions. These materially distinct forms of publishing distinguish not only established authors, but also lesser-known and less commercial ones, who use the means of sophistication of design or a limited edition in order to generate significance in their...


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