Gunnar Harding’s “Guarding the Air”

Reviewed by Christie Roe

Image of Gunnar Harding’s “Guarding the Air”

Spanning a lifetime of poetry, Guarding the Air pays homage to tragically under-translated Swedish literary legend Gunnar Harding. Steeped in broad cross-cultural influences from traditional jazz to Guillaume Apollinaire, Harding masterfully crafts vision and music into free verse. He once wrote: “poetry is a struggle against those mechanisms that limit us and prevent us from growing.” Harding’s integration of literary and artistic traditions with his own imaginative scope allows his poetry to encircle and expand the limitations of language and form. Translator Roger Greenwald offers crisp and delightful translations of an extensive range of poems selected from twelve of Harding’s books. This long-awaited collection establishes Gunnar Harding as a poetic luminary and unique artistic thinker reminiscent of world poets like Eliot, Stevens, or Bishop.

Born in 1940, Harding shares the attitude of many modernist poets in avoiding literary classification. The selection in Guarding the Air spans nearly five decades of work, and displays Harding’s organic evolution from his fast and abstract early work to his new poems, which hold a lifetime of wisdom. Once describing his “tradition” as “sooner visual than analytic,” Harding noted that his style is often termed “expansive” due to his experiments with free association and velocity that set language into motion, like a film reel casting the once unimaginable into sound and vision.

Harding imagined a future as a visual artist when studying painting in Stockholm during the early ’50s—a few of his jazzy line drawings are included in this book. He wrote his first poems during his Swedish military service, when he had no access to painting, and describes these poems as “soulful outpouring of the fairly common type, which revealed nothing of the stench of dung in their place of origin.” Though he travelled throughout the US during the latter half of the ’50s playing in several jazz bands, and often used jazz as subject matter in his early poetry, Harding claims he has never fully adopted a “jazz tone.” Yet reading his poetry, the jazz association is hard to escape. His poetic voice is quick, at times exciting, at times lulling, and overall an enjoyably scattered journey, like his own life. In the late ’60s, Harding spent a year studying and writing poetry in Iowa during the student riots against the war in Vietnam. There, he read early Beat poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, who taught him how to translate music into poetic verse.

For much of Harding’s life, his poetry was quite overlooked for being too visual and artistic, not in demand for a time when writing based itself in knowledge, especially knowledge of not knowing. In one of the original prefaces included in this book, Harding writes that to keep faith in an activity like writing poetry, “something more” than uncertainty is required, but that something doesn’t seem to be certainty itself. He admits to his “sentimental” faith in what Keats once proclaimed as, “’the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and the truth of Imagination.’” He continues to quote Keats, “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.”

Harding had a great affection for the English Romantics like Keats and Shelley, and worked extensively in translating them into Swedish. Like them, his imaginative inventiveness explores itself and the natural world, drifting in and out of scenes, sensations, dimensions. He is fundamentally heartfelt—or magical. Aimless, dreamlike narratives slip in and out of many of Harding’s poems, even after the early ’80s when he shifted into a more associative and exploratory style, deciding not to limit his work within a singular theme, story line, or persona. Unusual narrative “role” poems like An Evening at Home with William Blake shift perspective and merge mystical allusions. After his wife does the ironing, William Blake—“The same grizzled God / his muscular body covered by silvery down”—makes love to her, “The same white Goddess / impregnated by a stream of stars. The same rain / in the plow-furrows. The ox-driver’s call / forces the plow through the earth.” Commonplace, traditional, yet fantastical, this is just one example of the otherworldly interventions within Harding’s imaginative explorations. Though he ended up writing rather than painting, the visual impulse was never abandoned.

Along with jazz, painting, and Keats, Harding loves Guillame Apollinaire, the sauntering surrealist who lived as a poetic figurehead in Paris after the turn of the twentieth century. Described by Harding as “full of mournful acrobats and harlequins,” Apollinaire’s poetry innovatively translates cubist and surrealist imagery to the page, along with the degenerative ennui and sensual intoxication that embodies his time and place. Often in a playful way, Harding takes after Apollinaire’s assemblage-inspired tactics in symbolic imagery. Harding even wrote a “counterfeit biography” of Apollinaire, which, he jokes, has about the same relation to Apollinaire’s poetry that the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” has to French degenerate Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “The Drunken Boat.” As “the waters let me go my own free way,” the only thing Harding, the Beatles, and fin de siècle France have in common is that none has ever had any one particular direction or destination. Yet far from the burning misery of the Drunken Boat, or the psychedelic mantras of the Yellow Submarine, Harding’s voice stands its own ground, sweet and sincere, carefree yet supportive, and entirely in and of his own time. Aptly put in the comforting closing couplet to “The Star-diver”: “To arrive at nothing is no reason for disappointment / if arriving at something was never one’s purpose.”

A constant sense of wandering exploration and local wonder is upheld in Harding’s “The Star-diver:

Only then will you find what’s happening around you growing clear
when you take a few steps out into the city, which on a day like today
belongs to everyone, an overcoat of thin gray cloth.
In the space between your outstretched arm and your body
raindrops splash up a few millimeters after they hit,
a bright spray above the street—
a thousand tiny sculptures carved in water, you are shattered
into an anthology of rushing noise, so lacking sense that only someone
whose attention wanders aimless and disconnected
can apprehend it

Harding unfolds his own multidimensional imagination as if it were universal vision. Ordered only by rhythm and velocity within the line, the diversifying impact of images alongside one another gives the reader a more-than-ghostly ability to hover between moments and layers of perspective—description is never surface, neither for poet nor reader, but sheer imagination weaving its own memories, extending the poetic present in all directions. In reading all of Harding’s poems from this relatively short but well-selected and satisfying volume, we receive no sense of arriving, and no leaving, instead fresh circularity that seems to spiral outward and upward. This wonderful feeling finds simple words in the closing lines of "Cape Farewell": “In each word / you will be reborn.”