The Norwegian poet Knut Ødegård was born in 1945 in the city of Molde on the west coast of Norway. He studied theology and philology and made his debut as a poet in 1967. Apart from producing a large number of poetry collections he also published two novels for young readers, two books on Iceland and a play. He divides his time between Molde and Iceland. In 1992 he converted to Catholicism.
Religion and belief play a significant part in all the work of Ødegård. The titles alone, such as ‘God’s breath’, ‘Yahweh’, ‘Theology student’ en ‘Judas Iscariot’ bear testimony to that. What is perhaps rather striking in the poems of Ødegård is the way in which the religious and the dark or banal are allowed to interact. In fact his poetry can be very gloomy and forbidding. In the cycle ‘Missa’ – which adheres to the structure of the ‘War Requiem’ of the British composer Benjamin Britten – one section is devoted to King Uzziah who fell victim to leprosy. The manifestation of the illness is made explicit by Ødegård and described in a painfully graphic way.
In another poem entitled ‘Drunkards and Crazy Folk’, mad Lundli comes up with the idea of carrying a large cross through the city of Molde. When the drunkards Konrad and Adolf decide to follow him a weird kind of procession develops until they are finally urged by the minister to go home but the images remain and return at night in the dreams of the inhabitants:
over the town, mounting steeply like a flock of birds
with crazy Lundli and his cross at our head, rising
up to a heaven where big fish squirmed up
from bottomless depths of darkness
In the poetry of Ødegård the beautiful and the abominable are often not very far removed from each other. In the love poem ‘All This’, already in the second line, the crows that have come to take away one of the two lovers appear on the scene:
will be the first to lie out there on the ground dirtied by snow
down by the sea (yellow last year’s grass, churned-up spring snow)
when the black crows come and pick at the mouth,
the eyes, the hands, the genitals.
Whether love pertains to man or to a Supreme Being, in the case of Ødegård it is not blind. All the details are given very explicitly, gruesome as they may be, and it is precisely that same recognition of all the misery, violence, betrayal and decay that serves to augment belief by endowing it with more power and conviction. The ugly and unpleasant do not need to be hidden away, quite the reverse. What seems to lie at the heart of Ødegård’s poetry is the notion that belief is all about acceptation. God’s promise remains but it does not encompass a situation in which everything is interminably roses:
down to the bottom of an hourglass
which I, the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, smash
with the word the word
Glass splinters and sand and the word
For we are born in the hour of our death, in the word
in the word: Benedictus
qui venit in nomine Domini
Hosanna in exelsis