September 22, 2014

Inger Christensen

Inger Christensen [Denmark]

Born in the town of Vejle, on the eastern, Jutland coast of Denmark, Inger Christensen is considered the foremost poetic experimentalist of her generation. After graduating from Vejle Gymnasium, she moved to Copenhagen and, later, to Århus, studying at the Teachers’ College there. She received her certificate in 1958. During this same period, Christensen began publishing poems in the journal Hvedekorn, and was guided by the noted Danish poet and critic Poul Borum (1934-1995), whom she married in 1959 and divorced in 1976.

After teaching at the College for Arts in Holbaek from 1963-1964, she turned to writing full time, producing two of her major early collections, Lys (Light, 1962) and Græs (Grass, 1963), both examining the limits of self-knowledge and the role of language in perception. Her major work of the 1960s, however, was the highly acclaimed masterwork det (it), which, on one level, explored social, political and aesthetic issues, but more deeply probed large philosophical questions of meaning. The work, almost incantatory in tone, opposes issues such as fear and love and power and powerlessness.

In these years Christensen also published two novels, Evighedsmaskinen (1964) and Azorno (1967), as well as a shorter fiction on the Italian Renaissance painter Mantegna, presented from the viewpoint of various narrators (Mantegna’s secretary Marsilio, the Turkish princess Farfalla, and Mantagena’s young son), Det malede Værelse (1976, translated into English as The Painted Room by Harvill Press in 2000).

Much of Christensen’s work is organized upon “systemic” structures in accordance with her belief that poetry is not truth and not even the “dream” of truth, but “is a game, maybe a tragic game—the game we play with a world that plays it’s own game with us.” In the 1981 masterpiece, alfabet, the author use the alphabet (from a [“apricots”] to n [“nights”]) along with the Fibonacci mathematical sequence in which the next number is the sum of the two previous ones (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…). As Christensen has explained: “The numerical ratios exist in nature: the way a leek wraps around itself from the inside, and the head of a snowflower, are both based on this series.” Her system ends on the n, suggesting many possible meanings including “n’s” significance as any whole number. As with det, however, despite its highly structured elements this work is a poetically evocative work concerned with oppositions such as an outpouring of the joy of the world counter posed with the fears for and forces poised for its destruction.

Sommerflugledalen of 1991(Butterfuly Valley: A Requiem, 2004) explores through the sonnet structure the fragility of life and mortality, ending in a kind of transformation.

Christensen has also written works for children, plays, radio pieces, and numerous essays, the most notable of which were collected in her book Hemmelighedstilstanden (The State of Secrecy) in 2000.

In 1978 she was appointed to the Danish Academy, and in 1994 she became a member of the Académie Européenne de Poésie. She won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1994, the Nordic Prize in the same year, the European Poetry Prize in 1995, The America Award in 2001and has received numerous other distinctions. Her works have been translated into several languages, and she was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
     Christensen died in 2009.


Lys (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962); Græs (Copenhage: Gyldendal, 1963); det (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1969); Brev in april (Copenhagen: Brøndum, 1979); alfabet (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1981); Gedicht vom Tod (Münster: Kleinheinrich Verlag, 1991); Sommerfugledale. Et requiem (Copenhagen: Brøndum 1991); Samlede digte (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1998).


Alphabet, trans. by Susanna Nied (Tarset,Northumberland,UK: Bloodaxe Books: 2000/New York: New Directions, 2001); Butterfly Valley: A Requiem, trans. by Susanne Nied (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2001/New York: New Directions, 2004); it, trans. by Susanna Nied (New York: New Directions, 2006); Light, Grass, and Letter in April, trans. by Susanna Nied (New York: New Directions, 2011)

by Douglas Messerli

Inger Christensen det (Copenhagen: Gyldendahl, 1969), translated into English from the Danish by Susanna Nied as it (New York: New Directions, 2006)

It seems rather ludicrous to dredge up the name of the silent film star Clara Bow—known as the original “It Girl”—in connection with the great Danish poet Inger Christensen, but in 1969, at the time of the publication of her important collection of poetry, det (the Danish word for “it”), Christensen might have herself been so described. And while we all know that literature has a less immediate impact upon popular culture than film—certainly Christensen did not have the sex appeal of Bow and, unlike the actress, did not triple the national sales of henna (Bow’s hair was an unnatural red), nor start a craze for heart shaped red lips—the author did alter the whole scene of Scandinavian literature and bring major changes to the writing of her own nation that is felt among younger poets even today.

Furthermore, coming as it did at the end of a decade known for its social, political, and sexual changes, Christensen’s work was very much about love—and a great many other things; Anne Carson, writing in her introduction to the new English language translation of it, suggests one must understand this work within the context of figures such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, James Brown, Allen Ginsberg, and Valerie Solanas (of the “scum manifesto” and the attack on Andy Warhol). Translator Susanna Nied writes of its immediate and later effects:

On its publication in 1969, det took Denmark by storm. It won critical praise and became at the same time a huge popular favorite. It was quoted by political protesters and politicians alike; lines from it appeared as graffiti around Copenhagen; some parts were set to rock music and became esoteric hits. When portions were translated into German, det brought Christensen international critical acclaim. Today, over thirty years later, det is considered a seminal work of modern Scandinavian poetry. Some of its lines are so familiar to Danes that they have slipped into conversational use. For example, the journal of Denmark’s city planners took its title, Soft City, from a line in det.

Of equal fascination is that this popular and moving document depicts the beginning of life grown out of nothingness, is a kind of cosmology of life on earth that is structured, as are many of Christensen’s works [see My Year 2004], according to systematic numeric units that could only be matched by the Oulipo writers of France. The work overall is divided into three sections: Prologos, Logos, and Epilogos. The Prologos is broken down into eight sections, the first consisting of one poem with 66 lines, the second of two poems of 33 lines each, the third of three poems with 22 lines each, the fourth of six poems of 11 lines each, the fifth of 11 poems of 6 lines each, the sixth of 22 poems of three lines each, the seventh of 33 poems of two lines each, and the final of 66 poems of one line; each line in the original Danish publication represents 66 characters. In short, as the number of poems in each section increases so does the number of lines decrease, creating a kind of double helix pattern, the very essence of DNA or life itself.
The central portion of the work, “Logos,” is organized into three sections, each with eight subsections of eight poems, the eight poems in each section titled “symmetries,” “transitivities,” “continuities,” “variablilites,” “extensions,” “integrities,” and “universalities”—grammatical categories philosopher Viggo Brøndal (in his A Theory of Prepositions) explores, among others, that express the various “network of relationships that writing builds up as it goes along,” “terms that could stay in a state of flux and at the same time give order to the indistinctness that a state of flux necessarily produces” (statements in quotations represent the words of the poet).
The final “Epilogos” is a long scree of 515 lines, a language after language, that alternates between a sense of despair—

losing your strength
your mind
your dreams
and of ecstasy
and emptiness
of vestiges
of dissolution
and transformation
Fear of death
Fear of death

—and what might be described as the ecstasy of conquering those fears—

to conquer the fear
of informing others of
your conquered fear
it’s theirs
Eccentric attempts
when a man
steps out of himself
steps out of
his daily life
his function
his situation
steps out of
his habits
his peaceful
we call the process
when he says
that he is dancing
with the Earth
hanging limp
between his legs
and when he summons
the sea
to rise up
and spurt from his organ

It is indeed this alternating pattern, the wonderment of life itself—the fact that our being has come out of nothingness and the recognition “it” will return to nothingness—that functions as Christensen’s engine for meaning in the poem. The bleak reality she expresses at the very beginning of “Prologos"

It’s burning. It’s the sun burning. For as long as it takes to burn a sun. As long before and as long after times measurable in terms of life or death. The sun burns itself up. Will burn up. Some day. Someday. Intervals to whose lengths there is no sensitivity. Not even a tenderness. When the sun goes out, life (death) will long have been the same as it ever was. It. When the sun goes
out, the sun will be free of it all. It. That’s it.—

is juxtaposed with a stunningly lyrical and joyful cataloging of the human race and their various activities as they wait for the inevitable death. And although Christensen’s humans are presented abstractly as “they” and “someone,” we begin to sense by the end of “Prologos” their possible interconnectedness with one another.

They wait in incubators, beds, baby carriages, nurseries, orphanages, preschools.
In schools, jails, homes, reception centers. Institutions for wayward youths,
disturbed adolescents, and higher education.

They wait in gymnasiums, riding schools, public pools. Wait in cars and ambu-
lances, emergency rooms. Wait and wait in operating rooms and on respirators,
in deeper chemical sleep oblivion hushed.

They wait in barracks for draftees and conscientious objectors, contagious illness
and poverty. In control towers, on permanent commissions, in supersonic
transports. On security councils. Launch pads.


They wait in places where they live while they wait. Wait to live while they wait.
Live to live. While they wait. Live to live. While they live. While they wait. Wait.

Despite her obvious fears Christensen bravely moves forward with the flow of these beings, transforming the general fears she has for the human race to very personal admissions, a sudden first-person expression of her own fears and loves. By the time she reaches the fourth section of “Stage” in “Logos,” the abstract pronouns have switched from the general to the specific as she admits her own methods and the fears behind them:

I’ve tried to keep the world at a distance. It’s been easy.
I’m used to keeping the world at a distance. I’m alien.
I’m most comfortable being alien. That way I forget the
world. That way I stop crying and raging. That way the world
becomes white and inconsequential.

And I wander where I will. And I stand completely still.
That way I get used to being dead.

It is this utter honesty, her willingness to face the “dog’s bray,” that ultimately makes it such a glorious work. Her need to reach out to her fellow beings, to convert her fear to happiness (“Happiness is the change that comes over me / when I’m afraid”), leads her into the social, political, and sexual spheres of experience. Throughout Christensen’s career she has been notably anti-war, and in det she vents her angers and frustrations concerning the “stone-hard” society that sends soldiers to “improbable places,” to “further the interests of wealthy cartels,” in the process mutating human genes—the helix structure with which she has begun her poem—by converting “their semen” to “superheated TNT.”

Obviously, given these concerns, Christensen is quite politically sensitive, and although she does not bog down her poem in events current to the time of its creation, she does make references to the Viet Nam War (“napalm is merely America’s trademark”), to incidents in Chile, Italy (which she refers to as Mafia), Romania and elsewhere, and to other occurrences of the 1960s (“They dance in the streets. They have flowers in their mouths.” “Naked as John and Yoko Ono.”). In a section of “Text” and elsewhere, moreover, Christensen describes various normal and abnormal sexual actions (“They masturbate their skeletons.” “The orgasm makes normal cities quiver.”).
Such hyper-sensitivity to life, combined with her self-acknowledged fears and her sense of being “alien” all lead the author to speak throughout much of the poem—particularly in the “continuities” section of “Text”—about the psychological conditions of people institutionalized—patients in mental hospitals, workers in factories, as well as soldiers in barracks. The repeated phrase “So I don’t think he understood me” serves almost as a talisman to make sense of a mad world that often points to its prophets as being insane. And it is here in particular that Christensen reveals a wry sense of humor:

Today all the patients agreed to say it was snowing. We all took our places by
the windows and pressed our faces to the glass and exclaimed joyously over
the snow and described it and dreamed about how wonderful it would be to
play in it. Meanwhile the sun was shining away and the doctors got confused
by our total agreement and couldn’t figure out if they should act like they
were crazy and say it was snowing or act like they were crazy and say it wasn’t
snowing. …But it really doesn’t matter. Because the press showed up and took
pictures of the employees running around and throwing snowballs and sledding
and making snowmen and rolling each other in the snow. In the newspapers
it said that all the employees had gone crazy....

It is this kind of craziness, Christensen makes clear, that is necessary to save the world. For these are the lovers, “any and all / generously spreading their virus around / persisting in their fear / even when those in power kiss them…so it catches / fire throughout the world / so it heals all / who catch it / any and all / all who / are enthroned on the pillar of despair why not.” It is only through a parallel, non-rational language, the poet argues, that one can tell how to “waken the dead,”

to let this
parallel language
to let
the cells
in it
find their way
to the parallel mouth
lips that speak
as they never
have spoken
as they always
have spoken

Given the fact that the original “It Girl” spent most of her later life in mental institutions suffering from schizophrenia, a situation so well-portrayed in det, perhaps the distance between this Danish “it” girl and the sexy silent film star is not as vast as one might have thought.

Naples, July 8, 2007
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, Winter 2007/2008.

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