September 22, 2014

Inger Christensen (Denmark) 1935-2009

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(Butterfly 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)

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