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by Bamber Gascoigne

Inger Christensen (1935-2009)


Prolific Danish poet, novelist, and essayist, whose major collections of poetry include det (1969) and Alfabet (1981). Christensen was the foremost experimentalist of her generation. Central theme in her work was the distance between language and experience, reality and words. "I have attempted to tell about a world that does not exist in order to make it exist," Christensen said.

ice ages exists, ice ages exists,
ice of the arctics and ice of the kingfisher;
cicadas exist, chicory, chrome
and the chrome yellow iris, the blue iris; oxygen
indeed; also ice floes in the arctic ocean,
polar bears exist, as fur inscribed
with an individual number he exists, condemned to his life;
& the kingfisher's mini-drop into the ice-blue rivers

(from 'Alphabet 9, 10', in Alphabet, translated by Pierre Joris)

Inger Christensen was born in the town of Vejle on the eastern coast of Jutland. Her father, Adolf Emanuel Christensen, was a tailor, and mother, Erna Hansine Østergaard, was a former domestic, who later worker in a meat-packing plant. After graduating from Vejle Gymnasium in 1954, Christensen moved to Copenhagen, enrolling in medical school, but later withdrew for financial reasons. She then went to Århus, where she studied at Teachers' College, receiving her teacher certificate in 1958. During this period, she published poems in the journal Hvedekorn., edited by Torben Brostrøm. The poet and critic Poul Borum (1934-1996), whom she married in 1959, guided her early writing. Christensen and Borum divorced in 1976. They had a son, Peter Borum.

After working at the College for Arts in Holbaek in 1963-1964, Christensen devoted herself entirely to writing. Her first collections of poems, Lys (1962) and Græs (1963), examined creativity, self-knowledge, and the function of the language. Also ordinary language philosophy has left traces in her work. In 1964 Christensen became a full-time writer. Her major work from this decade was det (1969), which reflected at one level contemporary aesthetic, social and political topics, but innermostly explored existential questions. In the chantlike poem 'The Action: symmetries' Christensen wrote: "Society can be so petrified / That's it's all one solid block / Inhabitants so ossified / That life's in a state of shock". (translated by Sheila La Farge) Christensen continued to live in her native country, but her work made her a member of the international avant-garde community. After visiting in New York city she said she would never return because there was no place to smoke.

In her novels Christiansen also dealt with creativity, fiction, and reality. Det malede værelse (1976) was about the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, who combined harmony and spatial illusion with mathematical precision. The novel had three different narrators. At the end, the barrier between world and its picture eventually crossed and reality and imagination are thus integrated.

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exists
(from Alphabet, 1, translated by Susanna Nied, 2001)

Christensen's book length poem Alfabet (1981), twice translated into Swedish, is the most famous Danish example of the so-called "systemic" poetry (systemdigtning), "arbitrary systems structure expressions themselves constructed like machines, understanding their own relativity in constructions which merely repeat themselves." (from History of European Literature by Annick Benoit-Dusausoy et al., 2000) The poem was formally structured around alphabets from "a" (apricot trees) to "n" (nights) and on the Fibonacci (c. 1170-c. 1250) sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34...), in which every term is the sum of the two previous ones (0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5...). Another famous example of combining systematic thought with poetry is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (1975), which contrasted the Russian chemist Mendeleyev's periodical table of elements with autobiographical meditations. "The numerical rations exist in nature," Christensen once explained, "the way a leek wraps around itself from the inside, and the head of a sunflower, are both based on this series." The ninth alphabet is "i", and subsequently Christensen started the section with the word "ice" (in Danish "is") – "ice ages exist, ice ages exist, ice of polar seas, kingfishers' ice". The system ends with the letter "n", which has several meanings, including the case in which "n" is the symbol for the set of natural numbers.

Christensen contributed to such magazines as Krise og Utopi and Chancen, wrote children's book and a number of radio and television plays which have been produced in several countries. She translated among others Paul Celan, Max Frisch, and Virginia Woolf. Christensen's poems have been set to music by the Danish composers Ib Nørholm and Svend Nielsen. In 1978 Christensen was appointed in the Danish Academy and in 1995 she become a member of Académie Européenne de Poésie.She received numerous prizes, including the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy (1994), Der österreichische Staatspreis für Literature (1994), Grand Prix des Biennales Internationales de Poésie (1995), and Edvard Pedersens Biblioteksfonds Forfatterpris in 2003. She was frequently mentioned, especially in Germany, as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. Christensen died after a short illness in Copenhagen on January 2, 2009.

For further reading: 'Biological Avant-Garde: Inger Christensen's det' by Tue Andersen Nexø, in: Avant Garde Critical Studies, Volume 32 (2016); Gentagelsens verden i Inger Christensens digtning by Per Lindegård (2016); A Cultural History of the Avant-garde in the Nordic Countries, 1950-1975 by Tania Ørum, Jesper Olsson  (2016); Sommerfugletilstanden: et essay om den poetiske tænkning i Inger Christensens Sommerfugledagen by Hardy Bach (2014);   Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Poems for the Millennium, Volume Two, ed. by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (1998); Tre kvindelige lyrikere: Et essay by Asger Schnack (1991); En moderne klassiker: Inger Christensens roman Azorno by Pia Fuglsang Bach (1989); 80 moderne danske digtere by Jørgen Gustava Brandt & Asker Schnack (1988); Out of Denmark, ed. by B. Wamberg (1985); Tegnverden by Iden Holk (1983); The International Portland Review 1980, ed. by Cindy Ragland (1980); Skriften, spejlet og hammeren by Hugo Hørlych Karlsen (1973)

Selected works:

  • Lys: digte, 1962 - 'Light,' in Light, Grass, and Letter in April (translated by Susanna Nied, illustrated by Johanne Foss, 2011)
  • Græs: digte, 1963 - 'Grass,' in Light, Grass, and Letter in April (translated by Susanna Nied, illustrated by Johanne Foss, 2011)
  • Evighedsmaskinen, 1964
  • Azorno, 1967 - Azorno (translated by Denise Newman)
  • det, 1969 - it (translated by Susanna Nied, 2006)
  • Intriganterne, 1972 (play)
  • Det malede værelse, 1976 - The Painted Room: A Tale of Mantua (translated by Denise Newman, 2000)
  • Brev i april, 1979 - 'Letter in April,' in Light, Grass, and Letter in April (translated by Susanna Nied, illustrated by Johanne Foss, 2011)
  • Den historie der skal fortælles, 1979
  • Alfabet, 1981 - Alphabet (translated by Susanna Nied, 2001)
  • Del af labyrinten, 1982 (essays)
  • Den store ukendte rejse, 1982
  • En vinteraften i Ufa og andre spil, 1987 (plays)
  • Digte, 1988
  • Lys og Græs, 1989
  • Mikkel og hele menageriet, 1990 (illustrated by Lillian Brøgger)
  • Sommerfugledalen, 1991 - Butterfly Valley: A Requiem (translated by Susanna Nied, 2004)
  • Samlede digte, 1998
  • Hemmelighedstilstanden, 2000

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