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Inger Christensen - Danish poet in the Nobel league

Inger Christensen was a poet who put words to the contemporary yearning for change, deeply rooted in a belief both in progress and the future. She was easy to read, but hard to understand, according to some critics. Her poetry won international acclaim and is translated into English, German, Dutch, French, Swedish and several other languages. Inger Christensen was truly a poet in the Nobel league, but never received the prize. She died 73 years old on January 2nd 2009.


Childhood with books
Inger Christensen grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Vejle. Her father was a tailor; her mother was a cook before she married, and later, when the children were older, she went back to work, her last job being at the Tulip meat factories in Vejle. During the Second World War, when many a man’s suit was remade into an outfit fit for a lady, her father would spread the material and the pattern on the dining table and, with the opening remark “We’ll soon have this re-styled”, he got down to the job. The tailor’s pride in his craft and the cook’s insight into both housekeeping and the literary education of good families were the social and cultural resonators while Inger Christensen was growing up, the eldest of three children. Her mother had her own little shelf for the books she had received as gifts from the various ladies of the houses where she had been in service from the age of 14 until she got married; and her father, who had twice attended Danish folk high school courses, spoke so proudly of his talented daughter that his employer told him about the opportunities open for an upper-secondary school education.

Writing ambitions
Growing up in modest circumstances, effected by the shortages of the 1930s, and with a family that was very active in the community life of the tailors’ union and the powerful emotions engendered by summers at ‘Tailor’s House’ alongside Vejle Fjord, Inger Christensen was already dreaming of being a writer by the time she was a teenager. Enticed by the thought of further education, having passed her upper-secondary school exams at Vejle Gymnasium in 1954, she went to Copenhagen where she enrolled at the university, studied for the Filosofikum” [Examen philosophicum, until 1971, an exam all university students had to pass before being allowed to pursue their chosen subject. Eds.], and earned money as  a temp teaching school children.

First poems published
She met a painter who told her about the journal Hvedekorn, and so she sent her first poems, in the tradition from Danish writers Tom Kristensen and Tove Ditlevsen, to the editor Torben Brostrøm. He accepted her poems, which were published in the journal in 1955; moreover, a few years later, he acted as a kind of amor fati by telling her that she had a spiritual kinsman in Århus, the young Poul Borum who was both a poet and studying literature. Inger Christensen had, meanwhile, postponed her dream of studying at university in favour of an affordable teacher training course, with the added agenda of writing poetry in her spare time and holidays. She attended Århus Seminarium [Århus College of Education. Eds.], qualifying as a teacher in 1958; that same year she sought out Poul Borum in his hall of residence. Six months later they got married.

Marriage and intellectual companionship
The marriage carried on, with a great deal of other things carrying on at the same time, for 17 years, but even though it all eventually got too much, their deep mutual bond remained until Borum’s death in 1996. They were divorced in 1976, after which Inger Christensen lived alone with their son, born when she was in her late thirties. The early years of their marriage had been intellectually stimulating for both of them; their very own school of literature and creative writing. Around 1963 they had both taken teaching jobs at Kunsthøjskolen [College of Arts. Eds.] in Holbæk. By then Inger Christensen had already entered the literary world with the publication of her poetry collection Lys [Light. Not transl. Eds.] in 1962, written while she was a teacher in Knebel on the peninsula of Mols in Jutland.

The following year she published Græs [Grass. Not transl. Eds.], and then in 1964, having taught for three semesters in Holbæk, she became a full-time writer. The first of these publications had seen her greeted as “a new pivotal voice in Danish poetry”. Having followed her route from the solitary modernist poems of the first two collections and on to the experimental novels Evighedsmaskinen [The Perpetual Motion Machine. Not transl. Eds.], 1964, and Azorno, 1967, in 1969 literary Denmark welcomed one of the poetic highlights in 20th-century Danish literature – det [it, New Directions, 2005. Eds.], which received an overwhelmingly positive response from the critics.

Poetry of the future
In his review, literary critic Hans-Jørgen Nielsen looked 50 years into the future: ”when discussion turns to our warm and desperate times, and how it felt and the nature of the mindset back then, then I’m pretty sure there will very often be mention of Inger Christensen’s major and by then undoubtedly classic work of poetry, it.” The rage and wildness, love and sex, opposition and impotence of the youth rebellion were given voice in an astonishingly long account of creation. With the statement “my passion: to go on” Inger Christensen put words to the contemporary yearning for change, deeply rooted in a belief both in progress and the future. Psalm, systempoetry and political manifesto rolled into one, with appeal to a basic emotional and empirical world, and at the same time an exclusive work with intellectual references to theories of language and science, poetics and philosophy, it broke through the sound barrier separating unlearned and learned.

Celebration of existence
When young Inger Christensen briefly considered studying medicine, she was driven by idealistic notions, an Albert Schweitzer-like dream of making the world a better place: a dream that moved into her writing as an ongoing preoccupation with the way in which the world is arranged, scruples as regards the relationship between morals and aesthetics. It is no easy matter to draw the physical, actual threat of the nuclear bomb into verse, as she did in the long poem alfabet, 1981 [alphabet, New Directions Books, 2000. Eds.]. But this is precisely why the challenge to the form is so much the greater. “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist”, and from this evocative starting point the poem develops as a narrative about everything that exists in the world – bracken, cicadas, doves, and so forth. All are celebrated and called out in alphabetic order and in steadily longer stanzas that multiply logically according to the Fibonacci mathematical sequence. All the beautiful things in the world, but not least the evil, are called out, until the world is left desolate with burned-off fields and children who are no longer children because “no one carries them any longer”.

Memento Mori
Besides novels and poetry, Inger Christensen has also written radio and television plays and the theatre plays Intriganterne, 1972, and En vinteraften i Ufa og andre spil, 1987, a shorter fiction Det malede værelse, 1976, [The Painted Room, Harvill Press, 2000], a collection of essays Del af labyrinten, 1982, and the children’s books Den store ukendte rejse, 1982, and Mikkel og hele menageriet, 1990. But her landmark contributions to Danish literature are the major lyrical works it, Brev i april, 1979 [Letter in April. Not transl. Eds., alphabet – and, finally, Sommerfugledalen, 1991, [Butterfly Valley: A Requiem, Dedalus Press, 2001. Eds.], a return to the sonnet, the classical form with roots in 13th-century Italy, the strictness of which gave her yet again the parameters in which to evoke the playful, the floating and dizzy. Where alfabet was a troubled denial of it’s belief in progress, and Brev i april was an invocation of the simple, everyday life as experienced through the eyes of a child,
Sommerfugledalen is a reflection on the basic mortality of existence. Like a memento mori, the variety of butterfly species, their beauty and their transience, cast light on this enigmatic life that moves incessantly towards its death.

International aclaim
As a poet, Inger Christensen, who wants society to be part of her poetry, has herself gone out into society, out into the city where we can see the opening of alfabet painted by artist Dea Trier Mørch on a wall in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen. And it became even more well-known when set to music in the 1980 recording made by folk singer Pia Raug. Inger Christensen has contributed as an editor to Danish journals and series such as Krise og Utopi and Chancen. She was appointed to the Danish Academy in 1978, the Bielefelder Colloquium in 1994, and the Académie Européenne de Poésie in 1995. Since being awarded the Danish Kritikerprisen [Danish Critics’ Prize. Eds.] in 1969, national and international literary awards have poured in – including De Gyldne Laurbær 1970, Det Svenske Akademis Nordiske Pris 1994, Der Österreichische Staatspreis für Literatur 1994 and Grand Prix des Biennales Internationales de Poésie 1995. Her collection of essays Hemmelighedstilstanden, 2000 [Condition of Secrecy. Not transl. Eds.], was simultaneously published in German with the title Geheimniszustand, a term borrowed from Novalis.

Elisabeth Møller Jensen

Translation: Gaye Kynoch


Inger Christensen
author, poet 
(1935 – )

Born 16.1.1935 in Vejle.

Parents: Adolf Emanuel C. (1908-90), tailor, and Erna Hansine Østergaard (*1910).

Married 8.8.1959 (registry office) with ◊Poul Borum, author, literary critic, born 15.10.1934 in Copenhagen, †10.5.1996 in Copenhagen, son of goldsmith Ejnhard Villiam B. and Hansine Marie Coops. Divorced 1976.

Children: Peter (1973)


Biographical Encyclopedia of Danish Women
This biography was originally published in Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon, Rosinante, 2000. All biographies are accessible in a Danish online version.

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