Saturday, November 15, 2014

Build into the rules of the game the inevitable breach of the rules as if it were a rule - Inger Christensen's it

Build into the rules of the game the inevitable breach of the rules as if it were a rule.  As if inevitable death were a natural turn.  Needing only to be rephrase right.  O death where is thy breach?  So changed now that the system catches hold.  So free.

I have been reading, over the last couple of years, the works available in English of Danish poet Inger Christensen.  The above is from early on (p. 4 of Susanna Nied’s translation)  in it (1969).  The word “it,” with no capitalization, that’s the title.  In Danish, det

It.  That’s it.  That started it.  It is.  Goes on.  Moves.  Beyond.  Becomes.  Becomes it and it and it.

Those are the first lines, while up top are the last, of the first part of the PROLOGOS of it, which in Danish consisted of 66 lines of 66 characters each.  The translator had to relax that last constraint.  The second part of the PROLOGOS is two poems of 33 lines each, 66 characters across, on to the eighth part which has 66 poems of one line of 66 characters. 

Someone walks into a house and looks at the street from his window.

Someone walks out of a house and looks at his window from the street.

Someone walks down a street and looks at the others on this way.

Etc. for 63 more lines, remembering that in Danish each line is exactly the same length.  Passages like this can have the feel of reading a completed crossword puzzle.  In translation.

This is just the prologue!  Each of the poems subsequent parts has its own formal restrictions or purpose, some relatively traditional.  The first connection to A. R. Ammons is obvious – it is another typewriter poem, like, Tape for the Turn of the Year, where ideas about how the poem will look comes before ideas about content, and will inevitably, or so the poet thinks or guesses, influence the content.

The other link with Ammons is that it is, like Sphere, a cosmogony, a poem about the creation of all things, in the tradition of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony.  Anne Carson covers all of this in the introduction to the New Directions edition, stealing my fun.  Epigrams in specific sections link the poem to William Blake and Novalis a number of French wild men like Bataille and Lautréamont, ecstatic Romantics:

a black storm in a sealed cave
black lilacs smelling of sulfur
black snow

conversations with death:
freedom freedom freedom

the snow falls
piles itself in great drifts on the sky
and the sky is completely black

In May the lilacs will bloom; they must!  (82)

it is maybe a poem where a question like “is it good” is beside the point.  Not always, perhaps not often.  Christensen, in the spirit of antipoetry, is writing poetry where “the standard expressions, torn loose, flutter around, turned to dust, tentatively seek a form…  the place where the unexpressed in the expressionless finds expression” (10).

As strange as it is, or because it is strange, and because the poem covers sex, drugs, ecology, and anti-war protests, it was a huge hit in Denmark.  From the translator:

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.  (p. x)

That last line is like a transmission from a distant planet.

It’s not random
It’s not the world
It is random
It is the world
It’s the whole thing in a mass of different people
It’s the whole thing in a mass of difference
It’s the whole thing in a mass
It’s the whole thing
That’s it
It                                           (p. 237, last lines)


  1. Already in those first three or four words, the problems of translation appear.

    "It. That's it."

    "Det. Det var det."

    ("That" and "it" both being "det" in danish.)

    Comparing a bit with the original, it looks like a very good translation.
    The English brings out a possibly unfortunate unintentional allusion, however.

    "It is the jigsaw. it is purple haze.
    it never stays in one place, but it's not a passing phase,
    it is in the singles bar, in the distance of the face
    it is in between the cages, it is always in a space
    it is here. it is now."

    (From the Genesis song "It." Not exactly a highlight of their career.)

  2. I believe that era of Genesis is now known only to a fairly specialized audience. That's kind of funny. I'm sure there are other "it" songs and poems.

    I don't remember if I mentioned it in another post, but as you might guess Christensen's English is excellent, so the translations of her poems were really a collaboration between the translator and poet. And the way the translator describes it, Christensen took them seriously. So all problems and solutions have the poet's stamp of - I don't want to say approval. Every poet, working on a translation, probably has to just give up at some point. "Good enough."