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Inger Christensen's Experimental Poetry Reflected Mathematical Order

March 5, 2009

Eminent Danish poet, novelist, and essayist Inger Christensen, who died in early 2009 at age 73, wrote experimental poetry that reflected more the ordered world of mathematics than the textures and sounds of language. The "systemic poetry" that she cultivated distorted language to put patterns on display.

Little known in the U.S, Christensen's reputation rests on five volumes of poetry. Three of the volumes were published in the 1960s, followed by Alfabet (1981) and Sommerfugledalen: et requiem (1991).

As one example of Christensen's approach to poetry, she based the length of the poems in Alfabet on the Fibonacci sequence. The first poem is one line; the second poem two lines; the third three; the fourth five; and so on—the number of lines in each poem being the sum of the previous two (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, . . .).

The volume starts with a one-line poem linked to the letter a, and it ends with a poem linked to the letter n, often used as a mathematical symbol. As the 14th letter of the alphabet, it calls for a poem that is 610 lines long, where 610 is the fourteenth member of the Fibonacci sequence. Moreover, in one section of Alfabet, the number of characters in each line suggests another numerical pattern.

Sommerfugledalen: et requiem (Butterfly Valley: A Requiem), which was translated into English in 2001, consists of a sequence of sonnets, which each have a standard rhyme scheme and are divided into an octave and sestet, a mathematical structure that appears to refer to the golden ratio (also associated with Fibonacci numbers). Each new poem picks up the last line of the former, forming a continuum that leads to a fifteenth sonnet, which comprises all the previous 14 end lines.

"To describe Christensen's work is almost inevitably to present something dry, theoretical, abstract and unappealing to lovers of poetry," Charles Lock and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen wrote in The Guardian. "What is remarkable (and what makes her a poet) is the lyric voice that sounds through all the schemes and systems. A reading by Christensen was an extraordinary event."

"Her voice was low and intense," Norwegian poet Paal-Helge Haugen observed. "When the text passed through her voice it was as if it became shared by all."

Source: The Guardian, Feb. 19, 2009.

Start Date: 
Thursday, March 5, 2009