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Friday, February 20, 2009

Inger Christensen

Inger Christensen, who has died aged 73, was one of the most significant European poets of the 20th century. She was Danish, and it is a misfortune for any great writer to be confined to a language with few readers, but her work, like that of her compatriots Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard, may be destined to find admirers in many languages.

Regarded as the foremost poet in her native country since the 1960s, Christensen's translated poetry was enthusiastically adopted by German readers. Even more in Germany than in her native country, her name was mentioned as a Nobel prize candidate. Though this eluded her, she was awarded most of the important literary awards in Scandinavia and Germany.

Her reputation rests on just five volumes of poetry. Three of them were published in the 1960s, including the most famous, det (it) (1969), which was followed by alfabet in 1981 and then Sommerfugledalen: et requiem in 1991.

As a poet, Christensen's practice was deeply inflected by mathematics and a sense of the world as ordered otherwise than by language. The "systemic poetry" that she cultivated was designed to distort language so as to allow the disclosure and display of other patterns and other principles of order. The poems of alfabet are based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers: the first poem has one line, the second poem two, the third three, the fourth five, each number in the sequence being the sum of the previous two (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34). The work stops with the letter n, itself a mathematical symbol, which, as the 14th letter of the alphabet, generates a poem of 610 lines. In this modelling of words, Christensen's work can be compared with that of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, and to the works by the French writers associated with Oulipo, notably Georges Perec.


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