It’s Hereditary: the Poetry of Søren Ulrik Thomsen
In the 20th century, Denmark was seen as the country of prose, not of poetry. That this no longer applies is clear in that the Nordic Council Prize for Literature, often revered as “The Little Nobel Prize,” was won by Danish poets in both 1999 and 2000. Further, within the last decade several Danish poets have been named as candidates for the Nobel Prize, including Henrik Nordbrandt and Inger Christensen.
A third acclaimed Danish poet is Søren Ulrik Thomsen, the subject of many books and essays and the focus of the only conference ever devoted to a living Danish writer. Besides five collections of poetry over 20 years, Thomsen has written two works of poetics. His theoretical reflections on poetry clearly influence his work from poetry collection to collection.
Early work: The blue poems
His early eighties poetry was dominated by a sense of the concrete world and by the color blue—“the color of the indefinable, flickering subjectivity, the most beautiful neon color, the color that pervaded dead calm streets, where the light of the TV-screens quivered, the color of the old flower and of ‘the new electric blue poetry’” (from an essay Thomsen subsequently wrote titled “A Farewell to the Blue Room”).
The blue poems focus especially on the city, but many also focus on the body. It is as if the body and an almost solipsistic sexuality become the last defense against a decadent and depraved world. The poems from Thomsen’s first two collections call out for ecstatic experiences—specifically, for “presence,” a presence that manifests itself both in the creative process and in sexuality.
“I am here because I am here” Thompson asserted in In My Candle Burns: Outline of a New Poetics (1985). The quote reflects Thomsen’s interest in the here-and-now, as well as his rejection of the utopian longing that’s often seen in connection with modernism.
Later work: Metaphysical poems
Thomsen’s attitude seems to change drastically in the 1990s. Blue doesn’t dominate anymore; the interest in the city and the body both are less apparent. In contrast to the concrete poems he wrote in the 1980s are poems oriented toward a kind of metaphysics, reflected in his frequent use of words such as God, life, and soul. Here are the first two stanzas from one of the untitled poems in Reverted (1993):
For each rose we bring to life in the night,
the day subtracts a carefree interpretation.
Even the simplest lines, almost a song,
heap into compact sonnets
whose hanging leaves and shadows, flickering
undergrowth fall between you and the world.
We bear the gray hairs on our skulls like wings
which shimmer as we turn to look at each other.
But I can’t bear that the second
a rose was set like a crossbeam at the top of this poem
has now been subtracted from the time to come.
I’ve lived for 35 years and need that many more
to get over the first.
Thomsen earlier in his oeuvre tried to retain a sense of presence; now he focuses on how time passes. Time as an image returns again and again, while the verbs mostly refer to movement, a movement of time and of addition and subtraction. And the reference to the sonnet—even as the poem deliberately plays with the conventions of that form—indicates Thomsen’s growing interest in poetics as such. In invoking the image of the rose, in the poem’s first line, Thomsen places his poem at the core of a long poetic tradition.
The poem tells the story about how time destroys our dreams, how living is longing and lost illusions. Yet it is possible to maintain the dream as a whole in “the simplest lines” of “compact sonnets.” Poetry thus protects the poetic “I” from time passing by. As the last stanza says:
But recently I have grown afraid
that dying once a year is no longer enough;
while the maple gives up its light to the storm wind,
this poem’s smoldering copper beech fills out.
Lose yourself in the shade of this book’s pages.
Recent work: Intriguing questions
In 1996 Thomsen published both another theoretical work and his last collection of poetry to date. His second work of poetics, Dancing Attendance on the Word, is in part a discussion of the Western poetic tradition of Plato (i.e., poetry has its origin in divine inspiration) and Aristotle (poetry is the result of rational thinking and good workmanship). It is these two extremes that Thomsen tries to mediate, stating that the “successful work of art is the result of a optimum exchange between the artist’s active and passive relation to the material.”
Published concurrently was the collection The Shaking of Creation. Thomsen calls these poems “arabesques,” but they evoke less that romantic tradition than they do one of the first European modernists, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. The first poem goes:
With a beam of light the young doctor points
into my eye
where a silent film crackles.
The last of the characters
who left it to me
to write words to the story—
I bore to the grave yesterday
as lilacs, swans,
and everything white in this world
placed the rest in shadow.
There I sat long and listened
to the whispering dissolution
of two headache tablets in water.
It’s hereditary, he says,
switching the light off.
The poem starts at a realistic level with the poetic I’s visit to a doctor. From there his thoughts run in a tour de force of imagistic stream of consciousness. As a frame story, we return to the realistic level when the two headache tablets are dissolved in water and the young doctor says “it’s hereditary.” We are never told what that means; the poem maintains a labyrinthine-like character. Is the allusion to a physical or existential—or maybe poetic—heredity? What is the relation between the realistic and the metaphorical? Is it even possible to distinguish the two? That it is impossible to answer these questions within the poem highlights the extent to which Thomsen distorts everyday events—and even time and space—in this collection.
A new tradition
In a 1977 essay, Czeslaw Milosz states that he belongs “to the estate of Polish literature and to no other.” To him, the literary traditions of other countries are somewhat distant, whereas the Polish literature is “something visible, even palpable.” Something similar could be said for Søren Ulrik Thomsen. He is, foremost, a Danish poet, who writes within a Danish tradition. And maybe it is this tradition that is being referenced when the doctor in Thomsen’s poem tells us and him that “it’s hereditary.”
Yet even as Thomsen helps Denmark assume a new role as Scandinavia’s leading country of poetry, he can be read universally as well. Thematically, stylistically, and theoretically, his work makes important contributions to the European poetic tradition.
(All poems are quoted from Susanna Nied’s translation of Søren Ulrik Thomsen: Selected Poems,New York 1999.)