Benny Andersen, currently Denmark's most popular poet, is virtually unknown in the United States. He is a poet of remarkable versatility, whose voices range from reflective to whimsical. His imagery is original and often surprising; his humor is delightful. To introduce Benny Andersen to English readers, Alexander Taylor has worked with the poet, selecting and translating poems from the eight books now available in Danish. The poems are presented here in their Danish versions and in English translations that capture the spontaneity and excitement of the originals.
In both versions the poetry is evocative and refreshingly direct. The imagery is vivid, and the poet's inventive use of diction and syntax creates startling effects. Perhaps most characteristic of Andersen's work is the fusion of complex, often conflicting emotions within a single poem.
Born in Copenhagen in 1929, Benny Andersen published his first book of poetry in 1960, to immediate public and critical acclaim. In addition to poetry, he has written a novel, short stories, children's books, filmscripts, television plays, and essays. He has received several awards.
Originally published in 1976.
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Read an Excerpt
By Benny Andersen, Alexander Taylor
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
One March day you're sitting
numb in a cold train.
With a hyperdermic needle
you are shot into the heart of Jutland.
The train suddenly halts,
tossing you out of yourself
here where dark and
light blood meet.
with blots of snow
keep a despondent eye
on heaven's white doors
like small boys
who haven't eaten
all their porridge and are afraid
of their mother.
A constellation of wild geese
streaks across the heavens.
Is it my name that in their harsh,
mocking and distorted way they fling down?
Hesitating, as if to investigate
how much you still dare see,
a cow loose from her tether comes
toward you through the mud.
Silently gives birth to a calf in the snow.
You turn back, dizzy,
lose your way in this strange land.
Forget path and errand.
Notice only how the thick earth of Jutland
clutches your shiny shoes.
Two voices through the wall awaken me,
one dark and tired,
one zealously explanatory.
Sounds, intonations, not words.
A waterstain on the ceiling over the bed
resembles a rare orchid —
but what good is it on the ceiling?
First and foremost it resembles a waterstain.
At the top of the window a little bit of blue.
But what does that say about the weather tomorrow?
Yesterday's weather I have to remember myself.
Who knows if it is raining in Rønne?
Last night I found my philosophy,
and never have I slept so good.
But where will I find an excuse
for my having overslept?
The Forgotten Son
Cocksure my brother sallied forth into the world,
sang himself away between arms and dice.
Gladly he accepted the world on its terms,
which for him was the whirling maelstrom.
It cast him up on various coasts.
Bit by bit, by different detours,
he was drawn back to the family farm.
Here it was he first put himself together —
what a meeting — he merged with his defeat,
which Father came out and kissed.
O Father, had you only waited one day, one hour!
But nothing but the fatted calf would do
to feast such a welcome defeat.
Have I myself chosen the small victories,
whose meat long ago has been chewed white and dry?
Have I myself rationed your love,
these small treacherous love-rations?
Harmless for others certainly
like throwing snowballs at a tree,
like boys spitting against the wind.
Thy will be done, my Father.
My bundle is tied, in it a fat white thigh,
a three days' love-ration.
Then I'll be lost
between mountains and springs.
Thus will I flee from the smoke of my offering
which was never beaten to earth
but stood up stiffly like a pillar of shame.
Years will pass, Father,
years without love,
years without fatted calves.
And then when I have saved
a pocketful of defeat,
when my clothes are smeared with grime,
then I will approach you
with fierce tired steps:
Then you will have to love me!
separate the sour from the sweet,
the inside from outside,
let knives of light scrape away
my core of sour pride
so that I can fear
when fear's hour strikes,
so that I can hear
where I shall join in
when the great music starts.
Winter, make me quiet
so I can hear the pain
in the closed trees,
in the mute birds,
in the water that scratches
under the ice
with the thin fingernails of children.
Winter, make me quiet
so I can hear your pain.
Winter, make me alert
so I can recognize you.
This induction current
that crooks my hand
when I want to open it,
is that you?
Are you tied up some place
transmitting distress signals right through my nerves?
Winter, make me alert
so I can find you.
Give me today
my bread to butter.
Soft and hard shall meet
in my hands
and the butter's sunshine overwhelm
the bread's darkness.
Let me touch what we live on,
brown bread, yellow butter,
I pray for those weak in spirit
(the crossword puzzle was hard today)
for those weak in flesh, for those hooked on the bottle
(I have an empty bottle for every stern intention)
Peace on earth, repose for all those persecuted!
(I am behind in my taxes)
I pray for those hit by polio, those pollinated by the atom
for those toothless and those with polyps
(one never knows)
I pray for balance in life
like the shopkeeper with his thumb on the scales:
just let it look right!
Spare me your admonitions!
How should I unfold myself unseen
(ah! at last entirely alone)
when the tiny splinter
that's always left after you've gone
makes my whole body swell
to one big finger that throbs:
Let me be ...
The wind slides in from the sea.
The ice holds.
The wind chews at the flames of a lighter.
Can't get it down.
Then kicks the leaves from four snowdrops,
crawls into my white shirt on the line,
moves up to the place where the head should be
Sirens — skull fracture — old woman
who has nothing but money on her mind.
The kids scramble up
and catch the rolling coins under their heels,
grownups become like children again,
but the heirs shout by the deathbed:
Is it true, Aunt Gunhild,
there's not even a quarter left?
And Auntie smiles wanly: Just think, children,
my headache has completely disappeared.
I wander chilly and bloodforsaken
and snap at the sunset.
Widescreen! Hollywood! Technicolor!
And glare down at the flagstones
stamped with greasy leaves.
Then a chestnut cracks at my feet.
A bright brown eye opens.
Beholds heaven and earth
for the first time.
She stops and pauses for breath at the landing.
All those stairs, all those years —
Stands with the cold key in her hand
and listens for thieves.
Nonsense — there are only photographs in there,
good-natured, prominent eyes.
No one looks like that anymore.
At last she glides through the slot
like a thin letter to herself.
Sleepless Hours in the Summer House
What about the children — soon too grown-up
to stay home alone ...
and in the composing room — how
will the Balkan-affair turn out
with the all too clumsy captions
and every other line ending blind ...
At last the dream's rotary press hums
and, impotent, he sees his own obituary
go to press
unreadable because of misprints.
The Musical Eel
Ashes flick off the sun.
Awesomely the eyes of the snail circle:
The duck lands on the lake
noisy as a needle
dropped on a scratched record.
The eel leaves the lake forever.
Looks back several times furiously.
The Critical Frog
The duck arranges his reflection
neatly around himself for the evening.
At last the right sensitivity
to the reed-warbler's glowing tones.
People stand still and listen on the path,
enabling the mosquitos to hit home
while the water rat discreetly
removes the noisy ducklings.
Only a small young frog conceals his ecstasy
behind a belch.
I've always tried to be good
it's very demanding
I'm a real hound for
doing something for someone
get someone a job
open up my arms
let someone have his cry on my shirt
but when I get my chance
I freeze completely
some kind of shyness maybe
I urge myself — do it
fling your arms wide
but it's difficult to sacrifice yourself
when somebody's watching
so hard to be good
for more than a few minutes
like holding your breath
however with daily practice
I have worked up to a whole hour
if nobody disturbs me
I sit all alone
with my watch in front of me
spreading my arms
again and again
no trouble at all
I am actually best
when I'm all alone.
I come and unload
kick open the door before you open
trudge on in over you
with my burdens and sacks
get you propped up in a chair
brace you with pillows and assurances
hold on tight now
the first sack is dumped over your head
used anxieties, ashdistrusts
peelings and adversitydregs
you've got to help me, this can't go on
lift your head and say: hold out!
now the second sack, burned-out plans
remnants of journeys, split future
and mouldy expectations
you still have your arms free
smiling offer your hand: take courage
stand your ground!
thanks for these words, it feels a little better now
ready for the third and last sack
with a little of everything, reversed visors
cans there have been wars in
grubby maps of sore points
the dead that walk again for a firm
let us remember Amanda in the peat bogs
our stiffly-whipped puberty
everything for you and only for you
I turn my pockets inside out
the last I have
a little soulscratch a little greetingwool
a single caramel
do you understand me now
down under there
I knock the top off, dig breathingholes
down to your face, press my ear to the pile
hear you groan overwhelmed:
Stand firm and fight!
relieved I steal away
only a true friend talks like that.
Immense impossible morning
where you never get out of bed
or even reach the edge of it
so far flung it is
large as a county
you worm your way
under the clammy lowhanging featherbed
lonesome lost spermatoza
in no condition to get there
have to stop
breathe air and courage
now no sweaty panic on the sheet
there are still untried creases to follow
no traffic to be careful of
you are expected out there at the featherbed-frontier
with questions, appointments, chutes, ties
you're expected to awaken
it's your duty to dig yourself out
once a day
and show up
eat a little
grow a little
stand in line waiting your turn
sign something or dance
make up your mind
make your way
but I'm all fagged out
because of all this featherbed
that pushes itself in front of me like a glacier
what is being transmitted through these feathers
send out a felt morse code
to toetapping authorities
tea rattling relatives
watchdog teachers and creditors
I am alive but enfeebled beforehand
start a search
with radar, frogmen, St. Bernards.
There is something special about happiness
you can become wholly glad
when you meet it
but uneasy too
stand still a while
steal so gingerly forward
as if in a minefield
and every time you set your foot down
without being blown to pieces
you either forget to enjoy your happiness
or get sore over not knowing
how long it will last
so that when adversity finally turns up
it's a relief
as if you had reached safety
it's really a shame
because there is something special about happiness
which you otherwise don't meet
perhaps there's the fault
We know too little about it
We have to become better acquainted with it
I think it's a question of training.
It's High Time
It's high time
the water boils
the earth burns
the world is waiting
when Alexander was Caesar's age
he was already The Great
when Caesar was my age
he had had it
they did not waste time
time did not waste them
they used time like a shirt
slept with it on
ate with it on
were buried in it
and here I sit
let exploits walk by my nose
in hopeless arrears with experience
the world does not wait
when Mozart was five years
when Columbus weighed anchor
when Jesus was twelve
when da Vinci
when da Gama
it is high time
it is past time
it is now or never
I was born with a howl
squalling I received my baptism
yelled when I was thrashed
shrieked when bees stung me
but gradually became more Danish
learned to smile at the world
at the photographer
policemen and perverts
became a citizen in the land of the smile
smiles keep the flies away and the mind clean
and light and air are good for the teeth
if you arrive too late
if you go bankrupt
if you're run over
tourists stream in
to see smiling trafficvictims
the chuckling homeless
the cackling bereaved.
I can't get rid of my smile
sometimes I want to cry
or just stand openmouthed
or protest against other smiles
that conceal bloodthirstiness and putrefaction
but my own smile is in the way
sticks out like a cowcatcher
tearing hats and glasses off people
with a smile I bear my smile
my halfmoon yoke
where one hangs his worries out to dry
I have to duck my head to the side
to get through a door
I am a citizen in the land of the smile
it's not a bit funny.
Sometimes memories of that time
whelm up in me
otherwise I am clearly better off now
I went to the dentist a lot
my fountain pen frequently blotted
once I thought
my bicycle had been stolen
and I was very troubled about the future
which I now can see
has gone very well
and yet my heart turns to jelly
at the memories of that time
when I was never overwhelmed by memory.
Black unemployed crow
hops around, his hands in his pockets,
at the bottom of the gravel pit.
Old dump car
thrums up, playing two rusty strings
The crow flaps off, laughing scornfully.
But the dump car curtsies like a seasoned actor
at the brink of the pit.
The pond in the evening
twigs and insects
hands and numbers
finally move freely among each other.
Bogsnails rise slowly to the surface.
The mysteries of the deep
have to come up and breathe.
Excerpted from Benny Andersen by Benny Andersen, Alexander Taylor. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- Preface, pg. vii
- Acknowledgments, pg. xiii
- Biographical Note, pg. xv
- A Note On The Translations, pg. xvii
- Contents, pg. xix
- Rural Station, pg. 3
- Analysis, pg. 5
- The Forgotten Son, pg. 6
- Morning Prayer, pg. 8
- Winter Prayer, pg. 9
- Table Prayer, pg. 10
- Skeptical Prayer, pg. 11
- Tenderness, pg. 12
- Obituary, pg. 13
- Headliner, pg. 14
- Widescreen, pg. 15
- Photographs, pg. 16
- Sleepless Hours In The Summer House, pg. 17
- The Musical Eel, pg. 18
- The Critical Frog, pg. 19
- Goodness, pg. 20
- Friendship, pg. 22
- Slug-A-Bed, pg. 24
- Happiness, pg. 26
- It's High Time, pg. 27
- Smile, pg. 29
- Memories, pg. 31
- Charity Concert, pg. 32
- Relaxation, pg. 33
- Jelly Fish, pg. 34
- High and Dry, pg. 35
- In the Bar, pg. 36
- Autonomous, pg. 37
- Optimist, pg. 38
- This Is, pg. 39
- Certain Days, pg. 41
- Μ., pg. 43
- The Pampered Mermaid, pg. 44
- The Hanged Informer, pg. 45
- The Persistent Worshipper, pg. 46
- Experiences, pg. 47
- Just to Be Sure, pg. 49
- Dear Enemies, pg. 50
- Dear Friends, pg. 51
- Alcoholism, pg. 52
- Generation Gap, pg. 53
- Earthworm, pg. 54
- This Uncertainty, pg. 55
- Between Us, pg. 56
- Your Dress Without You, pg. 57
- The Last Er, pg. 60
- All This, pg. 61
- Love Declaration (woman to man), pg. 62
- Love Declaration (man to woman), pg. 63
- Now It's Said (Man, about 30), pg. 64
- Time, pg. 66
- Life is Narrow and High, pg. 68
- Sabina, pg. 69
- Melancholy, pg. 71
- A Hole in the Earth, pg. 72