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Portrait of a writer

Benny Andersen

By Anders Østergaard

If it is true that humour derives from the recognition of our own limitations, then it is one of the saving graces of the Danes that we have made Benny Andersen into our national bard. He is not only the most widely read, most often sung and best loved of modern Danish lyricists - over 80,000 copies of his Samlede dig-te (Collected Poems) (1998) sold to date, not counting the most popular of all his texts: his songs about that melancholic character, Svante. Benny Andersen is also, and more particularly, the fond and ironic portraitist who, with his wry way of looking at things and his convoluted wordplay, shows us ourselves for what we are, pinpoints our limitations and our self-delusion and helps us to discover the inherent potential of language and of life.
   Like all writers, Benny Andersen works, first and foremost, with words. But where many writers strive to find their own, unique poetic language, Andersen achieves this through his reworking of everyday speech. With a musical-comedy ear for a way of turning a phrase, of delivering surprising home truths, he twists hackneyed expressions, brings dead metaphors to life, takes images literally and short-circuits words and their meanings, creating new ones in the process. There is a, quite lit-erally, thought-provoking tension between the use in his poems of the spoken word and their rhetorical underlining, by means of such favourite ploys as baroque con-trast and three-part sequences. From his laboratory of words, Benny Andersen gives language back to us, in new and enriched form – out of recognition comes cognition.
   This same duality of the familiar and the off-centre, of identification and detach-ment is evident in the gently ironic character sketches which, in the 1960s espe-cially, became Andersen’s preferred poetic form, after his first appearance on the scene with Den musikalske ål (The Musical Eel) (1960), a collection of short and sardonic fables. Like his contemporaries Andersen writes about the ab-surd anomalies of life. But he renders the absurdity recognizable, everyday inci-dent familiar, through his depiction of the little guy caught, for his sins, in the swing-door of life. Collections such as Den indre bowlerhat (The Inner Bowler Hat) (1964) and the short stories in Puderne (The Pillows) (1965) and Tykke-Olsen m.fl. (Fatty Olsen) (1968) lend a voice to those small, nondescript, alienated characters who struggle in vain to measure up to the norm and to their own expectations, or to make make contact with other human beings – the respectable, but obnoxious man, life’s flounderers, the "shirkers", the moral cobbler – all those who feel that they "ought to live/not least live life", but who have ground to a halt.
   At his back, Benny Andersen has both Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierke-gaard – "forerunners always attack from behind" as he says in one poem. Follow-ing a long tradition, but in wording that is both original and modern, he defends the individual against the latter’s own self-deceit and strict inner conventionality. It is more important to be than to be somebody. And most important of all to hold on to the child inside the man. That Benny Andersen himself has succeeded in doing this last is also clear from the many more personal or directly biographical works which have come from his hand over the years.
   Benny Andersen also takes a clear look at society at large; honing his razor-sharp wit to deliver some biting social criticism, most notably in a number of books pub-lished during the 1970s.Svantes viser has a sting in its tail, in the ironi-cally banal, tragi-comic portrayal of a Bellman-like Svante’s general air of gloom, punctuated by the odd brighter moment.
   The progression from ironic character sketches to more introspective poems, devel-oping side by side with his social critique, is apparent as far back as Personlige papirer (Personal Papers) (1974). At no cost to his gently satirical humour or low-key sense for perspective, Andersen’s barbed wit has acquired a more subtle edge. These days, his poems are often longer and more philosphical: Chagall og skorpiondans (Chagall & the Scorpion Dance) (1991) speaks in defence of "high-kicks and high-jinks". Here we have the voice of a committed individual - as benevolent as it is bashful and tentative - shaping positive values into images of love and the universal human condition. What we have to do is to find both our-selves and our place in the scheme of things – come to terms with life, without los-ing sight of ourselves. Like the musical eel, which has twisted and turned its way through life, to eventually find its place in it.
   In Sjælen marineret (The Marinated Soul) Andersen takes stock of experi-ences, memories and dreams which, rather than toughening the soul have, in fact, tenderized it. Several of these poems look at decrepitude, death and departure – in one the ”I” of the poem warns Death to stay away from his beloved: Over my dead body! The cornerstone of this collection consists, however, of declarations of love for the dear one, and even nightmares ("My teeth, my teeth / why have you forsaken me?), the ”gnarled” humour and ”itchy clear-sightedness” are tempered by the soothing thought of life as it is.

Desirable Residence
More and more I feel the need to reside
to dwell in my clothes and my shelves my life
make my home in a poem
settle down in a caress
have you as my address

Still feeling the need to travel
but with something now to travel from and to
scents
sunrise
sonnets
you.

(1999)

Translated by Barbara Haveland

 
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