Polarized poetry

For a special issue of Weekendavisen on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, I wrote three pieces: a series of short notes on what Dante means to us today; an account of the troubled attempts to revoke his exile from Florence; and an essay on political polarization, where I argue that there is a split within polarization itself. We know that we belong to one of two warring factions who disagree about almost everything, but we still strive to reach general conclusions about the world, as if that split did not exist. Nobody represents this split better than Dante, who was incessantly polemical and just as intellectually ambitious. His poetry is made great by the tension between polarized passion and worldwide vision.

“Bogholderiet” (“Bookkeeping”), “Uenstemmigt” (“Ununanimous”), “Polariseringens poesi” (“The poetry of polarization”), Weekendavisen (9 September 2021). Link, link, link.

Killing her softly

Danish. In a review of Ole Meyer’s translation, I discuss the Latin poet Propertius. He deployed a masterful command of shiftiness to engineer a political scandal, rejecting the Augustan celebration of soldiery and pious marriages in favor of extramarital affairs. Though making love not war has since ceased to be provocative, Propertius remains as irksome as he was in antiquity, since his romances are full of spite, spittle, and violence against women. Propertius is not a poet for the times, but then again, he never was.

“Bittert bløddyr” (“Spiteful softy”), Weekendavisen (6 September 2021). Link.

The runes and the rock

Danish. In my third entry for Weekendavisen‘s lexicon, I tell the strange tale of the Runamo cliff, which was for centuries thought to contain an ancient inscription written in an unknown runic alphabet. In 1841, Finnur Magnússon produced an 800-page report on the Runamo inscription, in which he claimed to have finally deciphered it, offering a translation of the text. But just a few years later, the runes were revealed to be nothing but random cracks in the rockface.

“Runamo,” Weekendavisen (6 September 2021). Link.

Moving images

Danish. In a review of the third Danish translation of Sappho to appear in ten months (!), I argue that one of the distinguishing features of Sappho’s poetry is their ability to create what I call moving images, in a nod to the oxymoronic force that this phrase once carried: the poems present pictures that are perfectly still, yet infused with motion. Nothing ever happens in the now of Sappho’s poems, but her words still shimmer with memories of the past and expectations for the future.

“Digter i måneskin” (“Writing in the moonlight”), Weekendavisen (21 August 2021). Link.

Atomic geese

Danish. A short essay reflecting on the title of my high school coursebook on literature: At omgås tekster (“How to deal with texts”), which the students quickly transformed into Atomgås tekster (“Atomic goose texts”). The best teachers of literature are those who treat texts as open to unexpected collisions of words that produce new and unsettling meanings, instead of presenting them as codifications of fixed allegories whose significance the students must decipher.

“Atomgås” (“Atomic goose”), Weekendavisen (19 June 2021). Link.

Water under straw

Danish. I discuss the remarkable story of a prophecy spoken by a priestess of Dagan some 3,800 years ago, which was recorded by three people who interpreted it in three different ways but all noted a crucial, cryptic phrase: “under straw runs water.” After presenting the historical context of the prophecy, I suggest that it aptly describes our relation to the past: even with three independent witnesses, we will never know what really happened, for the events of the past flow in all their complexity under the surface of our sources, like water running under straw.

“Hvad betyder vand under siv?” (“What does ‘water under straw’ mean?”), Politiken Historie (August 2021). Link.

Health v. records

Danish. In the wake of the American gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from the gymnastic final at the 2021 Olympics, the short essay argues that sport is defined by a tension between two ideals: it is about renewing the body and caring for one’s health; but also about breaking records and striving for extremes. These ideals sometimes merge, and just as often clash. (I make the same argument here.) Today, the ideal of extremes too often trumps that of well-being, which is one reason why we should celebrate Biles’s decision.

“Sejr vs. sundhed” (“Victory v. well-being”), Weekendavisen (5 August 2021). Link.

Yay to language

Danish. In my second entry for Weekendavisen‘s lexicon, I discuss the Danish word jo, which all Danes knows how to use, but which almost no one would be able to explain. Like yes and yay in Shakespeare’s English, Danish has different words for replying to a question depending on how it was framed. This is just one example of the great mystery of grammar—that native language users can easily follow rules that they would struggle to articulate. I muse on this fundamental sense of dispossession in relation to language, and, by extension, to culture.

“Jo” (“Yes”), Weekendavisen (7 July 2021). Link.

The upward-curving line

Danish. In a review of a new Danish translation of Orosius’s fifth-century masterpiece, History Against the Pagans, I look at the templates we use to make sense of history: the circle, the pendulum, the ladder, the downward slope. The template that Orosius pioneered with groundbreaking conviction remains the most prevalent today: a smoothly upward-curving line. In Orosius’s Christian retelling of universal history, we find the massively influential proposition that, however slowly and unevenly, the world is getting better year by year.

“Jamreoptimisten fra Braga” (“The pessoptimist from Braga”), Weekendavisen (11 June 2021). Link.

B is for House

Danish. The second in a series of encyclopedia-like articles for the newspaper Weekendavisen, this short essay discusses the home that hides within our words. The twenty-two signs that make up the earliest known alphabet all began as drawings of objects commonly found in Middle Eastern households three thousand years ago. I discuss the homey story inside our signs, starting with B for bēt, “house,” and ending with a surprising plot twist: T, the sign for signs.

“Bēt,” Weekendavisen (14 May 2021). Link.