The Danish poet Morten Søndergaard reflects in this essay on poetry and sickness, cure and medicine – and how he got the idea for the Wordpharmacy. The Wordpharmacy has been translated into 10 languages and is being presented in England for the first time at the Hardy Tree Gallery from the 15th to the 31th of March.
The ambulances do not arrive
we stand by the roadside and gaze.
How long will it take?
He has the grand mal inside the house
the Great Evil.
He smashes the furniture
flowers bloom with blood.
The pills in the cupboards
roll onto the floor
they pump out of the mouths of everyone
in the neighborhood:
sleeping pills, valium, rohypnols, prozac
pronouns, nouns, numerals, adverbs.
Now it is as quiet
as when a child falls asleep.
But inside the body floats a tiny astronaut
who cannot move
nor get his spaceship going.
The spaceship is valium-quiet
blood rushing quietly in the quiet house.
In this vast universe nobody can turn their heads
and no-one can move their arms.
But we know we will meet on a star.
It started in the aural slippage between valium and verbs. I remember as a child I was convinced they were the same. In my childhood home there was an unusually large number of pills. And a lot of language. My father taught at the university, he taught language and grammar, Danish and English. He was a language man. They were his own words. My father was a language man. Other fathers were firemen or policemen. But my father was a language man. My father had language as a job. How was that possible? In our house there was language everywhere. A big typewriter in his office which had a bell sound when it hit the end of the line. A huge book called The New Webster Dictionary. It seemed that books were stored in all places and corners of the house. There was language everywhere. Language in the attic, language in the basement. There were a number of identical books with gold lettering: Dictionary of the Danish Language. There were so many volumes that I could not count them. I think there were more than a thousand and they continued for miles and miles and they somehow included the whole world. And there was also Salmonsens Leksikon, a descendent of Encyclopedia Britannica, in a black leather binding, so heavy that it weighed far more than the meteor that lay outside the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen.
But all these words and books were not mine. I felt left out. I was outside of language, not being able to spell right, and spent much of my time outside the classroom for misbehaving. I felt that I could not make contact with all that language and all those words. They were for them, the others. My father suffered from epilepsy. To keep the epilepsy under control he needed a lot of different pills and medicines. A lot. And to sleep he needed sleeping pills and to be able to work he needed working pills and to wake up he needed wake-up pills. Pills that needed wine to be swallowed. More and more wine. Pills everywhere. Bottles everywhere.
Grand mal. The great evil. Le petit mal. The good thing was the words. Grand bon. Le petit bon. The evil thing was the pills and what they hold, what they hold at bay. Thank you, daddy, for the words. Thanks to them. Every single one of them. They were there ready inside the books, they lay there waiting like eggs that one day would hatch and turn into insects and birds. A whole fauna that the tiny astronaut could explore the day he landed on a star with his spaceship. The words. The mess and the order in which it was possible to put them. Each time it was a new one. It was always something new. And the words became my destiny.
As I said before I felt left outside of language. I felt that way then, and I still do somehow. A strange place to be for a poet. Or to explain it with a metaphor: I sometimes feel like a bee that is trying to fly against a window. I or the bee do not understand that strange transparent barrier. Language can be a barrier. Just how can we express the things we want to say? I try and try like the bee that flies against a window. But then sometimes suddenly the barrier is gone and I can say exactly what I want. I am inside language. Deep inside.
But what is it, my Wordpharmacy? It is a clash between the ten word groups and instructions for medicine.
It is first and foremost a clash between two languages, two language systems: grammar and medicine. I took these two languages and made them collide. I took the grammatical language and made it collide with the pharmaceutical language in search of formulations. And then the best that can happen to a writer happened: that things write themselves. Every day I sat and read about grammar and looked for poetic formulations in grammar books and in medical instructions. I searched on the Internet. Oh my god, all these diseases! And the grammar books, so full of weird examples. In particular, there was the Diderichsen-grammar, a blue worn grammar book I was always using, most of all because of its examples. Some of them ended up in the instructions in Wordpharmacy. By the way, Diderichsen was a linguist, professor and editor of the Dictionary of the Danish Language.
In the process of working with grammar and the ten word classes I had come across a book on Danish core words: a list of the words that belong to the core of the Danish language. Core words or the words that you are expected to know in order to know a language. A sort of word-periodic table for a given language. Not necessarily the most common, but the vital ones.
Poetry sometimes borrows scientific features or values. But I believe that a poem is also a form of knowledge, it is a distribution of knowledge. To write a poem is to take an authority upon yourself. It is like clearing a spot in the world and saying: Listen, now this is the way it is! It is taking on an authoritative role in the world. I wrote a collection of poems called Bees Die Sleeping. I am not sure they do. But when I say it with the voice of a poet, people believe me.
The two languages, medicine and grammar, created a third in these new instructions. Instructions! We never read them, we throw them away and if we read them, we immediately get all of the stated side effects. But it is a text that concerns our life and death. The text of medicine instructions can be regarded as the quintessence of modernity. The instructions represent the highest level of human development. They are the result of many experiments with chemistry and the organic. Many guinea pigs may have died in the lab. The instructions have been read and rewritten many times. By doctors and lawyers. The instructions contradict themselves beautifully because they must contain all imaginable scenarios. Loss of appetite. Increased appetite. Every word is weighed on a gold balance and thus they resemble words in a poem. It is a way to be as precise as possible and then…. and then, in the end, they open up the maximum transparency. As with a poem, the instruction attempts to communicate as carefully and accurately as possible. To get as close as it can to what it wants to describe while all options still remain open.
It was very important to me that the instructions appeared as ‘real’ as possible; that the paper should be thin and that the layout should be identical to real ones. They are heavy words on the thin paper. It was important that the box should look like a real medicine box. I started to go and look for medicine boxes and studied their design. A designer, Christian Ramsø, gave them the right touch of medicine industry.
Now the question was: should there be something other than the instructions in the box? I thought long about whether to put sweets, calcium or placebo tablets inside the boxes. I imagined that if I put pills in boxes, I would have problems with health or food control authorities. Instead, the list of Danish core words appears at the bottom of each instruction leaflet. And this fact plays with one of the beautiful aspects of words: the wonderful thing about words is that the more we use them the more there are. They can never be used up. Language is something fundamentally intangible that lives inside of us.
What is language? Language is something inside us. What are words? They are immaterial or clusters of neurons, basically electrical impulses, but certainly something we are not able to touch or grasp. And that is why the Wordpharmacy is understood by most people. It makes something from within meet the exterior. Something inner and invisible made visible. The otherwise non-tactile suddenly becomes tactile. I also think that the Wordpharmacy works because it makes things that we basically do not ‘like’ digestible. We do not want to take medicine and we really struggle to understand grammar.
It was important to me that the Wordpharmacy had that little registered trademark sign ®. It is a way to play with the whole idea of owning words. Who owns words ? Who owns language? No one and everyone. But Wordpharmacy plays with this idea and it would obviously be great to own all nouns in the world, but it’s probably too big an enterprise for a relatively small company like Wordpharmacy! Can one own words? Words actually are sold to the highest bidder. A station, a football tournament, in Denmark we have the CocaCola league, the Eksperimentarium ® and so on. The German-owned company Mini Cooper tried recently to buy the name “Cooper” connected to a snowstorm. It was a large weather system to be named after the brand [ http:// www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16852429 ]. The idea was abandoned when the cold front claimed so many lives.
Some of the richest companies in the world belong to the medical industry. And the medicine industry constantly searches for new areas of disease. And one wonders sometimes: what is a sickness? What should we have a pill for this time? There is a strange asymmetry between the sick and manufacturers of medicine: We can do without consumer goods, but if we need medicine there is no way around it. If you are sick, you are prepared to pay large sums of money to get well.
Throughout history, quacks and fake doctors earned large sums from people’s diseases and desperation. Medicine is, like language, something we can become addicted to, something we need.
As I said, I grew up among pills and language. I slowly started to write and soon I wrote and wrote. I loved and love to read science books. I’m looking for little bits of poetic knowledge that can mirror the world’s wilderness in a few sentences. I saw my hand move across the pages like the needle on an electroencephalogram or on a seismograph. Everything related to science played a role, that is, the clinical, the scientific. And it is all based on a certain wondering. But trying to be precise at the same time. Maybe that is a simple definition of poetry: intense attention. I came across the Greek word Pharmakon. It is a famous autoantonym; Plato and Derrida have played with the word’s double meaning of poison and cure. Pharmakon: poison and cure. Maybe also the situation of poetry in society: poison and cure. Poetry is outside, it is read by the few, it plays no role in society and at the same time it can be seen as an antidote to any linguistic decay or as a poison that penetrates and destroys the linguistic tissue. When we write tiny elements react with each other like in a chemical synthesis or reaction. Each word is picked out to make a certain impact on the reader, in the same way as medicine works by carefully balancing molecules to create the right effect in the patient.
Are poems medicine? Can you use poems for anything? Is poetry useful? I always considered poetry as a basic research. As a scientific operation or approach to the world. One way to pass along the most important, the basic, the base of language. In contrast to science I think poetry rarely makes new discoveries. But we need to write poetry because the world constantly needs to be reformulated. Language develops and changes and evolves.
But are readers similar to a patient? Are you hospitalized in the book? Do we get better when we read? Where science is quickly outdated, good poetry often stands against the passing of time. Science is always a sort of negotiation, the knowledge we have today will definitely one day be obsolete. The beauty of scientific experiments is that even the experiments that fail have a scientific value, because then you know what not to do. A bad poem does not have the same effect on literature.
The American writer William Burroughs argues that language is a virus from outer space. And you can sometimes easily have the feeling that language may be sick. The question is whether poetry can heal at all? Can literature be a cure? Or should it try to be a poison to the language of power and dominance for example?
I’m thinking of poetry as language with a kind of fever. And it’s a healthy fever, a fever that is trying to cure the organism. Fever is fascinating. Fever wants us to stop. Fever sets temperature so high in the corpus to get us to a halt. And in that process we can have wild visions and achieve rare states of consciousness.
On the whole, one must assume that the language/body is always a little out of control, out of balance while being attacked from all sides by viruses, bacteria and disease. To be healthy is a state that is never really possible. It is only through constant approximation to our environment that we basically stay alive – as bodies or languages. Being completely healthy is an impossibility. It is only in the moment when life leaves us that we stop the ongoing debate between a healthy state and disease. We are alive and kicking because we constantly incur infections.
Our language and body is kept alive by being infected both outside and inside. Language is a living material and it is good for it to have different types of transfusions. Translation is one such transfusion. You have to translate. Do translate! Translation is good for you! Let some strange language slip under the skin of your own language. Listen to the other language in your own language. Make it do its job there. It is a sort of vaccine to your language with a language far from your own.
I just said that language is a living material. In what sense is language alive? Burroughs called it a virus. And poetry? Perhaps poetry is a chemical substance that excretes in the reader’s brain. Language can produce images that you carry with you for the rest of your life, that you store and use like a map to get through your life.
That is the beauty of words: that they work like an antidote in us. If you have a serious snakebite you need a little bit of the poison to be cured. And it is notable that the medicines with the strongest side effects are the ones that are most likely to cure you. The best example is chemotherapy. But drugs and poison are also used in a creative way. There are many examples of writers that have used drugs of various kinds to be able to write, from Charles Baudelaire to Henri Michaux to William Burroughs. Drugs to get to new dimensions of language. Drugs to get to new uses of words.
But also words can be drugs. We are dependent on them. We are language-bearing mammals that maneuver through language. I sit in the afternoon and write. In the afternoon hours when I have to write, when it is as if the world for a moment has slowed down a little and for a moment paused for me to look inward. I have to write. I must. Ten minutes without a program – as Tomas Tranströmer says. Maybe I do it to get that poetry drug into my brain. In any case, I do it not to go insane. For through the drug that poetry is for me, I am able to be in the world. It is as simple as that: poetry makes me be.
The drug that is poetry makes me real, it makes me able to breathe. It keeps me healthy. It gives me access to the reality that I think most people move in. A kind of psychoactive drug. It has struck me that many poets have been doctors. Gotfrid Benn was a doctor, William Carlos Williams, Celine. As if there is a connection between the medical profession and familiarization with language. A way to get acquainted with life in order to describe it? Before poets were poets they were the shamans or medicine men. With their interest in plants and healing herbs they were early pharmacists. They beat their drums and sang strange songs. Herbs became verbs. They cooked vegetable juices into poems. Or so, at least, I imagine it. It may be fiction. But to be a pharmacist in those days was also to be a poet, and vice versa I’m sure.
Medicine keeps fear and death at bay. We would like not to die, not be sick. We would like to be healthy and alive. We would like to be able to read. Words work in us. They work upon us. Words heal and release. Even on Freud’s couch. Something from within is let out through words. With medicine something from without gets in. Poison turns to cure. Today’s symbol for Pharmacy is the snake stick, Asclepius. The snake is there to remind you that medicine is about to renew life. The Greeks believed that the snake with its sloughing was born again and again. I think poetry was born as a way to renew life, to renew everyday life, and for me poetry is a way to get access to life. An incantatory effort to keep life alive. Poetry has its roots in magic. And I guess that is why I am deeply addicted to it.
Morten Søndergaard (born 1964) is part of a generation of Danish poets that emerged in the early Nineties. Søndergaard’s first collection of poetry, Sahara i mine hænder (Sahara In My Hands) was published in 1992. This debut collection has been followed by a succession of works which have won him both critical acclaim and a number of literary awards. His books have been translated into Arabic, English, German, French, Italian, Norwegian, Serbian, Spanish and Swedish.