Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Translating Dan Turèll’s Poetry

by Thomas E. Kennedy

One day in Copenhagen in 2008, a Danish artist named Barry Lereng Wilmont telephoned me. He had heard me on a radio interview, talking about my American translations of the intricate, original poetry of Henrik Nordbrandt.

Barry said, “If you can translate Nordbrandt, you can translate Dan Turèll.”

“But Dan Turèll is already translated.”

“No, he’s not,” Barry said. “When he was alive, he expected me to translate him because of my Canadian background, but I told him that I couldn’t, my English is too rusty, and he said find someone who can.”

Dan Turèll was an iconic figure in Denmark, the essence of Danishness but influenced by things American, and he figured on being translated and transported across the Atlantic. Dan entrusted that mission to Barry; it took Barry fifteen years from Turèll’s death, at forty-seven in 1993, to find someone. I admired Turèll’s poetry in Danish, especially that which he had recorded with Halfdan E’s music behind it in two CDs—which were best-sellers—but I always assumed that he had been translated into English—or American, as the Danes call the style of English spoken in the USA.

Barry introduced me to Dan’s widow, Chili Turèll, who gave me permission and the Danish Arts Council funded me. Several Danes warned me against the project—Turèll can’t be translated. He’s too Danish. How can you translate poetry that’s so Danish?

But I tried. Actually, Dan was inspired by American and international poetry and music and other cultural manifestations, both literary and popular: Charlie Parker, the French symbolists, Disney, Presley, T.S. Eliot, Dante, Ezra Pound, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Walt Whitman, all the Beats (Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Burroughs...), jazz and bluesmen and rock ’n’ roll.... Some Danes criticized Turèll’s poetry for not adhering strictly to the Danish tradition, for responding more to American and international culture than to the ancient literary conversation of this thousand-year-old social-democratic kingdom. Turèll was nonetheless quintessentially Danish, a student of, a flaneur in, Copenhagen’s streets and serving houses.

One evening, a year later, I was invited to read my Turèll translations at one of those serving houses, Underwood Ink on the north side of Copenhagen. There was standing room only. Danes love Dan’s poetry so much that they want to hear it even in English. Chili was there also. I read for thirty minutes, and at a point as I looked out over the crowd, I noticed Chili, tall and slim with an angular face, sitting at a back table, gazing out the window, a little sadly. Chili is an actress, and I thought she didn’t like the translations or the way I was reading them.

But when I finished, she came up to me, smiled, and said, “You have given Dan his American voice.”

Chili Turell and Tom Kennedy, Photo by Torben Dragsby
Chili Turèll and Thomas E. Kennedy at Vangede Library in Copenhagen
at the ceremony where he received the Dan Turèll Prize
(photograph by Torben Dragsby, March 2016)

Americans also like Turèll’s poetry. Something like forty Turèll poems in translation—and they average about three or four pages—and half a dozen essays on his work have been published in some of the best American literary journals in the past not-quite eight years.

The celebrated stand-up poet Steve Kowit (1938-2015), to the best of my knowledge, was the first American poet to have an opportunity to read the first authorized translations of Turèll’s poems. I sent them to Steve to get a little feedback. He read about forty pages of poetry before I started submitting them for publication.

Kowit said, “Turèll has one of those large, humanistic voices like Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko. Impressive and engaging and at its best hypnotic.”

But unlike Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), whose life was only a decade shorter than Dan’s, perhaps Turèll wanted less to issue “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” than to expand and educate it to the ordinary wonders occurring behind every single window in every single street of every single city.

Indeed, he memorializes those everyday things in one of his most enduring poems, “A Tribute to the Everyday Things”:

I like the everyday things...
That slow waking up to the well-known view
that anyway never is quite so well-known...
the morning kisses
the flop of mail through the door slot
the coffee aroma...
most of all I like the everyday things... *

Turèll was host in 1983 to William S. Burroughs, with whom he did not hit it off well, and later met Allen Ginsberg, with whom he did. In an interview by Lars Movin shortly before Ginsberg’s death in 1997, the great Beat poet inquired how Turèll’s death had affected the Danish literary scene.

A square was named for Dan Turèll (or Uncle Danny, one of his self-assumed identities), on what would have been his 60th birthday, on Halmtorv (the west-side square which was frequented by street hookers and their Johns), and in 2007 Dan Turèll’s Place was christened permanently in Vangede, the neighborhood of Greater Copenhagen in which Dan grew up. The latter place has been commissioned with a sculpture by the artist Kenn André Stilling—an enormous sculpture of letters in tribute to the primary instrument of a writer, the alphabet. The sculpture is alongside Vangede Library, where the permanent Dan Turèll Collection is housed. In 2010, Denmark issued a postage stamp bearing a portrait of Turèll, and in Copenhagen city center, a café also bears Turèll’s name, with a blue neon facsimile of his signature glowing on the ceiling.

In answer to Allen Ginsberg’s question, Dan Turèll—still, more than twenty years after his death—has had a strong influence on his own generation and the generations to follow him in Denmark. In fact, Turèll’s poetry embodies, in the ordinary events and objects of everyday life, always viewed through a Turèllian perspective, a compelling spiritual vision which continues to resonate not only among the broad population but also among many writers and artists of Denmark.


* Webmaster’s note:

See also A Tribute to the Everyday Things by Dan Turèll, a reading by Thomas E. Kennedy with soundtrack by Halfdan E, from the CD an INTRODUCTION: DAN TURÈLL+HALFDAN E meets THOMAS E KENNEDY (PlantSounds, 2013)

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Thomas E. Kennedy’s

translations of Danish poets such as Henrik Nordbrandt, Pia Tafdrup, Dan Turèll, and many others have appeared widely in American literary journals such as American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, MidAmerican Review, Serving House Journal, and scores of others.

He worked with the Danish composer Halfdan E to produce a CD recording with musical background of Dan Turèll’s poetry in translation—an English replication of the two CDs which Turèll and Halfdan E made shortly before Turèll’s death and which continue to be “best-sellers” in Denmark today. Translation of these poems has been supported by a fellowship from the Danish Arts Council.

More than 30 of Kennedy’s own books have been published, including novels, story and essay collections, literary criticism, translation, and anthologies. His most recent publications include the novels of The Copenhagen Quartet—which have been published for world-wide distribution by Bloomsbury Publishers USA and UK: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen (2013); and Beneath the Neon Egg (2014). These four novels in Danish translation by Frej Larsen will be published by Rod&Co, beginning with I selskab med engle, which was released on 22 April 2016.

Kennedy lives in Denmark and teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA Program.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury