Imagine you are a woman poet in the 1930s - part I/III

Tipped Issue #6: Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen on her Childhood, Youth, and Dependency in a remarkable trilogy of autofiction

No one can punish me as toughly as I did for not publishing Tipped last week. I blame it on 1) spending every night of the work week binging The Good Fight, and 2) creating a podcast at the weekend with my friend Begum. The podcast territory is full of terrors I had to face in the course of two days, but we made it alright. It is called Sescast, a weekly news podcast for Equality, Justice, Women Platform in Turkey. My only hope is that my voice will relax eventually and be convinced that I am not held under a gun while recording (see: ‘The podcast territory is full of terrors’).

Hope you enjoy this week’s ramblings - I am here to make amends by covering three excellent books in three parts. Let me know in the comments if you had known Tove Ditlevsen before or you’ve just found about her!

Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen on her Childhood

Reading time: 5 minutes

I have a theory that if you felt extremely conscious that you were not cut out for childhood when you were a child, you probably become an emotional rollercoaster when you finally grew up, your arteries pulsating with childhood traumas and pains, ready to be turned into jokes if you are self-deprecating enough or further pain you inflict on others. Tove Ditlevsen says: ‘Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.’ If this quote feels outrageous to you, congratulations, you’d had a happy childhood.

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific poet and author, born in 1917 to a working-class family in Copenhagen. Although she was considered a Danish treasure, she was always a literary outsider, a polysemic woman on which the identities of ‘the wife’ and ‘the mother’ slithered. Her life was rife with marriages and subsequent divorces, mental breakdowns, ablaze with her drug addiction. She overdosed on sleeping pills when she was 58 years old. Her memoirs, aptly titled The Copenhagen Trilogy, elucidate the enigma that is Tove Ditlevsen.

Tove’s childhood is confined to Vesterbro, a working-class neighbourhood. Her introduction to the creative flow of words is through Grimm’s Fairy Tales and social democratic battle songs of their household, later to be replaced by Victor Hugo. In their house, a picture of Denmark’s first social democratic Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning looks down on her. The inner workings of social status don’t escape Tove as she grasps that ‘they’ live in the back of their building and ‘finer’ people live in the front. Tove is sent to buy stale pastries from the bakery, a juvenile envoy, masking her mother’s anxieties around their measly purchasing power.

“Stauning or Chaos — Vote Social Democrat”

Tove goes around playing dumb, because everyone else finds her odd. In secret, she ‘write(s) down all the words that flow through (her)’. But, both her parents in addition to all the people who unknowingly catch a glimpse of Tove’s prodigy, shame and forbid her from expressing herself and her dream of becoming a poet —after all, ‘a girl can’t be a poet’— therefore she vows to keep her dreams to herself very early on:

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you survived.

Growing pains and toxic friendships. Tove is befriended by Ruth, a brazen-faced girl of the streets, who shoplifts and dares Tove to shoplift too. Tove pretends she is just like her but she knows she is ‘beyond the street’. Their friendship comes to an abrupt end, but it helps Tove to be less dependent on her mother, whose attention she craves so acutely. Her mother lives under the shadow of her father, befriends fun, younger women living in their building (‘women of the night’) against her husband’s wishes. Tove infers how to be a woman through her mother, Ruth, and the outsider women of the building. Through them, she constructs her own womanhood and astutely observes and internalises that she is not attractive nor wanted as she is not like them. Her ‘only consolation in this uncertain, trembling world was writing poetry like this’:

Once I was young and all aglow

full of laughter and fun.

I was like a blushing rose.

Now I am old and forgotten.

She was 12 years old when she wrote this. One day her brother suggests she should try selling her poems to a magazine, a reality she thinks would only come about when she is ‘grown up’. She doesn’t know how she would get to that point and she is in ‘no hurry to show them to a world that so far had only laughed and scorned them’. Yet, that idea is now planted. She hangs out with friends, smiles in agreement, afraid to be found out, when everyone talks about boys and getting married. She doesn’t know ‘whether there are other streets, other courtyards, other buildings and people’. She only knows that she is a foreigner in this world. Her poetry album is her true companion, which she fills with word after word.

Childhood ends with Tove eventually visiting Editor Brochmann of Sunday Magazine, Social-Demokraten to show her poems. She puts on her Sunday clothes, rubs her mother’s pink tissue paper across her cheeks, lying to her family that she is taking care of a friend’s baby. The Editor, confused by the sensuality of her poems at her young age —she is just 14 then— tells her to come back in a couple of years. Her dreams crushed, Tove strolls around Copenhagen:

I walk through the city’s spring, the others’ spring, the others’ joyous transformation, the others’ happiness. I’ll never be famous, my poems are worthless. I’ll marry a stable skilled worker who doesn’t drink, or get a steady job with a pension.

She doesn’t pick up her cherished poetry album for a while. After some time, she starts writing again not because her poems matter to people but it helps her drown her, now adolescent, sorrows and longing. Seized by a vast sadness, Tove trudges through her Youth now…

See you next week at Part 2 of the trilogy, Youth!