Peter Wessel – Polyfonías

I went to a concert/poetry reading at the Danish house in Paris, the institution in charge of promoting Danish (not only but mainly) culture in France. Peter Wessel, a Danish born poet who lived in France, Spain, California, and who knows where else, was performing with Mark Solborg, a Danish/Argentinian composer, guitarist and musician, and Salvador Vidal, a Spanish clarinetist, percussionist. They recently won the second prize of the international art competition organised by the Spanish ministry of culture to mark the European year: They released a CD in 2008 entitled “Polyfonias”.

Peter Wessel
Peter Wessel

Peter Wessel creates his own poetry, as most poets do, but not the way most poets do. “Dentro de mí / viven cuatro personas, each / with their own voice,/ su propia / lengua,/ sa propre langue./ Hver med sit eget sprog / og sin egen stemme.” There are four poets inside Peter, four voices uttering words, in their own langue. Of course, the issue is immediately that one needs to understand and speak these four languages in order to hear the poet out. I have the chance to be born Danish, to have been raised in France, to have learnt Spanish at school and spent some times in Spain, and having studied in England. The four Peters travelling in one Wessel, spoke to me. I heard him out.

The musicians were not there for creating some easy listening background. They were actively involved in setting the atmosphere, underlying the music of the voices, creating a space between bass and high pitches, linking the four voices of the voice in a universal language, interrupting the polyfonias with a few re-conciliating solos.

The poetic experience is as much a philosophical consideration of the cosmopolitan mélange. As many solutions, as many problems. Peter says, the poet must embrace multiculturality and not defend “ethnic purity” of his language from foreign words. Still, the language in question is a “national language”, giving a feeling of identity, belonging to a tribe, uniform and indivisible. That is the conundrum of this mélange. If we take it as a multi-something mélange, it is a compartmented mélange, but is it really a mélange. If we take it as a pluri-something mélange it is a mélange, but in the end, do the original elements subsist?

The cosmopolitan mélange? It must still find a way… Perhaps something of the individual identity. But the need for cohesion, for community? It comes naturally with the individual. But the need for an overall institution, guardian of the cohesion of a language? They’ll still be there, as long as some individuals feel the need for an overarching authority to regulate their lives. Others will feel free. Many have already started a new revolution. Many new poets are speaking in polyfonias of voices, not only with “foreign” voices, but with “vernacular foreign” voices. New expressions, based on “foreign” ideas, new modes of expressing, new ways of constructing words, sounds, feelings, adopted from “foreign” modes of life, already form a re-articulated “national” identity, a cosmopolitan nationality, connected with other cosmopolitan nationalities, into a worldly cosmopolitan cosmopolitanism.

Peter Wessel’s page on myspace.

6 thoughts on “Peter Wessel – Polyfonías

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  1. Quite an interesting experience, I understand the spanish, english and french part but not the danish, To understand his poetry somebody must be multilingual as well

  2. Thank you Frank, for bringing in the usage of vernacular languages in your interesting article about our Polyfonías concert-recital at La Maison du Danemark in Paris on that otherwise cold, strike-stricken night of January 29th.

    I would like to comment on Cindy’s remark that to understand my poetry one must be multilingual and understand Danish as well as French, Spanish and English. I think this is to confuse poetic language and discursive language.

    In discursive texts such a mixture of languages would not be very practical, since its aim is to communicate a message. Poetry, on the other hand, constitutes a language of its own (and with its own life and meaning), a sort of music in which the words and the syntax, unchecked by the constraints of rational logic, are more attuned to perceptions – insights – of an intuitive kind. This is why the inclusion in poetry of words and turns of phrase characteristic of other cultures (maintaining them intact, even as far as their pronunciation is concerned), or of linguistic code-switching as it was practised in medieval oral poetry, far from representing a menace to poetry, serves to enrich it in a natural and organic fashion.

    The problem is that because poetry is made up of words, which carry meaning, we easily apply to it – and expect it to comply with – rules that we would not apply to other art forms. Do you think it is necessary to understand the text of the scraps of newspaper or other written messages which are often part of a Gris painting or a Kurt Schwitters collage? Can you not enjoy a Bartok concerto or a Stravinsky ballet because they include rhythms foreign to your ear and which you with your European culture might not be able to dance to?

    We live in an increasingly inter-cultural world where messages in many languages constantly mix. We can choose to read one of them and try to make sense of it or we can see them as part of a whole picture, like when you look at a photo of a square in a metropolis at night. I guess that is part of the cosmopolitan cosmopolis experience you are speaking about.

    I think that to enjoy my poetry it is more important to have lived in different cultures than to understand Spanish, English French and Danish. One night after a concert an elderly lady, who I immediately took to be an Andean Indian, came up to me and said in Spanish: “I have enjoyed your reading very much. I only speak Spanish and Quetchuan, but I understood everything you said.”

    This is not unusual. A woman from Persia who spoke Farsi, French, Italian and English told me the same thing and so did a man from the Atlas region who spoke a local dialect (his mother tongue), Arabian, French and English, but no Spanish.

    With the increasing mobility within the UE, in great part due to the inclusion of many ex east-block countries and waves of immigrants from countries beset by war, totalitarian regimes or hunger, there are more and more people in Europe whose linguistic reality is anything but monolingual.

    Because the words they use are the things they signify, because they are infused with lived experience, with taste, smell and colour – cultural overtones – they have a linguistic wealth that cultured people in the 18th and 19th centuries who had studied French, German, English, Italian, Latin and Greek at European universities never had.

  3. La maison du Danemark , Paris un soir d’ hiver
    Le partage naturel des langues d’ expression de Peter Wessel qui se font écho et en même temps qui ne font qu’ une seule voix très mélodique , m’ a séduit immédiatement et j’ ai eu
    l’ impression de les saisir sans avoir besoin de les comprendre ,
    est -ce cela la magie de la poésie ?
    Par sa présence , sa sensibilité et sa générosité , Peter nous livre avec des mots parfois fébriles , des confidences précieuses, des émotions mêlées de regards croisés , aux accents jazzy .
    Le temps se suspend , dans un espace de silence et de mystère où la lune luit …

    Louisa , le 7 février 2009

  4. Thank you Peter for commenting and delving into literary analyses. I would like to delve further on monolingualism. I wrote a post (see above).

  5. @Peter -‘In discursive texts such a mixture of languages would not be very practical, since its aim is to communicate a message. ‘ – But we do anyway – with quotations, not always translated foreign words, which not everyone understands, etc. – but your project is very inspiring, I just read about it in Politiken today – they have not put it on their webside yet.
    The success of your project gives me new ideas for my own: That my poor English are entitled to be perceived as ‘my language’ more than ‘poor English’ – like

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