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Kierkegaard’s Cupboard

Marianne Burton
ISBN-13: 
9781781724224
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 5, 2018
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‘Immediate, pithy and very, very readable’ – Poetry Wales

The life of the influential Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has inspired this book of poems by Marianne Burton.

Burton, whose debut collection, She Inserts The Key, was nominated for the Forward Prize, has delved closely into the extensive writings both by and about Kierkegaard. She has distilled this knowledge into a sharp, lively and intriguing series of poems, all variations of the 14-line sonnet, written in the first person, so that we seem to hear the voice of the philosopher in all of the moods which characterize the various periods of his life.

In the first section, we have hints of Kierkegaard’s childhood, with a darkly melancholic father whose sins ‘…were blight /to our lives but to my work they are foundation’, pointing to Kierkegaard’s inherited sense of religious guilt, also a paradoxical and contradictory ‘school report’ that pronounces the student as ‘the most provoking and the least serious.’ We encounter Kierkegaard’s peculiar mix of the comedic with deep introspection and meet ‘Uncle Søren’ who delights in spoiling his nephews and nieces and talking to people in the street. These contradictory tendencies arise again and again and give the collection an enticing tension. We are never quite sure which Kierkegaard we will be meeting.

In section two we arrive at one of the central incidents of Kierkegaard’s life. He meets Regine, a beautiful 18-year-old girl, and they fall in love. After a blissful interlude they plan to marry, but Kierkegaard abruptly cuts off the engagement, having come to the conclusion that marriage is not for him, that he must dedicate himself to the life of the mind. A few years later, Regine marries and Kierkegaard is forced to acknowledge that his choice is irreversible. However, he remains so dedicated to Regine that he commissions a special cabinet, the ‘Cupboard’ of the title, where he places all correspondence and mementoes of their relationship.  Each of the sonnets in this section devote themselves to the sad adventure of this heartbreak.

The third section is more directly involved with Kierkegaard’s writings: Either/Or, a novel he wrote concerning seduction and marriage, and Fear and Trembling, a close look at the Biblical story where Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Burton’s emphasis is on how these stories relate to Kierkegaard’s own life. The sonnet forms here, with their pointed brevity and tight rhymes, encapsulate themes well and Burton uses them with a wonderful élan.

The fourth section, ‘After The Corsair’ involves a period of the philosopher’s life when his fame caused him to be caricatured by the press and mocked in the streets. He tries to write to Regine, but is rebuffed by her husband, and is left without a reply. The fifth and sixth sections examine the end of Kierkegaard’s life when he began an intense attack on the Danish Lutheran Church for being too materialistic, intrusive, and overly state-controlled. Burton also includes poems from Kierkegaard’s thoughtful and compassionate correspondence with relatives suffering poor health and depression. Kierkegaard died relatively young, at 42, physically, mentally and financially exhausted by his dedication to work. The impression Burton leaves us with is of a personality gifted with wit and joy as well as a fervent vocation to express his ideas. 

Graceful, thought-filled, astute, musical, these accessible poems by Marianne Burton inspired by Søren Kierkegaard will please discerning readers.   

REVIEWS

Review by Tristram Saunders, The Telegraph

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Many readers were surprised when Robin Robertson's The Long Take (Picador, £14.99), a noir epic in verse about a traumatised D-Day veteran, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A poem storming the gates of the richest award in fiction was a reminder that unlike the novel, the cookbook or the memoir, poetry isn't a genre. It is, as Auden put it, "a way of happening". Anything prose can do, verse can do better.

... You won't find a life of Kierkegaard warmer, wittier or – crucially – shorter than Marianne Burton's Kierkegaard's Cupboard (Seren, £9.99). This sequence of sonnets is the perfect bluffer's handbook. It portrays the Danish philosopher with love, without becoming a hagiography...

[Read the full article here]

Review by Ellen Bell, Poetry Wales

Thursday, November 1, 2018

 

Readers coming to the poem for the first time’, writes Seamus Heaney in his introduction to his translation of Beowulf, ‘are likely to experience something other than mere discomfiture when faced with the strangeness of the names... and lack of known reference points’.

A comparable discomfiture to being ‘faced with the strangeness of names’ must be that of having to engage, unversed, with the life and works of an enigmatic theorist. Marianne Burton’s Kierkegaard’s Cupboard, a collection of fifty sonnets, puts paid to any such qualms. ‘This is not a work of scholarship or translation,’ Burton assures us in The Author’s Note, ‘this is a personal interpretation’. Divided into six chapters, each with explanatory notes, Burton holds our hand throughout. And the cover image, Interior with Woman Reading, by Carl Holsøe – a corner cupboard at its centre - Whistler-esque in its grey hues, initiates a perfect mis-en-scène.
        A love story, Kierkegaard’s Cupboard traces the impact of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s life-long passion for Regine Olsen to whom he was briefly engaged. The palisander, or rosewood, cupboard is both real and symbolic - a container that Kierkegaard commissioned to house ‘all the documents that made us’.
        Told through Kierkegaard’s writings, with Burton confessing that ‘some of the poems are more Kierkegaard’s than mine’ – parts of Fear and Trembling, such as in When the Child Is To Be Weaned ‘the mother blackens her breast’ are transcribed almost verbatim as verse – the poems, predominantly written in the first person, are immediate, pithy and very, very readable. Echoes Fall In Strange Places, the first poem in Childhood, introduces Kierkegaard’s father, crying ‘out in his sleep at night’, his ‘sins of melancholy love’ becoming Kierkegaard’s work’s ‘foundation’. As with Captain Alving in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, whose adulterously-contracted syphilis is ‘inherited’ by his son, so Kierkegaard’s father’s depression infects Søren. ‘I carry grief/ embedded in my heart’ admits Burton’s Kierkegaard in I Have Just Returned From A Party, literally cutting through its form with a sentence in parentheses commanding: ‘(make that dash as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit)’ followed by a drawn line and ‘I want to shoot myself ’.
        Burton’s Kierkegaard’s darkness pervades the book, ‘the least serious’ child of For A Long Time He Was Very Childish, a pseudo school report, becoming the man of I Must Decide What To Do – its first line is a stunningly terse ‘Not’ – who seeks ‘One truth for which I live and die’. Either/Or, evidently a pastiche of his book of the same title, has Kierkegaard remonstrating with himself: ‘marry the girl or don’t’. By In August I Approached Her Kierkegaard has cast Regine off – ‘three people wrote my life: one, a melancholy man, two, a child- woman, three, my close companion, grief ’.
        The poems tantalize with their un- answered questions. Deftly, often playfully, Burton intertwines Kierkegaard’s unsated love with his Existentialist ideas, his wrangles with the established Church, his lampooning by The Corsair and his early death aged forty-two. Kierkegaard’s Cupboard is, though on Burton’s own admission ‘not at all proper’, quite simply a joy.

 

Review by Sarah Law, Stride Magazine

Thursday, September 20, 2018

 

Don Paterson once described the sonnet form as a ‘box for your dreams’. Marianne Burton’s poems in this unusual collection echo Paterson’s observation: they are all sonnets of a sort, some more obviously so than others, and they all contain food for thought. Most intriguingly, they are constructed – to continue the box metaphor – of precision-sliced panels of Kierkegaard’s own language, from his personal and public writing, and are fitted together in a plurality of neatly patterned ways.  As well as being ‘interpretations’ of Kierkegaard, as Burton herself suggests in her afterword, these are poems in their own right, working as individual pieces, but many particularly well in sequences. Some are more idiosyncratically fashioned than a simple box. A cupboard of poetic portraits and philosophical miniatures in fact, all drawn from authentic documents: 

   In this palisander cupboard I have placed
   all the documents that made us what we were
   when we were anything.
       (‘In this Palisander Cupboard’)

The outline of Søren Kierkegaard’s biography is sparse and austere, though rich in philosophical thought and emotional poignancy: Burton’s collection is divided into six sections which examine his life and thought in generally chronological order, from his lonely and deprived childhood to his early death at 42. He rejected the young woman he loved, Regine, but was never able to forget her. Many years later he wrote to her husband, the philosopher Frederick Schlegel, asking if he could meet her in Schlegel’s presence. Schlegel (understandably) refused.  The poems in section two, drawn from his letters to Regine are poised and haunting, and provide a humanity that offsets Kierkegaard’s more abstract thoughts, which are explored particularly in the collection’s third section, ‘The Writings’. Many of Kierkegaard’s literary themes – of freedom and fidelity; and later on the materialistic and over-controlling nature of the established (Lutheran) Danish church – are skillfully framed and contained within Burton’s poems. Personal and professional aspects of his life share thematic panels: a self-imposed exclusionary loneliness; insistent return to an indelible sorrow.  ‘I carry grief / embedded in my heart’ (I Have Just Returned From A Party’). 

Some of Burton’s sonnets are Petrarchan, others equally formal (I admired the subtly rhyming couplets, the yearning, poetic best behaviour, of ‘Esteemed Sir, The Enclosed Letter Is From Me’, drawn from Kierkegaard’s abovementioned letter to Schlegel), but many are looser versions of the form, experimenting with shape, making use of the brief, intense line, and even typographical experimentation such as a line-length dash, and struck-through word. Others work effectively as variations on a single theme, each adding shade and nuance to its neighbours, particularly the ‘It Was Early Morning...’ sequence which retells the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, echoing Kierkegaard’s own different versions of the story in Fear and Trembling. The agony of Abraham’s dilemma, his willingness at times to appear the monster in order to preserve the faith of his son, link back, perhaps, to Kierkegaard’s personal life. 

There are some simpler, equally welcome poems constructed from Kierkegaard’s prolific epistolary advice, such as the still pertinent suggestion in ‘Above All, Jette, Do Not Forget To Walk’ : 

   ...I have walked myself into all my best thoughts
   and I know no thought so burdensome
   that I cannot walk away from it.  

I also liked the rueful ‘The Better The Book The Fewer The Readers’, which observes that ‘Books, of course, are only mirrors: if an ape looks in, no apostle will look out.’ This poem nevertheless concludes with an authentic writerly confession that ‘I save myself and keep myself alive through words.’  

No one can pretend that Kierkegaard’s life was a happy one, nor that Burton’s collection is brimful of positivity, but there is a lyrical note of personal integrity in the poems, and of the powerful, existential realm of the self (slightly ironic, in that Burton the poet’s self necessarily merges, to some extent, with the voice of her subject here). And there are some precious moments of joy before ‘the hatch’ is closed in the final ‘Close The Hatch, That’s What The Old Hymn Says’: an ‘indescribable joy’ in an earlier poem (‘There Is An Indescribable Joy’), and in this final piece, the lines ‘I am still out over seventy thousand fathoms of water, / still preserving my faith, still practicing my shouts of joy’. Kierkegaard may be crying out de profundis, but Burton’s well-crafted poems keep his voice buoyant and alive. 

Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

 

Despite her extensive research, Burton modestly claims that her book is not a work of scholarship or translation. Instead, she refers to it as “a personal interpretation in the same way that jazz interpretations pay homage to standards”. In the author’s note she writes: “I hope readers will go on to read proper books about him. This is a book of poetry and as such is not at all proper.”

The poems are presented in six parts which follow in chronological order and correspond to the different phases of Kierkegaard’s life: Childhood; Regine; The Writings; After The Corsair; The Moment, and Death. The chronology is a perfect match to the opening quotation: It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life can only be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. (Søren Aabye Kierkegaard – Journal 1843).

Every poem in the book, including the opening poem ‘How To Write A Preface’ is written as a sonnet. Far from setting herself any formal constraints,  Burton ingeniously succeeds in presenting us with a huge variety of layouts in terms of stanza breaks and line length (in one case there is just one word in the opening line) while at the same time ensuring that every poem takes up the requisite 14 lines. With few exceptions, the title of each poem is taken from the first line and each of the six sections is preceded by a short commentary or word of explanation referring to each particular phase in Kierkegaard’s life so that the reader does not have to refer to footnotes.

Although he is known chiefly as a philosopher and theologian, Kierkegaard was also a poet. Commenting on this, Burton states that “some poems are more Kierkegaard’s than mine and vice versa”.  While several of the poems in this collection read more like prose, the nature of the precise phrasing more than makes up for the absence of metaphor. Even in the more lyrical pieces, where the vocabulary is not particularly adventurous, Burton still holds our attention:

 

    Something wonderful happened yesterday.

     I left for heaven. The old gods summoned me.

     Mercury said, ‘Various gifts we have to give away:

     power, long life, the loveliest women, beauty.

     Choose – but only one.’

 

The emphasis here, as in most of the poems in this collection, is on the storyline. Burton has the knack of distilling a whole story into 14 lines. She uses poetic description sparingly and yet there is still something hypnotic about her technique that draws us in. Take, for example, the opening stanza of this poem which is described as being a letter Kierkegaard wrote to his brother’s wife who suffered poor health:

 

     Above all, Jette, do not forget to walk.

     I have walked myself into all my best thoughts

     and I know no thought so burdensome

     that I cannot walk away from it.

     Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being

     and away from illness.

     I promise, it is possible.

 

The repetition of “walk” and “thought” is immediately striking. Walking is a way of thinking yourself into a positive state of mind. In another poem, ‘Not A Day Without A Line’ Burton writes:

 

     not a day without walking

     for to forget to walk is to forget one has a body

 

Her best poems are the quiet, reflective ones that have beautiful accomplished endings. In the final section of the book she writes:

 

     How quiet dying is. Like the greatest hazard

     of all, losing the self, which often happens quietly

     in the world, as if it were nothing…

 

Burton has researched her subject matter well and has skilfully managed to convert biography into poetry. In so doing, she has given us a glimpse into the life of Kierkegaard, including his yearning for Regine, his rant against journalists, his approach to Christianity and the church, which is both tantalising and revealing and makes us hungry for more.

 

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Biography as poetry is an enticing literary choice. Rather than asking us to ingest and retain the cumulative details of a life, we’re instead invited to mull over scattered and strung selections of moments which offer a suggestion of the sum of the whole.In

While the majority of poetry shares roots with autobiography, for the poet to focus on a historic figure is a more unusual, but when done skilfully, the results are hugely pleasing. Think magician’s act blended with both anthropology and archaeology, and thoroughly interlaced with respect.

In Kierkegaard’s Cupboard, poet Marianne Burton has unearthed and thoughtfully restored a scant horde of treasures from the archives of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Throughout she has provided contextual signposts to help us understand the contemplations laid out before us, which support those of us new to Kierkegaard’s meandering preoccupations without intruding on the elegance of the poems themselves.

There’s a precision to Burton’s phrasing that shines up for me the image of a man keenly observant yet frequently fogged over by the deep intrigue of his own mind. Presented as a series of 14-line sonnets, the poems range from the yearning to the regretful to the at time bordering on furious, not least when it comes to journalists and others by whom he felt persecuted. Minor miracles such as a friendship with a stream are set alongside verses capturing mundane tasks handled with such care that they seem imbued with wonder.

Burton evokes too the complexity of being a person who sees the world from a viewpoint so unlike all others. In My Misfortune From Birth Was Not To Be Wholly Human. “I was not like others, something I so wanted to be./ A man can endure being a glorious oddity, the uncommon,/ But for a boy and a youth it is agony.”

In a more sanguine moment, Burton has Kierkegaard liken himself to a tree: “I stand unfettered, a solitary/ fir tree,/ a spire/ painting higher, ever higher.”

Far from being a history lesson or a wholly accurate pen portrait, these poems gather together to present a hint of the minutiae that make up the layers of a person’s mind, and the sense of having known him intimately, if for only the briefest pockets of time.

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