This is the thirteenth article in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Yahya Hassan died the 29th of April 2020, 24 years old. This essay thus also serves as an obituary looking back on Hassan’s life and the brilliance of his poetry.
In 2013 the 18 years old Yahya Hassan published his eponymically titled debut poetry collection. It sold 120.000 volumes – the bestselling debut poetry collection in Denmark ever.
A part of the reason for the popularity of the poems was undoubtedly the circumstances surrounding it. Hassan was born in Denmark in 1995 to Palestinian immigrants. His debut-poems sharply criticized the secluded Muslim immigrant society he grew up in, with its omnipresent criminality (in which Hassan himself took part) and hypocrisy toward the Islamic values professed by its members. As a result, Hassan received death threats when the poems were published and a planned poetry recital was cancelled by the police, who said they couldn’t guarantee Hassan’s safety. Hassan, however, had struck a resonant note on both sides of the political divide, the hard right wing embracing him because of his criticism of Muslim immigrant society, while the liberals hailed him as the long awaited immigrant poet, who eloquently expressed the difficulties of growing up as an immigrant in prejudiced Denmark (in one telling anecdote, Hassan told of how his school teacher once returned an essay he wrote, refusing to believe that it was Hassan who wrote it himself). Politicians stepped in and the recital was finally held with full airport style security, armed police and even a flight ban over the neighbourhood of the venue, something that must be unique in the history of poetry recitals.
This event, coupled with multiple controversial interviews (where Hassan would often embarrass interviewers unprepared for his quick wit) and Hassan’s idiosyncratic way of reciting his poems inspired by the chanting of the Koran, all resulted in making Yahya Hassan a household name in Denmark, and made the sales of his poems explode.
Still, Hassan’s poetry is the sine qua non of his fame. It is highly original and written with a fiery energy, reflected in his use of uppercase letters. These are percussive poems, to be read out with a loud voice, holding nothing back. Judge for yourself in this heart-breaking poem from his debut collection:
FIVE KIDS IN A ROW AND A FATHER WITH A CLUB
MULTI CRYING AND A PUDDLE OF PISS
IN TURNS WE PUT OUR HANDS FORWARD
FOR THE SAKE OF PREDICTABILITY
THAT SOUND WHEN THE BLOWS HIT
SISTER WHO JUMPS SO QUICKLY
FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER
THE PISS IS A WATERFALL DOWN HER LEG
ONE HAND FORWARD THEN THE OTHER
IF IT GOES TO SLOWLY THE BLOWS COMES AT RANDOM
A BLOW A SCREAM A NUMBER 30 OR 40 SOMETIMES 50
AND ONE LAST HIT IN THE ASS ON THE WAY OUT THE DOOR
HE GRABS BROTHER BY THE SHOULDERS AND STRAIGHTENS HIM UP
CONTINUES THE BEATING AND COUNTING
I LOOK DOWN WAITING MY TURN
MOTHER BREAKS PLATES IN THE STAIRCASE
AT THE SAME TIME AL JAZEERA TV-TRANSMITS
HYPERACTIVE BULLDOZERS AND RESENTFUL BODY PARTS
THE GAZA STRIP IN SUNSHINE
FLAGS BEING BURNED
IF A ZIONIST DOES NOT ACKNOWGLEDGE OUR EXISTENCE
IF WE EXIST AT ALL
WHEN WE HICCUP THE ANXIETY AND THE PAIN
WHEN WE GRASP FOR BREATH OR MEANING
IN SCHOOL WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO SPEAK ARABIC
AT HOME WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO SPEAK DANISH
A HIT A SCREAM A NUMBER
At times it seemed like the whole Danish middle class wanted to own Yahya Hassan’s Poetry, fitting it into simplified political and social narratives, that don’t do justice to the poems. But Hassan refused to let himself be pinned down in preconceived categories. On top of his many eccentric appearances on television, he voluntarily surrendered the police protection he had had since his debut poems were published and became involved in multiple cases of violence. This ended in a jail-sentence and later a stay at a psychic ward. Suddenly literary critics and other public persons in Denmark were queuing up stating that we should separate Hassan’s life and poetry, appreciating the latter in-it-self. To me, this seems a ludicrous (and impossible) exercise: The poems (a second collection named Yahya Hassan 2 appeared in the fall of 2019) do not lose any of their quality for having a direct connection to Hassan’s life, no matter what life that was. On the contrary Hassan’s poetry is autobiographical, and gains strength from reflecting Hassan’s own reality.
Hassan’s poetry is about the problems of the society he grew up in and its’ relationship to the larger Danish society it is a part of. As such his poems has a specific Western European context, but the themes are universal, and the conflicts are present in some form or another in many societies, both in the West and the East.
Only time will tell how the future will look back on Yahya Hassan’s poetry, but for now it stands as one of the most significant events in the history of 21st century Danish literature.
One thing is sure: The death of Yahya Hassan is a big loss for the Danish art scene and most of all for the people who knew him.
Yahya Hassan poetry has been translated from Danish into several western languages, but as of yet, no Chinese translation have been made.
Text: Skjold Andreas Arendt