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A Sweet Song Indeed

Introduction
"She was in town only for a week, and I assumed there would be rivals for her attention. She was lovely, with red hair and beautiful brown eyes, and charming and smart and flirtatious and loved to dance. I needed to impress her quickly."

I had a big romance when I was forty-three, a divorced dad living in St. Paul, and attended the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion of the Anoka High School class of 1960. I met our Danish exchange student, Ulla Petersen, who I had a crush on when I was eighteen. I hadn't seen or heard of her in years, and suddenly I set off in hot pursuit.

She was in town only for a week, and I assumed there would be rivals for her attention. She was lovely, with red hair and beautiful brown eyes, and charming and smart and flirtatious and loved to dance. I needed to impress her quickly. My credentials—A Prairie Home Companion, the New Yorker magazine, Lake Wobegon Days—didn't have much traction with a Danish woman. So I found an album of Danish songs, chose one that was languid and beautiful, and memorized it in one afternoon, playing the tape over and over. That evening at a classmate's house, when I caught her alone in the kitchen, I casually sang it to her, as if it were a song I had always known:

Jeg fik en sorg saa stor
I mine ungdoms dage
den aldrig fra mig gaar,
saa lange som jeg leve.
Den storste sorg forvist
at man kan overgaa,
det er at elske en
som man kan aldrig faa.


Which basically says: I had a great sorrow in my youth that I will never get over as long as I live, the greatest sorrow that one can endure, which is to love a person whom one can never have. (It's better in Danish.) She was duly impressed.

I sang it again at our wedding dinner in Copenhagen four months later, and sang it occasionally at parties at Danish friends' houses, a sweet song indeed, and a very Danish one, being a love song to a lost love. The last verse wishes the lost love "as many good days as there are leaves on the linden tree or sands on the beach," and now, twelve years after we divorced, I find it rather painful—I sing the first stanza, and it brings tears to my eyes.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer's Almanac heard on public radio stations across the country. He is the editor of two poetry anthologies, Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, and the author of more than a ...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

A Sweet Song Indeed

  • Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer's Almanac heard on public radio stations across the country. He is the editor of two poetry anthologies, Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, and the author of more than a ...

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