Rolf Dieter Brinkmann's revolutionary poetry
'The James Dean of poetry' offers a new bi-lingual collection
Posted: August 31, 2011
Rolf Dieter Brinkmann is often called the James Dean of poetry - an apt moniker, given the effect his charged writing, which was completely at odds with the literary status quo, had on the German poetic establishment, as well as his tragically early death in a car accident. Unlike Dean, however, Brinkmann, as an inhabitant of West Germany, did not live East of Eden, but West of hell.
In contrast to many of his older contemporaries in post-war German poetry - Paul Celan and Günter Eich, for example - Brinkmann and his work were rather too experimental, too extreme to have been taken up by German departments at Anglophone Universities and widely disseminated in English - until recently. Mark Terrill, an American poet and translator based in northern Germany for the past two decades has brought Brinkmann's work into flowing, idiomatic English in several chapbooks and small volumes, and now offers a comprehensive bi-lingual edition of Brinkmann's poetry from 1962 to 1975, the poet's most productive period in the last decade of his life.
Brinkmann's poetry is informed by the New York School of poets like Frank O'Hara and Ted Berrigan, whom he translated into German. As such, his work is urbane, fast-paced and often seemingly inconsequential, with an off-the-cuff air that belies the seriousness of its author's intentions. Analogous to James Dean's performances - to push that comparison to the logical limit - Brinkmann doesn't care whether the reader "gets it," but is often intent on recording pure thought, reaction or emotion. In his own words, "poetry is not a waiting room where one stays overnight ... every word is war." As a result, the critical mind at times glances off these poems, but like pop-art, the medium is often the message.
Some of these poems present a record of their own occurrence, such as "Poem on March 19th, 1964, which records the moment of composition on several levels: "A pencil/ a sheet of paper/ a cup of coffee/ a cigarette/ ... a hand/ a few words/ an eye/ a mouth."
By Rolf Dieter Brinkmann
Translated by Mark Terrill
Brinkmann's language is deceptively simple, making it easy to overlook a masterful choice of phrasing and line breaks - which Terrill has followed faithfully. This is a list poem expertly handled, especially the final stanza, which focuses us on the vocal nature of Brinkmann's and all poetry and is itself perhaps the pithiest ars poetica on record.
But Brinkmann is not a poet soaked in aesthetic theory, like Rimbaud he is a poet of raw vital energy, a poet of quick, wide observation rather than deep meditation. Brinkmann is also a poet with a wicked sense of humor, a bon vivant not afraid to get profane and delve in taboo.
"The Naked Foot of Ava Gardner" is a highlight of Brinkmann's pop-poetry mode. Here he captures the intersection of fantasy, memory and the unknown that sex symbols generate. Focusing this longing on Gardner's foot, which "is/ a nightmare, when it refuses/ to let itself be removed from/ your memory," Brinkmann shows his signature use of humor and deep seriousness at once, which appears more clearly later in the poem, when he admits "there are worse things than toes,/ this I know/ but there is nothing/ that can be compared to/ the toe of Ava Gardner."
But even this seemingly lighthearted poem takes on tragic dimensions when Brinkmann writes of "leaving the cinema forever," as if making the irrevocable pact of the wronged lover. In a parting jab that clues us in - if we are attentive - to his seriousness, Brinkmann summarizes the distant, personal interactions we have with film stars: "The memory is the one side/ the other side we'll never know."
Where Brinkmann delves most deeply, so to speak, into his subject matter is in his longer poems, which appear to the end of this volume. In those cases, it is a depth gained from considering a topic from several angles. From this point of view, An Unchanging Blue crescendos with the poem "Some Very Popular Songs," a 28-page tour de force set in several places, including the country and the city, Berlin and London. The poem is most famous - or infamous - for humanizing Hitler and his companion Eva Braun with passages like "Eva Braun, what did you feel when you/ got the capsule/ Did you simply think/ you'd had your chance?" and other more personal questions that aren't fit for publication here.
When one compares this post-war reckoning with Germany's past to the prescribed astringency of Group 47, leading poetic taste-makers at the time, who recommended paucity in language and emotion as a way to cleanse the German language and its literature, one sees just how revolutionary Brinkmann was, and why the academy would have wanted nothing to do with him.
Brinkmann was intent on humanizing these embarrassing historical figures whom others would have preferred to forget. Here we see a change in his poetry, from an impersonal, artistic aesthetic to a humanizing, personal one, which was nevertheless perfectly contra the dominant modes of the time: "My mother loved cheap paperbacks, she looked/ to see if the seam in her stockings was straight, she went// across the meadow in a silky shimmering dress."
"Some Very Popular Songs" is composed in perfect quatrains, except where the form expands, in several later pages, to an open field approach, at times with several columns, at times with words scattered across the page. This poem expanded the parameters of German poetry both formally and emotionally and as such stands as one of the most significant achievements in post-war German literature. It is a tragedy it is not more widely read.
But perhaps Brinkmann would have wanted it that way. As a poet who made no aesthetic compromises, Brinkmann insisted on following his own voice rather than prevailing trends. Like all great poets, his once incomprehensible, revolutionary voice has become more recognizable, and more significant in the decades since his death. An Unchanging Blue will stand as the definitive collection of Brinkmann's late work. If you enjoy the poetry of O'Hara and his contemporaries - perhaps the most vital period of 20th century American poetry - you cannot afford not to know Brinkmann, a poet who remained dedicated, despite hardships, to his appointed task: "To sing a song/ with no other purpose/ than to sing a song."
Stephan Delbos can be reached at
Tags: Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Mark Terrill, An Unchanging Blue: Selected Poems 1962-1975.