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"Rejected yet confessing out the soul":

Toward an Understanding of the Development of Pictoriality and Text Structure in the Poetry of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann

One of the most salient phenomena in the evolution of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’s poetry is also one of the most unusual and interesting: His experimentation with the expressive possibilities—and limitations—of language, combined and juxtaposed with image. Even a cursory chronological review of his art reveals a gradually developing sense of the sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary forces of picture and word, from his earliest, purely textual compositions with a more or less traditional graphic structure, to his later, radically designed collage-montage work involving a commingling of the textual and the graphic which was so revolutionary as to constitute a new medium of personal expression. Brinkmann's work is, to be sure, an intriguing manifestation of what Higgins, a student of visual poetry, calls "an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of those two areas into an aesthetic whole" (3). Indeed, the pictoriality of Brinkmann’s poetry lies not only in its evocative subject matter, or in his eventual use of photographs as an integral part of the poetic composition, but also in the way the poet structures and arranges words on the printed page. Most interesting for me is how Brinkmann comes to develop his own style of pattern poem (also called figure poems or carmen figurata). In this analysis I wish to explore Brinkmann’s poetic work sequentially, examining the progress of his utilization of text and image. My intention is not so much to investigate the deep structure of his work (that is, to give a close reading of the nuances of meaning in individual lines); instead I wish to discuss specifically the surface structure of Brinkmann’s poetry, and to identify how this structure enhances the expressive impact of the work as a whole. I shall also attempt to identify the literary-historical trends and traditions which, to varying degrees, are evidenced in his work.

Brinkmann’s first book, 1962’s Ihr nennt es Sprache, serves as a conceptual first step in his journey toward the fusion of pictures and words. Brinkmann's nascent graphic tendencies are present here in only two forms: A conspicuous brevity in the poems' lines, and a consistent paucity of punctuation. Otherwise the reader finds little deviation from traditional poetic text construction: All 18 poems are justified left; all feature standard capitalization and are titled; some are also divided into block-like stanzas and feature rhyme. However, on a more fundamental level, Brinkmann introduces the reader here to the sparse, sprachskeptische writing style which characterizes much of his work. Language here is used judiciously, sparingly—and almost uncertainly. According to Michael Strauch, author of a penetrating study of Brinkmann’s Text-Bild-Montagetechnik, the poet's Sprachzweifel finds a conceptual parallel (and, perhaps, basis) in the theoretical work of, among others, American Beat poet William S. Burroughs (14). Burroughs emphazised the importance of silence in art—of the artist’s making an effort not to express the unnecessary; he even went so far as to compare language itself to a virus—a force to be contained, one which contaminates and infects. Abstract painter Mark Rothko, "fearing that words would only paralyze the viewer’s mind and imagination," expressed an idea similar to Burroughs, pointing out that "Silence is so accurate," (National Gallery of Art, web). This is a perspective reinforced by both the subject matter and subdued textual design of "Das Schweigen": "Das Schweigen / schwärzt die Stimme an [. . .]," Brinkmann writes, continuing later, "[. . .] die Stimme / schwärzt die Sprache an [. . .]," and finally, "[. . .] die Sprache / schwärzt die Leute an [. . .]" (Standphotos 21). "Im Anfang war das Wort," and the title poem, "Ihr nennt es Sprache" (!), demonstrate further in embryonic form the curious, somewhat ambivalent relationship to the written word which increasingly characterizes Brinkmann's writing and poetic design.

In his second volume, Le Chant du Monde from 1963-64, Brinkmann to an even greater degree strips the poem down to its essential communicative elements, calling into question the necessity and utility in poetry of anything more than the most rudimentary composition. Three works in particular exemplify (though in a still developmental stage) this dynamic relationship between the textual and pictorial. Simplest among these is "Photographie":


auf der Straße

die Frau

in dem


Mantel. (Standphotos 52)

In this description of an instantaneous flash of observation--obviating in its immediacy and brevity the inclusion of a verb—Brinkmann confronts the reader with a remarkably uncomplicated—but not unsophisticated—poetic structure. The work is written much as a normal declarative sentence; punctuation and capitalization function here as expected. The woman's very existence, in a blue coat, in the middle of the street, is the entire subject of the work: No more, no less is said. Yet Brinkmann separates the poem's few elements vertically, placing together at most three words per line. In so doing he accentuates the fact that the statement is, indeed, a poem. No longer simply an inconsequential, quotidian utterance, the words are transformed by the poet into artistic expression. Explicit even in name, "Photographie" represents the beginning of Brinkmann's obsession with the potential of the poem as a kind of lexical Schnappschuß or Standphoto--a single, ordinary instant in time, captured and recorded by the artist. As he makes clear four years later in the introduction to Die Piloten, "Ich denke, daß das Gedicht die geeignetste Form ist, spontan erfaßte Vorgänge und Bewegungen, eine nur in einem Augenblick sich deutlich zeigende Empfindlichkeit konkret als snap-shot festzuhalten" (Standphotos 185).

Greater complexity--in both form and theme--is seen in "Gedicht am 19. März 1964" (45). As a facile, unadorned list of everyday objects, the poem resembles several instantaneous snapshots strung together, connected only by the whim and perception of the poet. The poem’s form is at best utilitarian, with three block quatrains set off structurally by Brinkmann; the lines within each begin, alternately, with either a form of der or ein. Essentially, these images in concert constitute a linguistic representation of a few seconds of screen time—many frames of instantaneous perception united in a brief, ill-defined sequence. We witness here a moment, as it were, of Film in Worten.

More intricate still is "Gedichte Schreiben" (42), which prefigures Brinkmann's graphically dense later work. This early poem functions as a purely textual montage of images and thoughts, presented in a minimalist, though structurally more-or-less traditional, poetic style. The postman’s desire to go home and "den Garten umgraben, ein paar Beete anlegen," as well as his total lack of interest "an Gedichte und Stilleben," speak of a decidedly non-academic simplicity—a genuine love of everyday items, as opposed to a reverence for artifacts of modern high culture. This simplicity of theme is matched graphically by a regular, repetitive series of couplets, rhythmically reinforcing the regularity of this character’s life. And, clearly sympathetic to the postman’s artistic sensibilities, Brinkmann himself soon comes to integrate more elements of popular culture and the everyday environment into his art.

In lieu of any noteworthy advances in text organization, 1965's Ohne Neger sees the introduction by Brinkmann into his poetry of a new, highly individualized thematic vocabulary of personal experience, as seen, for example, in "Sängerin" (Standphotos 68) and "Ideologie" (76). Such poems yield only reluctantly to the reader’s attempt to search out a meaning; they are by no means a universal conduit of human experience, but rather an idiosyncratic record of one human’s experience. Just as Brinkmann has an often indecipherable understanding of the events he describes, so does he demand that the reader develop his or her own individual explanation for the subject matter depicted. This highly ambiguous style tends to provoke more curiosity and speculation on the part of the reader than recognition or identification. In terms of Brinkmann’s graphic work, this intentional lack of clarity in communication between the author and the reader foreshadows the obscure, abstruse cartoon and photographic passages in Brinkmann’s and Ralf-Rainer Rygulla's anthology of American poetry, Acid (1969), as well as the chaotic Text-Bild-Montagen and photographic collages in Schnitte (created between 1969 and 1973), Erkundungen für die Präzisierung des Gefühls für einen Aufstand (created largely in 1971; first published 1987), and Wie ich lebe und warum (1970; revised and reprinted 1982). Though Brinkmann's initial, tentative incursions into new structural and thematic territory serve as the conceptual foundation upon which he built his more mature work, it's also clear that, at this early stage, he feels uncomfortable making any radical departures from the structural conventions of poetic design which he inherited. Indeed, only once in the following two volumes--1966's &-Gedichte and 1967's Was fraglich ist wofür (in the former's "Gedicht" [Standphotos 93])—does he so much as shift justification from left to center.

In contrast, Brinkmann's next book, Godzilla (1968), represents a sea change in the range of Brinkmann's poetic design. For the first time, instead of occasionally manipulating the arrangement of words on the page so as to bring a photographic immediacy to the surface impact of the work, in Godzilla actual photographs are integrated completely into the poems’ presentation. Each page of text is superimposed on perfectly square, black-and-white, close-up images of shapely, scantily clad women. All pictures are taken at roughly the same distance; some focus on the midriff and pubis, others on the head and shoulders, still others on the breasts. As is the case with Brinkmann’s later work, such explicit imagery serves less to titilate or seduce than to offer a rather numbingly repetitive, and thus quite alienating accompaniment to the more significant textual aspect of the work. The suggestive pictures in Godzilla are coupled with the first sexually explicit poems in the Brinkmann corpus. "Meditation über Pornos" (Standphotos 162) and "Romanze II" (175) are two of the more forthright examples.

Furthermore, in "Celluloid 1967/68" (169-172), Brinkmann employs a new, slanting text structure which serves to emphasize and invigorate certain passages:

[. . .] komm her und laß dich

ficken, von vorne oder von hinten

das ist mir völlig gleich

der Tag





tag! (169)

Here the reader's eye is drawn down the page in a steep descent, reinforcing and amplifying the urgency of the speaker's exclamation. Brinkmann’s departure from the regular alignment of text lines is striking; it draws closer attention to the statement and provokes greater interest in the reader. Brinkmann goes on to repeat this textual device again in the poem in several variations on that basic design theme. In another instance, slanting text underscores an almost staccato alternating wordplay:

[. . .] ich meine, wenn

das nicht ausreicht, ich meine








das Bild voll ist von ihrem wei-

ßen Fleisch [. . .] (172).

This device is repeated in the poem "Einfach Sonne" from 1968’s Die Piloten and "Cinemascope" from 1969’s Standphotos. In these works we see what appears to be the first graphic textual influence on Brinkmann’s work from Beat poetry. The slanted-text technique above is reminiscent of the poem "Dog" from Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), where the effect, though used in a far different context, is similarly stimulating:

[. . .] a real live


democratic dog

engaged in real

free enterprise

with something to say

about ontology

something to say

about reality

and how to see it

and how to hear it

[. . .] (247).

Moreover, the form of both these poems seems derived--whether directly or indirectly--from the revolutionary textuality of perhaps the world’s most famous pattern poet, the American artist E. E. Cummings, who employs this same technique in "XII" from his 1925 collection entitled &:

[. . .] deeds of green thrilling light

with thinned

newfragile yellows

lurch and press

---in the woods




sing (163).

Another use of Cummingsian text design in Brinkmann’s work is seen in "Das Verschwinden eines Flugzeugs" from 1968’s Die Piloten in which two parts of the poem—the line "have fun take a coke," bracketed by two small starts, and finally the parenthetical "(und ich meine jetzt wieder das Flugzeug / das gerade eben noch dort oben am / Himmel zu sehen war!) (198-199)" are typed vertically on the page, forcing the reader to physically turn the book 90° to read the poem in its entirety. Later Brinkmann takes a step beyond Cummings by altering not only justification but also font size, most noticably in "Gedicht auf einen Lieferwagen u.a.," in which the words "Coke," "USA" and "Wetter" are emphasized to ironic, almost comic effect with something on the order of 25-point sans-serif type, in contrast to the 10- or 12-point serif type of the rest of the book. Also, by comparing the USA and the weather to a consumer product—but then again maybe the USA is a consumer product—Brinkmann sets up an interesting juxtaposition not only of meaning but also of form.

In Die Piloten, Brinkmann’s work begins taking on characteristics of the almost concrete poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, famous for works in which space, font size and typeface are freely manipulated so as to form recognizable pictures with text, for example a smile. Brinkmann curiously never takes his poetry to this very adventurous (and very ancient) degree of textuality—for example, he never quite reaches the textual pictoriality developed by Johann Hellwig of the Pegnesischen Blumenorden in Die Nymphe Noris of 1650, in which poems are made to resemble a variety of objects, such as a pan flute. He is almost always content, as was Cummings, to limit his experimentation with text to the kind seen in the examples above.

In Standphotosthe individual poetry volume, not the anthology—we see for the first time a structural technique which comes to play a critical role in Brinkmann’s most advanced work, that is the free construction of lines separated by various spaces on the page. A good example is "Reading Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire (for Ron Padgett)," in which only three of the poems lines are justified left; others appear to be "centered," but on their own axis slightly to the right of the page’s true center; other lines are situated around these positions. As a result the reader must shift his focus continually while reading down the printed page. The text design serves to complement the poem’s inscrutable subject matter, implicitly giving the piece a whimsical, amusing quality which with traditional text structure would be more difficult to achieve. Brinkmann here is able to use not only language but the image of language itself—the form of the words—to convey a desired tone.

1970’s Gras is in many ways a compilation, with some expansion, of techniques Brinkmann had previously developed. In the "Kaffee trinken" diptych, we see poems written simply in paragraph form, with no line breaks whatsoever and puncutation that is completely standard—turning on its head the change Brinkmann made in, for example, "Gedichte Schreiben" from Le Chant du Monde, in which a normal sentence was transformed into poetry through the structural alterations of the poet. With "Kaffee trinken," and "Gedicht," which consists only of the quoted line "‹Heute sind Maleen und Ralf-Rainer mir zusammen durch den Kopf gegangen,›" the reader is compelled genuinely to wonder if these works are indeed poetry at all. The quandary here is reminiscent of that which in some circles still today revolves around the ready-made art of Marcel Duchamp, for whom a urinal became a "fountain" to exhibit in the main hall of a museum; for whom Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was a cartoon ripe for baudy doctoring. Again, Brinkmann in Gras demonstrates that his compositions are art, whether or not they are poetry, because he says they are—the ultimate personal artistic expression.

The zenith of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’s text design is, however, Westwärts 1 & 2, first published five years after Gras in 1975. The main body of the book is bracketed by two photographic essays which, like the poet’s written work, defy an easy interpretation. In the poetry itself, we see a very highly advanced use of the free page structure as seen in "Reading Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire (for Ron Padgett)." Apart from the title poems in Westwärts, the book’s English-language triptych "Hearing the news today (1)," "(2)" and "(3)" are prime examples of the level of refinement Brinkmann achieves with this technique. The words seemed to be arranged in a haphazard fashion around the page; there is no justfication. Unlike previous examples of freeform text style, here there is no self-evident path for the reader to follow through the text; the decision of what steps to take in pieceing together a comprehensible meaning of the poem is left to the reader. Brinkmann provides several options, mulitple ways of reading the text; the reader must choose. Thus these poems a kind of hybrid between pattern and concrete poetry; whereas their innovative form on the page recalls Brinkmann’s previous work on a superficial level, the many possible dimensions of reading make it impossible to give these poems a definitive oral recitation, a quality usually associated with the pictorial concrete poetry of artists such as Eugen Gomringer and Öyvind Fahlström (Solt 15). An example is seen in the first lines of "Hearing the news today (2)," in which, after reading the first two words, "If you," the reader will likely continue on the same line to finish the statement as "If you think of pests, think of us." However, moving in a more diagonal direction across the page, the reader would say, "If you think, then do not think twice, it’s alright." The bizarre inclusion to the right of the phrase "now it’s gonna raining"—seemingly intended as a nonsequitur to complete the pests line of reading—is to say the least difficult to understand in or out of context. Brinkmann still clearly enjoys confronting the reader with the indecipherable. Nevertheless, this and other poems from Westwärts demonstrate the absolute extent to which the poet is willing to play with text (and the reader’s understanding) in poetry. To take the expression further, he is compelled to adapt the technique of Godzilla by combining snippets of texts and pictures, either culled from popular publications or created with his own camera and typewriter, into the aforementioned, equally personal collage-montage work. Brinkmann must go beyond poetry to reach a final stage in the evolution of his poetic, graphic sensibilities.

Brinkmann was, throughout his art, able to successfully integrate elements of the pictorial and the textual so as to engineer a uniquely expressive combination which was neither graphic nor written, yet much more than the sum of these constituent parts. In the end, it seems there is only one word—in any language—fit to describe Brinkmann’s method of creating art, and that is Brinkmannsch. He adopts and adapts the ideas and techniques of others, only to bend and shape them to his own artistic ends. He takes the tools and ideas history gives him, works his way through them, and eventually devises a new way of working and thinking which is exciting and original. For Brinkmann conventions are but a starting point. He takes the rules, exercises them, tests their limits, and finally breaks them. Those who know and appreciate Brinkmann will agree that literature is a richer, more interesting discipline precisely because of his disregard for literary discipline.


Works Cited



Brinkmann, Rolf Dieter. Acid. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1983.

---. "Der Film in Worten." Der Film in Worten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1982.

---. Erkundungen für die Präzisierung des Gefühls für einen Aufstand. Reinbek bei

Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1987.

---. Schnitte. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988.

---. Standphotos: Gedichte 1962-1970. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1980.

---. "Wie ich lebe und warum." Der Film in Worten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1982.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems 1913-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,

1968. 163.

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. "Dog." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York:

Viking, 1992. 246-48.

Ginsberg, Allen. "Howl." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Viking,

1992. 62-67.

Higgins, Dick. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Albany: State U of New

York P, 1987.

Strauch, Michael. Rolf Dieter Brinkmann: Studie zur Text-Bild-Montagetechnik.

Stauffenburg-Colloquium 48. Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 1998.