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Toward an Understanding of Selected Early Standphotos by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann

by Robert Stamper

Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic in the evolution of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann's poetry is his increasing experimentation with the expressive possibilities (and limitations) of language and 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. This journey of discovery finds its genesis most clearly in several poems from Brinkmann's second book, 1964's Le Chant du Monde. Three works in particular exemplify, in an embryonic stage, the dynamic relationship between the textual and pictorial which was to consume so much of the poet's creative energies. In these first endeavors we see a nascent manifestation in Brinkmann of what Higgins 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).

"Photographie" is the simplest of these first works. Consisting of a mere six lines, the poem is written much as a normal declarative sentence--punctuation and capitalization functioning as expected--yet Brinkmann staggers the poem's few elements, placing together at most three words per line. The "sentence" is by no means merely declarative; here, in the description of an instantaneous flash of observation--obviating by its very brevity the inclusion of a verb--he confronts the reader with a decidedly basic poetic structure. The woman's existence, in a blue coat, in the middle of the street, is the entire subject of the work: No more, no less is said. Explicit even in name, "Photographie" is perhaps the truest Standphoto of all: A single, ordinary instant in time, captured and recorded by the artist.

Of greater complexity is "Gedicht am 19. März 1964." Here Brinkmann's poetic impulse gives a more intricate (though still facile) structure to what seems a commensurately more sophisticated moment of recognition. Through purposeful usage of definite and indefinite articles (as well as stanza structure), Brinkmann is able to distinguish this artistic work from a quotidian list; lines in the first and third quatrains all begin with a form of "ein," those in the middle quatrain with a form of "der." It should be noted that, as with all the poems in Brinkmann's first three books, the text of "Gedicht am 19. März 1964" is justified left; it seems Brinkmann still feels uncomfortable making any radical departures, textually speaking, from the poetic customs he inherited. Taken at face value, the poem offers the reader a brief inventory far less involved (and involving) than Günter Eich's Zeltbahn, Handtuch and Zwirn. Nevertheless, when seen as part of the conceptual foundation upon which further poetic experimentation was based, Brinkmann's attempt in the poem--that of representing linguistically what might be imagined as a few seconds of screen time--assumes critical import.

Of still greater intricacy is the much longer "Gedichte schreiben." Here Brinkmann couples uncomplicated observation of a mailman's daily life--his routine, his desires, his beliefs--with personal comments from the artist's perspective. Brinkmann's beginning the piece with an almost plaintive "O," then repeating "die alltäglichen Dinge" and "und alle die Dinge" in, respectively, the first and final of the poem's fourteen couplets, endows the work with an aura of longing--a sense of the simple, attractive beauty of everyday events, untainted by overexamination and painstaking explication (42-43). The postman's uncluttered life holds special significance for an artist quite willing to disdain, as in "Kurzzeiliges Bild," an existence encumbered by meaningless discourse:

Von früh
bis spät
ein Wort nach
dem andren
und am Ende
steht nichts. (48)

"Gedichte schreiben" is, in essence, an early, purely textual montage of images and thoughts, presented in a minimal, though structurally more-or-less traditional, poetic style. Again, Brinkmann's rudimentary foray into the poetic expression of the very simple takes on historical importance when viewed as another step on the path to his more mature work.

What Brinkmann sees as the mailman's total lack of concern for literary fancy strongly prefigures the poet's characteristically anti-linguistic contention in the foreword to Schnitte: "häufig müssen wir von der Sprache wegkommen um klar denken zu können" (72). Through the course of his artistic development, it is increasingly clear that Brinkmann is seeking a method of poetic expression that encompasses the full power of the visual, yet--in the fundamental paradox of much of Brinkmann's poetry--as a writer he must contend with the conventions, function and formality of text. Thus he is driven to marry word and image (as strikingly seen in Godzilla), and to rely increasingly on a kind of Cummingsian Figurengedicht (as in "Das Verschwinden eines Flugzeugs" from 1968's Die Piloten)--what Faber du Faur refers to, in a particularly appropriate turn of phrase, as Bildgedichte(150). (Brinkmann's naming his fourth volume of poetry &-Gedichte would seem a compelling indication of his intellectual bond with Cummings, who in 1925 published a collection entitled &.)

In examining the development of Brinkmann's oeuvre--the first stage of which is embodied in these few pieces from Le Chant du Monde--the reader witnesses the poet's first exploratory movements into the style with which he would become so closely associated. Even during this earliest phase, Brinkmann seems inspired by Kerouac's exhortation in the 1959 essay "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose," which Brinkmann cites in "Der Film in Worten": "Beiseitige literarische, grammatische und syntaktische Hindernisse . . . Denke nicht gleich an Worte, wenn du dich unterbrichst, um das Bild besser sehen zu können . . . " (223).

Works Cited

Brinkmann, Rolf Dieter. "Der Film in Worten." Der Film in Worten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1982.

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

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

Faber du Faur, Curt von. German Baroque Literaure: A Catalogue of the Collection in the Yale University Library. New Haven: Yale UP, 1958.

Higgins, Dick. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Albany: State U of New York P, 1987.

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