Features » Literature


"Ladies and gentlemen, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann"

Thomas Groß introduces new recordings from Germany's great negator who died tragically 30 years ago in a car accident in London

It would be nice to know how he looked when he came on stage. Whether he was wearing his notorious confirmation suit, tie and white shirt with the cuffs that always poked out of his jacket sleeves. Or the trench coat he wore years before in the streets of his hated Rome, every bit the ice-cold angel from old gangster films. But we don't know, because only the soundtrack remains. "Ladies and gentlemen, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann," someone says nonchalantly as the crowd cheers. That's how rock stars are announced, not writers.

Perhaps the Cambridge students had gotten wind of the wild man from Germany who had declared war on the "old poets" and their conventions. Maybe even one or another of his poems had been included in the curricula by a progressive professor in the otherwise tradition-bound university town. In any event, Brinkmann welcomed the invitation to come to the the Cambridge Poetry Festival: at last he had a chance to emerge from the relative anonymity he had sunk into after his successful debut as poet, translator and editor of American underground literature. At last he had an opportunity to earn a bit of money and try out his forthcoming book of poems, "Westwärts 1 & 2" (westward 1 & 2) on a live audience. According to the book's foreword, the poems are supposed to sound simple, "like songs". In fact they never sounded simple. But still today you can hear that they are inspired by rock'n'roll. (Here the poem "Die Orangensaftmaschine")

Every additional document that surfaces from Rolf Dieter Brinkmann's legacy seems more like a comeback attempt from the depths of the archives than a work of literature. That is what is called "presence" in stage lingo. In an instant, he is there once more, with his familiar, intense, penetrating, braying sound. Against his own will he does not age, because "jetzt und jetzt und jetzt und jetzt" - only the present moment counts, even when the subject is the past. This is particularly true of the "original recordings" from Brinkmann's last creative period. Thirty years after he was hit by a car in the London district of Bayswater, rockin' Rolf Dieter – in Heiner Müller's words the sole genius among the younger generation of West German writers – once more sings the blues of the war child, who trembled in the potato cellar of his north German home as the Allied bombs fell. Once more he evokes the misery of youth in the Adenauer era, with its prohibitions and repressions. And once more he strikes "westwärts" with that particular verve of his, in the company of the contemporary powers of rock and film.

The recordings have been released in time to mark the 30th anniversary of Brinkmann's death on April 23. Since that date, his texts have been published in a chaotic stream, sometimes in the form of collages documenting the flow of life ("Erkundungen für die Präzisierung des Gefühls für einen Aufstand"), sometimes as correspondence ("Briefe an Hartmut"), and sometimes as a mixture of both ("Rom", "Blicke"). The themes dealt with in the recordings were all present in the earlier texts. What is new is the sound of Brinkmann's words. For the first time you can hear what people have always said: more than a written record, Brinkmann's work bursts out of the realm of abstraction. Nothing other than the physical presence of the author in his texts could have put the Cambridge audience into such an ecstatic mood. While "The Last One", the recording of Brinkmann's last reading, could be seen as a live performance of a written text, the five CDs collected under the title "Wörter Sex Schnitt" (words sex montage), show how the poet warmed up before an open mike. A voice, a recording – no more was needed. In his shabby Cologne apartment in 1973, Brinkmann used rudimentary means to improvise on a few scraps of paper. It was first in the 1990s that this would become a folk sport in Germany: spoken word poetry, and of a special kind.

People who value professionalism and pleasant-sounding speakers will hardly be happy with the recordings. Brinkmann is resolutely in favour of the non-professional. Tape hiss, coughs, slips of the tongue – everything that is normally cut from a sound track is welcome here. Rather than following conventional standards, the work makes audible the "tremendous efforts of a writer to buck tradition". So, as William Burroughs demanded, words are chopped, pauses are left in, new passages inserted. Catchwords lead to free associations and lots of talking from the hip. Sometimes the recording stops in the middle of sentence: not a problem. The broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk that sifted through the material has done well to leave the 29 reels of tape exactly as they were (aside from several cuts necessary for legal reasons). After all, Brinkmann did not not think much of editors – for him they were just sad or insidious curators of recording machines whose real qualities remained lost on them. Only in his custody does the tape recorder become an accomplice, a testimony of what "actually happened".

That could be the sound of boiling water or the giggling of his speech-impeded son, the silence in the room or his own breath. Radical as ever, Brinkmann listens to the rasping of his lungs, from which his voice rises, wheezes, belches, whispers and shouts. He talks to his wife Maleen about poetry ("Ist mir egal"), sex and ice skating, and improvises with gurgles and smacks to the sounds of jazz ("hmm, Kotelett mit Nuss ist guuut"). He turns up the volume as far as it will go and drags his nail over the microphone, pushing the medium to its limits with a sort of scratch sound. "Heftiges Sprechen" is what he calls these investigations into the combined possibilities of voice, chest and technology. Other tracks document walks through the inner city of Cologne, providing the occasion for 'actionistic' interviews with unknown passers-by ("Wann haben Sie das letzte Mal gefickt?"). Mostly, however, monologue commentary predominates. The poet repeatedly curses the "fette, schlampige, schweinsfüßige Kölnerinnen" (fat, sleazy, sweaty-footed women of Cologne), the stinking cars and piles of dog excrement on the street. Brinkmann's strategies for escaping the everyday world of print through experimental use of tape recorders are legion, but all his efforts serve a single goal: communicating "die Atmosphäre eines lebendigen Körpers".

The recordings testify to an aesthetic of physical overexertion played out in an acoustic medium. When quarrels in the Brinkmann household get the upper hand, when the bank account is once more at a low, when Rolf Dieter spends his nights twisting the knobs of his tape recorder like an angry, sickly child, and when the borders of what this can achieve have been reached, often with the help of intoxicants, the state Jim Morrison sings about in "Break on through to the other side" cuts in. Constraints are barred, and perceptions freed up for a time.

Once more it becomes very clear that Brinkmann's entire work is based on two key scenes. One takes place in a rural cinema, the moment the lights go out and the projector starts. The other scene, here the relevant one, takes place in a 1950s ice cream parlour to the sound of rock'n'roll. At that time, the music was a deliverance from the childhood horrors and the wreckage of the Second World War. Today it can at least provide the occasional moment of ecstasy.

The recordings document even more clearly than the collected texts and letters, that Brinkmann's form of production was avantgarde. Listeners now accustomed to pop sounds will feel at home. Wasn't that an interesting noise? Doesn't a lot of this remind you of later low-fi albums and bootlegs? Brinkmann's breathless speaking takes up the "howl" of the beat generation, his lust for the loud is like concrete poetry. At the same time, his technique of cutting the stream of words with repeated sound fragments anticipates the sampling of electronic music. And the rhythmatisation of speech is reminiscent of hip-hop. In the moments when Brinkmann's voice abandons itself to the enticements of onomatopoeia and when, accompanied by a sort of recurrent grating, it pits syllabic singsong against the superiority of "cultural words", the old and the new, nursery rhymes and human beatbox, come together.

No German writer has so consistently centred his work around the idea that not all cultural power emanates from the written word. The focus on sound, the replacement of meaning by sensuality, the exploration of superficial thrills and stimuli, and last but not least the penchant for self-stylisation: practically everything that later became popular under the label 'pop literature' is present in Brinkmann's work. What is entirely missing is cheeriness. His entire literary legacy is a humour-free zone. The business of liberation is gone at with German thoroughness, and the result is correspondingly uptight. To people who met Brinkmann, the great negator in the dark suit, this was amply clear. In Rome, on a grant from the Villa Massimo, he would play up his brashness at receptions and evening parties. Equally legendary was his appearance at the Berlin Art Academy where he threatened to bash Germany's star literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki over the head with a book. Even Maleen, who generally treated her choleric partner with girlish forbearance, at one point asks: "Why do you always shout like that, Rolf?"

Good question. Why does Rolf always shout like that? Because rock'n'roll songs can soothe, but cannot heal the wounds of a lost youth. Because the attempt to break with the authoritarian structures of the post-war era by means of anti-authoritarianism still has something authoritarian about it. Because his solitary attempt at liberation is still dominated by the Germans' tendency to see themselves as victims, not as perpetrators. Rolf Dieter Brinkmann: not someone you would want in a public office. But a passionate, furious, brilliant word artist, well ahead of his time. Now we eagerly await the release of his super-8 films. RDB on DVD, that should be good.

Rolf Dieter Brinkmann: "The Last One". Reading at the Cambridge Poetry Festival, 1975, Intermedium Records, catalogue number 022, 1 CE, 59 min., 19.90 euros.

Rolf Dieter Brinkmann: "Wörter Sex Schnitt". Original recordings, 1973 (Ed. Herbert Kapfer/Katharina Agathos), Intermedium Records, catalogue number 023, 5 CDs with booklet, 385 min., 49.90 euros.


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 14 April, 2005.

Thomas Groß is a freelance author living in Berlin.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european