Posts Tagged ‘experimental writing’

How to make an assessment of the writings/works of Friederike Mayröcker?
Maybe by not doing so.


For a long time it was Friederike-Mayröcker-and-Ernst-Jandl. 
They were inseparable in many way, the ways that really mattered. 
They collaborated on performance and radio pieces – their work was more sound art, vocal layering, than what we think of as a ‘play’, ‘drama’.
And between them they won innumerable prizes. Among them the top, Georg Büchner Prize, for Friederike Mayröcker.
Friederike Mayröcker’s work has always been distinctive. 
The Poetry Foundation site tells us, She is associated with the experimental German writers and artists of the Wiener Gruppe (

Widely and deeply read, the work she has produced is deeply referenced – whether to Robert and Clara Schumann’s Marriage Diaries, Samuel Beckett, Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Hölderlin, and probably a huge number that I do not recognise.
And not only European writers: she references Frank O’Hara, Jorie Graham, James Joyce, in Scardanelli alone. Elsewhere she gives John Dowland, Gertrude Stein, Glen Gould, even Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten – in other words, very eclectic.

Friederike-Mayröcker-and-Ernst-Jandl are/were both Austrian writers, born within a few years of each other in 1020s Vienna.
This places them in the same environment and time as Ingeborg Bachmann (born Klagenfurt, Carinthia, but Vienna-based). Her novel, Malina, is based in Vienna’s district 6, whilst Friederike Mayröcker has lived a few minutes tram journey away, in district 5, for fifty years or more.

Ernst Jandl.
He wrote he started off as a conventional enough poet, but then he went to a meeting of concrete poets/Dadaists… and the fun they were having, the enjoyment…. Joie de vivre was very much his.


But then he went and died in 2000. After fifty years together.


Her subsequent publications include:
Requiem for Ernst Jandl (2001. Published Seagull Books, 2018),
Embracing the Sparrow Wall Or 1-Schumann-Madness (2011; Oomph Books, 2019),
Scardanelli (2018; The Song Cave, 2018),

chart the loss, and also continuance:

When your soul is bleeding, says Elke Erb, how can you not find words, says Elke Erb, among Mongolia melancholy monochrome and green passers-by, is he not sending you a profusion of loving-souls, and you in their midst…(translation Roslyn Theobald, Requiem for Ernst Jandl)

And you can read here the shifts of register, tone. The repetition is like a reminding, a keeping-concentration, and so not flowing away with distress – there is that, it is part of grieving, has to be allowed/admitted/lived-with.
The text is not public display, nor wholly self-referential, but walks a path where the borders blend. Do not think of strict demarcations between states, intents, because there are none.

And yet the text is here presented for publication. There have been public readings.
This is the personal made the default; the public persona has been ousted. There have been more than enough of those, thank you.

To read/listen, is to navigate the seas, the jungles and seas, of living responsiveness to the self’s and the world’s demands.

Book blurb gives us:

Tumult, ferocity, flow, immersion… reinterprets literary vocation as total theatre (Wayne Koestenbaum, Scardanelli)
( – Scardanelli is one way Friederich Hölderlin addressed himself in his ‘madness’.)

The title of her earlier, 1990s and long out of print selection in translation on Caracanet, is Raving Language

…this quiet but passionate lament grows into a song of enthralling intensity.(Roslyn Theobald, Requiem for Ernst Jandl)

There is also ‘quiet… intensity’ in Embracing the Sparrow-Wall Amid The Ivy:

whether the wet laundry in my chamber and thinking of Silvie what all she requited to me on that day when HE was buried she slept beside that night because I was afraid to remain alone and the composition >>To Silvia<< by Franz Schubert which haunted me because I had cried a lot and the winter tapped against the glass…

This is not rambling, but following a trail.
Jonathon Larson, translator of, and in his Introduction to, Embracing the Sparrow Wall, writes of her constructions as a ‘cloud of sound‘, and of her ‘density and grain of phrasing’.

Her writing purposely eschews construction issues, rules and habits of argument, discussion, the public voice, the ‘poetic’, for flow that eddies, discovers itself, discovers others.
Musicians are referenced often, and ‘orchestration’ is one way of describing her writing. And yet musical orchestration is a very regulated transposition of forms.

Her placing of words, phrasings, is with pin-point accuracy of skill. Perhaps this is a kind if transposing.
Of course, this taxes the translator’s skills hugely. She has been very fortunate in the ones listed here; they have done the work great service in making it available and also accessible to us.

All this points out the uniqueness of her writing, her forms, purposes.


The Elke Erb quote, above, is interesting.
Elke Erb has lived throug the East German regime, from almost its beginning to its end. With the GDR’s iron emphasis on socialist realism and materialism, the survival of the term/concept ‘soul’ is all the more striking. Is this persistence, or resistance?

Wiki tells us:
 In his years of madness, Hölderlin would occasionally pencil ingenuous rhymed quatrains, sometimes of a childlike beauty, which he would sign with fantastic names (most often “Scardanelli”) and give fictitious dates from previous or future centuries.ölderlin

Why do I mention this?
The Poetry Foundation tells us She has also cited Friedrich Hölderlin as an important influence, describing his poetry as a type of drug she takes before writing.(

The disjunction between the tuning-into what Wiki termed the ‘childlike beauty’, and Poetry Foundation’s description of her creation from that: ‘the apparently random: the habitual use of collage techniques which layer seemingly disparate levels of experience‘ is very revealing.

The Institute of Modern Languages site, tells us of : the tension between a playful and freely associative poetics on the one hand, and concentrated discipline on the other.
Her earlier work has used the formal format of much experimental work, from the Oulipo writers onwards. We see this in:

Will Wither Like Grass. My Hand too and Pupil

will wither like grass . my foot and my hair and my silentest word

will wither like grass . your mouth your mouth

will wither like grass . how you gaze into me

will wither like grass . my cheek my cheek and the little flower

which you know is there will wither like grass 

will wither like grass . your mouth your purple-coloured mouth

will wither like grass . but the night but the mist but the plenitude

will wither like grass will wither like grass

                 Translated from the German by Richard Doveöcker.htm

David Constatine, in his translations of Frederich Hölderlin writes, ‘Hölderlin is a poet we can read with our own atrocious times in mind. He is a deeply religious poet whose fundamental tenet is absence and the threat of meaninglessness. He confronted hopelessness as few writers have, he was what Rilke called “exposed”; but there is no poetry like his for the constant engendering of hope, for the expression, in the body and breath of poems, of the best and most passionate aspirations’ 

Hope, then, and the ‘best and most passionate aspirations‘ – there I think, we have it.

There is in her writing what she terms, ‘tender prose’.
She is very specific and determined about this description. See the interview for Green Integer Review:öcker.htm
And so:


The title of her latest book Scardanelli, as we seen, is one name chosen by Frederich Hölderlin in his ‘madness’ phase.
And if we read the writings of each we see many similarities in style.
She had been working on and towards a language of expression for her grief, and ‘Raving Language’ was one description.

In contrast, her book, Scardanelli, consists of short – little more than a page at most, often much less -pieces. Lyrical remembrances of walks with Ernst Jandl, friends afterwards, walks in the mountains, Venice.
I say lyrical, because they are marked by emotive recapturing of moments of happiness, stillness.
If we read Frederich Hölderlin’s later poems – see James Mitchell’s: – we see similar short works, that capture similar moments of lyrical recapture.

Each book is different, in style, approach, and this really attracts me.
Rather than holding the same achieved poise in address, she experiments, goes where the need takes. For each book is an event, comes from a need rather than an flow of text, play of language, keeping oneself in the market.

from my book kindle, Parameters


‘London sundays’

Snatches of summer in afternoon parks

are probably now as good as it gets.

Meeting beneath the clock that never works

then sloping off homewards as the sun sets


like boredom, wears on like a bad winter,

and which spreads through rooms like sunlight and dust.


First of all we are alerted by the tenses used here: it is ongoing event: we have the memory and its commentary; we have an easy use of language that is part colloquialism, part advertising parody (as good as it gets), (smells as good as coffee). We also have the reference to Benzedrine usage: maybe what we are to read here is ‘street’ i.e. a current demotic that indicates no-nonsense concerns, concrete imagery, and sometimes ornate language.

So, Love is… and what he gives us is nothing like the glorified magazine experience, but something a bit more down to earth, something, as he says not crazy, but something more comfortable without losing its magical ability: and which spreads through rooms….

The rhyme scheme is particularly interesting, rhyming ababcdcd; but all a’s and c’s are consonantal rhymes, whereas b’s and d’s are assonantal. This gives a good flow to the piece, the rhythm not held to pause and pivot on any particular word or sound. The last stanza’s c-rhyme, ‘rumour-winter’ just about links on the r.  As an English writer, compared with a Scots’ writer’s pronunciation, Welton’s ‘r’ is light; the feeling of euphony is increased by this suggestion of rhyme. Rhythmically both rhyming words click together nicely, their ‘feminine’ endings suggestive of similar degrees of certain moods.

We get the regular rhyme scheme, the regular rhythm, and a de rigueur yet non-insistent iambic pentameter.

We must also note the lower case of sundays in the title. Already this alerts us to a something not strictly regular. The lowercase opens up the week to allow in expansiveness.

– Poetry’s ‘street cred’ is a tricky affair: in Simon Armitage it is mostly in the truncated rhythms; in Paul Farley more choice of subject matter. Glyn Maxwell’s ‘street’ has elements in common, like any contemporary writer hoping to make the scene, with music styles: there are the methedrine-tight rhythms and micro-beats of his middle period. He sets up semantic expectations, what used to be called ‘subverting the cliché’, and then twists further.

“The two things I am most concerned with in my writing are…” writes Welton, “: making music out of the sounds of words, and exploring the meeting-points of tradition and experiment.”

When we come to the long ‘Book of Matthew’ poem itself, things get rather complicated. It is a series of variations on a basic structure; thirty-nine variations in fact, of six ‘classes’, divided unequally into ‘sections’, and into ‘divisions’ within sections.

Class one: Abstract relations

Section 1: Existence

The wind around the orange-tree

brings on the smell

of nutskins mixed with whisky

mixed with lemons or rain,

and carries through

the grasses where the flowers

in the sun redden a little





Section two: Relation

The wind around the orange-tree

brings on a smell

of caramel and kedgeree

or rubber or gum,

and carries through

the orchards where the flowers

in the sun gladden a little




: the language, parts of speech, producing stranger and stranger modes and sensual descriptions as the sections play out.


I am reminded by this enterprise of Inger Christensen’s Watersteps, which takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

One other common element to these two enterprises, besides strict mathematical gaming; a likeness for a continental weather setting, American, and/or greater-European; is a great value put upon sound, a euphonious quality to the poems.

Christensen has often been connected with the French Oulipo group. Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound.

And as I have demonstrated, both use a similar Oulipo approach. So, what do we have to positively connect Welton with Oulipo? We have this:

Dec 2008

‘A poetry event reflecting on the beauty and usefulness of mathematics, featuring Paul Fornel, French poet and member of the Oulipo Movement dedicated to the creation of Mathematical Poetry, Ross Sutherland, a specialist in computer-generated poetry, and Matthew Welton, whose poetry is admired for its structure and form.’

Ross Sutherland, member of Aisle 16, has recorded for Radio 1 a remarkable feat of a poem which uses only words consisting of the ‘o’ vowel, throughout the piece. If this reminds you of the George Perec novel, A Void (English title: and do not miss the pun), which in French completely avoids using the letter ’e’ in all words, then you’re on the right track. This usage also has particular meaning within the novel.

Oulipo is all about constraint:

Oulipo, the “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle” or “Workshop for Potential Literature,” was co-founded in Paris the early 1960’s by mathematician and writer Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Oulipian writers impose constraints that must be satisfied to complete a text, constraints ranging across all levels of composition, from elements of plot or structure down to rules regarding letters. Oulipo thus pushes a structuralist conception of language to a level of mathematical precision; technique becomes technical when language itself becomes a field of investigation, a  complex system made up of a finite number of components. The informing idea behind this work is that constraints engender creativity: textual constraints challenge and thereby free the imagination of the writer, and force a linguistic system and/or literary genre out of its habitual mode of functioning…

One of the many listed Oulipo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story.

You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved.

Oulipo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One Oulipo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Other successful texts include:

Queneau’s Cent Mille Millard de Poemes, a sonnet where there are 10 possible choices for each of the 14 lines, thus comprising 1014 potential poems….

Another possible equivalent experiment to ‘The Book of Matthew’ is Douglas Hofstadter’s book, La Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997), which takes us through multiple translations of a single sixteenth century French poem, with greatly diverse results. How Oulipo is Hofstadter?

Another experiment in constraint used by Oulipo members is that of…


‘the S+7 method, where each substantive or noun in a given text, such as a poem, is systematically replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary.’

We enter the field of hermeneutics here, I think; and code-making.

Welton has said in interview:

As a reader and a writer I am always looking for stuff I haven’t come across before….

And, more importantly:

I’m far less interested in a prescriptive idea of teaching how to write – teaching dialogue or genre or form. I’m more interested that they come to terms with the relationship between their working processes and themselves.”


From this I think it is safe to assume we will not find Welton a paid-up member of Oulipo either.

So, how Oulipo is Glyn Maxwell, with his constraint in avoiding the regular placing of the main verb and definite article, in the poems of Out of the Rain, (1994)? We may also consider Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches (1993) where the constraint is one of time: the time it takes for a match to burn down is the time it takes to read the poem.

I think we have established now that many writers dabble with Oulipo techniques sometimes without knowing, and without becoming bona fide members.

Welton’s own playfulness brings in a deliberately skewed take-off of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market:

Vodka she likes. Whisky also. And plums. And limes

And lemon-peel. Fried fruit. Dry beans. Deep soup. Warm


                        from ‘This is Delicious to Say’.


There are also distinct echoes of Wallace Stevens.

The gorgeousness of colour and sensual delight has a Modernist painterly feel; there is a Patrick Caulfield quality: almost like reading a John Stammers book cover. Having mentioned Stammers, let it be said both writers share a similar aesthetic of fine rhetorical flow, and where rhythmic, euphonic values, seem to take priority.

Overall this book has a disorienting effect, its sets up phrases, descriptions, and delivers something else; something slidey, shiny, scintillating.


As we work through the ‘Book of Matthew’ piece, we get finer and finer distinctions of smells, or of smell-possibilities. This emphasis on smell, as well as the clear colour palette, adds up to the bright modernist painterly feel previously mentioned.

But do we? Is it not rather a purely textual piece: the smell distinctions as listings; the possibilities of smells as multiplying phonemes? Does this account for the giddiness we feel on reading the book as a whole? A rootlessness of meaning. The significance is intact in the tight structure; this gives us a sense of equivalents that are more textual than semantic.

What does the ‘Book of Matthew’ tell us about our lives, our world, our here-and-now? Need it tell us anything? All meaning is implicit in the act of using language, of evaluating appearance; in the phenomenology of our lives in the world.

Does it earn our trust? Do we go with it as a true record? What are its underlying discoveries/apprehensions? Trust, true-record, underlying discoveries: at what point did the commentator think these became relevant, a way in? The answer is, Afterwards, after reading. There is the poem, and there is the afterwards: there is the anticipation when approaching the poem, and there is the buzzing traffic of the mind afterwards.

For some writers, Ron Silliman perhaps, it is maybe their intention to meld anticipation, and the traffic, into the moment of the poem so there is only the poem: see Silliman’s Alphabet.

Maxwell in Time’s Fool (2002), has gone on to attempting the verse-novel (another nod to Browning perhaps?), and Sugar Mile (2005), a narrative for voices.

Christensen’s Butterfly Valley: Requiem  (2003): a series of fifteen conventional sonnets front further wonderful experiments in form.

And Welton?

… I will be publishing a new book with Landfill.

His recent book is We Need Coffee But, with Carcanet.

He has also published a number of chapbooks.