Mark Terrill [USA]
A Brief Introduction to the Life and Work of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann
Rolf Dieter Brinkmann was born in Vechta, Germany, on April 16 th, 1940, in the midst of World War II, and died on April 23 rd, 1975, in London, England, after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street to enter a pub. Brinkmann had been in London after being invited to read at the Cambridge Poetry Festival, where he read with John Ashbery, Ed Dorn, and others. In May, 1975, just a few weeks after his death, Brinkmann’s seminal, parameter-expanding poetry collection, Westwärts 1 & 2, appeared, which was post-humously awarded the prestigious Petrarca Prize.
Considered to be one of the most important poets of post-war Germany, Brinkmann’s work is definitely in the marginal outsider vein, approximating a sort of German hybrid of Frank O’Hara, William Burroughs, and W.C. Williams, all of whom were important influences on Brinkmann’s work. His permanent confrontation with the post-war German literary establishment (reminding one at times of Jack Spicer and his place in American poetry), and his envelope-pushing experiments with language, syntax and semantics (taken to the extreme in Westwärts 1 & 2), led him further and further away from the literary scene, finally resulting in the self-imposed exile which he pursued up to the time of his death. His confrontational nature and volatile personality were feared at readings, and together with his huge creative output and his early death, earned him a reputation as the “James Dean of poetry,” a true enfant terrible of contemporary letters. Contrary to his public image, he was known among his friends and colleagues as warm and generous, with a sparkling and spontaneous sense of humor.
Rarely if at all did Brinkmann write about the various hardships and depravations that he must have experienced as a child in wartime and post-war Germany. Rather than being obsessed with the question of collective guilt that so preoccupied other post-war German writers, Brinkmann’s stance was one of absolute immediacy; forever looking at the world in the here-and-now, without a trace of sentimentality or nostalgia. When not deconstructing contemporary culture and employing his sardonic wit, Brinkmann could be frighteningly stark and photographically precise, both in the use of his language and the graphic representation of his images. Brinkmann was forever experimenting, constantly morphing from one creative incarnation to the next, and was a definite forerunner of postmodernism, from his earliest attempts at quasi-traditional European modernism up to his final broken-stanza, irregular-enjambment explorations incorporating his relentless questioning of everyday existence and his gift for saying so much with so little, no small feat in the German language.
During his lifetime, Brinkmann published nine poetry collections, four short story collections, several radio plays, and a highly acclaimed novel, Keiner weiß mehr (No One Knows More ). He also edited and translated two German-language anthologies of contemporary American poetry (primarily Beat and New York School, for which Brinkmann had a particular affinity), and translated Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems into German, as well as a collection of his translations of Ted Berrigan, entitled Guillaume Apollinaire ist Tot. Since Brinkmann’s death, several of his journals have appeared in print, all employing a montage/cut-up technique somewhat reminiscent of Burroughs, and displaying a remorseless self-scrutiny and microscopic attention to details, as well as an eye-catching sense for graphics. A feature-length film directed by Harald Bergmann, entitled Brinkmann's Wrath, about the last years of Brinkmann's life, was recently produced in Germany, and a new expanded edition of Westwärts 1 & 2 appeared in 2005, which marked the 30 th anniversary of Brinkmann's death.
A full-length collection of my previous translations, Like a Pilot; Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Selected Poems 1963-1970, was published by Sulphur River Literary Review Press and is available directly from the publisher.