Friederike Mayröcker – Portrait of an Intoxicating Austrian Poet

By Jeremy Over

In 1969, at the age of forty-five, Friederike Mayröcker took early retirement from her job as a secondary school teacher, retreated into an almost hermit-like existence surrounded by unruly mountains of books, papers and notes in a tiny flat in the Zentagasse district of Vienna, and started to produce the main body of her extraordinary avant-garde literary work. After having written more than eighty books, won numerous awards and been nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize, she has, at last, had a major selection [1] of her poetry translated and published in English. Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006 [2], translated by Richard Dove, came out last year from Carcanet press. It provides an excellent introduction to her work and a quite unique reading experience.
Two of the most frequently used words when attempting to describe that experience seem to be ‘hallucinatory’ and ‘magical’. These are not adjectives that come easily to the pen of modern and post-modern critics but they are accurate descriptions of the almost physical effect brought about by immersing oneself in the waterfalllike bombardment of this author’s poetry. The range of her poems, and the baroque nature of her imagery, is dizzying: we are taken, often within the space of a line or two, from surrealist fantasy to detailed naturalistic observation, from a reminder to see the oculist to heartfelt elegy. Mayröcker herself in a 2004 interview [3] describes, somewhat warily in case she ruins the spell, the condition into which she enters in order to write (or into which she is sent by her writing) as drug-like or magical. One poem talks, in fact, of taking a ‘snort of Hölderlin’, and there does seem a sense of the intoxication that Mayröcker seeks in her reading and writing being essential, addictive and freeing: ‘hold it in your hands read it/ with your eyes, or you can sever the twine with the knife (the writing grows/ lively), or you can do it the other way round, hold/ in your eyes read with your hands, but in each case/ it says LIBERATION THROUGH READING.’ [4].
Repeated listening to particular pieces of music (Maria Callas crops up frequently in the poems) and reading voraciously are Mayröcker’s preferred ways of entering into this state.
At Vienna’s Schule für Dichtung (‘Poetry Academy’), she recommended to probably horrified student writers that they read for at least ten hours a day, for, as she states in another poem, ‘writing is applied reading’ [5]. Her reading which, from the twentieth century includes Breton, Artaud, Bataille, Michaux, Derrida, Barthes and Beckett, frequently finds its way into her writing in a central montage technique which she first developed in the sixties at a time when colleagues of hers in the Wiener Gruppe were moving instead towards an atomisation of language in their experiments with concrete poetry. The way Mayröcker’s reading, writing and daily living feed each other and are seamlessly woven together gives one the feeling that the whole of her art and life forms one grand collage in the manner of the Dadaist and fellow ‘rag picker’ Kurt Schwitters and his series of merzbau or collaged environments which he built around himself throughout his life like a snail growing a succession of shells. I am also reminded of the Palais Idéal of the obsessive French outsider artist ‘Facteur Cheval’ who collected rocks on his rural postal round to create the fantastical buildings of his dreams, including his own mausoleum.
The seemingly obsessive nature of Mayröcker’s gathering, arranging and transforming of materials is a quality she shares with another of the master collagists of the twentieth century, Joseph Cornell. Phrases in her poetry seem to me to be strikingly similar to some of Cornell’s diary entries where he records his epiphanies and manic episodes, and the sense of their work as a gift, or as an attempt to set up an exchange or conversation with others whether living or dead, is also something they have in common. Many of Mayröcker’s poems are dedicated to friends, writers and artists; most frequently to her life-long lover and fellow writer Ernst Jandl whose death in 2000 precipitated a flood of elegiac and often frenzied or raving work which succeeds in ‘getting madness’ into the language to represent her experience, and what she has described as the ‘heart-rendingness of things’, more faithfully.
I’m writing deluded letters which
you’ll never receive, such thin and
vulnerable skin-intercourse, this is
merciful weather, the whitethroat’s
kiss in the gardens. this word in the
wire in communion I’m dreaming of
you, and ecstasy itself, this magpie,
have just invented language raving
language. [6]
To have invented language is perhaps as outrageous a claim as those often made by another of her favourite writers, Gertrude Stein, but reading Mayröcker’s late grief-soaked and yet still wildly leaping work it feels justified. At times though her language can be extremely simple and tender:
mother, eighty-three, hospital
the gingko tree by the open window
of the hospital room
is spreading out its arms
is that a gingko tree, she says,
there’s something else you
can write about
the nun looking after her
comes to her bed and says
do you want to confess and take
communion tomorrow
and holds her hand
I say she’s without sin,
always has been
the white-stockinged
finches among the leaves [7]
If there is raving and rapture in her poetry (and like Christopher Smart she can resort suddenly both to capital letters and to her knees), it is not without irony: ‘on knees of desire was feverish in a minor key in the guest house/ today’ – from ON KNEES OF DESIRE OF DESIRE TO WRITE CRAWLING, PILGRIMISING. Nor is her writing without control. ‘What is indispensable’, she has written, in a note which Richard Dove quotes in his helpful introduction to Raving Language, ‘is the opening of all flood-gates while maintaining the strictest standards and exercising ruthless discipline and rigour’. There is wildness in the first and second drafts, she has said, but the iron fist comes in with the third and fourth.
Mayröcker is also a prolific writer of books of poetic and emotionally engaging but emphatically nonnarrative prose; nowhere in the world, she has claimed, can she see evidence of story. One of the key works in this category, ‘brütt, or The Sighing Gardens’, has also just been published in English by Northwestern University Press. The last poem in Raving Language is entitled ‘have got a flow of poems now’. Long may the flow of her writing and these very welcome translations continue.
All works by Friederike Mayröcker available in English:
The Vienna Group: 6 Major Austrian Poets (trans./ed. Rosmarie Waldrop and Harriett Watts), Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1985.
Night Train (trans. Beth Bjorkland), Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1992.
Heiligenanstalt (trans. Rosmarie Waldrop), Berkeley, CA: Burning Deck Press, 1994.
with each clouded peak (trans./ed. Rosmarie Waldrop and Harriett Watts), Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1998.
peck me up, my wing (trans. Mary Burns), Boulder, Colorado: Smokeproof Press, 2000.
Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006 (trans. Richard Dove), Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2007.
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens (trans. Roslyn Theobald), Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 2008.
  1. Earlier shorter selections have been translated and published by small US presses (see list above.)
  2. Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006 (trans. Richard Dove), Manchester, Carcanet Press 2007 - shortlisted for the 2008 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.
  3. ‘Die Welt ist so reich’, Die Zeit, 16 December 2004.
  4. ‘liberation through reading, a Christmas letter’, Raving Language p. 65.
  5. ‘where I’m at home’, Raving Language p.190.
  6. ‘have just invented language raving language’, Raving Language p. 166.
  7. ‘mother, eighty-three, hospital’, Raving Language p.75.
Jeremy Over
is a civil servant and poet living and working in Cockermouth, West Cumbria. His first collection of poetry was A Little Bit of Bread And No Cheese, (Carcanet Press, 2001) and his second book, Deceiving Wild Creatures, will also be published by Carcanet in 2009.