October 17 marked the tenth anniversary of Ingeborg Bachmann's tragically early death, in a fire in her Roman flat. To mark the occasion, Piper Verlag have published a volume of conversations and interviews under the title Wir mussen wahre Scitze linden, edited by Christine Koschel and Inge von Weidenbaum, which can be seen as a supplement to their four-volume edition of Bachmann's works. Repeatedly Bachmann is asked to explain her decision to abandon poetry after her successful debut with Die gestundete Zeit (1953) and Anrufung des Grossen Biiren (1956), and repeatedly she describes this decision in terms of a sensitive linguistic scruple: once she found she could do what she pleased with language, even if the urge to do so was absent, she resolved that it would be irresponsible to continue as long as she lacked the urge. Repeatedly Bachmann speaks of intellectual honesty, of music, of living in Rome, of love, sometimes of women, and always she is illuminating; only her socio-political statements have an embarrassingly blue-eyed naivety. Above all she is an excellent commentator on her native Austria; the Austrian's usual pride in being placed at a tail-end of history, the almost arrogant delight in what appears a tradition of decadence, become in Bachmann a very real vantage point, so that provincial origins are turned to advantage.
Irtgeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt in 1926 and studied philosophy in Graz, Innsbruck and Vienna, where she wrote a doctoral thesis on the reception of Heidegger. After a spell working for a Viennese radio station she turned freelance writer, following the enthusiastic response to Die gestundete Zeit. When the decision to abandon poetry was taken she turned first to radio drama (Der gute Gott von Manhattan, 1958) and then to fiction, publishing two volumes of stories, Das Dreissigste Jahr (1961) and Simultan (1972), and a novel, Malina (1971), Though Malina was a literary best-seller, critical opinion has never rated Bachmann's prose as highly as her drama or, above all, her poetry. , Ingeborg Bachmann's name has never meant very much in Britain, although s0IT!.e of her work was translated, particularly in the 1960s, and possibly the most favourable moment has now passed, since the British mood at present has shifted away from the kind of intense, Plath-like figure that in some ways Bachmann represents. This brief anniversary notice cannot redress that balance, of course-it is barely the posy of a ring; but I promise something rather more like a prologue very soon.
LETTER FROM HOLLAND
After receiving Holland's State Prize for Literature in 1967, and supervising what appeared to be the conclusive edition of his collected poems in 1974, the Dutch poet L. J. Swaansdijk lapsed into a long silence. He retreated into the seclusion of his studios -one in Spain and one in Holland-to devote himself to the visual arts. He remains one of the most prolific painters in the COBRA school, but with the recent appearance of two new volumes of poetry he has stepped back into the literary limelight. The Dutch and Belgian governments have chosen to honour him accordingly, with the 1983 Prize for Netherlandic Letters, a distinction awarded every third year to 'authors of important literary works originally written in the Dutch language'.
Born in 1924 and later known as Lucebert (a double pun on 'light'), Swaansdijk became a beacon for the generation of experimental poets who 'revolutionized' modern Dutch poetry in the 1950s: 'I reel a little revolution off' is the title of one of his earliest and now most familiar poems. The post-war movement of the 'Fiftiers' was a rebellion against what Lucebert called 'the letterladies and lettergentlemen' and 'the poets of velvet'. Today any Dutch secondary school pupil, finding the 1952 volume apocryphal/the unlettered name on his reading list, will recognize Lucebert's version of the so-called anti-aesthetic:
in this age what was always called beauty beauty has burned her face she no longer comforts man she comforts the larvae the reptiles the rats ...
and so I sought out language in her beauty heard there she had nothing human left but the speech defects of the shadow but those of the earsplitting sunlight (tr. J. S. Holmes) The polemic against 'conventional' verse and 'conventionalized' language often took the form of satire (as in 'Defence of the Fiftiers', Lucebert's notorious verse-letter) or 'grotesque' poetry (as in 'Horror', a savage poem dedicated to Gregory VII); he has also written fine lyrics (as in 'I sing the earth earth' and 'Now is a voice no longer a voice out of emptiness'). The oddly disjointed, or double-jointed, movement of these verses has given him the reputation of a language acrobat, but with extraordinary agility in sounds and images he proves himself more often than not to be a lucid and lyrical writer. In a recent interview, he commented that 'something of the beauty of the language must resound within the poem, despite all modern dissonance'.
The 1950s and 1960s were prodigious years for him, but he describes the next decade with increasing pessimism: 'The hope for a pure poetry, or a poetry which can bring about change, is lost. In place of this is a feeling of futility, at least as a poet. At a certain point, language as vehicle, as pamphlet, is inadequate.' Now in the 1980s, after a period of poetic inactivity, he has become an 'active poet' again, if only to call into question what purpose this activity might serve, Language seems virtually powerless in the 'labyrinth' or 'morass' of experience, if we are to take our cue from his two new titles, which translate as Harvests in the Maze (1981) and The Bog-Rider from Paradise (1982). In the penultimate poem of the first volume, the poet finds himself in a rat-infested garbage dump, a cul-de-sac where language must hold its tongue: 'no language and no secret/but silence in the rubble', The title of the second volume is explained by five stanzas which invoke a phantasmagorical horseman 'harnessed on the hiatus in nothing'; it is a poet-figure who has lost his stride, and Lucebert, with 'blind will/to be prophet of the lost moment', seems to identify himself with this enmired equestrian.
The theme of a falling and downtrodden poet, one who loses his power to speak, appears already in Lucebert's 1977 poem, 'Breyten Breytenbach is Allowed to See the Moon'. The South African poet, held in prison from 1975 to 1982 for reasons familiar to PNR readers, has been a cause celebre among his