18 May 2012

The holy - and holy shit.

I just had my first encounter with poetry from Franz Josef Czernin, born 1952. As there’s no published English translation to quote from, I’ll quote the first four lines of his poem sonnet, with the plough taken from his 2002 collection elements, sonnets in my own translation:

with flames. tongues, out and playing at us, up, wild lashing
and edged vivacious wheels which are hot in our hands,
what heaves us up to heaven, fiery in their prompting
until it off it flies, reveals, far off and still akin:

This sonnet sequence is built from, as the title of the collection suggests, the four antique elements and aims – according to Michael Braun writing in the latest issue of the literary newspaper Volltext  - at embodiments of star constellations in concrete poetic material. Braun reads Czernin as writing using the poetics of the early German-language romantics – Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis to your man on the street) & Clemens Brentano. Not really knowing these writers myself, Czernin reminds me above all of Gerald Manley Hopkins on first impressions – the way stressed syllables appear to be crammed into a line (the original first line has got 8, my impromptu translation 7), the alliteration, the readiness to break with colloquial idiom & grammar for poetic effect.
Czernin hasn’t only been interested in poetic effects, but also in the subject of affectedness, how the standards with which publishers & literary establishments judge texts in any given period constantly need to be questioned. That’s what lead him to write and publish, in conjunction with Ferdinand Schmatz, a book of purposefully bad poems at the start of his career: Journeys. Around the World in Eighty Poems (1987, Residenz Publishers) tricking his own publishers in the process – a piece of holy shit, in other words. It only became clear that Czernin & Schmatz had done this when they brought out, later the same year, an exposé of what one may have been nothing more than a clever publicity stunt: The Journey. Into the Whole Deep Ditch in Eighty Squashed Dogs (1987, Droschl); - I guess Residenz didn’t have the guts to publish the exposé after the first book had left them looking foolish. Shame.
Is bad poetry, or to go a step further, intentionally bad poetry, possibly just as rewarding & useful to read as the poetry that they’re claiming is good? And what if Czernin enjoyed that early confidence trick of his so much that he’s simply gone on playing it with his audience & his reception into the literary establishment, writing on through his acceptance into the Darmstadt German Academy for Language and Poetry – continuing to write what many readers will experience as in some way holy, though it might only be holy shit? My gut feeling is that Czernin isn’t doing this; but I’m going to keep close tabs on his future poems. And if these turn out to be the latter of these two holys I may keep it up my sleeve; it’s often better to let Squashed Dogs lie.