Marcel Beyer Maddeningly good

Marcel Beyer
Marcel Beyer | Photo (detail): © Jürgen Bauer/Suhrkamp Verlag

Marcel Beyer is to receive the 2016 Georg Büchner Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for literature in the German language. In its statement the jury calls him a master of “the epic panorama as well as of poetic microscopy”. Hauke Hückstädt, director of the Literature House in Frankfurt and himself a poet, has followed Marcel Beyer’s career closely. A personal article on the Büchner Prize-Winner.

There is something about Marcel Beyer’s poems that almost makes me go mad. “Wespe, komm in meinen Mund …” (Wasp, come into my mouth). Yet he himself radiates such a casual rootedness. Rooted, that is, in interest. He is interested in everything. I have never experienced him any other way. If I visualise Marcel Beyer, then I also see his exultant delight in new discoveries, when he comes up with something again. But that seems to happen all the time. “Kein Satz bleibt unerwidert. / Nichts bleibt unzerstört” (No sentence stays unreciprocated. / Nothing unpoiled).
Beyer’s poems are full of knowledge, filled with novelties (or curiosity) and always made of the best material. They are not expressive of vague astonishment, not dull-wittedly “original”, and their language does not need testing. His poems are written in such a way that we do not see how they are worked. He is not a historian (his novels also do not wish to be historical), but he is a witness: “Was für ein Ort. Was für ein / Land. Ich stehe da, im / Nicki der Geschichte …”(What a place. What a / country. I stand here in the /velour top of history.)

The rhythm draws us along

There is nothing exhibitory about his texts. They are neither lumbering nor are they finickety. They are spoken. And we speak them when we read then. Their rhythm draws us along, at one point through rape fields, possibly Poland: “Das Bild läuft voll mit Raps. Raps / bis zur Kante, bis zum Haaransatz, randvoll mit Raps / Rapsaugen, Rapskopf, Rapsgeräusche, kein Preßzeug / keine Margarine, nichts als Raps.” (The picture fills up with rape. Rape /to the brim, to your hairline, full up with rape / rape eyes, rape head, rape sounds, not pressed / not margarine, nothing but rape.)
That’s another thing: the voice in these poems is often on its way, on journeys, on raids for the eyes, constantly. In one poem that I like very much it is apparently just out in the hallway, at most on its way from room to room: “Und manchmal, nachts, schuffele ich leise / durch dein Zimmer, doch meinen Namen / rufen sollst du nicht (…) Du siehst / mich ja, wie ich im Bad verschwinde, kein Mann, kein Möbelstück, kein Kind, und / wie ich mir die Pokemonkrawatte binde, bis / meine müden Finger eingeschlafen sind.” (And sometimes at night, I shuffle softly / through your room, but you shouldn’t / call my name … You see / me of course, disappearing into the bathroom, not a man, not a piece of furniture, not a child, and / tieing my Pokemon tie until / my tired fingers are asleep.) It was the word “schuffeln” that I liked so much from the start. I scarcely knew it, surely never heard it. With its echo of the English "shuffle”, it clearly showed me what it’s like when we doze and are only apparently still in action. Then we are chance renditions of ourselves.

A work full of references

Yet we need not know that Der letzte Schlurf, as that poem is called, is reminiscent of the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl and of the Schlurfs, as the long-haired Viennese Swing Youth, of which Jandl was one, were called during the National Socialists era. And the room through which the voice in the poem “shuffles” could be that of the poet Friederike Mayröcker. That’s possible. Yet for a long time I always just saw Marcel Beyer there. For me it was always a portrait of the author: passing through the rooms at night, between the lines, with no aim, more bumping or ambling through the darkened atmosphere. No one would be able to say later what they were doing, perhaps searching for a book, a particular place, a quote.
This poet’s work is full of references. Marcel Beyer writes libretti, novels, essays, music reviews. He has translated the English poems by Michael Hofmann, who is of German origin, edited the work of Friederike Mayröcker and written three volumes of poetry – to date. These three volumes at least, Falsches Futter (1997), Erdkunde (2002) and Graphit (2014), are among the best that German-language literature has had to offer for decades: “Wespe, komm in meinen Mund /mach mir Sprache, innen / und außen mach mir was am /Hals, zeig’s dem Gaumen, zeig es / uns.” (Wasp, come into my mouth / make me a language, inside / and outside make me something on my / neck, show it to my palate, show it / to us.)