Gerhard Rühm is a radical experimenter, a restless explorer of traditions and genres, atomizing their elements in order to recompose them with conceptual precision and a multiplicity of compositional techniques. Orgy, for R. means semantic excess and turbulence, the coitus of words outside their usual use



Gerhard Rühm, I My Feet, Trans. by Rosmarie Waldrop. Burning Deck, 2004.


Gerhard Rühm is a radical experimenter, a restless explorer of traditions and genres, atomizing their elements in order to recompose them with conceptual precision and a multiplicity of compositional techniques. He has worked with music and visual art, but basically the world is language for Rühm, the dictionary its body, and the alphabet its backbone.
Gerhard Rühm was born in Vienna in 1930. He began by studying composition and Oriental music, but came to devote most of his energy to literature, esp. concrete poetry. His aim has been nothing less than making language an aesthetic medium on a par with music and visual art.
Rühm is also known for his editions of Baroque and Expressionist poets. His prizes include the “Grosse Österreichische Staatspreis” (1991) and the “Hörspielpreis der Kriegsblinden” (1983). From 1972-95 he taught at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts. He now lives in Cologne.

“Orgy, for R. means semantic excess and turbulence, the coitus of words outside their usual use.”
Mittelbayerische Zeitung

“The almost constructivist compositions derive their solidity from the musical use of rhyme, assonance ,alliteration and rhythmic figures, and not least through song- and sonata elements.”
Klaus Peter Dencker

Concrete poet Gerhard Rühm was one of the founding members of the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) in the 1950s and 1960s. The work presented here, dating from the early
'50s (Rühm was one of the early practitioners of concrete poetry) to the late '80s, is both a whirl of permutated words and images and a concise historical survey of the career of one of the most important poetic innovators of the twentieth century. i my feet: selected poems and constellations is volume seven of Dichten=, a series of contemporary German writing translated into English and put out by Burning Deck. Founded by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop in 1961, the press was avowedly established to break down the (false) boundary between beat and academic poetry. Pound's much-beloved catchphrase “dichten=condensare” reappears here as a description of the aims of concrete poetry, of which Waldrop says that “its most obvious feature is reduction . . . Both convention and sentences are replaced by spatial arrangements.”
Concrete poetry's revolt against what Waldrop calls the “transparency of the word” is in fine evidence in this volume, which includes works ranging from 1954's a heart in the left: cool poetry to 1989's VI. Albertus Magnus: A Reliquary History as Book of Hours, a bizarre chronical of linguistic decay that ends with a series of black pages broken by lone letters and graphics. This section section from Rühm's a heart in the left: cool poetry exemplifies both the appeal and the difficulty of this collection of “poems and constellations”:
i
my feet
and you
your feet
walking
our feet
walking

i could also say other things
about other things
Rühm's is an expression of disembodiment that enables a degree of social engagement. Here, “I” is at least slightly bewildered and fascinated by “my feet,” those strange appendages that seem oddly detached from the self. If the body's connection to the mind is uncertain, though, if the body is somehow other, that othering allows “I” to look at “your feet” and recognize them, too, as equally other. Those two sets of feet “walking” become “our feet / walking”; this is perhaps not the greatest statement of human connectivity, but the strangeness of one's own body is here what enables a connection to the determinably unknowably “you.”
This is Rühm at his easiest: this section is as legible as any lyric, and reads as a meditation on the self and the self's relationship to both other people and language. Language is, of course, the mediator, the “feet” also poetic feet, and the space of the page as a place of kinship becomes troubled by the takeover of the feet. The last two lines of the section break that illusion of, or allusion towards, a more traditional poetics. If “i could also say other things / about other things,” there is a certain nonchalance to the import of the words. The words on the pages are here “other things” that seem often to take over from the poet and to place this and other poems in a space that questions the relationship between word as utterance, word as object, and word as sign.
Rühm is a big fan of word games. In this volume words jump, jumble, are arranged and rearranged, and generally allowed to flow in all of their excessiveness and continual reformation. The poet rarely seems to have the control he shows above, nor does he generally want such control. Rather, he is interested in the play between word and word and between word and page. Indeed, with a turn of the page, the tight verse form above moves into a litany-like verse seemingly perpetuated by language itself:
with him
who her
where I
through that
in at
for too
her most
and then
you half
who he
she it
there to
with him
who her
just half
so that
This volume is both profound and joking, deeply invested in the most fundamental questions of poetics and lightly brushing those questions off with a flick of the verbal whip. Yet translation is not the ideal form for (particularly) Ruhm's work. One finds oneself wishing this were a bilingual edition, if merely to sound out the German original. This is work that is so deeply invested in sound and pun that it seems to lose in translation, particularly since this particular rendering is less careful than one might want (the term “modem” appears in a poem from 1954). Indeed, since Rühm's works are unavailable in the United States, I would beg Waldrop and Waldrop to produce bilingual editions, so that even those who don't know German could sound their way through.

The pieces in this volume that are most successful are the ones that do not require translation, like the “word pictures” and the following poem, “the shortest route from constanz to constantinople”:
constanz
constany
constanx
constanw
constanu
constant
constanti
constantin
constantino
constantinop
constantinopl
constantinople
No German is needed to understand this verbally simple but theoretically complex poem, which plays on the fact that the Council of Konstanz (which ended the so-called Great Schism and reunited the Catholic church) and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks both occurred on May 29 (of 1415 and 1453, respectively). Here the careful carelessness of Rühm's verbal play speaks to a larger incapacity to find meaning in the vagaries of historical conflict and religious conquests, while equally wondering about the strange accident of dates. It's also funny as hell, in English or in German. This is where Rühm works best, when the flouting of linguistic rules speaks to larger aesthetic and historical issues, yet the poet's enraptured play with words and sense of (good) humor is not lost in the verbal shuffle.- Jennifer Ludwig

Ezra Pound could not have anticipated the extent to which his 1908 characterization of the Chinese ideogram as a medium for poetry would lead. But, it is with Pound via Ernest Fenollosa where the idea of a visual and concrete poetry—a reduction of the poem to a sign or ideogram—would begin taking shape in 20th century poetics and, eventually, become the building block of one of Modern poetry’s most radical experiments. Concrete poetry, as it has come to be called, involves an exploration of language where the "material" of the poem is privileged above all else. The "material" for the concrete poet involves the sonic quality via phonemes and syllables, as well as the visual and optic via letters. Through a direct exploitation of typography, white space, shapes, sound and the visual landscape of the page, concrete poets attempt to evoke sensations, concepts, and ideas, while also rejecting poetry of expression and subjectivity. This new selection and translation of poems, I My Feet: Poems and Constellations, by one of the foremost concrete poets writing in German, Gerhard Rühm, demonstrates the way in which language can access multiple points of sensory media in “a constellation of words” and objects, as Rühm himself noted in 1964. The book is volume 7 of Burning Deck’s DICHTEN series, which highlights current German language poetry in English translation.
It is apropos that Rosmarie Waldrop chose to select, translate and compile Rühm’s work today; i.e. in an age where intermedia texts and art installation rule the day. Rühm’s poetry exhibits a confluence of mediums: the phonic and typographic transformations of Dada, the composition of visual poetry, the multi-dimensionality of Bauhaus, the displacement of grammatical structure as in Gertrude Stein, and the phonemic transcriptions of Futurism. Trained in musical composition and Oriental music, it is clear that Rühm has been as obsessed with sound as he is with the possibilities that emerge from the visual image and from silence. In one constellation, he writes “leafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleaflea,” and in the next:
                                          swallow
                       s                     wallow
                       sw                        allow

                       s                     wallow
His word play challenges meaning via shifts within the word itself, while calling attention to the way in which slight phonemic modifications, collisions, or separations challenge morphemic and semantic constructions. The reduplication of verbal patterns is characteristic of Rühm’s work—at least in one modality—and demonstrates his attempt to use conventional language to articulate something other than what it normally signifies. That is, these poems construct a “spatially articulated language” that points toward the very limitations of the words themselves. In a later poem, Rühm calls attention to the musicality of language via traditional sonic devices like alliteration: “WARY we walk WOODS we walk very quickly next to one another WALL.” However, for Rühm, this traditional poetic device becomes a challenge to meaning itself: “WAKE away from one anWOODSother we WADDwalkLE toward WARM one anWALLother WAIT.” The alliterative “w” sound is emphasized for its purely sonic quality, but it is also a challenge and subversion of conventional expectations regarding the musical quality in poetry.
Rühm, like most concrete poets, “seeks to relieve the poem of its centuries-old burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself as an object in its own right for its own sake.”1 Through optic and phonetic displacements, he calls attention to language as an object in and of itself. In the opening poem, a heart in the left place: cool poetry, he writes:
philologybrigida
*
a motorcycle
motors
like a modem
is that mormal?
*
I hop you believe me
or I’ll have to hope up and down
Once again, the material aspects—the ‘objectness’—of the language are emphasized via alliteration, assonance, consonance, phonetic play and syntactic reconfigurations. But, more complexly, Rühm calls attention to the linguistic aspect of the poem and subverts our expectations of what a poem, as product, should be.
In another modality, Rühm exploits the visual and optic qualities inherent in language and, thereby, calls attention to the tangible image of letters. The images he reproduces on the page are what Scottish concrete poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay has called “the language of movement within.” In this sense, the images become a replication or representation of the experience of language in and through the body. The language seems to disappear behind the words, and the signs exist as a sort of scaffolding of consciousness. These visual experiments create a poetry of surface that emerges on the page as a hieroglyphic or alphabet of the self, reflecting on language qua language. However, it is a self that is a construction via the material aspects of language, not the self one imagines in a ‘lyric I.’
In section II of the book, Text Pictures, the visual poems exist in a liminal and dialectical space; i.e. an emerging tension between negative and positive, light and dark in the process of becoming. Some of the pictures present a black background with text in white, while others do the reverse. One such frame is a black square with the letter “i” in various sizes, dripping vertically down the center of the page. On the previous page is the letter “n” and “u” running horizontally across a landscape of white. However, Rühm has constructed it in a way so the page appears cut in half and the letters thus become a mirror image of the other. The poem becomes its own negation and exists on and because of the surface that makes its possible.
In a note at the end of the text, Waldrop writes “the world is language for Rühm, the dictionary is its body, and the alphabet its backbone” (119). His close attention to language demonstrates that his radical experiments are in many ways the precursor to what Waldrop calls the “linguistic turn” in the avant-garde. One can see his influences in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as well as Oulipo. In a sense, Rühm offers a different, but equally radical, linguistic trajectory than a figure like Gertrude Stein. Whereas Stein offers a break with meaning though grammatical and syntactical disruption—among other devices—Rühm offers a break with dominant assumptions through different possible registers of meaning. Both deal with a rupture of structures and forms, but Rühm seems to hold onto an ontological notion of reality—i.e. a concrete—that needs to be disrupted in order to destabalize erroneous or static perceptions of the self or reality. Rühm’s fascination with the relationship between experience and cognition, coupled with his obsession for phonetic and syntactic patterns, exemplifies his divergent impulses. In section IV, Albertus Magnus, Rühm journeys through the alphabet, constructing a narrative that challenges conventional narrative structure. In this poem, the competing energies of language, via the alphabet, collide and are interwoven with the history of Magnus, whose body is relegated to a “cult of relics” in the Catholic Church. Rühm seems to suggest that, like the body, language decays and disappears, but there is something that remains and brings presence to both being and the language that encapsulates it. Magnus is at once a body in decay and embodied by language.
If Rühm’s world is language, it is a language that meanders and strolls through the conceptual and congnitive, hand-in-hand with the material. And, the reader walks with him, imagining and witnessing what is said and what has potential to be said:
i
my feet
and you
your feet
walking
our feet
walking
i could say other things
about other things (13).
1 Solt, Mary Ellen. Concrete Poetry: A World View . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1968. - Mark Tursi
Gerhard Rühm [Austria] 1930
 
Born in Vienna in 1930, Gerhard Rühm was originally aligned with the Vienna Group, joining poets H. C. Artmann and Friedrich Achleitner in one the group’s most important works, Hosn rosn baa (1959). Later, Rühm would become the Vienna Group’s major historian, editing the 1967 anthology, Die Wiener Gruppe.
     Rühm, like many in the Vienna group, was a believer in Konkretismus (Concrete Poetry), and his work, expressed in eight collections of the 1960s, manifests that interest. But for the poet, everything, in a sense, became a surface into and onto which he expressed language. He also wrote several plays, and collected and edited the work of his friend, Konrad Bayer. He set numerous poems for music, employed audio and film sources as well. Hudreds of poems and visual works by Rühm have continued to appear in the last few decades.
      In 1973 the poet was a founding member of the Graz Authors’ Collective, and, along with others, attacked through manifestos and poetry, the traditions of bourgeois propriety and manners of more traditional Austrian writing. His Gesammelte Werke (Collected Writings), collected into five volumes, was published in 2005-2010, with volume 1.1, 1.2., and 2.1 consisting of poems and visual poetry.
     Rühm was also a professor of music at several German universities, and is recognized as a visual artist.
     He has won numerous awards, including the Austrian Prize for Literature in 1976, the Literature Prize of the City of Vienna in 1984, the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1991, the Medal of Honor for the Viennese in 1991, the Alice Salomon Poetry Prize in 2007, and a Honorary Doctorate of the University of Cologne in 2010.
 
SELECTED BOOKS OF POETRY
Selbstmörderkranz: Gedichte im Wiener Dialekt (Berlin: Rainer Verlag, 1966); Hosn, Rosn, Baa (with Friedrich Achleitner and H. C. Artmann) (Vienna: Frick, 1968); Fenster. Texte (Reilnbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1968); Gesammelte Gedicte und visualle (Refinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1970); Texte Bücher Bilder, Bilder-Bücher (Berlin:; Edition am Mehringdamm, 1976); Geschiechterdings: Chansons, Romanzen, Gedichte (Reibek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1990); Gesammelte Werke, ed. by Michael Fish and Monika Lichtenfeld (volumes 1.1. 1.2. and 2.1) (Berlin: Partha Verlag, 2005-2006); Lügen über Läder und Leute: vollstädige Erzählungen und Gedichte (Klagenfurt: Ritterr, 2011)
 
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS
 selections in Austrian Poetry Today, ed. and trans. by Milne Holton and Herbert Kuhner (New York: Schocken Books, 1985); selections in The Vienna Group: 6 Major Austrian Poets, ed, and trans. by Rosmarie Waldrop and Harriett Watts (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1985); I My Feet, trans. by Rosmarie Waldrop (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 2004)
 
give me your hand
 
give me your hand louise
your cold hand
 
give me your hand louise
your cold hand
 
not both hands louise give
one cold hand
 
i won’t squeeze it
i’ll only hold it
 
your hand louise
your hand
 
your cold hand the cold hand
i only hold

one glance into your cool eyes
is enough
 
two glances would be too much
much too much
 
two glances would be too much
one is enough
 
Translated from the German by Milne Holton and Herbert Kuchner

 
Flower Piece

                     for günter brus

 the tulip shits on the lawn
the violet farts in the gardener’s hand
the forget-me-not vomits into the tissue paper
the pink sucks on its stem
the orchid masturbates between the lady’s fingers and
    drips on her sleeve
the rose stinks of sweat and menstrual blood
the snowdrop snots on the fresh tablecloth
the lily pisses into the vase
the hyacinth belches
—Translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop
 
i
my feet
and you
your feet
walking
our feet
walking

i could also say other things
about other things
—Translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop

the first half hour
and
the second half hour
then
the whole following
and
the next following hour
and
another hour
and still more hours
and
always still more hours
thus
it’s
slowly
gotten to be
now
and
now
the first half hour
and
the second half hour
then
the whole following
and the next following

—Translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop  - pippoetry.blogspot.com/2013/03/gerhard-ruhm.html

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