Norbert Lange: To Say A Poem

Norbert Lange writing to Mathias Traxler about ‘Haut-Parleurs’, a literary event which was conceived and presented by both Harald Muenz and Mathias Traxler in the Lettrétage on the 23th February 2017 as part of the ‘CONT_TEXT’ project.  (For further information about the event and its preparation, see here: video, photos, artists’ discussions during preparation.)

Translation: Alice Bibbings


Dear Mathias,

That was a great reunion! And also a lovely opportunity to refresh the themes that we often come back to in our conversations together. The right word to describe the Robin Blaser’s way with words occurred to me afterwards on the way home. It wasn’t ‘elegance’ that I was thinking of and that I first tried to explain to you, even though that is most certainly a characteristic of Blaser’s poetry; rather, the word I was looking for was ‘attentiveness’. I like to think that you can hear just how much or how little room poets give words in their poetry. When I listen to Blaser (and I had the same impression when listening to Harald Muenz and yourself) I can sense that a certain attention has been paid to the words that allows them to really express themselves. It shows that the words have be treated with real care, as you become aware of just how sensitive they are and equally of the wrath that they can unleash if they are not handled properly. Sensitivity and fragility are not synonymous, after all.

This is also where you notice that words have a tendency to turn against the person who uses them. It is only ever imbeciles and self-righteous autocrats who think that words follow them blindly. Whoever thinks that he is using words to imply one thing may quickly find that he is actually a fool, for all the while the words were toying with with him as they pleased. Perhaps he believed them to be the same as when he first seized them for his own. But whoever, after several slaps in the face, still sees no reason to question his method has already been the puppet of these tender custodians for a little while now.

You would be well advised to proceed with caution, as words react violently to any type of coercion. Putting on of a reading may constitute an example of such coercion. It’s the kind of thing you want to avoid, if possible. You might be better placed to talk about this and that in a restaurant, or over a coffee, or to have a conversation with somebody at work, so at the end of it you can ask: if someone came up to you and said a poem, how would you know that it was a poem? You wouldn’t be listening out for some sort of didactic signal – we were just talking about this and that, remember? You didn’t expect a poem to be said in any case. And yet, at the end, there we have it: a poem.

Well, I suppose everything just fell into place – in the room. You, me, the others. The right time. And that’s why we said a poem.

Besides, it was a very short text, which managed to fill the hour with one of Mozart’s letters, a poem from Konrad von Würzburg, one of your poems and your two voices.

Over the past few months, I’ve often had the feeling, particularly at readings, that I didn’t know enough or didn’t feel secure enough to talk about anything or to take a stance on anything with conviction, be that just as a writer who was about to present his poetry. And I am always amazed therefore at how my different roles (interests, relationships, jobs) can come together in a field in which their contradictions are made compatible – no matter how severe or unsteady they are.

This was the impression I had during your event, not that the word ‘event’ really describes it. To call it a ‘reading’ would be just as inaccurate probably, as would ‘performance’ or ‘happening’. Maybe the latter works best. An incident? An event-transpired?  What about an occurence?

Your set-up was simple and familiar enough: a composer and a poet come into a room to share their subsequent interactions with the audience; there is a table and a piano, both with books on top of them; the audience have taken their seats at the sides of the Lettrétage; sheets and bits of paper lie scattered on the floor. I’ve forgotten the rest. I remember two music stands and a fridge. The music stands could have also been lecterns or equally, when covered in a spread of pictures and pages, Minne altars, fit for the courts of old. On one page I read a beautiful term: ‘lyrical sing-say lingo’. It might have equally said however: ‘lyrical sign-saw lingo’.

As yours and Muenz’s evening occured, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a line that I envy of Robert Duncan. In the poem, he speaks of a magical place where something exceptional happens…

‘Often I am permitted to a return to a meadow…’

(The poem can be found here:

Whenever I hear the word ‘idyll’ in the future (like in the ‘Neo-Biedermeier’), I will think of that line which speaks about being taken in by a community that is not exclusive, but accepting, I imagine, of any single type of presence being there in its midst – a community that admits any lack of thick skin, strain or intent. Would it be so crazy to think that this kind of place could exist? The very space talked about isn’t created until Duncan repeats that line, inviting the reader to repeat it along with him. Or does the text already point it out to you, saying ‘look, there it is – going in is easy enough’?

Or else why do you find, written on the wall to the right of the Lettrétage entrance, this question:

What are you afraid of?

Instead of thinking that there is only one particular way of traversing a text, you could step into it without expecting somebody to lead you, without the fear that the text will reject your presence. Anticipating how the text would end that evening in the topography it had laid out for itself in the Lettrétage was just as difficult. I had overheard two people talking in front of the building just beforehand; they were asking to have a few things explained to them before it started. To my mind, their confusion seemed to arise from the false notion that a text should always be accompanied by a manual suited to its occasion.

However, the text itself – the context of which was ultimately set by its audience as it sat in its circle of chairs – should not be a source of unease. If you let it, it can become a protective shell, only becoming fragile if you let your fear of it take precedence.

That’s why I see the sentence of Mozart’s you was cited in the third part of the evening as the more forthwith relative of Duncan’s, as both mean the same: ‘Gentlemen who approach works pedantically will forever perish, their music along with them.’

Nobody perished that evening.  But if they had, they would have done so in the most beautiful way.

In any case, no field emerged on which the audience and performers needed to compete and stand their ground.

Instead, we saw both wonderful and sometimes wonderfully weird things transpire:  a megaphone producing gentle whispers; radio communication set up between the front and back rooms through connecting tubes; the back-and-forth of vowels and consonants using two telephones on a stick, and a demonstration of the ‘Ton-Eis’, the sound ice-cream, which was carried through the room with great care.

Who would not want to remain clueless as to the conditions necessary for such an event to occur? (All the more reason to reflect on it.)

And it really was, in the end, a success.

Keeping it short,

All the best,


Text © Norbert Lange, translation: Alice Bibbings.

Photo © Evgeny Revvo / Lettrétage

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