The Visionary Kitsch of the 1980s (Michael Strunge, poetry, pop music, Ian Curtis etc)

by on Dec.30, 2012

Recently I’ve been thinking about the 1980s a lot. Well recently I’ve started to work on a kind of memoir of Sweden in the 1980s which is really more like a work of cultural history, hopefully in the line of a lot of Greil Marcus’s books.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Danish poet Michael Strunge (1958-1986), a legendary 80s poet whose visionary poetry I read frequently and devotedly in the late 80s when I started to write poetry. He committed suicide in 1986 and that was part of his Rimbaud-like, Romantic image.

I was trying to find the book I read back then, Kristallskeppet (“The Chrystal Ship”), a selected poems in Swedish translation, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere, which is sad because it’s like my first book of poetry I ever owned (but luckily some Danes sent me some of his poems over facebook). As that title suggests, his poetry is full of sci-fi-ish visions of the city, fitting in very well with the kitsch-related stuff I’ve been posting on this blog – how kitsch not a lack, but an excess, related to Romanticism, how it’s about the poetic in an age of industrialism. It also engaged quite strikingly with the youth/pop culture of the era, including direct references to David Bowie and Ian Curtis.

Here are some quick excerpts very roughly translated (hopefully not too many huge errors, my Danish is shaky):

from “Elegy for Ian Curtis + may 1980”

Your voice was like that:

Smoky nights with unovercome childhood,
unhealed wounds behind the glass armor.
Plaster that tears so impossibly slowly
that the wound is experiences as a wound.

Your depression was clean and free for the worldangst.
You could see your own cancer growth
and did not want to cut it off,
you knew
that the cancer is the strongest
is death the closest and inhabits it.

So rather choose death’s naked honesty
than this hypocritical life,
where pain was a sign of life
but live became a sign of pain.
Skinlessness is the highest nakedness and death.

And this is from “The Other Side”:

The machine stands still in its night.
Now the centers are seen glowing
our brains spread their wings out
and the senses sink their tentacles all the way out
in the darkness, it’s so empty, freeingly empty
and chilly, freed from the day’s consciousness,
it now sleeps with crumpled dreams
around the house, before the alloted deadline…

(You don’t have to understand Danish to get the whole joy division, youth culture, fashion angle from this film about him:)

The Swedish pop star Joakim Thåström, somebody I’ve written a few posts about exactly in how his 80s work pertains to romanticism/kitsch, released a new record earlier this year called “Beväpna Dig Med Vingar” (Arm Yourself with Wings), which directly references one of Strunge’s books (The Weapon with Wings) and “kristallskeppet” (and other images from Strunge’s oeuvre) and is dedicated to Strunge.

Here he performs the title track at the 2012 Swedish Grammy’s:

I’ve seen some articles mention this as an homage, but the interesting thing is that Thastrom was already part of the same zeitgeist, except that instead of being poet writing music-influenced poetry, he was a songwriter writing poetry-influenced songs.

Imperiet did record one poem that I know of, “Vykort” by Bruno K Öijer, who is cut from a similar cloth (he started publishing poetry in the early 1970s but toured with a band in the 1980s, he’s ultra famous now, sells expensive tickets to readings etc).

Here are some poems Öijer translated for Action, Yes a while back.


He Wanted You

He Wanted You So Intensely
That He Cut Off
All His Fingers

& Dialed Your Number With His Tongue

All The Time Now
He Hears Your Wonderful Laugh

Han Ville Ha Dej

Han Vill Ha Dej Så Intensivt
Att Han Högg Av Sej
Alla Fingrar

& Slog Ditt Telefonnummer Med Tungan

Nu Hör Han Hela Tiden
Ditt Underbara Skratt

And Ann Jäderlund’s poetry from the late 80s is probably the most interesting of this era:

The big valley is a vast mother-of-pearl mirror. There walks the large dead swan in her dead shroud. And there walks the mother-of-pearl children. Or the fragile foundling clumps. That grow out of the virgin mother’s throat. They led the swan into a forest and placed beautiful white stones of mother-of-pearl on her back. Go now and eat that which you have taken from the swans. Then one ran up and cut a branch from the tree and grabbed a burning branch and stuck it into her throat. And scrubbed her both up top and down below. Until the swan’s flesh fell off in beautiful heavy clumps. For some time the swan lay in the bushes and slept. And black merchants came riding on black mother-of-pearl horses. Then they took the swan and carried her away.

I’m thinking about this connection between romanticism and popular culture, between the poetic and pop music, between fashion/makeup and poetry. And also this romanticism as a response of sorts to the propagandistic, leftwing art of the 1970s, which also blended pop music and poetry/art, high and low culture. And also issues of anachronism and decadence.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    One of the things I liked about New Wave fashion, and new wave art in general, is the way it made the future present. The spiky haircuts, the garish and neon-like makeup, the stiffly mechanical body movements. Films like Liquid Sky, where everything has a futuristic gleam. But it’s not a “real” future. It’s not like we wound up living in New Wave World (though obviously certain fashions, sounds, filtered out into the mass media and became commonplace).

    Rather, it’s a pretend future, a play future, which makes it all the more interesting. The idea of “the future” becomes a kind of theatrical space. And Bowie and the glam rockers were doing this pre-punks, too…

    Anyway, this post reminds me of that, the idea of the fantasy future and how liberating that can be.


  2. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    O! Alas! A/Lack! (My Deformative Years)

    Johannes: Coincident to your search for that missing first loved poetry book I have been unearthing the earliest works which fatally marked me, or buying those irretrievably lost. I know what it is to root, passionately. Did I leave it at my ex’s? So I hope you score. I can’t quit till I do. This is more efficient with the web. But not as searing! It took years (I crap you nope) tracking Klossowski prior to the Net. Genet mentioned him; I took that on faith. Set out wild to hunt him down. Finally I stole the ONE copy I located anywhere, Roberte Ce Soir, from the library at Vassar, where we’d gone to sell pills. It had NEVER been checked out.

    Now I click on debit and it’s delivered next week. So, which do you suppose makes him matter more—in my meat, heat, marrow? I burned holes in the sun.

    I still have Living Hand, an extinct one-issue journal published in 1973, which contains the sole English translation of Bataille’s Le Petit, ever. I have James Tate’s Hottentot Ossuary . . .

    But resurrection’s pricey. Last month I paid 80 bucks for a book I lost, the catalogue for an exhibit of Bachelor Machines. Originally hardbound, this doesn’t even have a cover! (If you wish, it’s $360 for “Acceptable”) I recall skimming it back in 1975, first place I’d heard of de Certeau. Or Lyotard. Dazzled, I plumbed words ZERO. Dazed, I could not fathom such ‘pataphyisical pics! (Lucky I never caught that show or I’d be permanently deranged). Mesmerized, like, “What is this shit???” I’d obey its unbending command. I took “her” home. The bachelor had met his mechanical bride.

    x o g c-h

  3. Marianne Ølholm

    Perhaps the appropriation of elements from non-literary discourses that you mention has contributed to the decrease of interest in Strunge’s works on the part of academic criticism following his prominent position on the Danish poetry scene in the 80s. One exception is the anthology of essays published in 2008 (on the occasion of what would have been Strunge’s 50th birthday) presenting new perspectives on his image as an 80s icon (“En bog om Michael Strunge”, eds. Anne-Marie Mai & Jørgen Aabenhus).

    Recently I have worked on a paper on Strunge’s negotiation of the role of the artist in the context of what is sometimes referred to as the Nordic welfare state. Strunge received considerable attention in the Danish media and his status as a poet could almost be compared to that of a rock star. Strunge self-consciously played with the role of the poet and made use of the representations of this in the media. Among other things, he appeared on television where he confronted confessional poet Lola Baidel, polemically accusing her of writing pseudo-poetry (“fiduspoesi”) (the clip is included in the YouTube-film) and he reviewed one of his own books under a pseudonym in the newspaper Politiken. As Marianne Stidsen has pointed out the theme of identity is central to Strunge’s works and this includes the negotiation of the role of the artist. In the programmatic “Nigger 1” (1982) Strunge explicitly identifies his poetic project with the position of the outcast, and the conformity of regulated society is contrasted with an anarchistic writing practice defined as “impure poetry”.

    I have discussed some of these ideas in an article in “Transferts, appropriations et fonctions de l’avant-garde dans l’Europe intermédiaire et du Nord” (ed. Harri Veivo), Paris 2012.

  4. Johannes

    Interesting comments. There seems to be something similar going on in Öijer’s status. For a long time he was more or less rejected, it seems to me, from academic discussions exactly because he assumed the role of “rock star” (touring with a band etc), but in the last 10 years or so there seems to have been an increased interest in him – both from academics and younger poets. The “rock star” is not exactly non-literary exactly; like kitsch, it’s a romantic trope. It’s the most poetic of figures in some ways.

    Jaderlund seems an interesting contrast in this regard as she became incredibly famous exactly by being the anti-rock star – accused of being too hermetic, obscure. And yet she shares a kind of decadent sensibility with both Oijer and Strunge (and a lot of poets and artists of the 1980s). She was of course a woman and this might play into this as well.

    I’d love to read what youre writing about the welfare state context. I recently published an essay about Aase Berg and the welfare state in a book called Transnationalism and Resistance.