Crush the Assholetters Between the Teeth: Språkgrotesk in Henri Michaux and Gunnar Ekelöf (Part 2)
by Per Bäckström

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(Click here to read Part 1).

Language is the main tool of authors and poets, and sometimes also an instrument of torture. If inspiration comes, writing will flow, language will be processed and new words born. Under these conditions, experimentation begins. This experimentation can, for example, consist of a (poetical) investigation of language, driven by curiosity about the possibilities of words; or it might play with the phonetics and rhythm of words, with or without a poetic context. Nursery rhymes, for example, or disengaged scribbling while talking on the telephone, might typify such  investigations. Phonetic similarities between words can be used to start shifts of significance, often into absurd registers or in order to  reveal something not ordinarily apparent in a spoken or written phrase. This kind of word-twisting is found in Gunnar Ekelöf’s poem “Perpetuum mobile”:

Den gamla vanliga skalligheten
Den gamla vanliga skalligheten
Den gamla vanliga skalligheten
Den gamla skamliga vanligheten

Den gamla vanliga skamligheten
Den gamla skamliga vänligheten
Den gamla vänliga svamligheten
Den gamla flabbiga hemligheten

1 The old usual bald-headedness
The old usual bald-headedness
The old usual bald-headedness
The old shameful ordinariness

2 The old usual shamelessness
The old usual friendliness
The old friendly drivellingness
The old cackly secretness
Den gamla hemliga skadligheten
Den gamla saliga flabbigheten
Den gamla skadliga skabbigheten
Den gamla skabbiga saligheten

Sedligheten den gamla smakliga
Skamligheten den gamla skändliga
Skalligheten den gamla vänliga
Skalligheten den gamla vanliga etc.

3 The old secret harmfulness
The old blessed cackleness
The old harmful scabbiness
The old scabby blessedness

4 Decorousness the old tasty
Shamelessness the old infamous
Bald-headedness the old friendly
Bold-headedness the old usual etc. (1)


Here the words themselves have meanings (though the translation must employ neologisms), but the context alienates them, and thus the monotony of normality is revealed . To manipulate the words of a poem is, of course, the ordinary method for poets, and rarely does this result in a grotesque effect.(2)

Characteristic for Gunnar Ekelöf’s poem, though, is the sudden blasphemy that arises when the compilation of words turns into catachresis: “den gamla skabbiga saligheten” (The old scabby blessedness). It is here that one finds similarities with classical antiquity and the carnivalistic affability of the Middle Ages. Monks and priests were often the driving force behind the inversion of ecclesiastical hierarchies in the Middle Ages, according to Bakhtin; comparably,Ekelöf, a modern mystic, tears down everything elevated and sacred.

There exists, furthermore, something that might be named a negative language experiment, often originating in the powerlessness experienced when language as doxa – public opinion and everyday language – is internalized, eternally grinding inside oneself, perpetually obliterating all individuality.(3) The recognition that what one says is in fact not something original and individual hinders the inspirational word-stream, while revealing the subjection that lies in language in itself. In such a situation, a  poet might conclude that words are not sufficient, that one lacks a language of one’s own, in the same way Henri Michaux describes it in an interview:

On identifie toujours les pensées aux mots, comme s’il n’y avait pas d’autres moyens d’expression que les mots… Mais ce sont là justement les plus imparfaits, les plus grossiers, les moins satisfaisants. Gestes, mimiques, sons, lignes et couleurs: voilà les moyens primitifs, purs et directs de l’expression.(4)

Michaux expresses the paralyzing recognition that one’s own experience is cannot be transferred into words, and that, at  the same time, one can’t transgress language, and therefore has no way out of the ”prison-house of language.”(5) One’s thoughts are always already dressed in the ornaments of words in the moment they become conscious, and seldom, if ever, is it possible to reach “beyond” this stream of words. When the poet confronts this negative experience of language, words themselves are attacked and maltreated, very often with a distinct aggression, as in Ekelöf’s “sonatform denaturerad prosa” (sonnet form denaturized prose):

krossa bokstävlarna mellan tänderna gäspa vokaler, elden brinner i helvete kräkas och spotta nu eller aldrig jag och svindel du eller aldrig svindel nu eller aldrig.(6)

Crush the assholetters between the teeth yawn vocals, the fire burns in hell puke and spit now or never I and vertigo you or never vertigo now or never.

Here, aggression hits on the level of the letter, with stumbling word-conglomerates and repetitions, where the words slide together: “nu” becomes “du” (now becomes you). Henri Michaux describes the process under which such poems take form:

I never construct anything, a form gives itself. My early poems with neologisms, for example – people think that I have been sitting there, and twisted and turned the words, tried out new word-configurations, not at all! It was the result of a grand, intensive fury, fury over the language, that took form on the paper in just these words, in this form.(7)

It is worth noticing the spontaneity with which the poems are said to have taken form: it is an “intensive fury” one meets in Michaux’s word-bending and -twisting, a direct attack on language itself, as in the first strophe of the poem “Glu et Gli”:

et glo
et glu
et déglutit sa bru
gli et glo
et déglutit son pied
glu et gli
et s’englugliglolera(8)

The fury accelerates throughout the poem, resulting in the implosion of the last verse into a word-amalgamation. The text is both aggressive and carnivalesque, language becomes dissolved as in the last trembling and language-drained cry of distress from someone drowning. The text degenerates into a polyglossia that deconstructs language, which is swallowed down in a meaningless gurgling. Admittedly, there are some words with lexical meaning in the poem, some “et”s gluing the sentence together, and a “pied” that reaches above the stream of signifiers. These words function as exceptions that confirm the impression that Michaux in this text reached a pre-linguistic level, where he breaks through to the freshness that is possible to attain in the purely arbitrary relation between signifier and signified. It is at this level that the healthiness of language becomes visible, as Karin Gundersen describes it: “Language has to turn towards itself, be carried out, described and deconstructed. Because stupidity hides itself behind a language which has a false air of naturalness glued to it, where the hypostatized sense tirelessly paralyses the thought”.(9) The main impression the poem leaves is of  rhythm, which also  points towards the pre-lingustic. Octavio Paz describes the same mechanism in connection to Henri Michaux’s mescaline experiments: “Disgregaciones, aglutinaciones, fragmentaciones, reconstituciones. Palabras quebradas, cópula de sílabas, fornicación de significados. Destrucción del lenguaje”.(10)
A similar aggression obsessed Gunnar Ekelöf, when he wrote one of his most famous grotesques, the blasphemy: “Helvetes-Brueghel. detalj” (Hell-Brueghel. detail):

Vad helvetet är 3vligt!
Där sitter lorteraner och kissoliker
och bönar på latrin och kräkiska:
Glor jag in excelsis Deo?
Pax in terrore!
Hå, min i busken bonae voluptatis!

How hell is com4table!
There Lusterans and Crapolics sit
and pray in latrine and grease
Gape I in excelsis Deo?
Pax in terrore!
Pooh, mine in the bush bonae voluptatis!(11)

This language grotesque fulfills all demands of being both a carnivalistic popular grotesque, and at the same time a grotesque where an assault is directed against the pretentious part of everyday language, experienced with such a contempt by the writing poet that it must  be attacked with the immense fury that Michaux speaks of above.
Henri Michaux’ poem “Rubililieuse”, from Mes propriétés (1929), gives, to the contrary, an impression of being more polished, and is therefore less aggressive in its tone:

Rubililieuse et sans dormantes,
Vint cent Elles, Elle, Elle,
Rubililieuse ma bargerie,
Noue contre, noue, noue,
Ru vaignoire ma bargerie.(12)

The marked rhythm in the poem transforms it into an invocative rigmarole, and in this we find its identity as one of the above-discussed language grotesques. The words are contorted not only in aggression, but also to invoke their inner meaning. Many of the words are neologisms; for example the word “barge” means both a flat boat (as in English) and a bird species, but does not, according to Hachette’s Le dictionnaire du français (1989), exist in the conjugation “bargerie”. The poem, therefore, is not easily deciphered with the help of a lexicon: besides being based on words in ungrammatical conjugations or word agglomerations, it is also built on phonetic similarities, and very likely also purely visual similarities with other words. What Michaux was looking for, namely, according to Octavio Paz, was “[u]n signe libéré de sa charge conceptuelle et plus voisin, dans le registre oral, de l’onomatopée que de la parole”.(13)

The poem “Le grand combat”, from Qui je fus (1927), reinforces the impression that linguistic experiments with neologisms and language grotesque were very important for the early Michaux.

Il l’emparouille et l’endosque contre terre;
Il le rague et le roupète jusqu’à son drâle;
Il le pratèle et le libucque et lui barufle les ouillais;    
Il le tocardo et le marmine,
Le manage rape à ri et ripe à ra.
Enfin il l’écorcobalisse.
L’autre hésite, s’espudrine, se défaisse, se torse et se ruine.
C’en sera bientôt fini de lui;
Il se reprise et s’emmargine… mais en vain    
Le cerceau tombe qui a tant roulé.
Abrah! Abrah! Abrah!
Le pied a failli!
Le bras a cassé!
Le sang a coulé!
Fouille, fouille, fouille.
Dans la marmite de son ventre est un grand secret
Mégères alentour qui pleurez dans vos mouchoirs;
On s’étonne, on s’étonne, on s’étonne
Et vous regarde
On cherche aussi, nous autres, le Grand Secret.(14)

This is an experimental poem under the sign of the grotesque, where language is dismembered in a carnivalistic violence. At the same time,  this poem– like Gunnar Ekelöf’s “sonatform denaturerad prosa” and “Helvetes-Brueghel. detalj” – is grotesque in the popular meaning of the word: it describes the grotesque scuffle with its ritual humiliation. But the link to a religious quest is also strong, underlined by the fact that the poem ends in the mystic’s search for “le Grand Secret”. The poem constitutes a language grotesque which represents every level of the avant-garde dream about “revolution and magic”.


Henri Michaux and Gunnar Ekelöf place themselves, with their language grotesques, in a long critical tradition, where the problematic was formulated already by the authors and philosophers of Romanticism. For example, Novalis writes:(15)

Es ist eigentlich um das Sprechen und Schreiben eine närrische Sache; das rechte Gespräch ist ein bloßes Wortspiel. Der lächerliche Irrthum ist nur zu bewundern, daß die Leute meinen – sie sprächen um der Dinge willen. Gerade das Eigenthümliche der Sprache, daß sie sich blos um sich selbst bekümmert, weiß keiner. Darum ist sie ein so wunderbares und fruchtbares Geheimniß, – daß wenn einer blos spricht, um zu sprechen, er gerade die herrlichsten, originellsten Wahrheiten ausspricht. Will er aber von etwas Bestimmten sprechen, so läßt ihn die launige Sprache das lächerlichste und verkehrteste Zeug sagen. Daraus ensteht auch der Haß, den so manche ernsthafte Leute gegen die Sprache haben. Sie merken ihren Muthwillen, merken aber nicht, daß das verächtliche Schwatzen die unendlich ernsthafte Seite der Sprache ist.(16)

Ekelöf’s and Michaux’ language grotesques can mainly be seen as productive word experiments. In contrast to Ekelöf, however, Michaux almost completely discontinued the writing of grotesque and language grotesque after 1940. His aggression, of the variety Novalis writes about, did not diminish, but in the long run the attack on language produced a dead-end for his effort to establish a paradoxa to normality, and for  his quest for mystic unity.(17) For Michaux, it gradually became necessary to seek other ways than the language grotesque to drain out his subjection in of the face of language. Finally, he perhaps accepted the despicable babble as “the immensely serious part of language.


{Ekelöf, 1991 #103@p. 37}, translation by the author.

2 The Swedish modernist Erik Lindegren, for example, reworked his poems by playing with phonologically similar words, or by replacing the original words with rhyming ones, in this way establishing a sliding in significance that was alienating. See {Hallind, 1978 #129@p. 91}.

3 “Doxa is Stupidity made a system. S tereotypes belong here, all platitudes, everything we perceive as repeated discourse. One of the main objectives for literature is to resist the tyranny of stupidity”. {Gundersen, 1989 #126@p. 31}, translation by the author.

4 {Bertelé, 1975 [1957] #221@p. 66}.

5 I allude to: {Jameson, 1972 #448}.

6 {Ekelöf, 1991 #104@p. 34}.

7 {Fjellström, 1986 #237@p. 81}, translation by the author.

8 {Michaux, 1998 #162@p. 110}.

9 {Gundersen, 1989 #126@p. 14}, translation by the author.

10 {Paz, 1978 #261@p. 86}. Gabriel Bonoure comments that the words in the poem seem to be imported from the Germanic language area, which can be related to Michaux’s Belgian roots, {Bounoure, 1985 #61@p. 46}. Michaux, who was both of French and Flemish blood, was sent to the Flemish part of Belgium when he was seven years old, where he initially did not understand the language. As a result, for the rest of his life he claimed to hate his Flemish background, {Ouvry-Vial, 1989 #258@p. 42}.

11 {Ekelöf, 1991 #104@p. 180}, translation by the author.

12 Mes propriétés, in {Michaux, 1998 #162@p. 507}.

13 {Paz, 1978 #262@p. 20}.

14 {Michaux, 1998 #162@pp. 118–119}.

15 For a description of the language crisis, and its origin in Romanticism, see for example: {Olsson, 1995 #183@, especially pp. 60–63}.

16 {Novalis, 1990 #178@s. 104}. It is interesting that the ph rase “das lächerlichste und verkehrteste Zeug sagen”, in French has been translated into “les pires absurdités, les bourdes les plus grotesques” {Novalis, 1975 #445@p. 86}, instead of translating it more or less word by word: “say the most ridiculous and erroneous things”. This demonstrates that one in French has a different understanding of the notion of “grotesque”, than what one have in the Germanic language area – where the understanding is more in line with Mikhail Bakhtin.

17 A counter movement – paradoxa – to the dominant discourse – doxa – in Bourdieu’s sense.