/ 24 September 2019

Week of the Festival: Krems, Austria

Poetesses & Wine

Love, Lust and Headache

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)

Dorothy Parker in: Death and Taxes (1931)

On many social occasions a glass of wineis part of good form. What would a book presentation be without the subsequent sip of wine (typical for Austria is an eighth of a litre, called “Achterl"), to exchange ideas in a casual way? But do not dare to exceed the limit – at least not, if you are female! The authoress is expected to be cheerful, maybe a little bit tipsy, but above all she must be classy and elegant. 

In terms of the public image, the roles of women and men still are – despite of all gender debates – clearly distributed. At least this impression arises when we look at portraits of female poets. 

The pleasure of alcohol is closely connected to a certain coolness, a wickedness even. Whereas male poets often prefer to be photographed with a glass of whiskey or other hard drinks, women are more likely to be presented with a cup of coffee or tea, sometimes a glass of wine. The setting must be appropriate, noble, not too irritating, due to sincerity. Once again, I wonder how these stereotypes emerged. Do female poets never party? And is it really true that women never drink alone? Among others, the poet Sylvia Plath disagrees by saying, "I drink sherry and wine by myself, because I like it and I get the sensious feeling of indulgence... luxury, bliss, erotic-tinged."

Naturally, excessive alcohol consumption does not come without consequences, no matter the gender. Marguerite Duras writes very honestly that consuming wine hourly brought herself through the day. “I drank red wine to fall asleep. Afterwards, Cognac in the night. Every hour a glass of wine and in the morning Cognac after coffee, and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write." Despite her obviously serious addiction, the author kept very productive and eventually was one of very few who managed to quit drinking.

How do female poets write about wine?

A deliberate examination of alcohol as a drug can be found in the poem "The Drunkard" by Elizabeth Bishop, which ironically describes the insatiable thirst of a drinker. Dorothy Parker approaches the subject in a humorous way as she writes, “A hangover is a wrath of grapes.”

In German poetry, wine primarily loosens the tongue and lifts the mood. The erotic tension caused by dried wine on lips is a commonly used motive. Red wine always keeps a little secret. Drinking goes hand in hand with a certain level of shamelessness. Sometimes also with a voyeurism, as in Daniela Chana’s poem »Leute in Bars« (translated: People in Bars). Julia Grinberg’s poem “mond in wein tunken" (translated: dipping the moon into wine) also shines light on the public image of drunkards, portraying going out as an act of dressing up and providing the reader with an insight into bar conversations. 

While red wine holds the role of seduction, white wine is better known for welcoming spring and merry celebration. Indeed, there is a perfect wine for every season, and it is consumed just like that, all year round. The Austrian writer Cornelia Travnicek focuses on this topic in »jahr.zeit.wein« (translated: seasonal wine) and her wintry poem »glühkindlmarkt«, implying a connection between drinking (Glühwein = mulled wine) and Christmas markets (= Christkindlmarkt). Additionally, Daniela Emminger composed a novella titled “Gemischter Satz” (translated: mixed composition, or wine blend). It predominantly deals with the processing of an unhappy love, which is accompanied by the consumption of several glasses of wine. Wine as party drink, as facilitator for seduction, as cure for grief – attitudes toward alcohol are mainly positive.  

Do they write love poems?

Critics often impose a certain tendency to love poetry on poetesses. Regardless of the existing body of literature by female authors dealing with a huge variety of subjects, attention is mainly drawn to this particular field. Indeed, poetry on wine and love is a fruitful source. Most likely, this is due to the feelings an exuberant consumption of alcohol evokes in us. Or, as the Swedish band The Cardigans phrased in the song of the same name, “I need some fine wine, and you need to be nicer.”

By Katharina J. Ferner, a poet, presenter and reviewer based in Vienna, Austria. She is member of the editorial staff of the literature magazine &Radieschen and the Austrian Dialect Magazine Morgenschtean. 2019 she received a scholarship for poetry at Schriftstellerhaus Stuttgart. Last publication: nur einmal fliegenpilz zum frühstück. (Poems, Limbus, 2019).

Translated by Margarita Kinstner and Lisa Schantl