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“How often can you ask your reader to leave?” Text and Reader in Lars Skinnebach: Din misbruger (You/r addict)



A characteristic feature of Avant-garde art is the radical approach to established artistic forms. One way of describing tradition and norms of artistic expression is through genre: Literary genre represents a set of conventions which are transcended by the experimental text. The poetic genre can be defined through the expectations of the reader, and this approach seems particularly relevant in the case of Lars Skinnebach's Din misbruger (You/r addict) (2006) as this work actively addresses the role of the reader, his or her expectations of the text, and the status of the work as an object of interpretation. This paper investigates the conditions of the construction of poetic voice in the Din misbruger (You/r addict) and how it challenges the role of the reader as well as the status of the text as a literary product.
“How often can you ask your reader to leave?”
Text and Reader in Lars Skinnebach: Din misbruger (You/r
Marianne Ølholm
An experimental work of art relates to tradition as the other against which it
defines itself. When it comes to literature one way of defining tradition is
through the concept of genre. Literary genre represents a set of conventions,
which are transcended by the experimental text. The concept of genre is dynamic
– the genre forms the basis and starting point of the individual work, but at the
same time the innovative work contributes to the transformation and
development of the genre. Although the experimental work is produced in
opposition to the existing expectations connected to the genre, it also contributes
to the continuation and history of the genre as an example of artistic practice.
The literary work also relates to the reader as the other who realises the text
through his or her participation. The process of interpretation is determined by
the reader’s expectations which, in turn, are based on genre. The relation of the
experimental literary text to genre and tradition can be viewed through the role
of the reader as a focal point.
Din misbruger (You/r Addict) is Lars Skinnbach’s third book.1 Skinnebach
was born in Denmark in 1973, and he has previously published Det mindste
paradis (The Smallest Paradise), 2000 and I morgen findes systemerne igen
(Tomorrow the Systems Will Exist Again), 2004. The cover of Din misbruger
designed by Allan Daastrup is black and white with the title in bold red type. On
the front, the background is white, and on the back, it is black. The black extends
to the front where it forms the background of the title and the author’s name with
irregular edges, as if the words were hastily cut from another text. The visual
impression of the front page is a kind of multilayered collage. When one opens
the book the contour of the black field on the front page is repeated, but this time
in negative, the black area of the front page is now white. Through the paper the
title and the name of the author printed in black on the page behind it can be
discerned. The design of the book works in three dimensions. There is a contrast
between the unpolished expression of the front page combined with the
aggressive and direct address of the title and the hidden title and name inside the
book. The contradiction between the provocation of the title on the cover and
1 The Danish title Din misbruger can be translated as “You Addict” or “Your Addict”. I have
inserted a slash in the English title “You/r Addict” to indicate that the title is ambiguous and
that both meanings should be considered.
“How often can you ask your reader to leave?”
the veiled title inside the book corresponds to the complex expression of the text
which oscillates between provocation and retreat or distance.
Illustration: Cover of Lars Skinnebach Din misbruger.
'One of the most striking features of Lars Skinnebach’s poetry is the relation to
the reader. The reader is addressed directly in many of the poems in Din
misbruger and the conditions concerning the reader also affect the text as an
object of reading and interpretation. By challenging the reader in a very explicit
manner the book questions the relationship between text and reader and the role
of the reader as an interpreter of the literary text. As a theoretical point of
reference I have chosen Jonathan Culler’s definition of the poetic genre in
Structuralist Poetics. Culler’s definition of the poetic genre is based on the
expectations of the reader. It is a piece of reader-response criticism, and this
definition of the genre seems especially relevant in relation to Skinnebach’s
book, because this work actively addresses the role of the reader, his or her
Marianne Ølholm
expectations of the text, and the status of the work as an object of interpretation.
Culler’s definition of the poetic genre is not primarily based on the linguistic
qualities of the text but on “a strategy of reading.” He quotes Jean Genette:
“[T]he essence of poetry lies not in verbal artifice itself, though that serves as a
catalyst, but more simply and profoundly in the type of reading (attitude de
lecture) which the poem imposes on the reader” (Culler 1986, p. 164). Culler
divides the reader’s expectations of the poetic text into four categories:
“Distance and Deixis”, “Organic Wholes”, “Theme and Epiphany” and finally
“Resistance and Recuperation”. My focus will mainly be on the expectations
concerning “Distance and deixis” as they are particularly important to the
question of the status of the reader in Skinnebach’s book. The expectation of
“Distance and deixisconcerns the poem as communication. Culler points out,
that the poem as communication differs from situations involving an empirical
subject and recipient as, for instance, in a letter. When reading a poem, the
reader constructs a fictional persona as a centre of the text. Culler writes: “The
deicties do not refer us to an external context but force us to construct a fictional
situation of utterance, to bring into being a voice and a force addressed, and this
requires us to consider the relationship from which the qualities of the voice and
the force could be drawn and to give it a central place within the poem” (Culler
1986, p. 166). The reader will attempt to establish a voice as the centre of the
poem, and the expectation of this centre is so strong, that the reader will try to
construct it even when the speaking voice is not human but attributed, for
instance, to an inanimate object or an abstraction. In the same way the voice and
the poem can address inanimate objects or abstractions, for instance, by means
of apostrophe. The reader’s motivation to listen for a central voice seems to be
independent of the elements that constitute the inventory of the poem.
Establishing a centre of articulation is an important part of the process of
discovering a structure in the work and of the process of interpretation.
Another expectation related to interpretation is that of coherence. Contrary to
ordinary speech-acts the expectation of the poetic text is that it forms a whole
where the individual parts support and explain each other. Even when the text is
a modernist and fragmentary work the reading will be based on an expectation of
totality, and the reader’s interpretation will strive to organise the elements of the
text in relation to a recognisable model. Culler mentions the binary opposition
and the resolution of this as one of the structures of interpretation which meets
the reader’s expectation of totality. Even if the reader does not consciously expect
harmony and coherence from the text, he or she will attempt to understand the
text as a whole in the process of interpretation.
“How often can you ask your reader to leave?”
According to Culler’s theory the reader approaches the text with a set of
expectations that only to a limited extent vary or adjust themselves according to
the characteristics of the individual work which he or she is presented with. The
process of interpretation itself implies certain assumptions about the nature of
the poetic text.
The speaking voice in Din misbruger addresses the reader with a considerable
degree of provocation throughout the work. The voice of the poem is difficult to
identify and the deictic conditions of the text are unclear. Some of the problems
concerning the voice of the poem are noticeable from the first lines of the first
poem in the book:
I put the wind down
with my hands and a smile, mood
and that sort of thing we become
accustomed to putting down the decentralized
listeners and viewers in all countries
come to me!2
The first word in the poem is I”, but the voice does not seem to belong to an
ordinary human being. The subject of the text claims to have supernatural
powers and to be able to tame the wind with his or her bare hands. In addition to
using his hands in this process we are told that the subject also uses his or her
“smile” and “mood”. The smile has no previous motivation in the text. The word
“mood also suggests something inconstant or perhaps even superficial. The
impression is one of assumed cheerfulness perhaps required by the social context
which the subject is part of. What we meet is at least not the presence of the
deeply feeling subject of a confessional poem, but rather an empty gesture or
grimace. The voice summons its audience “listeners and viewers in all
countries”, and from the beginning the speaking subject emphasises his or her
position as the centre of articulation. The status of the voice can be read as an
ironic comment on the privileged position of the lyrical subject.
The relationships among the deictic elements of the poems are also unclear
especially at the level of syntax. The speaking voice is addressing “the
decentralized / listeners and viewers in all countries(line 4–5) and summoning
2 The first poem in Din misbruger (You/r Addict) is printed in its entirety before this article.
All translations from Din misbruger are by Marianne Ølholm and can be read in the web
journal Action.Yes, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 2006 at <>.
Marianne Ølholm
them. “Listeners and viewers” must be an audience, perhaps the readers of the
poem. Most Danish readers will associate this phrase with the organisation
“Active Listeners and Viewers(Aktive lyttere og seere) which at the initiative of
the politician Erhard Jacobsen took part in the Danish media debate in the
1970’s demanding that leftwing journalists and artists in Denmark’s Radio,
which at that time was the only broadcasting institution in Denmark, were
prevented from practising ‘indoctrination’. The “listeners and viewers” in
Skinnebach’s poem, however, are “decentralized” and do not belong to a group.
“[W]e”, the group which does appear in the poem, “Become / accustomed to
putting down”. What is put down may be the “decentralized / viewers and
listeners”, but the syntax is not clear. It is difficult to determine the syntactical
relations among the various positions in the poem, among “I”, “we” and “you”
(“the decentralised / listeners and viewers”). However, it can be established that
these positions are associated with certain qualities. There is an omnipotent
subject summoning the readers. All of the agents are involved in some form of
sociality; there is the smile as an extrovert gesture, the collective process of
becoming “accustomed to” which implies a form of social adjustment and the
“putting down”, which suggests a social order or hierarchy.
A few lines later the subject of the text addresses the reader directly.
[…] are you even
paying attention to what the writing has
to offer you, the line break
is no longer a problem
for world peace and the pretty girls
are after me, nobody, nobody
and how, I say, more
brings his chairs, sits in the garden
in the present tense, always on the edge
of gatherings so free, so free
Jonathan Culler mentions distance and impersonality as conditions which the
reader expects of the poetic text. He claims that “the lyric is not heard but
overheard” (Culler 1986, p. 165). This expectation is challenged in Skinnebach’s
text. The poem speaks directly to the reader and breaks the deictic conventions
described by Culler. Of course, it is not unusual for a poem to address the reader
within the deictic conventions of impersonality. What is particular about
Skinnebach’s text is that the reader is not addressed as a kind of general
representative of humanity. Skinnebach’s appeal to the reader has been read as a
“How often can you ask your reader to leave?”
reference to Baudelaire’s address to the hypocritical reader in Les Fleur du Mal.
The difference is, however, that the speaking voice in Skinnebach’s poems not
only appeals to the ethics of the reader. The reader is urged to pay attention to
technical details in the actual writing, such as line breaks. The reader is no longer
a fictional abstraction constructed from the poem as a whole by the reader’s
investment of his or her imagination, as Culler describes it. The reader’s
attention is drawn to particular details of the writing in front of him, and it is
hard to disassociate these specific details of the physical text in front of the
reader’s eyes from the actual process of reading this particular text at this
particular time. The reader is no longer a construction of the text, but a physical
and empirical person engaged in the act of reading.
A few lines later in the same poem we hear that the poem takes place in “the
present tense”, which also ties it to the here and now of the reading. The text
takes place in time exactly when it is being read and interpreted by the reader. In
the same sentence somebody “brings his chairs, sits in the garden / in the present
tense, always on the edge / of gatherings so free, so free”. Like the garden the text
is a confined space, and it can also be described as the setting of a “gathering” in
the sense of the meeting between the text and one or more readers. The person in
the garden places himself in a position at the edge. The motif of the outcast is
present throughout the book and this condition also includes the reader. It
connects the reader to the social and ethical concerns in the work, but it also
concerns the relationship between text and reader. The reader is challenged not
to take his or her approach to the literary, poetic work for granted and urged to
reflect on the consequences and responsibilities of readership.
Just as it is difficult to determine the identity of the speaking subject it is also
unclear whom this subject is addressing:
You say you are okay? Are you? Well
you give yourself away, it is your Jutlandic dialect
which shivers down your spine like flowers
thrown among the desperados of the earth
and all those letters carried by unknown names
Give my regards. I greet you too
At first sight it appears as if we are given some clues to the identification of the
“you” in the text who has so far been anonymous. It says “you give yourself
away” (“du er afsløret”). What identifies this “you” is his or her language in the
form of “your Jutlandic dialect.” From being general and unspecific, “you is
now associated with a distinguishing quality. However, although the dialect
Marianne Ølholm
allegedly “gives” the “you away” it is in fact a characteristic which ties the subject
to a group, more specifically everyone who speaks Jutlandic. What the dialect
gives away is the affiliation to a social group which is geographically defined.
Within the same sentence “your Jutlandic dialect” is compared to “letters carried
by unknown names,” and although the “you” is identified by the dialect, he or
she is still as unknown as the writers or “carriers” of the letters mentioned a few
lines later. There is also another kind of disclosure in the poem. It appears that
the you” has claimed to be “okay”, but this is questioned by the speaking
subject. The Jutlandic dialect is associated with a deviance from a linguistic
norm. A dialect is a variation of a (national) language and generally not
considered to be a standard form of expression. The dialect is described as
“flowers / thrown among the desperados of the earth”. The identification of the
“you” through language connects him or her to the position of a social outcast.
This is confirmed later in the poem by the question: “do you / still belong among
the outcasts?” The dialect is also related to beauty and excess through the image
of the flowers. Toward the end of the poem, dialect is connected to the poetics of
the work:
I am fonder of a Greenlandic dialect myself
hidden behind mountains of stupidity and take
What a poetics! What a life! […]
The poetics of the work itself is linked to an obscure and exotic form of language
which is tied to a geographically remote region and in this way the language of
the poem is related to a peripheral position.
Another characteristic of the voice in Din misbruger is the use of exclamations,
rhetorical questions and speech acts. The voice gains momentum through the
use of these rhetorical devices. There are two examples of this in the extract
above: “What a poetics! What a life!” and both are followed by an exclamation
mark. The rhetorical questions involve the reader in the text. There are several
examples of this in the poem for instance: “You say you are okay? Are you?” and
“Do you still belong among the outcasts?” The voice also summons the listeners:
“decentralized / listeners and viewers in all countries / come to me!” Another
way in which the role of the voice is emphasised is through greetings: “Give my
regards. I greet you too”. In greetings the semantic content is subordinate to the
function of saluting the other. A similar function is found in the exclamation
“Hurray!” at the end of the poem. It is an expression of celebration and in
connection with “forward” it also becomes a battle cry. In a way it sums up the
whole text as a rhetorical gesture. The exclamations are a hyperbolic form
“How often can you ask your reader to leave?”
connected to the irony of the text, and in this way they deflate the poetic voice as
much as they support it. The voice of the poem exposes its own artificiality by
making extensive use of the available rhetorical devices of the genre, and the way
in which this voice is constructed is closely related to how the text functions as
communication. In spite of the apparent emotional intensity of the use of
exclamations the voice of the poem avoids sincerity and distances itself from the
reader by not providing the possibility of identification.
The role of the reader is based on the expectation of producing an
interpretation and establishing a coherent structure by mastering the resistance
of the text. One of the expectations connected to the poetic text in Jonathan
Culler’s definition of the poetic genre, is that of resistance and recuperation. The
reader approaches the poetic text with the expectation of meeting a difficult text,
and he or she is prepared to make an effort to reach an interpretation or an
experience of the text as an organic whole. The language of the poem contains
elements that are not accessible to a purely semantic approach, and a reading of
the poem must account for these elements and attribute meaning to them. Culler
mentions the rhetorical devices associated with the poetic genre including
metaphor and metonymy. In his or her interpretation of the text the reader
naturalises the rhetorical obstacles by resolving them and integrating them into
the reading. The poetic text’s contradictions and deviances from common logic
forces the reader to assume what Culler calls a “poetic attitude to words,” and
reading becomes an explorative and creative process. In Lars Skinnebach’s Din
misbruger the most conspicuous resistance is centred around the line breaks in
the text. The enjambment creates uncertainty regarding how the poems function
grammatically. The line is a smaller unit than the sentence, and in many places it
is unclear how the individual line relates to the rest of the sentence of which it is
The expectation of overcoming poetic text’s resistance is radically challenged
by its open rejection of the reader, which is expressed in the text:
Where have you been, I missed you
Do not feel intimidated
you are in safe hands
You do not understand the communication?
Or the question?
How often can you ask your reader to leave?
I ask you not to read me
and still you persist
is that not impolite?
Marianne Ølholm
Do you believe more in the act of communication, the little you,
than in the statement?
By asking the reader to leave the text, Skinnebach’s poem challenges the
expectations connected to the poetic genre. The role of the reader is based on the
expectation of being able to interpret the text by means of his or her literary
competences, but the reader as an interpreter is openly rejected by the text. In
the last two lines there is a direct reference to the deictic conditions of the poetic
text. The reader is asked: “Do you believe more in the act of communication, the
little you, / than in the statement?” The reader is challenged to question the role
of the deictic conditions of the text. The poem itself as a gesture of
communication is dismissed. The expectations of the poetic text’s impersonal
and distant deictic conditions as they are defined by Jonathan Culler are
suspended, and the text speaks directly to the reader about the process of
interpretation that he or she is actively involved in when reading the poem.
The rejection of the reader must be seen in the light of some of the other
themes in the text. The literary skills and competences of the reader relate him or
her to a social context in the broadest sense, and the refusal of the text to enter
into a process of interpretation is ultimately an ethical stand and a critical
position. The text turns its back on the cultural circulation not by being a
hermetically closed, literary product, but by actively confronting the reader and
explicitly refusing interpretation.
Din Misbruger challenges the reader to revise his or her expectations of the
text as a literary product. It exceeds the limits of the poetic text especially in
regard to the conditions of deixis where the expectation of the poetic text is, that
it is impersonal and not connected to an empirical context of communication.
With its direct attacks on the reader the text undermines the reader’s distance to
the text as a literary product. The experienced reader of poetic texts is probably
accustomed to encountering provocations in the text and to integrating these in
an interpretation, but in this case the provocations are directed at the very status
of the reader as an interpreter, and they can therefore not easily be naturalised. In
this way a definition of the poetic genre based on the expectations of the reader
becomes problematic, because the text fundamentally questions the role of the
reader as interpreter of the text. The relationship between text and reader is one
of interdependence as the double meaning of the Danish title Din misbruger
suggests. The field of reading and interpretation is fraught with controversies,
and it involves an infinite network of factors external to the text itself. The
function of the reader is associated with responsibility and he or she is drawn
“How often can you ask your reader to leave?”
into a context of social and ethical perspectives, which include the text, the
reader, the author and literature as an institution.
Skinnebach, Lars. Din misbruger, København: Gyldendal, 2006
Skinnebach, Lars. Det mindste Paradis, København: Gyldendal, 2000
Skinnebach, Lars. I morgen findes systemerne igen, København: Gyldendal, 2004
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics – Structuralism Linguistics and the Study of Literature,
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
I morgen findes systemerne igen
  • Lars Skinnebach
Skinnebach, Lars. I morgen findes systemerne igen, København: Gyldendal, 2004
  • Skinnebach
Skinnebach, Lars. Din misbruger, København: Gyldendal, 2006