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Between Hölderlin and Himmler

Poems for People Who Don’t Read Poems

by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger, by Jerome Rothenberg. and the Author
Atheneum, 177 pp., (paperback $2.95) (paper)

It is scarcely the case that we live in a time when literary conventions are so narrow and stifling that “poetry” must become, for the poet, a dirty word. Far from it. Poetically, anything goes, and the louder the faster, though perhaps not very far. So the more one considers the title of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s volume of selected poems—with English translations facing the German text, except on one occasion—the more sadly irrelevant or even senseless it comes to seem. People who don’t read poems don’t read poems.

In the longest piece here, “summer poem,” the phrase “das ist keine kunst” keeps recurring—“that’s not art.” In a note the author describes the phrase as “the traditional objection of a bourgeois aesthetic against every innovation.” True, such was the situation, once upon a time. But far more often today we hear the complaint “but that’s art,” the false artist’s by now traditional objection to the suggestion that art should be something more than a howl, a slash of paint, or a tangle of old iron. The genuine artist—and there is clear evidence here of Enzensberger’s genuineness—oughtn’t to be wasting his time and energy on this sort of shadow-boxing.

Enzensberger has set his face against Rilke, Bach, Hölderlin (“what can we do/with everyone/who says hölderlin and means himmler“), seemingly because their work failed to prevent the Nazi extermination camps, because indeed some camp commandants were actually connoisseurs of music and poetry. Are Rilke, Bach, and Hölderlin to blame for this? Should they have written only for good men to read? Maybe in a few score years the work of Enzensberger will be judiciously appreciated by the monsters of some new regime, whose withers are left unwrung, or are probably unwringable anyway?

Perhaps Rilke, at least, was too much the self-regarding artist, spinning literature out of his own guts, with too little concern for the guts of others. “Hiersein ist herrlich” (“to be here is glorious”), says Enzensberger, glancing with rather heavy irony at one of Rilke’s best known and most willed announcements. The allusion comes in Enzensberger’s “man spricht deutsch.” which plays angrily with the phraseology and appurtenances of the Economic Miracle. (A word of praise is due to the translators: here and elsewhere, thrown into a verbal blood-bath, they contrive to make on their own swings what they lose on the original roundabouts, as with “on the bonny bonny banks we play blind man’s buff.”) True, one expects a miracle to take place in a cowshed, on a mountain, by a lakeside, at a tomb—and not, in economic guise, in the vicinity of gas chambers, not upon the ashes of incinerated thousands. When it does, you can scream with rage and horror, but the Miracle still stands, your screams won’t make it fall down like the walls of Jericho. You must also speak clearly, and say what you want instead of this Miracle. It is natural in Enzensberger that the experience of the “new Germany” should hurt all the worse because of the nearness of the old Germany:

this is a country different from any other…
germany, my country, unholy heart

of the nations,

pretty notorious, more so every day,
among ordinary people elsewhere…

there i shall stay for a time,
till i move on to the other people
and rest, in a country quite ordinary,
elsewhere,
not here.

Is there any land left that is “ganz gewöhnlich” by what would seem to be Enzensberger’s conception of the ordinary? If there is, what on earth would he find to do in it?

AGOOD DEAL of what Enzensberger cries out against in Germany is in fact universal. Some of it is trivial. Since the artist must select, anyway, it is best that he does select. And selection appears to be this poet’s weak point. Embroidered napkins, whipped creams, wage negotiators, plastic bags, chambers of commerce, murderers’ dens, bonus vouchers, chamois beard hats, Coca Cola and arsenals, Rilke and Dior, branflakes and bombs—they all feature as expletives in a lengthy curse, all of equal weight apparently or, in the end, of equal weightlessness. To be angry about everything is to be angry about nothing. Enzensberger’s rage declines into rant, his fierce indignation into smashing-up-the-furniture. One thinks of Brecht’s poems, and of his gift for selecting the one detail, the one image, the one reference which will tell all, or as much as he set out to tell.

The last poem in this book is called “Joy,” and it begins,

she does not want me to speak of her
she won’t be put down on paper
she can’t stand prophets…

It is a more hopeful poem than most of Enzensberger’s, for it ends by speaking of Joy’s “siegreiche flucht” (“her long flight to victory”) but it is a little too abstract, too willed, and deficient in the urgency and the implied compassionateness of similar poems by Brecht, such as

In meinem Lied ein Reim
Käme mir fast vor wie Ubermut

(In my poetry a rhyme
Seemed to me almost like presump- tion)

or

Der Lachende
Hat die furchtbare Nachricht
Nur noch nicht empfangen

(The man who laughs
Has not yet heard the dreadful news)

Yet for me Enzensberger is at his best when at his nearest to Brecht, and when he eschews length, as in “bill of fare,” “poem about the future,” the grimly comic “midwives,” and (a very fine poem) “the end of the owls”:

i speak for none of your kind,
i speak of the end of the owls.
i speak for the flounder and whale
in their unlighted house…
i speak for those who can’t speak,
for the deaf and dumb witnesses,
for otters and seals,
for the ancient owls of the earth.

These are Enzensberger’s most moving, most impressive poems—and I don’t mean (if indeed it means anything at all) “aesthetically.” These, by implication, contain the horror and disgust of the longer pieces, but go beyond horror and disgust, not by annulling them, by selling out to “art,” but by assuring us that the poet is not himself merely a destroyer with a grievance against bigger and better destroyers. Here he is not making war but speaking, soberly and lucidly, of the pity of war. In his longer poems, Enzensberger’s weapon is the blunderbuss, where it should rather be the rapier. Or is that too much like “art”? In an age of nuclear weapons the rapier cannot be said to be noticeably less effective than the blunderbuss or the bludgeon, and it is certainly more discriminating. The poet, unlike the atom bomb, ought to discriminate still.

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