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 …

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