Political Poetry
Resisting simplification

The most influential political poet in Germany: memorial monument for Bertolt Brecht in Berlin

Political poetry can be a seismograph for the upheavals of history, or only an embarrassing ideological aesthetics. Insights into German political poetry.

“Poetry is subversive by its very existence.” The belief in the oppositional power of poetry, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger still formulated it in 1962, was seriously impaired in the course of the twentieth century. Is contemporary poetry really the greatest conceivable antithesis to power, as its proponents hope?
In 1914, at any rate, the year of the outbreak of the First World War, you could not rely on the political scepticism of German poets. “Art? That is all over with now and has become ridiculous. [...] The war is the only thing that still excites me.” Thus Hugo Ball, the founding father of Dadaism, proclaimed in August 1914 his withdrawal from all artistic ambitions and immersion in the collective frenzy of war enthusiasm. And in fact not only the nationalist politicians of Europe were seized by the great bellicose fever of August 1914, but also the poets. According to the estimate of the writer Julius Bab, in the course of the first month of the war in 1914, close to 50,000 war poems were composed per day in Germany. Most of these were works with a good dose of pathos, glorifying death for the Fatherland.

Horror and fascination of war

Only a few authors set their faces against this chauvinist poetry. They included, for example, expressionists such Alfred Lichtenstein, Franz Richard Behrens, August Stramm and Georg Trakl, who rebelled against the blind war mania. August Stramm (1874–1915), a postal clerk by profession, suffered a bad nervous breakdown because of his experiences at the front. In spite of the psychological strain, he wrested from himself more and more poems about the war, in which horror and fascination merged into one another. Stramm is a representative of so-called “word art”, which foreshortens single verses to almost breathlessly delivered substantives or substantive verbs. For instance, in the poem Sturmangriff (Charge): “Aus allen Winkeln gellen Fürchte Wollen / kreisch / peitscht / das Leben / vor / sich / her / den keuchen Tod / die Himmel fetzen / blinde schlächtert wildum das Entsetzen“ (From every corner ring out fears craving / shriek / whipping / life / before it / panting death / the sky shredding / horror blindly slaughtering wildly about). In September 1915, Stramm died at a section of the front in Belorussia.
The lapidary poetry of the Berlin poet Alfred Lichtenstein (1887–1914) reads like an ironic, supercooled contrast programme to Stramm’s emotionally agitated work. Lichtenstein preferred an understated-grotesque style to the wide screen format, a manner of writing that made everything in the world seem a ridiculous bistable figure. Even the announcement of his own death in the poem Abschied (Farewell) is described in a quiet gesture of unobtrusiveness: “Vorm Sterben mache ich noch mein Gedicht. / Still, Kameraden, stört mich nicht” (Before dying, I still have time to write my poem. / Shush, comrade, don’t disturb me.). On 25 September 1915, a few weeks after composing his poem, Lichtenstein died near Reims on the Western Front.

The contradiction between poetry and power

Substantive political poetry worthy of the name also proved to be a seismograph for the catastrophes and upheavals of history after the end of the war in 1919. Following the transfer of power to the Nazis in 1933, Karl Kraus clairvoyantly wrote in the same year: “Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte” (And there is silence, because the earth cracked). Paul Celan’s epoch-making Todesfuge refuted in 1945 the surmise of the philosopher Theodor Adorno that there could no significant poetry after Auschwitz. In East Germany, it was Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), the most influential political poet in Germany, and his critical adepts, Volker Braun, Wolf Biermann and Karl Mickel, who positioned themselves as democratic socialists in the SED state, without renouncing fundamental loyalty towards their country.
The contradiction between poetry and power remained as irresolvable in the relevant political poetry of the Federal Republic as it did in the German Democratic Republic. A testimony to this is the work of Adolf Endlers (1935–2009), who presented himself as a mischievous anarchist and undid the “real socialist” identity of the GDR as ironically as he did the new reunified German kitsch. In Santiago he treats the terror of the Chilean dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet with shocking soberness. No less shocking is his Postkarte an M.S. in Dinslaken (i.e. Postcard to M.S. in Dinslaken), already published in 1957, in which he sarcastically portrays the average German as a willing enforcer of the murderous Nazi regime.

Alienation processes in the poem

In the period of politicization around 1968, German political poetry sometimes tended to an embarrassing ideological aesthetics. When the Wall then fell in 1989, there appeared probably the most famous poem about German reunification – Volker Braun’s Das Eigentum (Property), written from the perspective of a spurned lover. The poetic counterpart to Braun’s grim melancholy came with Rondeau Allemagne by Barbara Köhler (born in 1958). It is about the feeling of having lost one’s country, a feeling that befell many young poets in the final phase of the GDR. In the rigorous structure of the rondeau, this process of alienation is played through: “Ich harre aus im Land und geh, ihm fremd, / Mit einer Liebe, die mich über Grenzen treibt, / Zwischen den Himmeln. Sehe jeder, wo er bleibt; / Ich harre aus im Land und geh ihm fremd” (I’m hanging on, a stranger to this land, / Caught up by a love that drives me across borders, / Between the skies. Where you are is your look-out; / I'm hanging on in this land and cheating on it; based on the translation by Georgina Paul).
That ideological aesthetics and good poetry are mutually exclusive was most recently shown by Günter Grass (1927–2015). In 2012 he invented a very problematic type of interventionist history poem when he declared a crude polemic against the “atomic power Israel”, entitled Was gesagt werden muss (What Must Be Said), to be a poem. Political poetry: it can exist only when the poet refuses to give way to the temptation of eye-catching simplifications and instead undoes political stereotypes.