Reiner Kunze (Courtesy of Reiner Kunze) Published by Salem Press, Inc.
Although Reiner Kunze is known primarily as a lyric poet, he has also published two noteworthy volumes of prose and has distinguished himself as a prolific translator of modern Czech poetry. Kunze’s first prose publication, Der Löwe Leopold (1970), was a collection of children’s tales. Originally published in West Germany, the work subsequently appeared in a number of translations and was awarded the prestigious West German Youth Book Prize of 1971. It has never been published in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Kunze’s second prose volume, Die wunderbaren Jahre (1976; The Wonderful Years, 1977), has also appeared only in the West and consists of a series of short, critical vignettes describing various aspects of everyday life in the GDR. Kunze also worked closely with the producers of the film version of The Wonderful Years (1980).
Along with Günter Kunert, Volker Braun, Wolf Biermann, Sarah Kirsch, and Karl Mickel, to name only a few, Reiner Kunze belongs to the first generation of distinctively East German poets. These writers, who came of age in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, took as their models poets from the preceding generation such as Peter Huchel and particularly Bertolt Brecht. Largely ignoring the prescribed canons of Socialist literary dogma, these poets lent an authentic voice to the experiences of their generation in the young German Democratic Republic.
Kunze in particular helped to bring honor and credibility to East German literature, as attested by the numerous literary prizes he has won, including the aforementioned West German Youth Book Prize and the Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. In the year 1977 alone, Kunze was awarded the Andreas Gryphius Prize, the Georg Trakl Prize, and perhaps the most prestigious of German literary prizes, the Georg Büchner Prize. In 1984 he won the Eichendorff Literature Prize; in 1997, the Weilheimer Literature Prize; in 1998, the European Prize for Poetry, Serbia; and in 1999 the Friedrich Hölderlin Literary Award. Because his poetic diction relies heavily on untranslatable wordplay, he is not as well known outside the German-speaking countries as he deserves to be, but few who find their way to him fail to be captivated by his sensitivity, quiet dignity, and courageous humanism.
Kunze attributes his maturation as a poet primarily to his contact with modern Czech poetry and today regards Widmungen as his first significant work. In that volume and in the subsequent collections Sensible Wege and With the Volume Turned Down, it is clear that he has turned away from Romantic models, with the exception of the sharp wit and barbed irony of Heine. His defense of poetry becomes more sharply focused, and the threats to it are more clearly identified and engaged; a 1972 article by Manfred Jäger, one of the earliest studies of Kunze’s poetry, is titled “Eine offensive Verteidigung der Poesie” (an aggressive defense of poetry). Kunze’s chief weapon in the defense of poetry is a dialectical, epigrammatic style indebted particularly to the late poetry of Brecht. In his poems of this period, Kunze frequently adopts a satirical tone, and his diction, deflated of its pathos, could even be called reductionist. An entire poem may turn on a single metaphor or a bit of wordplay; grammatical markers fall away; and what is omitted is often more important than what is said. Sometimes, the polemical or didactic point of the poem lies in its title. All these features are evident in a poem titled “Gebildete Nation” (cultured nation): “Peter Huchel left the/ German Democratic Republic/ (report from France)/ He left/ The newspapers reported/ no loss.” Kunze expresses dismay that a country which puts considerable emphasis on...
Indeed, the need for communication grew to occupy a central position in Kunze’s life and art. One section of Sensible Wege is subtitled “Hunger nach der Welt” (hunger for the world), and the volume concludes with a cycle of twenty-one poems on the theme of the mail, a tenuous connection with the outside world for an increasingly critical East German poet whose standing with the authorities stood in inverse proportion to his growing reputation in both East and West. In one of these poems, Kunze refers to letters as “white lice in the pelt of the fatherland” awaiting the “comb” of the postal service.
Kunze fought all attempts at censorship and regimentation with the one weapon at his disposal, his poetry, which he could still publish in the West. The numerous literary prizes Kunze won in the West in the early 1970’s afforded him a visibility which undoubtedly helped to protect him from cruder forms of repression, and, together with another “thaw” in cultural policies, probably accounted for the surprising publication of Brief mit blauem Siegel in the East in 1973. Nevertheless, Kunze was increasingly caught up in a process of escalating politicization that threatened to destroy all balance between political and private concerns and overwhelm his ability to respond creatively to them. Particularly with the publication of The Wonderful Years, Kunze came to be regarded by many in both East and West as a purely political phenomenon. He was embraced in the Federal Republic by anti-GDR forces who hoped to use him only as a propaganda weapon, and he was vilified in the East as an “enemy of the state”; it appeared for a time that Kunze was not going to be allowed to be “merely” a poet, to continue to give poetic expression to the full range of human experience.
Auf eigene Hoffnung
Although some observers assumed, perhaps understandably, that Kunze was indeed primarily a political dissident who would probably fall silent after his exile to the West, the move was instead very beneficial to him as a poet. Freed from the bitterness of repression and the glare of sensational publicity, Kunze was gradually able to produce the poems contained in Auf eigene Hoffnung, published some nine years after With the Volume Turned Down.
If Kunze began his career retreating from the world into romantic excesses and was then prevented from maintaining a balance between private and public life by forces largely outside his control, then the poems of Auf eigene Hoffnung appear to represent an achievement of equilibrium. The first section of the book contains poems written...
Glenn, Jerry. Review of Wo Freiheit ist …: Gespräche 1977-1993, by Reiner Kunze. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (Spring, 1995): 355. A review of a German collection of interviews with Kunze. Glenn’s review provides an interpretation in English of the biographical material contained in the interviews.
Graves, Peter. “A Naked Individualist.” Review of Ein Tag Auf Dieser Erde. The Times Literary Supplement (March 26, 1999): 26. Graves provides some biographical insights in his review of Kunze’s work.
Graves, Peter. “Reiner Kunze: Some Comments and a Conversation.” German Life and Letters 41, no. 3 (1988): 312-322. A critical study of selected works by Kunze and an interview with the poet.
Hamburger, Michael. After the Second Flood: Essays on Post-War German Literature. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A critical and historical study of several German poets including Reiner Kunze.