Sarah Kirsch 1935-
(Born Ingrid Bernstein) German poet, prose writer, memoirist, short story writer, children's writer, diarist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Kirsch's career through 1998.
Regarded as one of the most renowned German-language poets of the late twentieth century, Kirsch came to prominence as a leading voice of East Germany's “lyrical wave” during the 1960s. This literary movement, championed by a new generation of East German poets who sought to reconcile individualistic lyric verse with collectivist socialist ideals, represented a remarkable artistic flowering in the otherwise restrictive communist-bloc country. Kirsch's poetry is noted for its highly subjective and fantastical thematic material in which contrasting images of the idyllic natural world and quotidian social reality culminate in moments of deeply personal revelations or insights. Though committed to the utopian ideals of socialism, Kirsch's ambiguous, multilayered verse often contains subtle political commentary that, while ostensibly focused on private experience, often suggests dissatisfaction with official socialist policies and conformist behaviors.
Born Ingrid Bernstein in Limlingerode, a small village on the edge of the Harz Mountains, Kirsch spent her childhood in the city of Halberstadt in central Germany. After World War II, Halberstadt became part of communist-controlled East Germany (GDR). Kirsch's father was a telecommunications worker for the East German government, and she was herself an enthusiastic socialist. She later changed her first name to Sarah in a symbolic act to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. After completing her secondary schooling, Kirsch studied biology at the University of Halle, completing her degree in 1959. While at Halle, she met writer Rainer Kirsch, whom she married in 1958. Following her graduation, Kirsch joined a writing group headed by Gerhard Wolf and was soon admitted into the GDR Writer's Association. During this period, she also demonstrated her commitment to socialist ideals by working in factories and on collective farms. From 1963 to 1965 she attended the Johannes R. Becher Institute for Literature in Leipzig. Her first two published works, the radio play Die betrunkene Sonne/Der Stärkste (1963) and Gespräch mit dem Saurier: Gedichte (1965), a volume of poetry, were collaborations with her husband. The couple divorced in 1968, and Kirsch moved to East Berlin. The following year she gave birth to a son, Moritz, fathered by avant-garde writer Karl Mickel. In 1976 Kirsch was expelled from the Socialist Party and the GDR Writer's Association for signing a petition in support of Wolf Biermann, an East German poet whose GDR citizenship was revoked. Subsequently, Kirsch applied for permission to leave East Germany, which was granted in August 1977, and moved to West Berlin. After travelling throughout Italy, France, the United States, and Bremen, she settled in Tielenhemme in the north German province of Schleswig-Holstein in 1983. Kirsch has won several prestigious literary awards, including the Heinrich Heine Prize in 1973, the Petrarca Prize in 1976, and the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in 1984.
Kirsch is best known for her poetry, which is characteristically imaginative, rhythmic, and oblique to the point of ambiguity, an effect achieved largely through allusive language that suggests multiple meanings. Flight is a central metaphor in her work, and she frequently sets images of the natural world against human emotions such as isolation, loneliness, and despair, evincing an ongoing preoccupation with the distinction between the public and private spheres. Throughout her work, this dualism recurs in doubled meanings and her juxtaposition of the idyllic and the ominous. Gespräch mit dem Saurier, her first volume of poetry—or half-volume, since the collection is equally divided between her own work and that of her husband—features childlike verses and rhymes that stand alongside pointed political commentary. In the poem “Hierzulande,” for example, a group of snails argue that progress can be achieved only by using slime. In Landaufenthalt (1967), her first solo collection, Kirsch portrays the rural world as a realm of escape for city dwellers, in the process suggesting the imperfections of GDR society and human relations in general. Recurrent images of flying appear in Landaufenthalt as a critique of the GDR policy denying its citizens travel outside the Eastern bloc. These images are also used to express criticism of American atrocities in Vietnam and to describe the general longings of those inhibited by physical and psychological constraints. In two of her most significant poetry collections, Zaubersprüche (1973) and Rückenwind (1976), Kirsch recounts a variety of personal experiences in which the political subtext is thinly veiled by double meanings. Particularly prominent, especially in Zaubersprüche, is the pain of difficult romantic relationships. In the poem “Herzkönig” (“King of Hearts”), a woman's appeals to a recalcitrant lover can be taken on a personal level and simultaneously as political critique.
In Katzenleben (1984; Catlives: Sarah Kirsch's Katzenleben), whose poems recount a year of seasonal variations and activities on a farm, Kirsch explores dimensions of memory, foreboding, and pleasure with imagery drawn from nature and from literary tradition. As the title suggests, cats appear frequently in the collection, acting as a metaphor for a complex self-image—detached, restless, vain, and hedonistically able to settle down wherever they please. The Brontës' Hats (1991), a bilingual collection of Kirsch's poetry consisting of previously published work, demonstrates her characteristic verse style and preoccupation with the natural world, particularly as inspired by the stark landscape of Schleswig-Holstein. The fluctuating, incongruous quality of these poems is reflected in the title poem, in which the nineteenth-century literary Brontë sisters suddenly make an appearance in northern Germany. Erlkönigs Tochter (1992), whose title alludes to a tragic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is Kirsch's first major poetry collection published after the reunification of Germany. Nearly half the volume is occupied by travel poems that portray Kirsch's own sense of displacement, alienation, and feelings of impotence. In Erlkönigs Tochter, Kirsch's recurring flight metaphor is decidedly negative, suggesting that death and devastation are pervasive and unavoidable. Ich Crusoe: Sechzig Gedichte und sechs Aquarelle (1995) is a retrospective collection of Kirsch's verse over a period of thirty years; only a few of the volume's sixty poems were previously unpublished.
Although Kirsch often employs iambic, trochaic, or dactylic rhythms, her poems' surfaces are characteristically roughened by prose cadences and colloquialisms. Despite such overlap, Kirsch has published a number of volumes devoted solely to her prose, though some of these works defy strict genre classification by incorporating elements of journalism, memoir, diary, and poetic writing. Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder (1973; The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder) is a transcription of taped interviews conducted by Kirsch with five East German women: an aging communist revolutionary, a mid-career party official, a former competitive swimmer, a factory worker, and a circus animal trainer known as the “Panther Woman.” By East German standards, these women speak with considerable frankness about their personal and professional lives. While attempting to counter the idealizing practices of GDR journalism with authentic testimony, Kirsch also imparts her own authorial voice onto the narratives through subtle editing. Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (1973) collects seven short stories, written between 1968 and 1972, that describe the daily lives of women in the GDR from perspectives that range from the ordinary to the fantastic. Although such problems as rape, broken engagements, and the inability to conceive form the core of the stories, their ironic and matter-of-fact narrative style pointedly avoids pathos. In “Der Schmied von Kosewalk,” a father finances a wedding for someone else's daughter after his own daughter is jilted by her fiancee. Another story in the collection, “Blitz aus heiterm Himmel,” challenges social traditions and sexual taboos by dealing with the subject of sex change. Beneath the surface gaiety of the story lies sharp social analysis and deep-seated skepticism, in which a pair of lovers find themselves able to cooperate and share only after the woman transforms herself into a man.
Kirsch's next prose works, La Pagerie (1980) and Irrstern (1986), more closely resemble poetry than traditional narratives. Many of the brief pieces in Irrstern describe events and objects from the daily life of the North Sea country—a visit to a neighbor, the opening of a new village tavern, the birth of a lamb—utilizing punctuation and hypotaxis, both of which are rare in Kirsch's poems. However, the prose in these volumes often dissolve into the rhythmic, evocative phrases and ambiguous syntactic constructions for which Kirsch's poetry is known. Similarly, the prosaic frames yield regularly to imaginative transformations of the real and familiar—an elderly neighbor suddenly appears as a fairy-tale-like figure of Time, with twelve rowdy geese each named for the months of the year. Other pieces in La Pagerie and Irrstern remain grounded in empirical reality but move unexpectedly into reflections on the Falkland War, a dying friend in East Berlin, or the possibility that the concrete world may be only an illusion. With Allerlei-Rauh: Eine Chronik (1988), Kirsch satisfied her long-standing ambition to write a sustained narrative of significant length. The title is borrowed from a Grimm fairy tale about a golden-tressed princess who, wearing a coat made of the pelts of many animals, flees her home and life of privilege to escape the incestuous demands of her widowed father. Despite a few ironic changes, Kirsch preserves much of the original story, splitting it into two sections as well as inserting a chronicle of her life in Schleswig-Holstein and her own reminiscences about her days in the GDR. Schwingrasen: Prosa (1991) presents fifty-five short prose pieces that discuss, among other things, Kirsch's childhood, her failed marriage, current events, and her disdain for television talk shows, all set against the Nordic environment of Schleswig-Holstein. A diary account of her travels from 1988 to 1990, Spreu (1991) is interspersed with a number of Kirsch's own watercolor illustrations. She continued her exploration of self with Das simple Leben (1994), a fragmentary, journal-like prose volume that records Kirsch's disillusionment following the German reunification. In 1997 Kirsch published Luftspringerin: Gesammelte Gedichte und Prosa, a wide assemblage of poetry and prose pieces from eight previously published volumes spanning from 1982 to 1996. Since the publication of Luftspringerin, Kirsch has released two additional poetry collections, Schwanenliebe: Zeilen und Wunder (2001) and Tartarenhochzeit (2003), as well as Islandhoch (2002), a selection of diaristic prose pieces.
Although Kirsch had difficulty gaining critical acceptance in East Germany early in her career, since the 1970s, she has attracted growing international attention as one of the leading German-language poets of her generation. A reflection of the “lyrical wave” movement, Kirsch's “I”-centered poetry had drawn sharp criticism from GDR scholars, who faulted Kirsch for refusing to incorporate economic analysis in her poetry and for suggesting that the vaunted political and technological advances of socialism had little affect on poetry and fundamental aspects of the human condition. However, after the reunification of Germany, Kirsch's reputation has been able to move beyond GDR partisanship and into the wider world of letters. Her literary reputation has been primarily established by her poetry, which reviewers have consistently praised for its easily recognizable “Sarah sound”—a lyrical blend of natural imagery, colloquialism, and introspection, in flowing, sparsely punctuated lines. Though some commentators have taken issue with the soft focus of Kirsch's impressionistic style, most have noted that her work is decidedly unsentimental—even foreboding—and that her attention to ordinary details belies a sophisticated ambiguity and complexity. Nicholas Catanoy has commented that, “[Kirsch's] technique is so flexible, her handling of language so careful and delicate that she is able to give her most elegant poems the air of spontaneity.” Critics have consistently lauded Kirsch's preoccupation with natural imagery, with some arguing that it is the essential theme in most of her work. Scholars have also complimented the subtlety with which Kirsch freights her interior forays with political content, expressing particular admiration for her precise, striking imagery. Kirsch's prose, considered by many to be an extension of her poetry, has drawn similar critical acclaim. Even her more experimental prose works, such as The Panther Woman and Allerlei-Rauh, have been received warmly by reviewers, who commented favorably on Kirsch's unique and atypical narrative techniques. Since the 1990s, several critics have asserted Kirsch's later works are not as strong as her earlier efforts, with some attributing this to her apparent struggle to overcome feelings of dislocation and disillusionment after the reunification of Germany.
Die betrunkene Sonne/Der Stärkste [with Rainer Kirsch] (radio play) 1963
Gespräch mit dem Saurier: Gedichte [with Rainer Kirsch] (poetry) 1965
Landaufenthalt: Gedichte (poetry) 1967
Gedichte (poetry) 1969
Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder [The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder] (interviews) 1973
Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (short stories) 1973
Zaubersprüche (poetry) 1973
Es war dieser merkwürdige Sommer: Gedichte (poetry) 1974
Caroline im Wassertropfen (juvenilia) 1975
Rückenwind: Gedichte (poetry) 1976
Musik auf dem Wasser: Gedichte (poetry) 1977
Katzenkopfpflaster: Gedichte (poetry) 1978
Sommergedichte: Poetische Wandzeitung (poetry) 1978
Wintergedichte: Poetische Wandzeitung (poetry) 1978
Drachensteigen: Vierzig neue Gedichte (poetry) 1979
La Pagerie (prose) 1980
Papiersterne: 15 Lieder fuer Mezzosopran und Klavier (poetry) 1981
Erdreich: Gedichte (poetry) 1982
Der Winter: Gedichte (poetry) 1983
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SOURCE: Schlant, Ernestine. Review of Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 51, no. 1 (winter 1977): 86.
[In the following review, Schlant asserts that Kirsch focuses on the personal struggles of women in Die Pantherfrau, as opposed to the ideological conflicts facing East Germany as a whole.]
During the past decade Sarah Kirsch (b. 1935) has established herself as a promising lyrical poet on the East German literary scene. In her poetry and also in her first collection of short narrative pieces, Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (1973), a subjective and impressionistic mood prevails which has been traced to Bobrowski's formative influence.
Die Pantherfrau is Kirsch's second collection of prose writings, published in West Germany in 1975, two years after the East German edition. As the subtitle indicates, the slender volume consists of “five narrations from a tape recorder.” They portray the lives of five contemporary DDR women: an animal trainer (the “panther woman” of the title story), a cadre leader, a delegate, an industrial executive, a worker on the assembly line. Personal background, education and temperament vary from case to case, but the success these women have made of their lives and the satisfaction they have found are in each instance the same (as is the...
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SOURCE: Catanoy, Nicholas. Review of Rückenwind, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 51, no. 4 (autumn 1977): 613.
[In the following review, Catanoy praises the metaphorical richness and technical prowess of Kirsch's verse in Rückenwind.]
Poets, like photographers, may be divided between those who put sharp edges on life and nature and those who prefer soft focus. Sarah Kirsch belongs with the best East German poets—those who view the world as if through an impressionistic eye.
There is a mild elegiac tone in Kirsch's new volume of poetry, Rückenwind, a quality that shapes her sentiments in much the same way that the laws of nature dictate the beauty of crystals. The book includes occasional verses in which Kirsch delights: a meeting with a Yugoslav writer, a summer night in Potsdam, a holiday in Wiepersdorf. Some are simple, at times even stately, like one devoted to the sunset: “Kastanienäste klopfen an die Scheiben / Wovor ein blutiger Himmel schwebt.” Yet despite this, her technique is so flexible, her handling of language so careful and delicate that she is able to give her most elegant poems the air of spontaneity. This is the direct, economical, almost terse Kirsch, the poet in love with the concrete, the firm, the tangible.
But there is another Kirsch, Kirsch the politically engaged, and some of her poems in Rückenwind draw...
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SOURCE: Haenicke, Diether H. Review of Landaufenthalt, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 53, no. 1 (winter 1979): 108.
[In the following review, Haenicke discusses how the personal is related to the political in Kirsch's Landaufenthalt.]
Among the relatively few lyrical voices to be heard in East Germany, that of Sarah Kirsch is a particularly powerful one. Her first poems appeared in the late sixties; in the early seventies of her work became known to a broader audience when several of her books of poetry appeared in a West German publishing house. The volume Landaufenthalt is a collection of poems many of which were published before. It comprises the poems of an earlier (1967) East German edition with the same title. Some of the poems were previously published in Kirsch's Gedichte (Langewiesche-Brandt, 1969). Several poems in this latest volume, however, appear for the first time in a West German edition.
All of Sarah Kirsch's poems are characterized by an intimate tone, and they always reflect personal impressions which, however, usually relate to her present-day political experiences and those of the immediate past. Thus the description of a train ride through the countryside will be interwoven with thoughts of the political border that cannot be traversed. The barbed wire which marks this border runs unmistakably across the hills and meadows of her nature...
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SOURCE: Fehn, Ann Clark. “Authorial Voice in Sarah Kirsch's Die Pantherfrau.” In Erkennen und Deuten: Essays zur Literatur und Literaturtheorie, edited by Martha Woomansee and Walter F. W. Lohnes, pp. 335-46. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1983.
[In the following essay, Fehn compares Die Pantherfrau with several works of documentary literature by other German feminist writers, drawing attention to the organizational techniques by which Kirsch inserts her own authorial presence in the work.]
A striking feature of feminist literature in the two Germanies is its emphasis on documentary reports as a supplement to theoretical writings and as a means of providing information concerning the situation and attitudes of women in various social strata. Of particular significance in this regard is the appearance within the past decade of four works consisting entirely or in large part of transcribed interviews. The model for these documentaries was set in 1970 by Erika Runge, who, using a procedure she had developed in her Bottroper Protokolle of 1968, published protocols of her conversations with seventeen FRG women under the title Frauen: Versuche zur Emanzipation.1 Her work was followed in 1973 by Sarah Kirsch's Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassettenrecorder.2 1975 and 1977, respectively, saw the publication of Der “kleine...
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SOURCE: Hadas, Rachel. Review of Sarah Kirsch: Poems, by Sarah Kirsch. American Book Review 7, no. 5 (July 1985): 3.
[In the following excerpt, Hadas lauds Kirsch's roving imagination and use of metaphor in Sarah Kirsch: Poems.]
Sarah Kirsch has a more developed style and voice than either [Katerina] Gogou or [Thalia] Kitrilakis. I have not read Kirsch in German and suspect [Jack] Hirschman's [translated] “versions” [in Sarah Kirsch: Poems] are insufficiently lyric; still, Kirsch's imagination comes through clearly. Gogou and Kitrilakis are poets of stasis, eloquent on the claustrophobia of a city neighborhood or the slowness of life in a village where “the doctor is an hour's ride / three by donkey, / even there, he's seldom home,” and “the women carrying pails / of milk, or wash, or water” on their heads “cannot turn, and never turn.” Kirsch is very different. Whether because of her own decisive journey from East to West Germany or, more likely, because of the flow of her fantasy, she is a poet of rapid motion, delighting in all kinds of travel and its metaphoric equivalent, metamorphosis. Thus “I'm bound to an airplane,” “I'm crossing Germany white snow / the sky is slashed open,” “I'm a tiger in the rain.”
Kirsch also writes about staying home, watering a garden, writing, just living. One of her most memorable poems ends:
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SOURCE: Ryan, Judith. Review of Katzenleben, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 99.
[In the following review, Ryan asserts that the farm life depicted in Katzenleben is not idyllic, but rather oppressive and cumulatively “tiresome.”]
Idylls have always had their dangers, and the “cats' lives” of Kirsch's title poem [from Katzenleben] are not the comfortable snoozes they might seem. The image is an emblem of the farm life that forms the subject of the collection. Beginning before the onset of winter, the cycle follows the year through until the next fall. Like farm life itself, the poems are full of little things: plant and animal life, subtle changes in weather. The ultimate effect, however, is not that of lovingly detailed descriptions; rather, the multiplicity of observations brings with it a kind of horror: pain at the need for laborious notation, distress at the elusiveness of all distinctions, alarm at the slightest change in the tiniest object. Sometimes one sees things too clearly for comfort: “One could distinguish precisely / which of the remaining leaves / moved a little in front / or behind another.”
“Mild Alarm,” the poem from which the foregoing quotation is drawn, defines a mood that imbues the collection as a whole. Cats are first mentioned, not in the title poem, but in an account of newborn kittens...
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SOURCE: Melin, Charlotte. “Landscaping as Writing and Revelation in Sarah Kirsch's ‘Death Valley.’” Germanic Review 62, no. 4 (fall 1987): 199-204.
[In the following essay, Melin provides a detailed analysis of Kirsch's poem “Death Valley,” noting its significance as a reflection of Kirsch's role as a writer and her relationship to Germany.]
Sarah Kirsch's poem “Death Valley” from Erdreich (1982) recounts the descent of its narrator into the unexpectedly treacherous desert and her reemergence after a cathartic encounter with wild, powerful nature. Its occasionally Mannerist formulations and extravagant imagery elicited criticism, on the one hand, of “solche falschen Zungenschläge” in her work (Heise 4) and scepticism, on the other, that details like the glittering opera house represented “ganz konkrete Erfahrungen,” as Kirsch insisted in an interview (Kogel 16).1 Curiously enough, Kirsch charts a real trip across the desert, and her heightened descriptions seem to share their imaginative origins with the vivid place names that spot Death Valley maps—Desolation Canyon, Lostman Spring, or Hell's Gate, to name a few. Nonetheless, the mimetic qualities of the poem prompt further questions, for their presence creates a provocative tension between her subject, the landscape as experienced, and the language of Kirsch's narration, with all its extended meanings and...
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SOURCE: Glenn, Jerry. Review of Allerlei-Rauh: Eine Chronik, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (winter 1989): 97-8.
[In the following review, Glenn discusses Kirsch's shifting, fanciful poetic style in Allerlei-Rauh.]
The spectrum of the dozens of recent German Dichtung-und-Wahrheit memoirs is broad indeed, ranging from largely documentary chronicles to fanciful collages in which factual reports are difficult to identify with any degree of certainty. In terms of content, Sarah Kirsch's Allerlei-Rauh probably falls somewhere in the middle. Its style, however, definitely crowds the fanciful extreme. The motto is programmatic: “Alles ist frei / erfunden und jeder Name / wurde verwechselt.” How many different meanings could be found for these nine words? The first word of the text is no less significant: bunt. The narration is “colorful” and “varied,” but—another subtlety—by no means “gaudy.” The first ten words playfully form a dactylic hexameter (is Hermann or Dorothea lurking over the next hill?), and the first paragraph, a soaring introduction to a description of the North German landscape Kirsch calls home, concludes with a phrase that captures the essence of the work as a whole: “nichts Besonderes, nur unvergeβlich.”
The book has no sections, chapters, or other divisions. The narration flows smoothly, so smoothly...
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SOURCE: Scott, Hilda. “The Women behind the Wall.” Women's Review of Books 7, no. 4 (January 1990): 10.
[In the following review, Scott commends Kirsch's insightful portraits of East German women and GDR life in The Panther Woman, though notes that Western readers may miss some of the work's subtle subtext.]
The Panther Woman, a very slim volume of interviews with five East German women, which reaches us in the University of Nebraska's “European Women Writers” series, was first published in the German Democratic Republic in 1973. It offers a look back at the generation of women whose adult children we have watched on TV, crossing the Hungarian border into Austria, storming the West German Embassy in Prague, or marching in Leipzig with banners saying, “We'll stay here.” What light can it throw on this upheaval in the most successful of Eastern European socialist societies?
Sarah Kirsch has lived in West Germany since 1978, the year she chose voluntary exile from the GDR in protest against the forced emigration of the popular folksinger and poet Wolf Biermann. She was still a highly regarded poet in East Germany when she undertook these interviews in 1971, at the suggestion of her East German publisher. It wasn't the right moment for poetry, he told her. The Panther Woman should therefore be read with a twenty-year perspective, as a book of unusual candor...
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SOURCE: Derr, Nancy. “Germany East and West: The Twain Meet.” Belles Lettres 5, no. 4 (summer 1990): 9.
[In the following excerpt, Derr commends Kirsch's realistic portrayal of East German women in The Panther Woman.]
In The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder, Sarah Kirsch presents a collection of monologues she recorded, then transcribed and edited much as a film director edits hours of takes. The collection, a fascinating snapshot of life in socialist East Germany, offers a depressing portrait of five women from all walks of life. The reader gains a sense of the historical development of this country from a fascist dictatorship to its status as the strongest socialist country in the world. We see something of the functioning of local government, the East German business world, and the workings of a factory. While remaining anonymous, the women in The Panther Woman range from an historian employed at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin and a district parliament representative, to the “panther woman,” a cat trainer with the Aeros Circus. All of the participants in the collection are mothers and career women. They have surpassed their counterparts in the Federal Republic in participation in the workforce and in their legal parity with men. Day care is widely available and heavily subsidized by the government. And, although we find little criticism of the system,...
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SOURCE: Graves, Peter. “Schleswig-Holstein Questions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4652 (29 May 1992): 23-4.
[In the following review, Graves discusses Kirsch's East German background and offers a positive assessment of The Brontës' Hats, Schwingrasen, and Spreu.]
With all that is known about the former German Democratic Republic it may strain the imagination to conceive of that dour little State having once experienced anything as alluring as a “lyrical wave”. That, however, was the description given to the remarkable outpouring of poetic activity among the young writers of East Germany in the 1960s, and the term is not inappropriate. Into a literature marked by stagnation and defensiveness there came a new generation, born in the 1930s, who were committed to the socialist order and eager to have their say in its construction. They brought with them not just fresh vigour and a willingness to experiment but also the confidence to ask awkward questions and a refusal to transmit prefabricated harmonies dispensed from above. Although their work was a joint undertaking in that it was sustained by a common impulse and a network of friendships, each poet had a distinctive voice, and one of their main concerns was precisely the role of individuality within a collective society. Among this loose grouping were such as Reiner Kunze, Wolf Biermann, Volker Braun and Karl Mickel. The leading lady...
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SOURCE: Bjorklund, Beth. Review of Schwingrasen, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 66, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 718.
[In the following review, Bjorklund comments favorably on the lyricism, ambiguity, and pastoral quality of Kirsch's prose in Schwingrasen.]
Schwingrasen is an archaic word for “moor,” a poetic place par excellence. The short prose pieces collected under that title serve as reconfirmation of Sarah Kirsch's reputation as one of Germany's best living poets. Her prose style is not greatly different from that of the poetry; both live from the originality of perspective and the freshness of voice. The lyric “I” speaks in a conversational tone, as if carrying on a dialogue with the self; and the absence of self-consciousness allows the speaker to experience the world phenomenally, as if for the first time. The lyric voice is laconic, at times ironic, and it thrives on understatement and a dry sort of humor. The topics are those of everyday life, which, however, acquire such added dimensions that the speaker herself has to laugh—and with that she flies.
If landscape was always an important factor for Kirsch, it plays a particularly prominent role since her resettling in northern West Germany in 1981. It is a Nordic climate of darkness and cold, “einfach finster wie im zitierten Arsche des Bären.” The fog and rain seem to foster poetic flight, and...
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SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Ich Crusoe, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 394.
[In the following review, Terras notes Kirsch's hopeful and resigned tone in the poems of Ich Crusoe.]
The last words of the last poem in Ich Crusoe echo and confirm what Sarah Kirsch had predicted nearly thirty years earlier in “Der Baum,” the first poem in the volume. Swinging in a tree and looking out at the shores of a body of water, the lyric persona is not unhappy. She does not complain about her situation but, at the same time, is confident of being able someday to cut loose from the confinement of tree and rope: “Ich hänge zwischen Stricken im Baum / … / … ich schaukle / … / … sehe / zwei Ufer meins und das andere / … kann los von Baum und Strick.” At age sixty the poet writes again about swinging. In her poem “Entfernung” (“Distance”) she is able to announce: “Und eigentlich bin ich / ganz uferlos schaukle / schaukle” (And actually I am / completely unbound swinging / swinging). These words reflect the profound changes of the last thirty years in terms of both the poet's private and public existence. The swing and its restraining forces (tree and rope) have vanished. The political implications of two shores, “mine and the other,” have disappeared. What is left for the present and the future is the soft motion of swinging unbound. Thus...
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SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Luftspringerin, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 72, no. 2 (spring 1998): 368.
[In the following review, Terras praises Kirsch's use of image and language in her prose and poetry collection Luftspringerin.]
The present volume of Sarah Kirsch's verse and prose [Luftspringerin,] contains pieces from eight previous collections dating from 1982 to 1996. The title poem, “Luftspringerin” (1989), is appropriate, as it presents the poet's art in quintessence: the poet identifies with Lot's wife (perhaps following the example of Anna Akhmatova), looking back at her life, “having loved something that drove her almost to the edge of the world,” but ending in disappointment and “fear of always the same soup.” Thus, the poet leaves the title of “eine Art Engel die Luftspringerin” to the Russian space dog Laika, herself resigned to “fill her contingent of paper with ink.”
The prose piece “Wie kommt Literatur zustande?” describes Kirsch's poetics as impressionist, stream-of-consciousness, automatic writing “nach der Methode Gertrude Stein,” but not without adding an important point: it is a method based on “daily training.” Clearly, Kirsch is a poet who edits her impressionist fugues very carefully, removing any quasi-poetic element (meter, rhyme, euphony) and forcing the reader to concentrate on image and meaning....
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Cosentino, Christine. “‘An Affair on Uncertain Ground’: Sarah Kirsch's Poetry Volume Erlking's Daughter in the Context of Her Prose after the Wende.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 21, no. 1 (winter 1997): 141-60.
Cosentino analyzes Kirsch's reaction to the reunification of Germany, as reflected in her poetry in Erlkönigs Tochter and several of her post-1989 prose works.
Hulse, Michael. “Inner Emigrees: Helga M. Novak and Sarah Kirsch.” Antigonish Review 62-63 (summer-fall 1985): 223-33.
Hulse compares and contrasts the poetic voices of two female German poets, Kirsch and Helga M. Novak.
Marcus, Naomi. Review of The Panther Woman: Fives Tales from a Cassette Recorder, by Sarah Kirsch. Mother Jones 15, no. 5 (July-August 1990): 54-7.
Marcus offers a generally positive assessment of The Panther Woman: Fives Tales from a Cassette Recorder.
Post, Laura. “The Poetry of Sarah Kirsch.” Rackham Journal of the Arts and Humanities (1986): 81-94.
Post provides an overview of Kirsch's literary career and discusses her first-person poetic voice, aspects of moodiness and insecurity in her verse, and her preoccupation with love and failed relationships.
Additional coverage of Kirsch's...
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