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Any study of the literature of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) must tackle the problem of definition. What, exactly, is East German poetry? The question may appear trivial and the answer self-evident: This term is intended to apply to the verse literature produced in the German Democratic Republic, the socialist...
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Any study of the literature of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) must tackle the problem of definition. What, exactly, is East German poetry? The question may appear trivial and the answer self-evident: This term is intended to apply to the verse literature produced in the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state that came into being on October 7, 1949, and that ceased to exist on October 3, 1990, when its member states joined the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Such a facile definition, however, is inadequate. To begin with, it fails to comprehend the literature produced between 1945 and 1949 in what was then the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. Another problem relates to residency and publishing conditions. Does the definition include writers who were expelled from the country, such as Wolf Biermann; who voluntarily left it permanently, such as Peter Huchel, Reiner Kunze, and Sarah Kirsch; who were granted long-term visas enabling them to take up residency in the West, such as Günter Kunert; or who had written their works in East Germany but could get them into print only in the FRG, as was the case with Biermann?
For the purpose of this essay, then, East German poetry will be defined very broadly as the poetry written (although not necessarily published) from April, 1945, to September, 1990, in the territory that once constituted the German Democratic Republic. This definition excludes works by writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Johannes R. Becher, which were produced before the authors settled in East Germany and those written by poets such as Kunze and Thomas Brasch after their departure from the GDR.
Another important preliminary question to be addressed is whether the literatures of East and West Germany did indeed represent two separate and essentially dissimilar literatures or whether they formed one body of writing, exhibiting only superficial differences as the result of external conditions. No agreement exists on this matter. The official East German position, formulated in 1956 by Walter Ulbricht, then first secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), was that there are two German states with two different cultures. That had not always been the East German view. When the first all-German convention of writers gathered in Berlin in 1947, the lyric poet Johannes R. Becher, who was to serve as the country’s minister of culture from 1954 to his death in 1958, condemned attempts to bring about confrontations between the East and the West and to play off the Germans in the different occupation zones against one another. Becher declared emphatically: Thus, there is no West German or East German literature in this sense, neither a South German nor a North German one, but only a single one, a German one which does not allow itself to be hemmed in by the boundaries of occupation zones.
From a different vantage point, the East German novelist and dramatist Rolf Schneider, who was granted a long-term visa in 1979 and thereafter resided in the West, gave a similar assessment, although he phrased it much more polemically: “There is only one German literature, that of West Germany. Some of its authors are living in the GDR.”
On the other hand, Fritz J. Raddatz, who had also chosen to move to the Federal Republic, started his 1972 book on East German literature with the flat statement: “There are two German literatures.” As he explained, the political division of the country had so strongly affected what used to be the common language of the two German states that it was no longer possible to consider the literatures based on those differing modes of communication as one and the same. This essay, while not completely agreeing with Raddatz’s premise, is also based on the conviction that the literature of East Germany, largely as the result of political and social factors, constituted an entity that developed separately and was relatively independent of trends and developments in the nonsocialist world, including the FRG. Obviously, East German poetry did not evolve in a vacuum, yet on the whole, the differences between the literatures of the two Germanies appeared more pronounced than those between contemporary works written in West Germany and in Austria or Switzerland. It is interesting that the Soviet critic Lev Kopelev (who was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1981 and later resided in Western Germany) maintained in 1965 that there were three German literatures: one characteristic of the GDR, one typical of the FRG, and a third one that, by reason of generality of theme and interest (and of artistic quality), transcended any political division.
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One problem with generalizations about trends in East German poetry—apart from the implied disregard for the writers’ individuality—was the coexistence of several different generations of poets, with each age-group representing different experiences and conceptions.
When the Nazi regime collapsed at the end of World War II, a number of outstanding writers returned to Germany from their wartime exile in the United States, in Mexico, in the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Many of them had been supporters of communist ideology before Hitler came to power, and they saw a chance to help create a new society that would reflect their political philosophy. The role of these writers in the development of a “socialist national literature” is important. In West Germany, the year 1945 was considered “point zero,” a new beginning after the near-total destruction of the country and much of its culture. East German writers and ideological leaders, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of the inheritance of progressive trends in bourgeois literature since the turn of the century and, even more significant, of a socialist tradition in German culture. Wolfgang Joho stated that position most clearly when he titled his 1965 article in the journal Neue Deutsche Literatur (new German literature), “We Did Not Begin in the Year Zero.”
Thus, Brecht, Anna Seghers, Arnold Zweig, and a number of other writers provided an important link between positive aspects of the past and the hoped-for better future. Best known among these poets of the “first generation” were Erich Weinert (1890-1953), Johannes R. Becher (1891-1958), Brecht (1898-1956), Huchel (1903-1981), Erich Arendt (1903-1984), René Schwachhofer (1904-1970), Georg Maurer (1907-1971), Louis Fürnberg (1909-1957), and Max Zimmering (1909-1973).
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For most of the writers of the second generation, the Nazi period and World War II had been a traumatic experience. Some had left Germany at an early age, others had fought in the war, and several had spent time as prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, where they had been exposed to a new ideology. Das Judenauto (1962; The Car with the Yellow Star: Fourteen Days out of Two Decades, 1968), and autobiographical novel by Franz Fühmann (1922-1984) is perhaps the best document of the inner changes that these authors experienced. Characteristic of this group is the attempt to look both to the past and into the future. In prose narratives and dramas, but also in poetry, they attempted to come to terms with what had happened in the period of the Third Reich. At the same time, those who had lived through such dark years believed that the future held great promise, and many of their poems reflect this faith. In addition to Fühmann, prominent among these writers were Kuba (Kurt Barthel, 1914-1967), who had gone into exile when he was nineteen; Stephan Hermlin (1915-1997), who had left Germany in 1936; Johannes Bobrowski (1917-1965); Hanns Cibulka (1920-2004); Paul Wiens (1922-1982), who had emigrated with his parents in 1933; Günther Deicke (1922-2006); Walter Werner (1922-1995); and Helmut Preissler (born 1925).
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The third generation is made up of East German poets who were between ten and twenty years old when Hitler’s Reich ended. These writers came to maturity in a socialist society, and the war, which played a large role in the thinking of those only a few years older, was not as much of a decisive experience for most of them. They were diligent students, though by no means mere imitators, of the poets who had already established a reputation. Their works frequently praised the society in which they lived, combining personal expression with an affirmation of the socialist system. A significant number of writers from this group eventually chose to live in the West.
Well-known representatives of this generation are Christa Reinig (1926-2008), Werner Lindemann (1926-1993), Uwe Berger (born 1928), Günter Kunert (born 1929), Eva Strittmatter (born 1930), Heinz Kahlau (born 1931), Kunze (born 1933), Uwe Gressmann (1933-1969), Wulf Kirsten (born 1934), Rainer Kirsch (born 1934), Sarah Kirsch (born 1935, for several years Rainer Kirsch’s wife), Karl Mickel (1935-2000), Helga M. Novak (born 1935), and Heinz Czechowski (1935-2009). Reinig, Kunert, Kunze, Sarah Kirsch, and Novak all eventually moved to the West before the end of the GDR. Adolf Endler (1930-2009) belongs to the same age-group, although his background is different; he moved from West Germany to the GDR in 1955.
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Often the authors of the fourth generation, those who were not yet ten years old at the end of the war or who were born after it, are not considered a separate group because much of their work is similar in character to that of the writers who are slightly older. However, these writers, unlike their near-contemporaries, never knew a society other than the socialist German state, and that fact alone sets them apart. Furthermore, many of them were instrumental in bringing about what critics like to call the “new wave of lyrical poetry” of the early 1960’s, a period marked by experimentation and an increased emphasis on personal modes of expression. A landmark poetry reading in December, 1962, at the Academy of Arts, organized by Stephan Hermlin and featuring among other young poets Sarah Kirsch, Volker Braun, and Biermann, focused attention on these attempts. Some politicians strongly objected to the “fear of life, nihilism, and skepticism” of these poets and condemned the “excessive individualism, ambiguity, and symbolism” exhibited in their works as essentially non-Marxist. With the 1966 discussion on the meaning and purpose of poetry in the journal Forum, in which party leaders and established critics eventually specified these objections, the new wave had come to an end.
Well known or very important among this last generation of GDR poets—although certainly not in every case representative of the new wave—are Biermann (born 1936), Joochen Laabs (born 1937), Peter Gosse (born 1938), Kito Lorenc (born 1938), Braun (born 1939), Harald Gerlach (1940-2001), Andreas Reimann (born 1946), Kristian Pech (born 1946), and Gabriele Eckart (born 1954). Biermann, as mentioned above, lived in West Germany after 1976, although he continued to consider the GDR his real home. Eckart belongs to those poets who were allowed to leave for the West in the 1980’s. Lorenc holds a unique position within this group; he writes poetry both in German and in Sorbian (or Wendish), the West Slavic language of a small ethnic minority in the GDR that received special attention and encouragement from the government after 1945.
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From the mid-1980’s to the end of the socialist regime, a group of young, urban poets, many of whom lived in the hip, working-class district Prenzlauer Berg of East Berlin, established a poetic “underground.” Using a loophole in state censorship, which required publication permits only if one hundred or more copies were printed, the poets published their verses in magazines and folders of just five to ninety-nine copies. These mini-collections, which were often widely shared among readers, quickly became known by their Soviet name, samizdat (meaning self-publication). Among these young, oppositional poets, Elke Erb (born 1938), an accomplished poet herself, guided the work of writers like Uwe Kolbe (born 1957), who left the GDR in 1987, shortly before its demise. Among the exiles was another underground poet, Sascha Anderson (born 1953), who later was revealed to have worked as an informer for the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police). While the government barely tolerated and, as Anderson’s case proves, tried to infiltrate the community of underground poets, their impact and influence grew as that of the regime faltered. When Andreas Hegewald wrote of “frozen mummies” in his poetry, his readers caught the reference to the GDR’s superannuated leadership. Soon, the “mummies” were gone, and the samizdat magazines, which bore titles such as Anschlag (assault), Ariadnefaden (Ariadne’s thread), or Grenzfall (border case), became prized collectors’ items.
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Any comparison between East German poetry and that produced by authors in the FRG tends to be an oversimplification. All works of literature are statements by individuals, reflecting their personal temperaments, insights, and experiences. However, all the writers under discussion lived and created poetry within a socialist society. Some broad generalizations may be warranted in view of that fact. Certain trends in East Germany did not appear to have parallels in the West.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between East German and West German poetry was the choice of explicitly political themes by some East German writers. Poems praising the party and glorifying great leaders of the socialist movement, both dead and living, have no equivalents in West German literature. It should be pointed out, however, that such paeans became rare after the 1950’s and that they are not representative of more modern East German poetry, either in quality or—contrary to the impression created by certain one-sided anthologies—in quantity.
In line with the clearly perceived goals of creating a new political consciousness after the Third Reich had collapsed and of pointing to new role models that would symbolize the ideals of socialism, the authors of the first generation and those beginning to write in 1945 and shortly thereafter produced a large amount of poetry that can be classified only as political propaganda. (It may be worth noting here that the term “propaganda” had essentially positive connotations in the East German vocabulary.) Their poems related important events in the history of socialism or praised the accomplishments of workers devoted to the welfare of the masses. Brecht’s long narrative poem of 1950, “Die Erziehung der Hirse” (“The Education of Millet”), could serve as an example. It describes the developments leading to Soviet grain production sufficient to feed the Red Army during its defense of the homeland. Zimmering’s “Die grosse Kraft” (the great power) celebrated the ambitious Stalin Plan to irrigate large areas of Siberia and to generate electric power by controlling and rerouting Russian rivers. A revival of this type of literature occurred in connection with the successful launching of the first Soviet Earth satellite. Typical of the flood of Sputnik poetry is Becher’s “Planetarisches Manifest” (planetary manifesto), which hails the technical achievement of the Sputnik—the first artificial satellite placed in orbit around Earth—as the culmination of the revolutionary development that had started in Russia in 1917.
Other works glorify the heroes of socialism. Brecht, Becher, and many others related in their poems the sufferings and the unbroken spirit of Resistance fighters against the Third Reich during World War II. Martyrs for the communist cause, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were murdered by right-wing army officers in 1919, or Ernst Thälmann, who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, were the topics of poems by Brecht, Becher, Bobrowski, Weinert, and other writers. Some of the poetry in praise of great communist leaders consciously evoked religious associations. Becher lauded Vladimir Ilich Lenin as the man who “touched the sleep of the world/ With words that became bread,” and Kuba’s “Kantate auf Stalin” (“Stalin Cantata”) said about the Soviet leader: “The book in his hands, his eyes fixed on it,/ he stood against a world full of evil./ Upright he ascended the via dolorosa/ filled with compassion, with wrath, and with love.” Stalin’s death signified the demise of this type of poetry, which then largely disappeared from later East German anthologies. It is difficult to read such poems today without a sense of embarrassment, and one has to agree with the insight of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s important essay on poetry and politics that “authority, stripped of its mythical cloak, can no longer be reconciled with poetry.”
When workers rebelled against increased work quotas on June 17, 1953, and the ensuing uprising had to be quelled by Soviet tanks to rescue the East German government, Brecht wrote “Die Lösung” (1953; “The Solution”), one of his few critical poems challenging the socialist government that had welcomed him with wide open arms. Brecht’s angry poem quotes the official statement of the Secretary of the Writers Union that the people have lost the confidence of their government and can win back this confidence only through twice the work effort. With an irony worthy of Jonathan Swift, the poem proposes the following solution:
Would it not beeasier if the governmentdissolved the people andelected a new one?
In a similar vein, the young worker-poet Braun wrote in 1956, “Oh Lord, create space in my congested chest!” a clear cry for more political freedoms. Since the mid-1960’s, fewer and fewer poems of a blatantly propagandistic, political nature have been published in the GDR. This does not mean, however, that political philosophy no longer has a significant impact. Characteristically, Sarah Kirsch said in connection with her 1973 collection Zaubersprüche (translated in Seven Skins: Seven Poems, 1981), which contains mainly love poems, “If I had no political interests, I could not write any verse.” To many authors, socialism was an established and accepted fact in their society and in their lives, and it was no longer necessary to sing its praise or to educate the public about it.
Political poetry that criticizes and accuses could be found, too, but it was understandably not very common in an open forum, unless such criticism was veiled, published privately, or clearly directed against conditions and phenomena in capitalist society. Biermann’s 1963 “Ballade von dem Briefträger William L. Moore” (“Ballad of the Letter-Carrier William L. Moore”), about the murder of a civil rights demonstrator in the United States, was made available to a wide audience. His satiric poems about shortcomings in GDR society, about pettiness and doctrinaire rigidity among party functionaries, could be published only in the West. There, the poems were welcomed as ammunition in the propaganda war against the East, although the author had intended them as contributions toward the improvement of socialist society. The state he had chosen, however, saw his writings as attacks on the foundations of Marxism-Leninism and would not tolerate lines such as the following from his 1962 “Rücksichtslose Schimpferei” (“Reckless Abuse”):
I am the individualthe collective hasisolated itself from meDon’t stare at me with such understanding!Oh, I knowYou are waiting with serious assurednessfor me to floatinto your net of self-criticism.
The partisan interpretation of Biermann’s poetry in the FRG points to a serious problem in the Western response to GDR literature. Western observers tended to read a rejection of socialism into many poems that actually convey no such message. It may be legitimate to see the five-line poem by Kunert, “Unterschiede” (“Differences”), as an expression of the writer’s concern about a position that depends on official praise and is threatened by government sanctions:
Sadly I hear a name called out:not mine.With a sigh of reliefI hear a name called out:not mine.
Much more questionable, however, is the attempt to use some of Bobrowski’s late poems as evidence of the author’s alienation from his society. Bobrowski, a convinced Christian and an active member of the East German Christian Democratic Party, repeatedly expressed his basic agreement with the goals and principles of the Marxist state in which he lived.
It was not until the mid-1980’s that poems expressing political protest gained a large audience. In 1988, Braun, the regime’s previously celebrated worker-poet, wrote in “Verheerende Folgen mangelnden Anscheins innerbetrieblicher Demokratie” (disastrous consequences of a lack of appearance of intra-factory democracy):
It is too soon. It is too lateSummer is waiting outside the doorA lighter time. But frozen stilleverything flowers, all thought. With what little freedomdo we go out, lingering insteadin our homes.
When the poem was published, glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were propagated in the Soviet Union, but the East German leadership tried to freeze its country in the pre-Gorbachev past.
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At first glance, much of the nonpolitical poetry by East German writers appears somewhat more provincial than the work of their Western counterparts. Many poems clearly reflect very specific and often narrowly defined geographical and cultural settings. Frequently an attempt is made, however, to relate the specific to the general. Georg Maurer, whom many younger poets consider their teacher, demonstrated this relationship when he referred to a definite area near Leipzig where he lived: “I am sitting in the universe/ on a bench in the Rosental.”
There are many references to recent history and present social and economic conditions and, even with writers outside the Bitterfeld movement, frequent attempts to re-create the atmosphere of the industrial or agricultural workplace. Although the many mediocre poems in praise of the tractor and its role in the battle for food are rightfully forgotten today, more modern authors often—consciously or unconsciously—employed the vocabulary of an industrialized world. In the poem that introduced his first volume of poetry, Provokation für mich (1965; provocation for myself), Braun compared the poems of his generation with “high pressure valves in the pipeline network of our longings” and “telegraph wires that endlessly vibrate with electricity.” It is doubtful that such metaphors would have occurred to his West German counterparts.
In such cases, it is often difficult or even pointless to distinguish between political and nonpolitical poetry. In general, history—especially twentieth century history—was a popular theme. Bobrowski, who grew up in the region of East Prussia, where Germans and Slavs had lived together and struggled with each other for centuries, again and again inserted into his poems references to German oppression of other cultures and to the heritage of guilt he shared. What for him was a general theme was treated by Fühmann as a personal experience in his long poem of 1953, “Die Fahrt nach Stalingrad” (“Journey to Stalingrad”), the lyric companion piece to his The Car with the Yellow Star.
Related to the focus on the immediate surroundings, there was a greater emphasis on nature poetry than in the West. Huchel and Bobrowski (who saw himself as Huchel’s pupil) wrote some of the finest German nature poems of his day. Occasionally, the tendency to depict nature and landscapes has been interpreted by outside observers as an escape from a stifling society, yet it is remarkable that in Huchel as well as in Bobrowski, nature does not exist for its own sake but becomes meaningful only through humanity’s relationship to it. Consequently, few of the landscapes they describe are without a reference to humanity. Maurer said about his Dreistrophenkalender (three-stanza calendar) of 1951: “When, through Marx, I understood something about the essence of humanity, I comprehended the essence of nature at the same time. In this way, I personified it and sealed the relationship between me and it.”
Beginning in the 1960’s, however, the cityscape replaced the landscape in much East German poetry, and Gressmann’s “Moderne Landschaft” (“Modern Landscape”) of 1966 evokes a characteristic image:
Steel trees are growing on the sidewalksAnd wires branchFrom tree to tree.Below, the electric animalsWith people in their heartsAre roaring past.
The passerby finds the sight quite normal, “For the landscape of stone/ Is his mother as well.” In the industrialized world of the GDR, an unabashed nature poet such as Strittmatter has become the exception rather than the rule.
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Much of East German poetry in the early years after World War II was marked by an attempt to adapt traditional forms to new ideological content. Classical patterns and the structures once developed as vehicles for religious expression served to give dignity to socialism and the new world it appeared to open up. Numerous cantatas, oratorios, and hymns were created by Becher, Fürnberg, Kuba, Hermlin, Zimmering, and others. Their texts are virtually interchangeable and lack any mark of artistic individuality. Some authors also attempted to create modern folk songs in order to popularize political ideas. While those works found their way into the songbooks of the youth organizations of the GDR, few have enriched the literature of the country. Brecht’s simple language and direct approach were often used as models, but few imitators approached the quality of his verse.
Other traditional forms were still far more popular in East Germany than in the West. East German poets wrote sonnets and adapted the classical ode to the language of the twentieth century. Similarly, the ballad, a convenient tool for the effective presentation of scenes from history, retained a firm position in the country’s poetry and became a vehicle of antigovernment protest by the late 1980’s. Brecht, Hermlin, Biermann, and many others wrote ballads to illustrate political and philosophical views. Even the metric form of the medieval epic was revived, as in Fühmann’s reinterpretation of the Nibelungen myth.
As a rule, East German writers are less given to formal experimentation and thus tended to produce more immediately accessible and concrete statements than some of the more adventurous poets of West Germany. It may be worth mentioning in this context that the very term “concrete” with respect to poetry assumed two quite different meanings in the two German states. Although some East German poets, such as Kunert or Endler, showed an inclination toward the condensation of a poem’s idea into a few brief lines, the reduction to isolated words or even letters so characteristic of Western concrete poetry can hardly be found in East Germany. A perusal of East German magazines and anthologies suggests that even the renunciation of uppercase letters was seen as a daring experiment.
It is evident that the formal conservatism of East German poetry sprang from two distinct although closely connected sources. One was the tradition established by the party and its cultural policies. When the State Commission for Artistic Concerns was established in 1951, it listed among its goals “overcoming formalism” and carrying on the “fight against decadence.” Despite Hermlin’s 1964 statement that it is a sad sight indeed if the representatives of the world’s most modern social order recoil when they come across the word “modern,” there was little official encouragement of formal experimentation. Alexander Abusch’s denunciation of poetry, “which stammers linguistic fragments, assembles combinations of letters and juggles with them,” thus creating poetic “ephemeral sensations, written for the snobbish amusement of a bourgeois ’elitist’ audience,” remained the official SED position to the end.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute the formal conservatism of East German literature solely to government pressure. Many authors themselves had little appreciation for the self-centered, Hermetic poetry of some “elitist” Western writers who show disdain for their audience and who have consciously robbed poetry of its communicative function. Indeed, quite a few East German writers agreed with the lines from Fürnberg’s poem “Widmung” (“Dedication”): “Oh, those who call themselves pure poets—/ if they only knew how poor they are!”
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Whereas lyric poetry is generally a much more private vehicle of expression than the other literary genres and thus tends to be monologic, East German lyric poets showed a definite inclination toward dialogue. With remarkable frequency, their works aim for a partnership with the reader and attempt to engage him or her directly. This popular view of the poem as a means of two-way communication was emphasized through the many public readings and discussions of poetry held throughout the country. More important, however, is its impact on the literary works themselves in terms of their language and structure.
Lorenc started his poem “Versuch über uns” (“Attempt About Us”) with the—not completely rhetorical—question, “Or in which Language should I speak from us to us?” His ethnic and linguistic background adds a special meaning to this question, but many East German writers pondered the same problem. The plural “us” is also quite appropriate: The poet is addressing the people, the collective, of which he, too, is a part. This is important, because the poet no longer saw himself as a teacher, above and apart from the people, as in the earlier years of the GDR. Strittmatter and Kunert stated explicitly that they did not have any didactic purposes in writing poetry, but Kunert added that he was not engaging in a monologue. Poets had the feeling that they were needed by their audience, that poet and readers are searching for the same thing—which, according to Kunert, could be defined by reference to the African American term “soul food.” Braun similarly saw himself as a “good friend” of his reader, not as a “barker.” He and his colleagues did believe, however, that the poet has to transcend the merely personal and private to say something of relevance to the audience. Thus, as Kahlau’s love poems show, even the intimate emotional relationship between two human beings can become part of a dialogue with the reader.
No dialogue can occur if the ideas to be discussed are obscured by linguistic patterns out of the grasp of one of the partners. This realization made many writers strive for Volkstümlichkeit (folksiness, or popular comprehensibility of poetry). In some cases, this attempt has led to an impoverishment of language. Hermlin’s early poems, for example, demonstrate his skill in translating the idioms of German expressionism and French Symbolism into an artistic vehicle for the communication of his philosophy. His language was widely criticized as esoteric and obscure, and perhaps partly in response to such attacks, but surely also out of a desire to reach a broader audience and not merely an “elite,” he deliberately changed his style, much to the detriment of his art.
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Most of the specific features of East German poetry discussed above were directly related to the role of the writer in a socialist society, yet many of these phenomena also have a long-standing tradition in German literature. Political poetry has been written in Germany since the Middle Ages. Many authors were opposing prevailing conditions, to be sure, but from Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170-c. 1230) through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) to some of the minor bards of the Third Reich, poets have sung the praise of the mighty.
The poetry of the Biedermeier period as well as that of German Realism emphasized the writers’ immediate environment, but even before the nineteenth century, the outstanding lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) was able to embrace the universe by focusing on his South German surroundings. Nature poetry has been popular with German writers and their audiences from Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), whom Bobrowski called his “taskmaster,” and Goethe to the Romantics and the Realists, with the works of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848) constituting an artistic peak. Some parallels exist between the poetry of certain East German authors, particularly Huchel, and the nature poetry of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
One of the outstanding accomplishments of the great German writers of the eighteenth century—from Klopstock and Hölderlin to Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and Goethe—was their successful adaptation of traditional literary forms to their language and their times. Some of those classical forms were still popular among the poets of the GDR. The Romantic writers not only collected folk songs but also imitated their style in their own creative efforts. Fühmann’s interesting experiment of retelling fairy tales in linguistically simple poems, while giving them a contemporary socialist interpretation, is also reminiscent of Romantic literature. Historical ballads, elevated to a high level of lyric expression by Goethe and Schiller, were among the most characteristic literary forms of the nineteenth century. The conservative trend in German poetry is by no means a new phenomenon, and writers as well as critics have again and again eschewed experimentation and rejected “empty” formalism. The denunciation by the old Goethe of what he considered “unhealthy” in Romantic writing can serve as an example. Finally, the didacticism of much of German literature, from medieval polemical pieces to the exhortations of the expressionists, has always implied the reader’s role as a silent partner in a dialogue.
These historical parallels are hardly surprising. The GDR considered itself the true heir to the cultural values of the German classical tradition. It assumed the role of guardian of a heritage that, so it claimed, was neglected and destroyed in the FRG. This attitude helps to explain why much East German poetry, especially that of the late 1940’s and of the 1950’s, strikes outside observers as dated and old-fashioned.
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By the 1980’s, many of the old masters—Brecht, Bobrowski, and Huchel the most important among them—were gone. Some poets, such as Hermlin and Fühmann, had turned to other forms of literature. In reaction to government repression and swelling popular unrest and dissatisfaction with the socialist government, an increasing number of poets was leaving the country right up to the fall of the Wall in Berlin. However, among the younger generation, talents emerged that were well worth watching. The number of books of verse that were published in the GDR would amaze most Western observers, and even more so the fact that this poetry found readers. Politics played a heavy role in the literary life of the country, and the massive political changes bringing an end to the GDR saw many poets at the vanguard of popular opposition and protest. Before the 1980’s, many poems never made it into print for reasons unrelated to their artistic quality.
The English-speaking reader is handicapped still by the relative scarcity of East German poetry in translation. Except for much of Brecht’s work, some of Bobrowski’s poetry, isolated poems by other East Germans, and a few good anthologies of Eastern and Western German poetry, there is still relatively little opportunity for those who cannot read the originals to acquaint themselves with a once thriving and interesting verse literature.
The English-speaking reader is often further handicapped by ideological preconceptions. If John Flores, in an important 1971 study, singles out two 1947 poems, “Die Zeit der Wunder” (the time of miracles) and “Ballade nach zwei vergeblichen Sommern” (ballad after two futile summers), as “perhaps the finest Hermlin has written” and then adds that they are “poems of disappointment and disillusion,” one cannot escape the impression that there is a causal connection between those two statements. Unless the reader in the West is willing to accept East German poetry within its own context, the mere availability of translations will not matter much.
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Deicke, Günter, ed. Time for Dreams: Poetry from the German Democratic Republic. Translated by Jack Mitchell. Berlin: Seven Seas Press, 1976. A good collection of East German poetry up to the mid-1970’s.
Flores, John. Poetry in East Germany: Adjustments, Visions, and Provocations, 1945-1970. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971. Older and staunchly anticommunist, still a valuable discussion of the role of poetry in East Germany during the height and the eventual waning of the Cold War. Shows how in the West, East German poetry was often considered either propaganda or secret opposition to the socialist regime.
Hamburger, Michael, ed. East German Poetry: An Anthology. Oxford, England: Carcanet, 1972. A bilingual anthology that provides a good selection of poetry.
Hartung, Harald. “Lyric Poetry in Berlin Since 1961.” Translated by Lorna Sopcak and Gerhard Weiss. In Berlin Culture and Metropolis, edited by Charles W. Haxthausen and Heidrun Suhr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. A brief but very important article shedding light on, among other things, the flourishing of an alternative, underground East German poetic culture in East Berlin. Poets from East Berlin were in the vanguard of those intellectuals demanding change from the socialist regime, resulting in its ultimate peaceful overthrow.
Ives, Rich, ed. Evidence of Fire: An Anthology of Twentieth Century German Poetry. Seattle: Owl Creek Press, 1988. Contains some significant and important East German poems. Nicely places East German poetry in the overall context of modern German poetry. A useful complement to Charlotte Melin’s anthology.
Leeder, Karen J. Breaking Boundaries: A New Generation of Poets in the GDR, 1979-1989. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A comprehensive analysis that focuses on both official and underground poetry of the last decade of the GDR. Well written and critically informed, this is a very important study for any student of the topic. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Martens, Lorna. The Promised Land? Feminist Writing in the German Democratic Republic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. By studying the prose and the poetry of women writers living in the GDR, the author questions whether the state was in fact a utopia for women. Especially important in that Martens’s book is the first to deal systematically with this issue.
Melin, Charlotte. German Poetry in Transition, 1945-1990. Hanover: University Press of New Hampshire, 1999. One of the best anthologies for readers wanting to acquaint themselves with East German poetry. Excellent, informative introduction, valuable author biographies, good bibliography, index.
Owen, Ruth J. The Poet’s Role: Lyric Responses to German Unification by Poets from the GDR. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. In addition to a chapter on “The Poet’s Role in the GDR 1949-1989,” the book contains analyses of specific works written both during the period and after unification.
Sax, Boria. The Romantic Heritage of Marxism: A Study of East German Love Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. A perceptive study of the topic. Marxist positions on the topic are clearly expressed, and discussion, criticism, and analysis of the poems are of remarkable clarity and distinction. Bibliography and index.