Günter Grass

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Günter Grass Poetry: European Poets Analysis

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Before he became a world-renowned novelist, Günter Grass wrote poetry that presaged, echoed, or underscored the tones and themes of his fiction. His poetry and fiction both owe a debt to Franz Kafka for their concise, parable-like nature.

From the beginning of his career, Grass demonstrated a unique poetic voice that offered readers and listeners several overlapping personas. The sensitive, wide-eyed teenager of World War IIwho witnessed terrible things that left indelible impressions on his psycheis seldom absent. The cynical critic is lurking, too, extrapolating on small observations to broach more complex issues of greater import, to ask questions for which there are no answers, and to hope for the best while expecting the worst. The radical liberal sometimes shows up to rant. Grass the humorist is often present: His wit is sometimes sardonic, tinted black, prurient, or crude, but comic relief has helped soften audience reaction as he deftly negotiates between the extremes of anarchy and servility. The most obvious presence is the craftsperson: Grass at his best has an uncanny ability to blend a few precise words with memorable images to produce symbols that extend into metaphors. His early verse in particular is notable for its concision: Grass pares language to its essence, resulting in epigram-like pieces (ostensibly about food or common objects or ordinary events) of surreal brevity with multiple layers of meaning.

Grass’s poetry, often enhanced by the author’s evocative drawings and etchings, generally touches on one of several broad subjects. A constant thread is autobiography, life as filtered through the poet’s consciousness, where the everyday has the potential to illuminate the universal. National history is also a major concern. Grass muses about the effects of the devastation wrought on Danzig, where he grew up, and of the demolition of Germany, and speculates on how events from the past shape the present and inform the future of his countrymen and of the world at large.

The poetry of Grass can be appreciated on several levels. Casual readers can enjoy the author’s sly turns of phrase, the quickly sketched visions that open up into panoramas of possibility, and the rhythm (and occasional rhyme), especially in bilingual editions. Depth of understanding can be increased from an examination of the meaning beneath the surface; the similes, metaphors, and allusions reveal new facets. Complete enjoyment of Grass’s poetry comes with specialized knowledge: the ability to grasp linguistic puns and wordplay in the original German and a familiarity with German history and politics.

Novemberland

Novemberland, which collects nearly forty years of Grass’s work, contains fifty-four poems, including the thirteen-sonnet series called “Novemberland 1993.” The formal, traditional sonnets focus on significant events from German history that happened to fall in November. In the second poem of the series, “Novemberland,” Grass deals with three events that took place on November 9: the Beer Hall Putsch when Adolf Hitler unsuccessfully tried to seize power in Munich, Bavaria, and Germany (1923); Kristallnacht, the night when the windows of Jewish businesses were smashed (1938); and the razing of the Berlin Wall as a precursor to the reunification of Germany (1989), which Grass vehemently opposed. Unlike most other poems in the collection, the “November” series is serious, with little overt humor, and moralistic in tone. Grass rails against talk shows, complains about taxes, criticizes the destructiveness of neo-Nazis, and compares the workings of the German government to a carnival. Grass contrasts the old Germany with the new and reacts with anger or sorrow to the problems associated with reunification.

Grass’s trademarkgrotesque, Dali-esque images, captured with a few poignant strokesis present throughout the collection. In “Family...

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Matters,” museum patrons can see aborted fetuses floating in glass jars while the unborn embryos contemplate their erstwhile parents’ fate, and in “The Jellied Pig’s Head,” Grass presents a recipe for jellied pig as a means to condemn those who lack the courage to take a moral stance. In this collection, Grass employs simple symbols; for example, in “The Flag of Poland,” a desiccated apple stands for the loss not only of innocence and childhood, but also of human immortality in the Garden of Eden. In “Nursey Rhyme,” children’s laughter becomes sinister and treasonous in what the poet views as Germany’s repressed society. Other poems such as “Prophet’s Fare” offer extended political allegory or spotlight troubles associated with emigration, mostly in blank verse. As a collection,Novemberland gives readers a healthy dose of the highly compacted abstract concept with multitudinous meanings, which Grass is a master at creating.

Letzte Tänze

Letzte Tänze (last dance), a trilingual volume (German, English, and Celtic) featuring illustrations by Grass, is highly autobiographical. Two contradictory themes dominate the collection, both indicated by the title. The word “last” suggests the poet’s awareness that at the age of seventy-sixhis age when this book was published in 2003he is approaching the end of his life. Like the elderly everywhere, he waxes nostalgic, reminiscing about the way things used to be in the good old days. Regrets and missed opportunities are relived in agonizing detail, and fond occasions take on a rainbow aura. Memory is faulty and selective, and small incidents from the past loom larger because of the impact they had on the individual. However, the word “dances” indicates that Grass is not finished yet. Dancing, the pure joy of moving unrestrained to different musical beats, provides physical stimulation, which in turnon the theory that a sound mind resides in a sound bodyboosts mental activity. The very process of writing about something as exuberant as dance, Grass seems to say, is enough to keep one young in the twilight years.

Despite the narrow constraints of his overarching theme, Grass covers a variety of subjects with an impish, sometimes vulgar, touch. In this collection, the poet subtly acknowledges his acceptance of his public responsibility as Germany’s moral compass (a position that would be severely undermined several years later by his revelation that he served, albeit briefly, in the hated SS). Though his role as cultural arbiter is a serious one, Grass insists on being allowed to exercise the playful side of his powerful intellect and to be excused if he steps on a few sensitive toes as he whirls in dance.

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