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Hans Magnus Enzensberger 1929–-

German poet, essayist, critic, editor, translator, and dramatist.

Enzensberger is considered by many to be Germany's most important post-World War II poet. His clear, concise style serves to boldly state his points of contention and express his political interests, which range from the national wealth and...

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Hans Magnus Enzensberger 1929–-

German poet, essayist, critic, editor, translator, and dramatist.

Enzensberger is considered by many to be Germany's most important post-World War II poet. His clear, concise style serves to boldly state his points of contention and express his political interests, which range from the national wealth and society's materialism to more universal themes of social injustice and oppression. He rose to fame as his country's “angry young man” with the publication of his first two volumes of poetry, and his later verse and essays established him as a prominent literary figure and political thinker. His reputation is that of a poet of defiance and a voice of the oppressed—concerned, compassionate, and aware.

Biographical Information

Born the eldest son of middle-class parents, Enzensberger was raised in Nuremberg, Germany. He studied literature and philosophy at universities in several cities including Freiburg, Erlangen, Hamburg, and Paris. Enzensberger's first collection of poetry, Verteidigung der Wolfe, was published in 1957 and Landessprache followed in 1960. At that time, Enzensberger began working as an editor at Suhrkamp Publishers in Frankfurt. In 1963 he was awarded the George Buchner prize for his third collection Blindenschrift, and became a member of the prominent literary movement Gruppe 47, an informal but extremely influential association of politically engaged writers. Enzensberger refers to the group as a “literary workshop … of 100 or so writers … that suddenly found that it had the power to make or break reputations.” Toward the middle of the 1960s, Enzensberger founded the political journal Kursbuch and his emphasis shifted from verse to prose, though he maintained his focus on political, social, and historical issues. In 1976 Enzensberger published his first book of new poems in over ten years: Mausoleum: 37 Balladen aus der Geschichte des Fortschritts (Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress), a collection of biographical portraits of figures from the fourteenth to the twentieth century whom Enzensberger believes profoundly influenced the course of Western civilization. The 1970s also saw a broadening in Enzensberger's level of political discourse, tackling problems less specifically German, such as the material welfare of the nation after World War II, instead focusing on problems more global in scope, such as class disputes and various forms of social oppression. In 1970 Enzensberger became the publisher at Suhrkamp Publishers, a position that he held until 1975. In 1978 he published Der Untergang der Titanic, which he himself translated as The Sinking of the Titanic (1981). Titanic, originally written in the late 1960s during Enzensberger's year-long stay in Cuba, was lost in the mail and had to be reproduced from memory; it has become his most notable collection of verse. In the early 1980s, Enzensberger founded the periodical TransAtlantik, and throughout that decade and the 1990s he has published at a prolific rate, producing numerous volumes of essays and verse.

Major Works

Beginning his literary career in post-World War II Germany, Enzensberger was concerned not only with the state of the German language, which he felt was corrupted by war and tyranny, but with the economic and spiritual state of his country as well. The aim of his work tends to be a pedagogical one, serving to arouse people's awareness of important political and social issues. In Poems for People Who Don't Read Poems, Enzensberger focuses on national politics and German culture. For example, the controversial poem “foam” criticizes the fabric of society and its omnipresent mores. In another highly-praised poem, “the end of the owls,” Enzensberger depicts an image of animals threatened by extinction due to the destruction caused by war, an image intended to represent the masses of people who have no voice against that brutality. Enzensberger's political thought broadened with later works such as Der Untergang der Titanic, in which he centered on themes of oppression and social injustice. With the ocean liner as a metaphor for society, Enzensberger comments on the differences between the conditions and fates of poor and rich passengers, and describes events from several perspectives, invoking a number of historical and personal references to extend the implications of his themes.

Critical Reception

Critics laud Enzensberger's early works for breaking ground in German poetry at a time when artistic expression had been at a standstill. In later years, Enzensberger's work reflected his views about the writer's role and function within society, and his later disillusionment with literature's ability to effect revolutionary change. Many critics, however, consider these works to be too political, sometimes at the sacrifice of his craft. Enzensberger's more recent poetry, beginning with Die Furie des Verschiwindens (1980), reverts back to a more lyrical quality evident in Enzensberger's early verse, one which, the critic Peter Demetz claims is a perfect mirror of the society he attempts to portray: “open, changing, and paradoxical.” Overall, Enzensberger's poetry is frequently compared to another German writer, Bertolt Brecht, for his themes and poetic precision. Enzensberger's use of language, and of modern words in particular, is notable for being concise, accessible and pertinent to the moment, both stylistically and politically.

Principal Works

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Verteidigung der Wölfe [The Wolves Defended Against the Lambs] 1957

Landessprache [Language of the Country] 1960

Blindenchrift [Braille] 1964

Poems for People Who Don't Read Poems 1968

Gedichte: 1955-1970 [Poems] 1971

Mausoleum: 37 Balladen aus der Geschichte des Fortschritts [Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress] 1975

Beschreibung eines Dickichts 1979

Der Untergang der Titanic: Eine Komodie [The Sinking of the Titanic: A Poem] 1980

Die furie des Verschwindens 1980

Zukunftsmusik [Future Music] 1991

Selected Poems: German-English Bilingual Edition 1994

Kiosk 1995

Einzelheiten 1962

Einzelheiten II: Poesie und Politik 1963

Bewusstseins-Industrie 1963

“In Search of the Lost Language” [in the journal Encounter] 1963

Politik und Verbrechen: Neun Beitraege 1964

Deutschland, Deutschland unter anderm 1967

“The Writer and Politics” [in the journal The Times Literary Supplement] 1967

Das Verhoer von Habana [The Havana Inquiry] 1970

Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie: Buenaventura Durrutis Leben und Tod 1972

Politics and Crime 1974

The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics, and the Media 1974

Raids and Reconstruction: Essays on Politics, Crime, and Culture 1976

Baukasten zu einer Theorie der Medien 1981

Europe, Europe 1989

Political Crumbs 1990

Mediocrity and Delusion 1992

Patrick Bridgewater (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: “The Making of a Poet: H. M. Enzensberger,” in German Life & Letters, Vol. XXI, No. 1, October 1967, pp. 27-44.

[In the following excerpt, Bridgewater finds that Enzensberger's first three verse collections evince the influence of such writers as Bertolt Brecht, Gottfried Benn, W. H. Auden, and others.]

Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in 1929. To date he has published the three books of poems that are about what we might expect from a poet of his age: verteidigung der wölfe, 1957; landessprache, 1960; blindenschrift, 1964. In considering the work of a poet still only in his mid-thirties, it is legitimate and instructive to see what he has learnt from other poets. All young poets learn from their poetic predecessors—they would be fools, and there would be no poetic tradition, if they did not. It is, of course, what is learnt and how it works which is of interest. In the following discussion I am therefore interested not in the extent to which Enzensberger has been or appears to have been ‘influenced’ by this or that poet, but in what certain parallels between his work and that of older poets can tell us about his own work.1

The poets from whom Enzensberger seems to have learnt most are (in verteidigung der wölfe and landessprache) Brecht, Benn and W. H. Auden, and (in blindenschrift) William Carlos Williams. To a lesser extent he has benefited from the example of several other American, Latin-American, and German poets. His first collection was essentially a mixture—bound to be successful in 1957—of Brecht and Benn: these are the main sources of his characteristic combination of politics (in theme) and modernism (in expression), a combination more reminiscent of modern Latin-American, than of German, poetry. The most productive models have been Brecht and W. C. Williams. Benn and, to a lesser extent, Auden have been rather negative influences who tended to confirm Enzensberger in his own weaknesses. His earlier attitude towards his poetic models was indeed largely uncritical, though it is sometimes difficult to tell whether one is faced with uncritical or parodistic treatment of the model, that is, whether Benn, say, is being imitated or guyed. It is only with his latest collection, blindenschrift, that Enzensberger has come of age poetically; this was the first volume to be based on a mature and constructive view of poetry (as opposed to one based on the worst elements of Benn's and Brecht's poetics).

Enzensberger's statement that ‘It was between the positions of Brecht and Benn, and in a dialogue with these poets … that the most recent German poetry developed’ (‘In Search of the Lost Language’, Encounter, September 1963) is certainly true of his own first two collections with their mixture of artistry and social involvement, experimental techniques and social realism, collections in which Benn's cerebral smartness and concatenated imagery are combined with something of Brecht's pre-1928 public style and later political toughness. The younger poet is less vitalistic than Brecht, certainly, and the topical or fashionable element in his work is naturally a different one. Both poets, despite obvious differences of period and vocabulary, are aggressively anti-bourgeois. Like Brecht, Enzensberger insists on the functional value of poetry. And both poets reacted against a tragically similar situation, for both the First and Second World Wars showed the younger generation that the Germany of their parents was morally bankrupt. The post-war nouveaux riches described with such hatred in Enzensberger's ‘socialpartner in der rüstungsindustrie’ are the sons and grandsons of the bloated financiers attacked so bitterly by Brecht, George Grosz and others. But then history repeated itself.

Yet compared with Brecht's truly revolutionary attitude and temperament, the young poet's ‘Wut’ seemed rather suspect, seemed to rest (in the first two collections) on too negative a basis; we are faced there with more than just the ‘negative’ nature of satire as such (‘Und wo bleibt das Positive, Herr Kästner?’). While Brecht believed to the end in a theoretical Marxist Utopia, Enzensberger—understandably—does not believe in the future. While Brecht was moved by a genuine compassion for the victims of life, Enzensberger had an almost obsessive hatred of the ‘little nobody’, as the poem ‘die würgengel’ (in Akzente, 5/1958) showed. In this he was reacting not only against his own background, but against the twentieth century as such. There is frequently considerable justification for his attitude; it makes good sense to attack the (German!) lambs for their love of the wolves, for instance. But his ‘angry poems’ are too indiscriminate; these angry leaflets lost through being handed out at random. Brecht aimed to shock people into political action; but is Enzensberger's desire to shock justified? Though he regards himself (as Brecht did) as a ‘sager der wahrheit’, the desire to shock for its own sake, a perhaps irrepressible gaminerie, too often gained the upper hand over his concern with truth in verteidigung der wölfe and landessprache. A lasting impression of his early verse is that for all its aggressive brilliance there is a persistent lack of substance. Compared with the political poets of the 1920s, their most prominent mid-century successor seemed to lack guts.

In Enzensberger's first two collections there are many direct echoes of the earlier, ‘public’ Brecht; it is only with blindenschrift that he comes to terms with his first master, who then becomes a productive model. Anyone reading ‘option auf ein grundstück’ will at once recognize the model:

meine kinder wünsche ich keineswegs zu verkaufen, sondern im setzen der segel, im harpunieren zu unterrichten. zu unterrichten ist vom sichern endsieg der metzger, und in der herstellung von kadavern die jugend.

The polarity here between innocent nature and butcherous humanity—emphasized typographically—is itself entirely Brechtian, as is the allegorical use of nature; there is a close parallel between harpooning whales and butchering men. Enzensberger's black humour is paralleled in the work of Brecht and Benn alike. Both the last stanza of ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’ with its reference to the poet's fellow-countrymen asleep in their burning shirts, and his earlier poem ‘candide’ with its reference to how those same fellow-countrymen will enjoy spreading their honey while the universe explodes, are strongly reminiscent of Brecht's ‘Gleichnis des Buddha vom brennenden Haus’ with its attack on those who persist in asking what is to become of their money-boxes and best Sunday trousers if there is a revolution. Enzensberger has learnt from Brecht to use this bitter mockery—which has its eventual source in Heine—to try to shake his readers out of their political apathy. Another close parallel is between Brecht's anti-sermon ‘Gegen Verführung’, and Enzensberger's ‘aschermittwoch’, a wickedly effective gloss on the antiphons for Ash Wednesday. Both poems are informed by the same conviction, expressed in the last line: that there is no after-life. And both poems have the same aim: to make people realize that man's future—if any—is in his own hands, and that the future can only be assured in the present. Like Brecht, Enzensberger uses the language of the Church (in his case in direct quotation within a collage) to mock the teaching of the Church. The social satirist or political poet aims to make people face the facts. The title-poem of his first collection,‘verteidigung der wölfe gegen die lämmer’, is entirely in the spirit of Brecht's ‘Lob des Zweifels’: both poems aim to make the reader see himself and his position for what it is.

But as I have already implied, an examination of the parallels between Enzensberger's poetry and Brecht's soon shows that as man and poet he continually falls short of his model, though he instinctively chose the best and most relevant model. Thus while Brecht's poem ‘1940’ (= ‘Mein junger Sohn fragt mich’) illustrates his essential faith in life, faith in the future, Enzensberger's comparable ‘ins lesebuch für die oberstufe’shows only his cynicism; as a poem it nullifies itself. Brecht's Schweyk-like social anarchist ‘Der Kirschdieb’ has never had it so good as in Enzensberger's ‘prozession’, where we find him sitting like a god in excelsis. A comparison of ‘geburtsanzeige’ with Brecht's ‘Von der Freundlichkeit der Welt’ shows that Enzensberger lacked in 1957 Brecht's deep humanity and compassion. That he also lacked Brecht's humility is clear if one contrasts his condemnation of his “stinking brothers” with Brecht's attitude in his famous poem “Vom armen B.B.” in which he admits that he himself is no better than his fellows (whom he condemns). The crux of the matter is that while Brecht was moved by a revolutionary idealism, Enzensberger's attitude was not—in 1957-60—free from ressentiment and arrogance, not free from what he himself calls intellectual snobbishness. This is a fatal mistake for a would-be political poet. While both poets seek to enrage the reader, Brecht's readers really are enraged at the injustice of life and the inhumanity of man, while Enzensberger's readers are surely annoyed—if at all—by the young poet's own arrogance. If Enzensberger was hoping to change the world (in a political sense) he certainly went about it in the wrong way. His attacks on the ‘Wirtschaftswunderland’ which supports him also seem rather like ‘Spiegelfechterei’ compared with Brecht's attacks on the Third Reich. Most importantly, Enzensberger lacked, in his ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ poems, the poetic ability, the lyrical ‘Grazie’ of his master. But in a few personal poems and in much of blindenschrift he has developed a lyrical grace and simplicity that bears comparison with Brecht's.

Brecht's poems ‘Vom armen B.B.’ and ‘An die Nachgeborenen’ seem to have impressed Enzensberger more deeply than any others, which is hardly surprising since they contain Brecht's poetic testament in a highly memorable form. The poem ‘lebenslauf’ is a direct imitation of ‘Vom armen B.B.’. But while Brecht's poem is original, tough, and memorable, Enzensberger's is derivative and self-centred, and not at all memorable. In the same collection there are also several direct echoes of ‘An die Nachgeborenen’. A comparison of ‘lebenslauf’ with the poem ‘weiterung’ in blindenschrift shows how much Enzensberger's attitude to Brecht changed between 1960 and 1964. The later poem is a deliberate review and critique of the famous final section of ‘An die Nachgeborenen’; it reads:

wer soll da noch auftauchen aus der flut,
wenn wir darin untergehen?
noch ein paar fortschritte,
und wir werden weitersehen.
wer soll da unsrer gedenken
mit nachsicht?
das wird sich finden,
wenn es erst soweit ist.
und so fortan
bis auf weiteres
und ohne weiteres
so weiter und so
weiter nichts
keine nachgeborenen
keine nachsicht
nichts weiter

This is an important poem, for it shows that Enzensberger has achieved a genuinely critical attitude towards his model. Here he uses Brecht's poem critically and continues the argument where Brecht left off, a perfectly legitimate procedure. He has rewritten Brecht's poem in the new context of the thermonuclear ‘flood’: the world has changed out of all recognition since 1938. Previously, as in ‘lebenslauf’, he had been content to echo Brecht uncritically. Now he seems to have come to terms with the great poet on whom not a little of his early work was modelled. This impression is confirmed by another poem, ‘küchenzettel’. The sign of continuing life at the end of the poem (‘links unten ganz in der ecke / seh ich einen katzenteller’) parallels the equally simple but equally momentous ending of Brecht's ‘Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils’ (‘Sieh den kleinen Kastanienbaum im Eck des Hofes, / Zu dem du die Kanne voll Wasser schlepptest!’). But this new echo of Brecht comes in a poem in which the theme is developed in a way which is at once original and genuinely Brechtian, a poem which shows a real personal commitment. The new simplicity of Enzensberger's style in this poem may owe much to Brecht's example; but it is original in a way in which the language of his earlier poetry was not. The theme of the poem is the acceptance of reality as it is—the main theme of the lyrical poet or ‘Taoist’ in Brecht. If Brecht's ‘private’ poetry has helped Enzensberger to his new-found acceptance of reality—necessary for the poet since poetry is about reality—this will be Brecht's most important contribution to his work. It is now that he is no longer imitating Brecht and borrowing from him, that his work has become genuinely ‘Brechtian’.

Though Enzensberger has rejected Benn's aestheticism, there is no doubt at all that he has learnt a good deal from Benn in terms of poetic technique. His method of composition is surely basically what Benn described as ‘prismatic infantilism’, saying that it probably reminded people of children's games—shining mirrors in people's faces while themselves remaining in the shade (see Benn, Der Ptolemäer, 1949, 137 f.). Enzensberger's attitude in too many poems in verteidigung der wölfe and landessprache is—like Benn's own—that of the naughty child drawing attention to itself. But despite this element of exhibitionism, his attitude also tends to be an ‘ohne mich’ one: he sees the most manifold phenomena as part of a larger reality, but does not himself enter into this larger reality. He is all too often merely ‘Anti um jeden Preis’—again like Benn. While satire may thrive on negative reactions, poetry is less prone to do so.

What Enzensberger has learnt from Benn is above all the collage technique with its concatenated images. This is clear if we compare the following lines from his ‘candide’:

nichts ist gewaltiger als der mensch;
spiralnebel, kulturkrisen, weltkriege
sind ephemere belanglosigkeiten,
stroh der zeit,

with the passage from Benn's ‘Fragmente’ which they recall:

Ausdruckskrisen und Anfälle von Erotik:
das ist der Mensch von heute,
das Innere ein Vakuum,
die Kontinuität der Persönlichkeit
wird gewahrt von den Anzügen,
die bei gutem Stoff zehn Jahre halten.

In verteidigung der wölfe there are a number of other lines and passages which also owe a direct debt to this characteristic technique of Benn's, for instance in the poems ‘erinnerung an die schrecken der jugend’, ‘anrufung des fisches’, ‘abschied von einem mittwoch’, ‘prozession’, and ‘ratschlag auf höchster ebene’. Such parallels sometimes show Benn uncritically adopted rather than critically digested; but there are also passages in which Benn is parodied, e.g. in the last stanza of the poem ‘candide’ just quoted:

dämonie? ist gewöhnlich dilettantismus.
katastrophen? kaffeeklatsch der geschichte,
überdauert von tonkrügen, von profilen,
und von deinen aprikosen, candide.

or again in the poem ‘goldener schnittmusterbogen zur poetischen wiederaufrüstung’.

The concatenated image technique is one that needs to be handled very carefully if poetry is to result. Disparate and diverse details only produce poetry if a significant pattern is imposed upon them. In poems such as ‘schaum’ and ‘gewimmer und firmament’—which admittedly owe far more to Allen Ginsberg's ‘Howl’ than to anything written by Gottfried Benn—poetic self-control and self-criticism is totally lacking. An intrinsic weakness of the collage-technique as used not only by Enzensberger and Grass, but also by Benn and W. H. Auden, is that it lends itself to uncritical ‘Aneinanderreihung’; all too often artistic self-discipline, the art of selection, goes by the board. In his essay ‘Entstehung eines Gedichts’ on the genesis of the poem ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’, Enzensberger wrote of his own early drafts of the poem: ‘Sein Satzbau ist brüchig und undurchsichtig, mehr eine additive Reihung als eine haltbare Konstruktion. … Die einzelnen Angaben sind ungenügend verzahnt.’ This is very honest self-criticism, and in the final draft of the poem in question this fault has been to some extent overcome. But this same uncritical ‘Aneinanderreihung’ is none the less seen in too many of Enzensberger's earlier published poems; until the early 1960s his self-criticism was not sufficiently rigorous. The essay to which I have just referred is a brilliant piece of retrospective poetic self-analysis, but one which is perhaps too explicit; the poet's very articulateness makes ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’ seem contrived, too intellectual and abstract.

In using the concatenated image technique Enzensberger has also tended, like Benn, to lack the poetic tact and self-control that would prevent his work from slipping into the merely topical or into abstract slogans. A juxtaposition like ‘die nike von samothrake und von cap canaveral’ may be effective in its concision and width of reference, but the effectiveness depends, or depended, on its topicality. Since Enzensberger wrote the line the Nike missile has become obsolescent, and Cape Canaveral has been renamed. It is precisely the poet who is most admirably concerned to express his own age who runs most risk of expressing only his own age. Like many modern poets, for instance, both Benn and Enzensberger make considerable use of foreign words, especially Anglo-Saxonisms. But these words are often merely topical or fashionable. Examples: High Life, Sex-Appeal, Cutaway, Barvamps, Boogie-Woogie, Blues, Jitterbug (Benn); security risk, countdown, jukebox, snackbar, ban the bomb, feedback system, displaced person (Enzensberger). Some of Benn's Anglo-Saxonisms are already dated; how Enzensberger's will fare remains to be seen. But it will surely be the poems in which the Benn-like neologisms and contemporary foreign words, phrases and slogans are strung together, that will last least well. The fact that Enzensberger's use of fashionable words—like Benn's use of them—is frequently ironical, does not affect the issue. Such irony is itself topical merely: all that will remain is the dated word.

In general the extraordinary diversity, liveliness and technologically up-to-date nature of Enzensberger's vocabulary no doubt owes much to the example of Benn. Let us remember what Benn himself said:

Diese meine Sprache … steht mir zur Verfügung. Diese Sprache mit ihrer Jahrhunderte alten Tradition, ihren von lyrischen Vorgängern geprägten sinn- und stimmungsgeschwängerten, seltsam geladenen Worten. Aber auch die Slang-Ausdrücke, Argots, Rotwelsch, von zwei Weltkriegen in das Sprachbewusstsein hineingehämmert, ergänzt durch Fremdworte, Zitate, Sportjargon, antike Reminiszenzen, sind in meinem Besitz. Ich von heute, der mehr aus Zeitungen lernt als aus Philosophien, der dem Journalismus nähersteht als der Bibel, dem ein Schlager von Klasse mehr Jahrhundert enthält als eine Motette. … (Probleme der Lyrik,)

This reads like a description not only of Benn's vocabulary, but of Enzensberger's too. Speaking of his own poetry and that of some of his contemporaries, Enzensberger has said:

Fragments of everyday life, scraps of slang, words from the world of consumer goods force their way into the poetic text. The safety-pin and the Rapacki plan, the jukebox and the cough-drop appear in verse with the same right and the same naturalness as the moon, the sea, and the rose (‘In Search of the Lost Language’).

It can be argued that such phenomena do not always appear in Enzensberger's or any other contemporary verse with as much naturalness as he suggests. But his own poetry, whatever its quality, is nearly always about the issues that matter; and his vocabulary itself reflects our time. Where too many contemporary poets are of their time only in their self-consciousness and wilful obscurantism, Enzensberger is of his time in the intrinsic complexity of his themes and the urbanity and diversity of his vocabulary with its deliberate colloquialisms.

Benn's influence on Enzensberger's imagery, syntax and diction has in fact been considerable. He is himself a striking example of the poet as ‘ein grosser Realist … das athenische Insekt’ (Probleme,). There is no denying that he has ‘ein hartes, massives Gehirn, ein Gehirn mit Eckzähnen’ (ibid.,). And that Benn's particular form of cerebral smartness still appeals to him is shown by the recent poem ‘bibliographie’.

What must now be stressed is that in 1961 Enzensberger completely rejected Benn's poetic theory. Right from the beginning it was clear that he had implicitly rejected Benn's aestheticism. This rejection became explicit in the essay ‘Scherenschleifer und Poeten’ (in: Mein Gedicht ist mein Messer, ed. Hans Bender, 2nd ed., List-Bücher, 1961) where Enzensberger insisted that poetry is not about the poet himself, that ‘content’ is as important as ‘form’, and that poems are addressed to someone. This is a specific reversal of Benn's views. Elsewhere he implicitly condemned Benn for seeing art as a ‘purpose in itself, … an aesthetic substitute religion beyond all social and moral responsibility’ (Encounter, September 1963). This condemnation of Benn's egocentric formalistic aesthetic is surely justified. His view of art had led Benn to insist that works of art are historically ineffective, meaning that artists cannot change the world in a political sense. Enzensberger's first two collections appeared to be based on the belief that they could; but in this respect he recently seems to have come to share Benn's view. Whether his rejection of Benn's formalism has anything to do with what is ultimately a lack of form (as opposed to style) in his own earlier poetry, is a matter for speculation. But I suggest that he went too far both in his wholesale rejection of Benn's poetic theory and—more especially—in his uncritical acceptance of Benn's poetic techniques.

Karl Krolow has noted Enzensberger's indebtedness to W. H. Auden:

Enzensberger, der nicht nur Brecht, sondern vor allem die Amerikaner, Auden voran, genau kennt, bedient sich in seiner gesellschaftskritischen Sprache ihrer Errungenschaften (Aspekte zeitgenössischer Lyrik, Gütersloh, 1961).

W. H. Auden certainly seems to have helped Enzensberger to form his view of poetry. It is evident that he shares Auden's pragmatic view that ‘Art is not enough.’ Art, for him, is the means to a non-artistic end; poems have to be ‘beautiful’ so that people will pay attention to their moral. Like Auden, Enzensberger is in fact above all a moralist; and in him, as in Auden, there is clearly a tension between the lyric poet and the moralist, a tension which occasionally, as in ‘call it love’, produces an excellent poem. But in his first two collections the clever-clever moralist tends to get the better of the poet, though—again like Auden—Enzensberger can produce delightful lyrics (e.g. the ‘friendly poems’ in verteidigung der wölfe). The poet only really gets the better of his satirical anti-self in the most impressive recent poem ‘lachesis lapponica’. His rather clinical detachment is also reminiscent of Auden; Enzensberger too trends to go in for the detached ‘placing’ of detail by means of successive definite articles. In his earlier poetry there is a brittle journalistic glibness, a tendency for genuine poetic exploration to be replaced by smug enumeration, e.g. in the ‘goldener schnittmusterbogen’… with its rejection of ‘belcanto’ (fair enough) and its sneers at ‘trobadore’ (unfortunate since it was precisely the trobador in Enzensberger that needed developing). As Hans Egon Holthusen has noted (in his Kritisches Verstehen, 1961), both poets go in for the ironical combination of words and phrases, often linked by alliteration or assonance. While Auden wrote, for instance:

Nocturnal trivia, torts and dramas,
Wrecks, arrivals, rose-bushes, armies,
Leopards and laughs, alarming growths of
Moulds and monsters on memories stuffed
With dead men's doodles, dossiers written
In lost lingos … 
(The Age of Anxiety, 1948)

we find Enzensberger using this same technique—it is a basic one in The Age of Anxiety—when he writes:

wir schlafen, nett geschart
um egel, die keine sind,
gesalbt mit gallerte.
aus vegetarischen villen
streuen sie leutselig
rosenkränze und zucker
in den jubel der somnambulen
wahllosen wähler.

And there are many other examples. These ironical combinations may be the work either of the poet ‘playing about with words’, or of the satirist. In Enzensberger's early work it is most often the latter, for in much if not most of the earlier poetry there is—as in much of Auden's work—something slick, deft, essentially journalistic; take away the satire and there is nothing much left. There was there, above all, a lack of personal emotion that made his social commitment seem rather shallow. This lack of personal emotion was deliberate; Enzensberger has said that poets' feelings are of no particular interest, and if he was thinking of feelings that remain unobjectivized, this is true; but he perhaps went too far in his reaction against personal feeling and the seraphic tone.

If Auden's example is reflected in Enzensberger's early work (and there is little sign of it in blindenschrift), it is Auden's weaknesses, like Benn's, that are reflected there most clearly. But then in Auden's poetry it is the weaknesses that are most immediately obvious. And Auden too can be an overwhelming influence for a young poet. Naturally there are also many ways in which Enzensberger's work differs from Auden's. One obvious point concerns their imagery. If Auden tends to rely on conceptual and moral patterns rather than sensuous effects, Enzensberger at times employs a more sensuous imagery. In this he is closer to, say, Pablo Neruda. Indeed, in 1961 he said that his aim was to produce a ‘highly sensuous dialectic’, which is as good a definition of poetry as most (cf. J. J. Baumgarten's ‘oratio sensitiva perfecta’). Though he does not often allow it to appear in his early work, he has a sensitive feeling for nature, particularly for marine life.

One of several poets translated by Enzensberger is William Carlos Williams. That he has learnt from Williams in the process seems clear. His lines in the poem ‘das herz von grönland’:

ich will vom zerstörbaren reden,
wo wenig lob ist
und lob wenig, und wenig zeit,
da haust der krebs
in den gruben

might indeed have been written by Dr Williams in between seeing patients; one of the American poet's main themes is, as Enzensberger himself has noted, destruction and physical decay, ‘the death implied’. The exciting concreteness, the elaborately assembled images in his work recall Williams's view that ‘detail is all’; in his work, as in Williams's own, we see ‘the juxtapositions impossible otherwise to accomplish’ (W. C. Williams, The Collected Later Poems, N.Y., 1950). The main difference is that Enzensberger—like Auden—frequently juxtaposes slogans and ideas, while Williams normally juxtaposes images. In Williams's ‘A Sort of Song’ there was in fact a clear moral for Enzensberger, a moral which he now seems to have learned:

—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things). Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks

This is what he is now doing in blindenschrift, where we at last find the abstract slogans replaced by ‘the particulars of poetry / that difficult art’ (ibid.). In this last collection, notably in the final section (‘schattenwerk’) there are a number of short and short-line poems that employ a form (short 2, 3 and 4-line stanzas) used by W. C. Williams, Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings; earlier the songs in verteidigung der wölfe appeared to be indebted to these same poets' songs: with ‘lock lied’ compare Williams's ‘The Fool's Song’ (The Collected Earlier Poems, N.Y., 1951). One critic has written of Enzensberger's songs as ‘zarten, fast zärtlichen Liedern … die wie chinesische Tuschzeichnungen anmuten’ (K. G. Just, Universitas, May 1960), and certainly the tone and imagery of his more lyrical poems does recall Chinese and Japanese poetry. While his model here—if he had one—might have been Brecht's ‘Chinesische Gedichte’ and ‘Buckower Elegien’, it could equally well have been the Japanese-style imagism of W. C. Williams, for, as Enzensberger has said:

Seine besten Gedichte erinnern zuweilen an ostasiatische Graphiken, besonders in ihrer genauen Ökonomie, der Kunst des Aussparens. Diese Schreibweise hat es nicht auf Deutung, sondern auf Evidenz abgesehen. Sie verzichtet konsequent auf ‘Tiefen’ und gibt stattdessen die Oberfläche der Erscheinungen in höchster Prägnanz; daher ihre Undurchdringlichkeit, jene Qualität, die Pound opacity genannt hat (‘William Carlos Williams’, Einzelheiten).

In fact Brecht and Williams have much in common as poets. Just how much can be judged from Enzensberger's translations of Williams's ‘The Bare Tree’, which reads exactly like a late poem by Brecht:

Der kahle Kirschbaum
über dem Dach
trug reichlich Früchte?
im letzten Jahr. Früchte?
Dieses Gerippe da?
Ist das denn überhaupt
noch am Leben? Ich
seh keine Früchte.
Also schlagt es ab
und braucht das Holz
gegen die beissende Kälte.
(W. C. Williams, Gedichte, tr. H.
M. E., 1962)

Together Brecht and W. C. Williams have had an immensely beneficial influence on Enzensberger; it will have been their example that prevented him from becoming yet another metaphor-bound modernist. To them he owes above all his clarity and colloquial tone.

In Enzensberger's work we find several devices that are used—most notably, but not only—by Williams. In verteidigung der wölfe compound words are not only separated, but a word is sometimes split between two lines (e.g. aus-/geliefert, fest-/krallen). This word-splitting is not as startling as in the poetry of Williams who writes, for instance, grad-/ually, o-/dors; and Enzensberger seems to have decided that this device is kitschy, for he dropped it in subsequent collections. But in some of the early ‘friendly poems’ and in blindenschrift we find another device used by W. C. Williams, e. e. cummings, and many contemporary American poets: the discarding of punctuation (especially full-stops), and the—in blindenschrift only occasional—use of extended spaces between words and lines to replace grammatical signs and to convey the poet's personal rhythm or ‘breathings’ more exactly. This technique, which was used in ‘friendly poems’ such as ‘call it love’ and—more consequentially—‘schläferung’:

lass mich heut nacht in der gitarre schlafen
in der verwunderten gitarre der nacht
lass mich ruhn
im zerbrochenen holz
lass meine hände schlafen
auf ihren saiten
meine verwunderten hände
lass schlafen
das süsse holz
lass meine saiten
lass die nacht
auf den vergessenen griffen ruhn
meine zerbrochenen hände
lass schlafen
auf den süssen saiten
im verwunderten holz.

but was then dropped, could be partly a carrying-further of Brecht's omission of the comma at the end of the line (because there is a speech-pause there anyway). But Enzensberger is likely to have obtained the consequent typographical arrangement from recent American poetry of the ‘William Carlos Williams line’, perhaps even direct from Charles Olson's statement on ‘Projective Verse’ of 1950, which has become an ars poetica for many American poets of Enzensberger's generation. ‘Projective Verse’ stresses two things: ‘composition by field’ and the adoption of a ‘stance toward reality outside a poem.’ Enzensberger clearly agrees with Olson's view that ‘Form is never more than an extension of content’, and presumably (judging by his poetry) would agree with the process by which this principle is accomplished, namely that ‘One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception’ (Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’, repr. in The New American Poetry 1945-60, ed. Donald M. Allen, N. Y., 1960—a book which Enzensberger knows). It would therefore be natural for him to experiment in ‘field composition’, which would mean in practice concerning himself with the problem which was of prime importance for William Carlos Williams—the problem of colloquial speech rhythms and ‘tone’. In his essay on Williams, he speaks of the American poet's ‘untrüglichen Ohr für Tonfälle … Dieser exakte Gebrauch der Umgangssprache.’ Enzensberger himself has always written mostly in irregular rhythms (regular rhythms being reserved for parodistic purposes), and has never attached much importance to the stanza as such. In blindenschrift there are few regular stanzas, and now punctuation is being dropped again too, thus making his poetry still more ‘open’ (Olson's synonym for ‘projective’). His next collection may well continue his experiments in this field, may well go further in the direction of adopting the William Carlos Williams line of contemporary American poetry to the German language. Looking back to poems such as ‘lock lied’, ‘zikade’ and ‘schläferung’ in verteidigung der wölfe, one can only regret that Enzensberger did not at that time continue to allow himself to be guided by poets such as Williams instead of becoming the victim of his own publicistic success. What he needed was not only Williams's precise colloquialism, but also his poetic attitude. In blindenschrift a number of poems are concerned with the discovery of reality and the acceptance of things as they are found to be. This acceptance, unlike the derision and wholesale rejection of reality in the first two collections, has already led to some impressive poetry. Enzensberger may well have been helped to find this acceptance by the example of W. C. Williams, and of Günter Eich and (the lyrical poet) Brecht. It looks as though W. C. Williams has been and may continue to be a most productive and helpful model.

A few short-line poems in blindenschrift are also reminiscent of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. In particular, ‘mehrere elstern’ looks like an adaptation of Stevens's famous poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, while ‘schattenreich’ too is written in the mixed 2-, 3- and 4-line stanzas, and ‘trigonometrischer punkt’ (a title derived from Eich?) and ‘windgriff’ in the short 3-line stanzas favoured alike by Stevens and Williams. Enzensberger also has a little in common with e. e. cummings, though—apart from his rejection of capital letters—it is more a question of tone than of anything more specific; e. e. cummings is a much more ‘old-fashioned’ poet than Enzensberger in the sense of being a romantic beneath his typographic disguise, but his totally irreverent attitude is shared by the young German poet. Enzensberger's early songs (‘lock lied’, ‘zikade’, etc.) parallel some of cummings's songs in Tulips and Chimneys (1923) in their a-syntactical stringing-together of words, the typographical arrangement of the poems, and their general kittenish tone. Particularly in blindenschrift Enzensberger also uses the half-repetition employed by Auden, Williams and cummings, e.g. in ‘schattenbild’:

ich male den schnee
ich male beharrlich
ich male lotrecht.

But if Enzensberger's recent poems that use half-repetition and analytical progression in this way are modelled on other poets, the models are more likely to have been Erich Fried and Paul Celan—Celan, whose rhythms re-echo through blindenschrift. The following lines from ‘der andere’:

einer der geld und angst und einen pass hat
einer der streitet und liebt
einer rührt sich

surely owe something to poems such as ‘Traum vom Tod’ or ‘Taglied’ by Erich Fried (see Fried, Gedichte, 1958), or to poems by Paul Celan which use the same technique (see his Sprachgitter, 1959). The most characteristic technique in Fried's earlier work, the punning word-patterns (so clearly prefigured in some of Paul Klee's poems), has naturally not commended itself to Enzensberger. In Enzensberger's first two collections one of the most obvious weaknesses was that he did not develop his themes properly; although his poems were highly articulate in one sense, in another sense they were inarticulate. This is where he now seems to have been helped by the syntactical experiments of Fried and Celan, for in blindenschrift he does articulate and co-ordinate his images, does develop his themes dialectically—from a technical point of view this is the most important development in this latest collection—and in doing so makes some use of the ‘linguistic analysis’ of Fried and Celan. Whether in turn Erich Fried's recent, more ‘aktuell’ poems owe anything to Enzensberger, is a further matter for speculation.

But so far as contemporary German poets are concerned, the most significant model has probably been Günter Eich. Enzensberger's first two collections might have been written in accordance with Eich's advice:

Tut das Unnütze, singt die Lieder, die man aus eurem Mund
nicht erwartet!
Seid unbequem, seid Sand, nicht das Öl im Getriebe der Welt!
(G. Eich, Ausgewählte Gedichte,

Whether he was consciously following this advice at any time, I do not know; if he was, he followed it too literally. Be this as it may, Enzensberger certainly seems to have learnt from Eich in his latest collection, cf. the poem ‘abgelegenes haus’ dedicated to Eich. The constant theme of Günter Eich's poetry is the rediscovery of reality and therefore of self. But this is also a recurrent theme in blindenschrift, and one which has led to some very good poems (‘abgelegenes haus’, ‘küchenzettel’, ‘lachesis lapponica’). In this latest collection Enzensberger has found himself and found a new simplicity of expression, and in this he appears to have been helped considerably by the admirable example of Günter Eich's poetry.

It is evident from his work as translator and anthologist that Enzensberger particularly admires some modern Latin-American poets, notably the Peruvian César Vallejo and the Chilean Pablo Neruda (cf. his essay on Neruda in Einzelheiten). That he has himself learnt from Neruda is suggested by a poem like ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’ which contains just such a series of approximations as we find in some of Neruda's earlier poems, e.g.:

Etwas zwischen Lippe und Stimme stirbt dahin,
Etwas mit Vogelschwingen, etwas aus Qual und Vergessen.
(Pablo Neruda, Gedichte, tr. Erich
Arendt, Bibliothek Suhrkamp, 1963)

In ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’ there are what seem to be verbal echoes of Neruda, cf. these lines:

die ministerien mauscheln, nach phlox
und erloschenen resolutionen riecht
der august

and several others in the poem with Neruda's:

Laast uns … 
in den Abgrund der Akten versinken.
in den Zorn der gefesselten Worte,
in hartnäckig tote Kundmachungen,
in Systeme, eingehüllt in vergilbte Papiere.
Kommt mit mir in die Kanzleien, in den zweifelhaften
Geruch von Ministerien und Gräbern und Stempelmarken.

It will be agreed that there is at least a parallel here. Enzensberger's concatenated imagery is reminiscent of Neruda as well as of Benn and Auden, and the empty anger of his early poems is paralleled in Neruda's war-poems. But naturally there are many more differences between Enzensberger and Neruda in his various phases. A comparison of ‘ehre sei der sellerie’ with Neruda's ‘Oda a la cebolla’ (‘Ode to an Onion’), which it recalls, makes the essential difference between the poets clear. Neruda's poem is more straightforward and employs a more sensuous imagery than Enzensberger's, which is gratuitously provocative. In general, however, the mixture of politics and modernism in Enzensberger's poetry is reminiscent of Neruda and the other modern Spanish-American poets who figure largely in his museum der modernen poesie. There may be a strong general influence here. And certainly this is where Enzensberger's originality within German poetry lies: previously politics and modernism had tended increasingly (since the anti-Expressionist reaction of the 1920s) to be poetic opposites.

In verteidigung der wölfe there were several echoes, partly parodistic, of early Expressionist poetry, and particularly of Georg Heym. The poem ‘kleiner herbst dämon’ beginning:

nach schwefel stinkt dein gelber schopf
die hände hast am kohlen feuer
die augen glitzen ungeheuer
und maus blut kocht in deinem topf

is strongly reminiscent of Heym's ‘Der Gott der Stadt’ and ‘Die Dämonen der Städte’. Surely Enzensberger's ‘kleiner herbst dämon’ (note the characteristic separation of compound words here) is a contemporary version and parody of Heym's majestic Baal, a sort of demonic equivalent of the ‘kleiner niemand’. In another poem, ‘larisa’ there are clear echoes—in the imagery and strutting trochaic rhythms of the poem (‘nachts wird kälter’: und sie schnarchen / fest in rauchverqualmten träumen / ist kein obdach? ach die wirte / schwenken glänzend schwer das Kinn’)—of Heym's most famous poem, ‘Der Krieg’. Ironical undertones of ‘Der Krieg’ are also found in ‘die hebammen’, where the futilely militant midwives ‘springen … unverhofft querfeldein’ (cf. Heym's poem, where War ‘jagt das Feuer querfeldein’). More generally, lines like ‘aus den dachluken zwitschern päpste’ or ‘springen den frauen die pelze im park auf’ owe much to the satirical vision of early Expressionist poets such as Heym and Lichtenstein. Enzensberger's often brilliant inventiveness also owes much to Hans Arp.

This parodying of Heym and, as we saw earlier, Benn, is part of a general tendency by the poet to include parodistic quotations from other poets in his earlier work (another Brechtian technique). Like many other contemporary poets, he not infrequently incorporates quotations into his work, particularly in landessprache. His sources range from the Bible … the Ave Maria and the Proper of the Mass … to Karl Marx. … Advertisements and public inscriptions are used. But most of his quotations are from other poets, and in these cases we are usually faced with parody. It is probably a dislike of rhetoric that causes him to parody Hölderlin: ‘ein gipfelkongress ist einberufen / zur verhütung des schlimmsten. bekanntlich / wächst, wo gefahr ist, das rettende auch’ (V. 89, cf. Hölderlin's ‘Patmos’); ‘stiftet lieber, was bleibet, die dummheit’ (V. 82, cf. Hölderlin's ‘Andenken’); ‘unheilig herz der völker’ (my italics); etc. Rilke is similarly parodied: ‘hier sein ist herrlich’ (L. 8, cf. 7th Elegy: the parody is in the context); ‘gut sein ist nirgends’ (L. 68, cf. 7th Elegy); etc. There are a number of parodistic allusions to contemporary poets, e.g. ‘mohn und metaphysik’ (V. 82, cf. Paul Celan's Mohn und Gedächtnis); ‘auf widerruf’ (L. 8, cf. Ingeborg Bachmann's ‘Die gestundete Zeit’); ‘anrufung des fisches’(V. 40 f., cf. Bachmann's Anrufung des Grossen Bären); ‘mystische rosen’ (L. 39, where they are equated with ‘schaum’, cf. A. A. Scholl's ‘Poesie’ where poetry is called ‘die mystische Rose’); ‘die spieldose mit der alten sarabande’ etc. The ‘asphodelen’ in the poem ‘goldener schnittmusterbogen’… no doubt contains a satirical reference to the ‘Asphodelen meiner Angst’ (the metaphor is from Ivan Goll's poem ‘Die Hochöfen des Schmerzes’) variety of post-1948 modernism, the work of those whom Enzensberger has called the belated adepts of Benn's Ausdruckswelt. But the poet to whom hostile allusion is most frequently made is Hans Egon Holthusen. There are several satirical echoes of his well-known poem ‘Tabula rasa’, cf. ‘wie sind wir heruntergekommen! was für ein zustand!’; ‘was soll ich hier? und was soll ich sagen? / in welcher sprache? und wem?’; ‘das hört nicht auf! das stirbt, ununterbrochen … ’. In this last case the parodistic intention is made clear both by the fact that Enzensberger here writes in Holthusen's rhetorical rhythms, and by the way in which he continues: ‘das faselt geschmeichelt / von apokalypse, das frisst am nullpunkt noch kaviar / … / das hat keinen zweck! … da hilft kein rilke und kein dior!’ It is a fair assumption that these hostile allusions have a political as well as an aesthetic basis. Enzensberger presumably has in mind both the neo-Rilkean Zeitdichter and the member of the ‘literarische Regierungspartei’; but it is essentially the antagonism of the new left for the old right that we see here.

When he began writing, Enzensberger's poetry was essentially a mixture of Brecht's ‘public’ and Benn's private poetry. From Brecht derived the political poetry as such and some of the means of putting it across. From Benn came the basic method of composition (‘prismatic infantilism’), the concatenated imagery, and much of the diction. To this topical mixture was added a type of satire that owed not a little to W. H. Auden. The poetry that resulted from this combination of models was artistically weak; the best of his early poems were the most original ones, the—very few—poems written in his own voice. A first major turning-point in his poetry has now come with blindenschrift, where his whole attitude has changed and he has evidently learned from W. C. Williams, Brecht, and Günter Eich to concentrate his work on particulars. There is now a new sort of detailedness, a genuine articulation and elaboration of given themes, and a new lyrical grace and simplicity; Williams, Brecht, and Eich have helped Enzensberger to find himself, to rediscover his own voice.


  1. Enzensberger's poetic aims and achievements are discussed in my essay “Hans Magnus Enzensberger” in Essays on Contemporary German Literature, ed. Brian Keith-Smith, London (Oswald Wolff), 1966.

D. J. Enright (review date 1968)

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SOURCE: “Between Holderlin and Himmler,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. X, No. 7, April 11, 1968, pp. 21-2.

[In the following review, Enright declares Poems for People Who Don't Read Poems “pure poetry” and compares it to Bertolt Brecht's poetry in its precision.]

It is scarcely the case that we live in a time when literary conventions are so narrow and stifling that “poetry” must become, for the poet, a dirty word. Far from it. Poetically, anything goes, and the louder the faster, though perhaps not very far. So the more one considers the title of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's volume of selected poems [Poems for People Who Don't Read Poems]—with English translations facing the German text, except on one occasion—the more sadly irrelevant or even senseless it comes to seem. People who don't read poems don't read poems.

In the longest piece here, “summer poem”, the phrase “das ist keine kunst” keeps recurring—“that's not art.” In a note the author describes the phrase as “the traditional objection of a bourgeois aesthetic against every innovation.” True, such was the situation, once upon a time. But far more often today we hear the complaint “but that's art,” the false artist's by now traditional objection to the suggestion that art should be something more than a howl, a slash of paint, or a tangle of old iron. The genuine artist—and there is clear evidence here of Enzensberger's genuineness—oughtn't to be wasting his time and energy on this sort of shadow-boxing.

Enzensberger has set his face against Rilke, Bach, Hölderlin (“what can we do / with everyone / who says hölderlin and means himmler”), seemingly because their work failed to prevent the Nazi extermination camps, because indeed some camp commandants were actually connoisseurs of music and poetry. Are Rilke, Bach, and Hölderlin to blame for this? Should they have written only for good men to read? Maybe in a few score years the work of Enzensberger will be judiciously appreciated by the monsters of some new regime, whose withers are left unwrung, or are probably unwringable anyway?

Perhaps Rilke, at least, was too much the self-regarding artist, spinning literature out of his own guts, with too little concern for the guts of others. “Hiersein ist herrlich” (“to be here is glorious”), says Enzensberger, glancing with rather heavy irony at one of Rilke's best known and most willed announcements. The allusion comes in Enzensberger's “man spricht deutsch”, which plays angrily with the phraseology and appurtenances of the Economic Miracle. (A word of praise is due to the translators: here and elsewhere, thrown into a verbal blood-bath, they contrive to make on their own swings what they lose on the original roundabouts, as with “on the bonny bonny banks we play blind man's buff.”) True, one expects a miracle to take place in a cowshed, on a mountain, by a lakeside, at a tomb—and not, in economic guise, in the vicinity of gas chambers, not upon the ashes of incinerated thousands. When it does, you can scream with rage and horror, but the Miracle still stands, your screams won't make it fall down like the walls of Jericho. You must also speak clearly, and say what you want instead of this Miracle. It is natural in Enzensberger that the experience of the “new Germany” should hurt all the worse because of the nearness of the old Germany:

this is a country different from any
other … 
germany, my country, unholy heart
of the nations,
pretty notorious, more so every day,
among ordinary people elsewhere … 
there i shall stay for a time,
till i move on to the other people
and rest, in a country quite ordinary,
not here.

Is there any land left that is “ganz gewöhnlich” by what would seem to be Enzensberger's conception of the ordinary? If there is, what on earth would he find to do in it?

A good deal of what Enzensberger cries out against in Germany is in fact universal. Some of it is trivial. Since the artist must select, anyway, it is best that he does select. And selection appears to be this poet's weak point. Embroidered napkins, whipped creams, wage negotiators, plastic bags, chambers of commerce, murderers' dens, bonus vouchers, chamois beard hats, Coca Cola and arsenals, Rilke and Dior, branflakes and bombs—they all feature as expletives in a lengthy curse, all of equal weight apparently or, in the end, of equal weightlessness. To be angry about everything is to be angry about nothing. Enzensberger's rage declines into rant, his fierce indignation into smashing-up-the-furniture. One thinks of Brecht's poems, and of his gift for selecting the one detail, the one image, the one reference which will tell all, or as much as he set out to tell.

The last poem in this book is called “Joy”, and it begins,

she does not want me to speak of
she won't be put down on paper
she can't stand prophets … 

It is a more hopeful poem than most of Enzensberger's, for it ends by speaking of Joy's “siegreiche flucht” (“her long flight to victory”) but it is a little too abstract, too willed, and deficient in the urgency and the implied compassionateness of similar poems by Brecht, such as

In meinem Lied ein Reim
Käme mir fast vor wie Ubermut
(In my poetry a rhyme
Seemed to me almost like presump-


Der Lachende
Hat die furchtbare Nachricht
Nur noch nicht empfangen
(The man who laughs
Has not yet heard the dreadful

Yet for me Enzensberger is at his best when at his nearest to Brecht, and when he eschews length, as in “bill of fare”, “poem about the future”,the grimly comic “midwives”, and (a very fine poem) “the end of the owls”:

i speak for none of your kind,
i speak of the end of the owls.
i speak for the flounder and whale
in their unlighted house … 
i speak for those who can't speak,
for the deaf and dumb witnesses,
for otters and seals,
for the ancient owls of the earth.

These are Enzensberger's most moving, most impressive poems—and I don't mean (if indeed it means anything at all) “aesthetically.” These, by implication, contain the horror and disgust of the longer pieces, but go beyond horror and disgust, not by annulling them, by selling out to “art,” but by assuring us that the poet is not himself merely a destroyer with a grievance against bigger and better destroyers. Here he is not making war but speaking, soberly and lucidly, of the pity of war. In his longer poems, Enzensberger's weapon is the blunderbuss, where it should rather be the rapier. Or is that too much like “art”? In an age of nuclear weapons the rapier cannot be said to be noticeably less effective than the blunderbuss or the bludgeon, and it is certainly more discriminating. The poet, unlike the atom bomb, ought to discriminate still.

Peter Demetz (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “Hans Magnus Enzensberger,” in Postwar German Literature, Pegasus, 1970, pp. 92-7.

[In this essay, Demetz surveys the themes and subjects of Enzensberger's firsth three volumes of poetry.]

When Hans Magnus Enzensberger first published his poems he was immediately cast in the welcome role of the angry young man, but the fixed public image has tended to obfuscate the changing concerns of a highly gifted intellectual. He is more learned, cosmopolitan, and restless than any of his contemporaries; essentially unwilling to settle down in any place or way of thought, intent on radical doubt, he does not participate in collective stances for very long. …

Enzensberger, like Brecht, wants his reader to think, and it is difficult to isolate his poetry from his bitter polemics against the German mass media (including the August Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), from his translations, and his editorial projects. His three volumes of poetry, verteidigung der wölfe, 1957/in defense of the wolves; landessprache, 1960/language of the land; and blindenschrift, 1964/writing for the blind, relate chronologically and thematically to his political analyses and to the few literary essays in Einzelheiten, 1962/Details; Politik und Verbrechen, 1964/Politics and Crime; and Deutschland Deutschland unter anderem, 1967/Germany Germany inter alia, as well as to his anthology of modern poetry and his translations of William Carlos Williams (whom Enzensberger considers the patriarch of independent American writing). The first American anthology of Enzensberger's verse suggests in its title (taken from a subdivision of the German original) that Enzensberger offers poems for people who don't read poems (1968) and likes his writings to be used by those who want to transform a world that offends their sense of fairness.

In verbal strategies and thematic interests, Enzensberger's first two volumes of poetry differ somewhat from the more subdued tone and the lean economy of the third volume. In his defense of the wolves and language of the land Enzensberger demonstrates an impressive richness of linguistic techniques, stanzaic patterns, and modes of speech. These collections include aggressively ironic attacks against all power, property, and technology; luminous love poems in a soberly contemporary idiom; and a pensive, almost elegiac poem articulating his most intimate longing for an existence of pastoral happiness, quiet, and peace. In the well-known early poem, “counsel at the highest level”, he rages against the sexually impotent “makers of history,” whom he advises to jump off their jets, ironically defends the “wolves” in power against the unthinking victims who blandly watch television and have given up any thought of changing the world, identifies the greedy consumers with hooked fish, dangling from the lines of cynical fishermen in the rich societies of America, Russia, and West Berlin, and coldly condemns the dead souls who live out their sham lives in the midst of red tape, accumulated files, and rustling IBM cards. In his gathering of nonpeople congregate generals, managers, consumers, functionaries, professors, mendacious researchers, rubber merchants, and “fat widows” who, all unmoved by the German past, wallow in their commercial, technological, and military “things,” amassed to stifle life: bonds, telegrams, warships, tennis courts, checks, real estate (not on idyllic islands), cars, movies, golf, eau de cologne, barracks, department stores, and radar screens. But Enzensberger's fine sensibility is oppressed not only by industrial goods and people without memories; what he hates most is the crude force imposed upon him by the perpetual production processes of the industrial world and by media and ads that assault his eyes and ears, catching him in a net of data, sounds, commercial offers, and threatening him with the disgusting secretions of smoke, smog, soot, and foam, all anticipating the lethal radiation that some day will seep from anonymous laboratories.

To the relentless pressures of the military-industrial complex the poet (not the social critic) Enzensberger responds in a rather traditional German fashion, appealing to the quiet fortitude of animals and plants, seeking escape in the miraculous depths of the sea, and longing to merge with the elements of the earth: his “organic” refuge distinctly if paradoxically implies that he places little faith in historical progress and in definite transformations of society; his poetic utopia resides in an unchanging nature, from which all cruel struggles between strong and weak, all lethal fungi, and all poisonous growths have been carefully removed. Enzensberger likes his nature alive with rare animals that have aesthetically pleasing names (otters, seals, salmon, sables, owls, and albatrosses) and with humble, hardy plants. In many of his best poems (not all of which are included in his American anthology) he sings the glories of the white cherry blossoms which make the thunder hesitate and cause butchers to hide, fearful of “the wild yes” of innocence. He extols the lowly celery, which does not participate in the inhumanities of man; in a later volume he writes of the northern lichen that quietly survives all the vicissitudes of man. Goodness is to be found only far from people, perhaps even nowhere on the surface of the earth, and the poet eagerly follows oysters and fish into the deep or speaks as a diver who, at the bottom of the sea, finally finds happiness in solitude, in dark and undisturbed silence. Most revealingly (at least for the earlier Enzensberger), in his poem “voices of the elements”, the world, with its newspapers and daily social responsibilities (including unpaid bills), is of unmitigated evil, and happiness resides only in partaking of “the tender dialogue of the resins,” salts, and alkalines, and in sinking “into the soundless monologue” of the substances at the dark heart of being. Sometimes the angry young man flees rather far.

Enzensberger's third collection of poems, writing for the blind, stands a little apart from his previous verse. Lines and stanzaic patterns are lean, there is less self-indulgent play with mannered paradoxes and surrealist confiture (or rather, secondhand Jacques Prévert), and while some of the earlier motifs recur repeatedly, a personal record emerges of Enzensberger's attempt to withdraw to a Scandinavian hideaway of water, stone, moss, and tar (and a rustic life with his family); the intellectual tries to find his haven in remote nature, and inevitably fails. In contrast to his earlier verse, too, world and counterworld are suggested less in abstract terms ingeniously polarizing nature and technology; now people and issues have individual and particular names (there are poems about Theodor W. Adorno and Karl Marx), and the alternatives of commitment and withdrawal confront each other within the pastoral experience itself. There are the simple house, the water, and the jug (one of Rilke's blessed “things”), but there are also letters, telegrams, and the “red knob on the transistor radio” blaring news about Caribbean crises and Dow-Jones averages; there is geographical distance and yet a modern conscience filled with painful knowledge (“bouvard and pécuchet … pontius and pilate”) and, as Walter Benjamin early suggested, with reproductions of reproductions (“of images of images / of images of images of images”); gentle friends gather in the evening, alive with “light laughter and white voices,” but the poet increasingly feels that there is social irresponsibility in his semblance of bliss: “fearless therefore ignorant / quiet and therefore superfluous / serene therefore without mercy.” In “lachesis lapponica” (“lapland lot”) the pressures of conflicting demands turn the poem itself into a dialogue between the romantic admirer of northern plains and the ardent partisan of Fidel Castro, committed to political action: the two speakers, whose utterances are printed in different type, duly impress each other, but the discussion is left in ironic abeyance and there is little likelihood that either of them will totally prevail.

Enzensberger is at his best when he balances his erudition with his sense of quality and does not try to display his considerable bag of tricks in one poem alone. In his theoretical essays he almost makes himself out to be a late disciple of Edgar Allan Poe, and his aversion to any idea of inspiration, his scholarly awareness of the literary past as a constant challenge to the modern writer, and his philosophical and constructivist inclinations place him closer to Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, or Gottfried Benn than the social critic Enzensberger might wish. From the work of Brentano, Enzensberger derives for his private poetics the central idea of linguistic Entstellung (displacement), a technique that counteracts the tendency of language to ossify in clichés and mechanical turns of phrase; I am not certain how Enzensberger's Entstellung differs from the “alienation device” (priëm ostranenija) which the Russian formalists, eager to define the de-mechanization of language, discovered in futuristic poetry. Enzensberger knows how to write romantic tetrameter and to play with the inherited techniques of the surrealists, but fundamentally he wants to shock by skillful and occasionally affected combinations of incompatible elements of rhythm, vocabulary, and idiom; while carefully exploiting, rather than negating, tradition, he avoids rhyme as well as the rules of capitalization, but secures unity of the poetic texture by means of nets of alliterations, assonances, and recurrent vowel patterns (“mokka / coma / amok / NATO”). He loves oxymora that unveil the conflicts within social reality, delights in extensive series of asyndeta that link contradictions, and handles proverbs, idioms, and quotations, made slightly disreputable by microscopic changes, with devastating meticulousness. Within the individual poem he arranges with force and determination his linguistic confrontations of the most disparate technical and professional vocabularies, and many younger poets, dissatisfied with the inherited literary idiom, have followed his lead. Few, if any, try to emulate his sober, pensive, and graceful love poetry.

Enzensberger manages to combine, with wit, urbanity, and ease, a bit of Bukharin and Lord Byron. “The blacks call me white / and the whites call me black,” he says of himself; as a social critic and the editor of Kursbuch (1965-), the most intelligent publication of the radical German left, he may aspire to change the entire world, but as a poet he appears much more concerned with himself than with the perspiring masses anywhere; he despises the high and mighty but is equally disgusted by the little people he sees in the streets, toiling, colorless, docile, and ugly. In an illuminating essay Paul Noack has called Enzensberger a conservative anarchist, but I wonder whether this clever label quite covers the productive intellectual who loves cherry trees, old books, and a future universe free of oozing machines and terrifying sounds, inhabited by a select few who suit his egocentric, exacting, and fastidious tastes. Most intensely of all, Enzensberger does not want to suffocate in precast thoughts and cemented ideologies; and when Peter Weiss recently asked him to declare himself unequivocally for the underprivileged and to “sacrifice his doubts and his reservations,” Enzensberger replied sharply that he preferred his doubts to mere sentiments and had no use for views free of internal contradictions. Fortunately, Enzensberger wants a world no less open, changing, and paradoxical than his verse.

Pamela McCallum (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “II: Poems for People Who Don't Read Poems,” in Canadian Forum, Vol. LVIII, No. 687, March 1979, pp. 14-7.

[In this essay, McCallum seeks an understanding of Enzensberger's anger and cultural criticism in Poems for People Who Don't Read Poems.]

Poems For People Who Don't Read Poems is the title given to the English publication of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's poetry. At first glance it appears to be an absurdist enterprise, perhaps the latest arrogance of an avant-garde deliberately courting an audience which does not exist. But nothing could be further from Enzensberger's purpose.

In reality, the impetus behind his poetic practice is a cultural theory which attempts to understand why human consciousness is distorted in advanced industrial societies. In pre-industrial periods when culture was primarily oral the relationship between master and student, priest and parish, dominator and dominated was relatively transparent: people's minds were shaped from without in a directly comprehensible manner. Advances in technological sophistication from the earliest printing presses to the latest media reversed this process, putting in its place what Enzensberger calls the “industrialization of the mind.” The emancipating slogans of the first machine age—enlightenment, equality, liberty—unavoidably became twisted remnants as consciousness was warped, forced to shape its own domination. The opaque, inscrutable steps in which people willingly consent to their own domination have become even more blurred in the twentieth century urban societies where human existence is lived out under the glare of fluorescent lights, the chatter of advertising slogans, and the dim twilight cast by the TV screen. This is, Enzensberger emphasizes, no mere phenomenon of manipulation which can be remedied by simply overthrowing the manipulators. On the contrary, the depth and extent of modern domination is such that its hidden implications can barely be perceived. In his words, “the mind industry's main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to ‘sell’ the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man's domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means.”1 The monolith of modern technological society relentlessly reproduces itself in the one-dimensional lives it proffers its citizens.

How then is any entering-wedge, any perception of an alternative, to break through this barrier? The possible opening is a crucial weakness in the mind industry, a contradiction lying at the heart of its project. According to Enzensberger, the self-domination, the self-distortion of consciousness can only be achieved by granting what must be ultimately suppressed: the creative potential of human beings. As he puts it, “in order to obtain consent, you have to grant a choice, no matter how marginal and deceptive; in order to harness the faculties of the human mind, you have to develop them, no matter how narrowly and how deformed.”2 His strategic goal is to seize the measure of creative development—however small—to turn it against the very forms of manipulation it is meant to serve. Again this is no simple task. Since the mind industry cultivates its own pseudo-choices, any capacities to be won over must be snatched from the entangled confusions everyday life imposes. To be effective, intervention must take place in the murky morass of advanced technological society and for this, we need not radical innocence and purity, but determination.

Of pivotal importance to any such intervention are the new media forms—radio, television, film, videotape—all oriented toward action and activity, not contemplation. They break through mystical, reverential attitudes toward traditional art forms; they create no art objects, no authentic originals which can become the privileged possessions of collectors. Unlike traditional forms of art, they are capable of infinite reproduction without defiling authenticity. And for the first time it becomes possible to record historical material directly. While written communication structurally imposes an isolation on the reader and the text, the new media make possible collective forms of communication. With the radio transistor, everyone becomes a potential producer.

Enzensberger's championing of the new media and his insistence on their displacement of written culture superficially resembles Marshall McLuhan's theories. But Enzensberger is interested in McLuhan only for the emphasis his “undigested observations” place on the importance of the new media and substantially criticizes McLuhan's obsession with the forms of the media, his lack of any theoretical construction to understand the social and political processes in which the new media participate. Enzensberger's formulations instead bear comparison with the suggestive implications in the later work of Harold Innis. As an economic historian Innis necessarily confronts power relationships. His analysis in The Bias of Communication delineates the convergence of imperial expansion in societies such as Egypt and Rome, their necessity to control space, with a dependence on written culture, which in turn facilitates the monopolization of knowledge in complex script, formalized learning, the control of supplies. In contrast, an oral tradition opens up a freedom of access to information, an emancipation from the domination of space, an orientation toward the more fluid domain of time. In his phrase, “the individual became responsible for his actions and the root of authority was destroyed.”3 The achievements of Greek society—Homer's poetry, Hellenic drama, the Platonic dialogues—are examples of the creative, interactive processes generated by a substantial oral tradition. It is precisely these qualities which Enzensberger identifies as the potential points of breakthrough in the new media. Potential is the crucial word, for he is all too aware of the function the media play in present conditions: far from developing their possibilities for liberation they are reduced to providing another round of mindless, vacuous bombardment with only sporadic exceptions. Yet, these very exceptions are exactly what any movement for change must grasp.

Given the tenor of his cultural theory, a disturbing contradiction would seem to underlie Enzensberger's writing of poetry. Is not poetry the most formal, the most traditional, the literary form furthest removed from the new media? And isn't the worker who collapses each evening in front of the television set, or the woman mindlessly pursuing housework with the radio blaring, the person least likely to pick up a book of poetry? These objections identify a deeply felt hostility to poetry, the perception of an innate arrogance lurking behind the poet's dazzling facility with language. The courage of Enzensberger's project lies in his effort to shatter such false preconceptions. To emphasize merely these aspects of poetry, he suggests, would be to neglect the qualities which it shares with the new media, tendencies which distinguish it from other forms of written culture. The rhythms and cadence of poetry bring it close to the traditional popular modes of expression—songs, ballads, chants. In its condensation of thought, in its elliptical structures, poetry can resemble the speech patterns of oral culture, instead of the formality of prose. None of these qualities inherently ensures a politically progressive poetry: it is well to remember that the initial attempts to create a poetry based on actual speech patterns in the 1920s by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot resulted in a poetics compounded of allusions from traditional ‘high’ culture, cut off from all but an intellectual elite. Enzensberger wishes his poetry to be received like graffiti on the wall, open and accessible, as an act of defiance among the immobile structures of industrial societies. His poetic practice aims at reclaiming the subversive aspects in poetry which release it from the dominating elements of written culture and endow it with the liberating qualities of the oral tradition.

In this context Enzensberger's poetry must be seen as a response to a particular debate in socialist cultural theory in Europe during the 1930s. On the one side, the Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs had developed a socialist aesthetics based on the nineteenth century realist novel. In his argument the aesthetic form creates a self-contained whole, a harmonized unity, which opposes the fragmented, atomized alienation of lived experience in modern industrial societies. Because the art form embodies in its unified integration an alternative to the brutalized existence of social life, it provides an interrogation of existing conditions. Moreover, it prefigures a future when alienating conditions have been superseded. In opposition, the German critic Walter Benjamin, and the dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht, argued that developments unique to the twentieth century—new forms of technology, the expansion of consumer-based society and the penetration of consumerism into virtually every part of human lives—had rendered Lukacs's formulations untenable. Benjamin's seminal article, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (the inspiration for much in Enzensberger's media theories) maintains that photography, film and modern techniques of reproduction have destroyed the authenticity and originality of art substituting in their place a plurality of copies.4 As well as liberating art from tradition, mechanical reproduction also undermines the exalted dignity of ‘high’ culture. Mechanical reproduction dissociates art from the elitist aspects which made it accessible only to trained experts and opens it to the participation of a potentially wide audience. In order to do so art must abandon its disjunction from alienated existence and incorporate into itself the fractured convolutions, the distortions and fragments of lived experience. According to Benjamin, the newspaper with its juxtaposition of significant events and triviality, its pastiche format, its letters columns available to turn readers into writers, typifies the new media. Unlike Lukacs' insistence on drawing from nineteenth century models, Benjamin and Brecht immersed themselves in the degraded constituents of the contemporary world. As Brecht strikingly proposes, the maxim for the political artist must not be a nostalgic longing for the good old days, but a confrontation with the bad new ones.

Enzensberger's social commitment leads him firmly to reject any poetry based on the subjective expression of private and personal feelings. This does not imply, however, that poetry then becomes a propagandist harangue. Quite the opposite: he insists on preserving the autonomy of the poetry from the demand that it directly serve politics. In particular, he has condemned the sterile, doctrinal poetry produced when the writer has been pressed into state service. His whole poetic practice is an attempt to displace the passivity into which the readers of any didactic poetry will be thrown. Such an aesthetic commitment implies an open-ended accessible poetic form which will compel readers to become active, creative collaborators. Here his image of poetry as graffiti is important: like graffiti it invites the reader to add the next lines on the wall. The process allows the reader to escape the role of a mere consumer of a finished literary product, to become an active collaborator with the author, an active producer.

Far from forming an organic unity, each of Enzensberger's poems is designed to disrupt our conventional expectations by its discontinuity, its splintered form, its obstinate refusal to order itself into the anticipated smoothness of poetic rhythms. Part of the nightmare vision his early epic “foam” forces onto its readers is the shock of recognition, the clash and collision of the all too familiar images and inhabitants of advanced industrial society, now stripped of any modifying disguises. The speaking voice of “foam” is an ironic rage which proclaims its desire for escape, while relentlessly cataloguing the horrors of the world it is imprisoned in. Enzensberger's use of questions underlies this irony: it is at once an interrogation of the modern world and an admission of complicity, of being caught in the web. The poet is no unique genius; he has no special vantage point:

i'm here any day of the week a fire-eater
like you
like everyone else: standing on my corner from
to five taking painful shots of my own fire
for ten bucks a day kneedeep in foaming status
between carburetors and street lights(5)

By piling up the fragmented, discontinuous sensations of lived experience in technological societies the series of questions of “foam” form an unremitting montage of insidious violence. Here is Enzensberger on the brutality of an existence which is slow death:

who doesn't know that he's
croaking? but why all the sweat
if nobody dies from it?

On the teeth and smiles of the packaged beauty queens:

and why not give prizes for tits? hollywood
ass in the rose-colored foam: striptease
of the western world from dortmund to san diego

On the mindless leisure industry:

and what can we do with ourselves? and
the crowds
that fill up the football stadiums crying
for coca colas and bloodbaths: what can we do
with them?

The succession of impressions is caught itself within the predominant image: the foam. Foam is a sticky viscous stream, murky, slippery and chaotic, the opposite of the slick chrome, plastic and vinyl face of polished modernity. If the first great indictment of modern society, Eliot's Waste Land, offered the consolation of a unifying cultural tradition, “foam” contains no such easy promise. Nor does Enzensberger see in traditional political opposition any hope; the old organizations have been swept into the tide of foam:

moldy banners and barricades wrapped
in cellophane
propped in the showcase: while from an antique
the internationale drones: a beat rock and roll

(Writing about the media, Enzensberger has even criticized the nostalgia of the new left. In May 1968 the Parisian students occupied the tradition-steeped Odeon Theatre while ignoring the radio and television stations.) Genuine commitment and change will not come from nostalgia but only from an intense interrogation of the present.

Far from forming an organic unity, each of Enzensberger's poems is designed to disrupt our conventional expectations by its discontinuity, its splintered form, its obstinate refusal to order itself into the anticipated smoothness of poetic rhythms.

The final lines of “foam” begin with a plea to transcend the insidious entanglements of technological society: “let's make out that i'm not one of you that i'm not one of us / that i'm free from all that.” But any notion of transcendence is futile; complicity in the society is inescapable. The poet floats “immortal as a paper clip” into the “rose-coloured future,” a virtual parody of a traditional resolution in a spiritualized transcendence. A paper clip, at once a most insignificant and a most omnipresent particle of the administered universe, is a fitting image of immortality in modern bureaucratized society.

The rage that smoulders through “foam” surfaces in the wolves defended against the lambs, Enzensberger's indictment of those who refuse to confront the enormity of violence in advanced industrial society, retreating instead into a naive romanticism which provides no defense against the dominators of humanity. German history, specifically the refusal to oppose fascism with a hard-headed strength equal to its own, lies behind the poem, yet Enzensberger would insist on an analogous situation in the contemporary era. If the modern world has become the foaming nightmare of his darkest vision, the liberation of humanity cannot be achieved through a sentimental humanism. In “foam” the series of questions hurled at the reader alternated throughout the lines of the poem. the wolves polarizes this technique into two stanzas of devastating questions followed by two stanzas of assertions. “Should the vultures eat forget-me-nots?” he begins,

what do you want the jackal to do,
cut loose from his skin, or the wolf? should
he pull his own teeth out of his head?

The consciousness which hesitates in the face of evil will never be able to challenge its domination in any effective way. Just as the mentality of the lamb allowed Hitler to come to power, so in the post war world powerlessness and helplessness are implicit accessories of domination. In their refusal to see naked brutality they retreat into vacuous falsity:

you stick to your moaning lies. you'd
to be torn limb from limb. you
won't change the world.

To characterize all Enzensberger's poetry as that of anger and rage would be to miss his genuine humour and gentleness. “vending machine” is predicated on the image that a cigarette machine could click out not only the cigarettes but all the associated detritus of consumer society:

he gets cancer
he gets apartheid
he gets the king of greece
federal tax state tax sales tax and excise

Ironically, the most dehumanized form of barter, the vending machine, forces the passive consumer into a moment of self-recognition. He sees himself for a fleeting instant, “and he almost looks like a man,” until he disappears again “buried under all the stuff he has gotten.” The humour in “vending machine” rests in the simplicity of its exaggeration: man is clearly already being buried by the garbage of consumer commodities. At the same time it points to the whole global network in which the simplest instruments of our technological societies are inextricably linked.

“the end of the owls,” a defense of the animals who silently witness the violence of technology against nature, is the closest Enzensberger comes to a gentle romanticism. It is one of the few pieces in which Enzensberger appears to identify with the tradition of German romanticism, which saw in the forms of nature a disclosure of what unalienated existence could be. Against the lethal, death-dealing technology of man—radar screens, antennae, the military briefing table—the owls, the whale, raven and dove, the otters and seals are mute living presences. And, in a switch of voice from singular to plural (“we're as good as forgotten”) he includes mankind as he waits in a world which possesses the ability to destroy itself.

One of Enzensberger's most ambitious projects is his 1964 “summer poem.” Here he pushes his attempt to incorporate the harsh discordant sensations of speech patterns, the media and modern urban life into poetry almost to its limits. Although the occasion of the composition was autobiographical, two journeys to Finland and Prague, it opens up to contain a wide spectrum of the contemporary world, creating in its structure what Enzensberger has called “net-like constructions with which new experiences can be caught again and again.” The precise texture of “summer poem” can be grasped in its lines:

that which does not yet exist

no great art in that
my world is as large in this night
as my errors can you help me?

The words can be read either across the page or vertically down the columns. The repetition of certain phrases throughout the poem, with each meaning emerging differently in each context, the repeated quotation from figures as varied as Marx, Wieland, Marilyn Monroe, Petrarch, are designed to force the reader into collaboration with the author, to draw him out of passivity into creativity. The reader's consciousness, caught in the web of fluctuating lines, should be forced into a creative act, his own mind constructing “that which does not exist” out of the poem.

The juxtaposition of Marilyn Monroe with Marx is no simple rhetoric, nor merely a recreation of the pastiche of modern news presentations. Rather, it also functions to release the philosophical works from their canonization as high culture, to bring them into the flux and movement of contemporary perceptions. In Enzensberger's words, the quotations provide a nexus which underlines the way systems have annulled distance:

This nexus is caught in flight and acceleration,
the twittering of sound tapes, in the ‘parlar
the broken speech of our media, in the flood
of distorted
information form Dante studies to the Peking
People's Journal.(6)

Enzensberger clearly intends the montage technique of “summer poem” to compel the reader into unsorting the entangled web of information. Yet there are problems in assessing whether “summer poem” actually attains its objectives. While he has retained the use of phrases from everyday speech, the convoluted syntax veers dangerously close to the stylistic exaggerations of the avant-grade previously condemned by Enzensberger. The rhythms of spoken language which ensured that the earlier poems would be openly accessible to “people who don't read poems” have become submerged.

The difficulties Enzensberger encounters in translating his purposes into poetic practice in “summer poem” suggest that he has reached an impasse. In the past decade he has published poetry only sporadically, turning instead to the explication and development of his cultural theory. His latest poetry collection, Mausoleum, first published in 1975, is a shift to a different type of poetry. The “ballads from the history of progress” portray figures from the Renaissance to the present. Unlike the open accessibility Enzensberger had sought in his early poetry, Mausoleum is much more opaque, a cunning construction where the feted heroes of progress often parade while the darker voices of Goya, Flaubert, Marx, Strindberg intrude into someone else's lines. Unlike graffiti, Mausoleum does not ask us to write the next line, but rather draws us deeper into the network of unidentified quotations and allusions, obscure initials, cross references, in an effort to disentangle the web. “No telling the progress of swindle from the swindle of progress,” Enzensberger writes, yet that is precisely what the poem challenges us to do.

The shift in Enzensberger's poetry may coincide with criticisms of his cultural theory. Just as his attempt to create a poetry accessible to people who don't read poems faltered, so his cultural theories have been assailed for an overly optimistic stance. In urging an intervention in the new media forms, he did not take into account many impediments, particularly the intransigence of the multinational corporations and bureaucracies which control television and film production. More important, Theodor Adorno's later writings have suggested some serious deficiencies in the concepts Enzensberger drew from Benjamin and Brecht.7 The whole notion that the technical qualities of the modern media possess inherently liberating elements has proven to be an oversimplification. Far from eliminating the “aura” in traditional art, film and television have transformed it into their own concepts of the star or celebrity. And the instantly available substitute gratification and anti-enlightenment in film and television all too often pushes people deeper into passivity, abandoning them at a far remove from the active response Enzensberger sought. The deadlock his initial poetic project reached and the denser structure of Mausoleum may indicate a phase of self-evaluation and self-criticism. Still, his early work is something to be consolidated and superseded, not rejected. His latest style might offer a more complex structure, but few poems have catalogued the horrors of modern technological societies with the relentless clarity of “foam.”


  1. Enzensberger, The Consciousness Industry (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 10.

  2. Ibid, 12.

  3. Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951), 42.

  4. Benjamin's essay is included in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968); also relevant are his “The Author as Producer” New Left Review 62 (1970) and Understanding Brecht (London: New Left Books, 1973).

  5. English translations of Enzensberger's poetry are available in Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

  6. Ibid, 89.

  7. Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered” New German Critique II (Fall 1975).

Michael Hamburger (review date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The Usefulness of Poets,” in The Nation, Vol. 230, No. 17, May 3, 1980, pp. 528-30.

[In the following review, Hamburger analyzes the themes of Der Untergang der Titanic (The Sinking of the Titanic) and affirms the poem as “a celebration of bare survival.”]

How intelligent can a good poet afford to be? How knowing? How tough-minded? How well-informed? There have been times in H.M. Enzensberger's writing life when these questions troubled many of his readers and critics; and not only when Enzensberger himself posed them in his essays and statements, such as his virtual renunciation and denunciation of poetry in the later 1960s. After his three early collections, published between 1957 and 1964, it seemed for a long time that he had no more use for the spontaneous, personal lyricism that had balanced his public concerns; that the polemicist had taken over from the poet, deliberately and definitively. Apart from a few new poems added to his selection of 1971, Enzensberger remained silent as a poet until Mausoleum appeared in 1975; and, however intelligent, knowing, tough-minded, well-informed and accomplished, that sequence was not distinguished by lyricism. If those thirty-seven studies in “the history of Progress” were ballads, as he called them, they were ballads that neither sang nor danced but pinned down their subjects with a laboratory-trained efficiency.

This development remains relevant to The Sinking of the Titanic, though in recent years Enzensberger has returned to more personal, even existential, preoccupations in shorter poems, and the new sequence, too, is less rigorously held down to a single purpose and manner. Behind the poetic development—or antipoetic development, some would say—lay an ideological one—from what looked like a revolutionary commitment to the “principle of hope,” though it was utopian and independent enough to put no constraint on the poet, through an arduous grappling with the facts of economic, political and technological power, to a general disillusionment with every existing social system and its expectations for the future.

One important stage in that development was Enzensberger's visit to Cuba in 1969. Not only was The Sinking of the Titanic conceived and begun there but the Cuban experiences are also worked into the broken narrative of the poem, like many other seeming interpolations, digressions, leaps in space, time and even style. Like most long or longer poems written in this century, The Sinking of the Titanic is not an epic but a clustering of diverse, almost disparate, fragments around a thematic core. The main event of the poem, the shipwreck of the Titanic in 1912, becomes a symbol and a microcosm, with extensions, parallels, repercussions on many different levels. The Titanic is also Cuba, East Berlin, West Berlin (where Enzensberger lived as the editor of a magazine not primarily literary, as a writer in almost every possible medium, for every possible medium, and as the collector of the fragments assembled into this poem), an updated version of Dante's Hell and many other places besides, including any place where any reader of the poem is likely to be. Not content with that much telescoping, Enzensberger also includes historical flashbacks to the fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, all to do with doubts, self-doubts, about art and the relation of art to reality. Other digressions are even more explicit in their questioning of the truthfulness and usefulness of poets and poetry. These also introduce Dante by name, though he is present in the whole poem as a prototype of what poetry can and cannot achieve.

I shall not attempt to list all the many theses and subtheses ironically advanced in the poem, usually to be challenged or contradicted by others, because it is the business of poems to do that as succinctly as possible; yet one brief quotation does seem to subsume the main message:

We are in the same boat, all of us.
But he who is poor is the first to drown.

Characteristically for Enzensberger, that assertion is supported by statistics of the passengers—first-class, second-class, steerage and crew—drowned and saved in the Titanic disaster. Much other material of that kind, including a menu, has been drawn upon. The most lyrical, i.e., songlike, canto of the thirty-three in the book—not counting the unnumbered interpolations—is the twentieth, adapted from Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative and Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. Documentary collages have been one of Enzensberger's specialties in verse and prose, and they are prominent as ever here, as in the Thirteenth Canto, made up of snatches of miscellaneous hymns and popular songs. Another is the permutation of simple colloquial phrases into puzzles or tautologies, not simple at all, but devastating, as in the interpolated section “Notice of Loss.”

Yet the most impressive and reassuring parts of the sequence, poetically, are those in which Enzensberger lets himself go again a little at last, relying less on his bag of tricks—a formidable one—than on the imaginative penetration of specific experience, other people's and his own. A high-spirited, often comically cynical desperation is his peculiar contribution to the range of poetry; it becomes affirmative, if not joyful, in the concluding canto of this poem, a celebration of bare survival.

As for the other side of his gifts, his sheer accomplishment, cleverness and adroitness, one instance of it is his success in translating so intricate and ambitious a sequence into a language not his own. In earlier English versions of his own poems, he allowed himself the freedom of “imitation.” This one is a close rendering, with no loss of fluency or exuberance, and very little of the idiomatic rightness of his German original.

Michael Hamburger (review date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Causes for Pessimism,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4045, October 10, 1980, p. 1153.

[In this review, Hamburger considers Die Furie des Verschwindens an excellent example of Enzensberger's work in poetry and politics despite its pessimistic views.]

Sixteen years have passed since Hans Magnus Enzensberger last published a collection of new short poems. Although “silence” seems quite the wrong word to use of a poet who has been active and conspicuous enough in other capacities, not least as an anti-poetic, anti-literary polemicist, but also as the author of two long sequences in which the quarrel between the poet and the anti-poet was fought out, the new collection does bridge a gap of sixteen years.

Die Furie des Verschwindens links up with the volume of 1964, Blindenschrift, by finally lifting the ban publicly imposed by Enzensberger on the kind of poetry that springs from moments of intense experience—experience inevitably subjective up to a point, however objective the correlatives; and it completes the breakthrough begun in the second of the two longer sequences into a new phase that is also a continuation of his first. Brilliant though his early poems were, and masterly as his workmanship remained even in the least lyrical of his longer sequences, Mausoleum, the short poems in this new book, are as consistently excellent as any he has written.

Many of the poems are character studies which allow him to achieve an unprecedented balance between the social criticisms he had always regarded as his main function and the spontaneity with which that function tended to conflict. By getting under the skin of, for example, a thirty-three-year-old woman, an uneasy male business executive, an equally uneasy employee on holiday in Spain—each a “short history of the bourgeoisie”, as another poem is called—Enzensberger is now able to present a whole complex of delicate interactions from the inside; and it no longer matters whether the social criticism is subjective or objective, whether the inside is the poet's own or another person's. The fusion is so complete, the execution so impeccable, that there is no relevant distinction to be made between poems of immediate personal experience and successful projections into fictitious characters and their situations; nor, for that matter, between “confessional” poetry and satire.

The social criticism is more incisive, more knowing, more searching than ever before; but it is so because Enzensberger has learnt to dispense with the utopian reformer's vantage point, as well as with the rhetorical bravura of his early verse. One reason for that may be that he has come to include himself among those—bourgeois or otherwise—whose prospects are summed up in the poem “Unregierbarkeit” (ungovernability): “on legs getting shorter and shorter/power is waddling into the future”.

A first group of predominantly topical poems, concerned with this malaise, leads up to a longer, many-faceted poem, “Die Frösche von Bikini”, followed by a second group of short poems that have to do less with specific power structures than with larger, more existential disparities. One of them, “Besuch bei Ingres”, takes up the questions of the relationship between life and art—especially visual art—that were acute and persistent in Enzensberger's second long poem (published in America as The Sinking of the Titanic in the poet's own English version); but on that score, too, Enzensberger's inhibiting self-doubts seem to have been resolved. As in the long poem, extreme pessimism has neither dampened his high spirits nor detracted from the sheer skill, precision and inventiveness of the writing.

Paul West (review date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Drowning as One of the Fine Arts,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1981, pp. 91-109.

[In the following essay about Enzensberger's Der Untergang der Titanic (The Sinking of the Titanic) West analyzes Enzensberger's evocation of the experience aboard the sinking ship and the passengers' final moments before death.]


For whom is the Titanic still not going down? Not as often as the sun, but several times a year, in the furry hinterland of sleep, tweaked into mind by A Night to Remember (1958) or a television revival, and embellished with our own private images of airships foundering in flames, submarines rusting on the ocean bottom (remember the Thetis), airplanes that come apart upside down in flight long enough for photographers to snap the obscenity, and trains that race out of control to the terminal and smash clean through it. Our highly developed sense of catastrophe never goes unexploited, but there is more to the Titanic—to our Titanic ikon—than that.

Out there, among the icebergs, with the orchestra playing and the ship becoming more and more vertical, one of the last definitive frescoes of stoicism took its place in myth. Terror and technology came together in the presence of the stiff upper lip. A patrician concept drowned as the vision of bungling on the high seas came home to roost in the more local, less grave image of Alec Guinness, in Kind Hearts and Coronets, going down at the salute on the bridge of his ship. It becomes possible to make a sentence that brings it all together, although we still prefer the constituent parts of the nightmare to remain apart. Once upon a time, the sentence goes, homo Icarian disregarded Mother Nature, and the rest was mere accommodation to fact. Some people knew they were going to drown: there was just no other way, any more than there is for Dickey's freefalling stewardess, or Auden's shot unlucky dove. Others, who knew they would not drown although they might starve or freeze, also knew that hundreds would go down that night, face to face with euphemisms they'd never needed: Davy Jones's Locker, the Deep Six. And what was inexorable included the survivors' thoughts about the thinking of those who, aware that these were their last thoughts for ever and ever, went on thinking flawed, illicit, torn stuff right to the end. The mind cannot think the mind to a halt, can it? The mind of the survivor, in the extremest reach of compassion, cannot think the mind of the victim to a halt either. Perhaps, even, the survivor hates the victim-to-be because the victim can only suffer and die. When all hope of rescue has gone, when the bimboes have attributed the rockets to a firework display and the morse tapper has been switched off or jammed with banal Hellos From the High Seas, immutability can sink its fangs, and then the watchers in the boats and the doomed in the water or still on board have a unique encounter with the self-adjusting power of thought: to calm, to numb, to leap toward death (as some poems have it) like a bridegroom into bed. That, beyond the technology and the nitty-gritty of bungling, is what makes the Titanic linger in our heads: the vision of creative fatality which brings Doctor Johnson (who spoke of its power to concentrate a man's mind) in front of the firing squad, re-dooms St.-Exupéry to crash again in the desert, Admiral Byrd to be again and terminally alone, and rehearses for us all the chore of last things in the condemned mental playground.

Eschatology is the awful word we use: last things accomplished by the actual doomed, and last things guessed at—ours, theirs, anyone's—in a trance of inverted empathy. Surely the mind switches off? Or it so transmutes the immediate experience that it becomes as an after-dinner's sleep. Or, and here we shudder like De Quincey frightening himself half to death by staring at Lord Rosse's ghoulish drawing of the Great Nebula in Orion, does the mind rise to undreamed-of excesses in self-torture? Does the mind mind? It knows it minds, and what it does, perhaps, in ultimate self-defense, is to suppress the factor of fatality, rising to such control of itself as to blot death out. As Eliot says, some conditions look remarkably like one another, can flourish in the same hedgerow, and perhaps the mind, creator of categories, has final power over them, to abolish and efface. It should; otherwise, from a pragmatic point of view, it's just no good to us. The Titanic was full of people who'd never worried about that sort of thing, or who'd had experts do their worrying for them. Then, out of the blue, they were up against it, the ontology of the penultimate, and there was no time to think it out. What we remember, maybe in the penumbra of Captain Oates walking out into the storm to die, is the composure of all those people, many of them enacting without knowing the Latin the words of Seneca: fatis agimur, cedite fatis. The fates have us, so give in. And then, the myth would like to say, they all lived more richly in their last hour than in all their years before. With discipline it might be done. Some no doubt did it, but what of those who didn't? What did they say to themselves?

There must be at least two stages in this little marathon of will. The approach may be quite unrealistic, even after being dumped in the water and becoming involved in the suction down. But the ensuing moments, after the held breath fizzles out, evoke the victim in the gas chamber, who's told to fill both lungs and get it over with (whereas the person electrocuted is wholly passive). What happens, I wonder, when you willy-nilly inhale water and are become part of the ocean? If you hold your breath until you pass out, then you inhale water unknowingly. Otherwise, you do it with repugnance or, just perhaps, with Promethean relish, as a last act of defiantly collaborative drowning akin to inhaling warm saltwater to clear the sinuses. The nostrils sting. The sink beneath the pharynx feels flooded. You swallow, but this time there is far too much to swallow and the water makes its leaden way into the lung. You inhale more than you breathe out. There is no air to vent it into and all you are is a rebellious valve, dressing the water in a new suit of pulmonary tissue, the only sense of danger being that distant, heavyweight heartburn, surely someone else's, it feels so general, so vague.

That, presumably, is the good way, not fighting at all, inviting Nature in to complete an inevitable tryst. But, as Camus said, in his 1951 “Homage to André Gide,” “To die is such appalling torture for some men that it seems to me as if a happy death redeems a small patch of creation.” Surely the converse is true too. The torture of reluctant drowning befouls the Creation that doesn't treat us all alike, and some people have no control over how the last cupful enters their lungs before all goes still.


Such are my thoughts on first looking into Enzensberger's “Poem,” which he divides into thirty-three cantos interspersed with other poems, almost all of them, in overt or backhanded ways bearing on the Titanic material, sometimes usefully, sometimes not. In “Apocalypse. Umbrian Master, about 1490,” for instance, the question arises of how to paint Doom, and “the temple veil being rent asunder,” not a far cry from the ocean liner's steel-plated hull which, in the first canto, sustains a gash two hundred yards long beneath the waterline, slit by the iceberg's knife. Yet it's in the interspersed poem that we find the following displaced apocalypse:

the frantic sea in the background must be coated
over and over again with a thousand layers
of transparency, with foamy green lights,
pierced by mastheads, by ships reeling, plunging down,
by wrecks. … 

In other words, what you might expect to be in the actual canto about the Titanic isn't there but in a neighboring poem, catching you off guard and sideswiping your response, until of course you begin to rely on that and hit on such a poem as “Dept. of Philosophy” (between cantos 27 and 28), which has no bearing on the disaster at all except through total speculation: “How real is it? Hegel is smiling,/ filled with schadenfreude.” There's no pattern to this, of course, only the random gravitation of elements from the interspersed poems into one's response to the overtly Titanic ones, somewhat in the manner of abstract expressionism when it tries to bring into play elements just outside the range of vision, nibbling at the edge of the Main Subject without ever getting in the way, yet never having utterly no effect either. As you finish The Sinking of the Titanic and begin to move about in it, skipping and flipping and reading next to each other passages from cantos far apart, the interspersed material doesn't so much fall into place as leak through, as if the cantos themselves were gashed. And the final effect—no, the most recent, anyway—is complex, with the intruded stuff functioning almost as the rumor of a background against which the calamity figures, except that sometimes the calamity—through sheer horrendousness—is the marine fresco making all other things trivial, as if death or disaster on land were a trifle compared with death by water, water in the midst and bowels of breath, the final glutted choke severing even the final trope of grace under pressure.

In my own mind, working their way through what I brought to my reading in the first place and what loosely assembles in my head after reading the thirty-three cantos, those images from elsewhere take on a monitory, oblique force, almost as if the thirty-three cantos were only a bit more about the Titanic than not, and the interspersed poems were only a bit less about it than they are. Soon after the rent veil comes a poem about loss which covers all the forms of loss except that which is the subject of the cantos. In its wake, as it were, come poems about an iceberg (“Look, it is breaking loose / from the glacier's face”) that is two hundred and fifty feet high, a sixteenth-century Last Supper, a coffin-crate seen against a backdrop of “high-rolling waves / ploughed by seaworthy trunks,” a volcanic eruption in Iceland which the poet watches on TV, noting an incongruous man “in braces” (= suspenders) “who held a garden hose … aimed at the roaring lava.” You don't have to labor to feel the connections, the pertinence, the point; both sets of poems come out of the same mind-set addressed to compatible occasions over eight years. Writing about the Titanic on the island of Cuba, Enzensberger almost seems to feel the island going down as well, and certainly, with his heart and mind awash, relishes its fixity, its status as an idée fixe (“What has Cuba to do with it? It must be an idée fixe”: Canto 15) whereas the smoke of Cuban cigars, “trademark Partagas, made by hand,” in Canto 10, vanishes into the blue haze of the mid-Atlantic sky: no trace. Most tutorly of all, the story of the poem itself enacts both the major and the minor themes:

 … in actual fact the island of Cuba
does not reel under our feet.
And I was right then,
because at that time nothing foundered
except my poem
about the sinking of the Titanic.
It was a poem penciled
into a notebook, wrapped up
in black oilcloth, I had no copy,
because on the entire island of Cuba
there was not one sheet of carbon paper
to be found. Do you like it? I asked
Maria Alexandrovna, and then
I put it into a buff Manila envelope.
It was shipped from Havana harbor
in a mailbag for Paris
which never turned up again.
We all know the rest of the story.

Yes, we do: what he'd begun in Cuba in 1969 he finished in Berlin in 1977, as page 98 says; but those matter-of-fact lines evoke the ghost of the poem lost at sea, so much so that, after one reading, a dense, prophetic marginal image begins to form: of the floating poet floated away in his lost poem, only to come back to life on the divided island of Berlin, whose one half isn't exactly a carbon copy of the other. What is irreplaceable in a shoddy world? What if he'd lost the second version of his elegy? Surely version 3 would have come into being. As it is, what we have is so intently underpinned and cross-echoed that it has a provisional, expendable quality: slanted for loss, as if he's remembered Beckett, who reminds us to turn away just in time from things about to disappear. Figure-ground is the leitmotif of the whole thing, from drowner-ocean to canto versus non-canto. He implies perishability; the tininess of us on the land of our planet, flailing in its seas, even walking the promenade deck of an ocean liner. Not that he deals up the overlapping twins, micro- and macrocosm (the frail bark of the self aboard the argosy that floats upon a globe floating in space); he cannily avoids routine obeisances and instead fixes on things and their vanishing points, setting up loose structures from which they can easily fall away, or through which they can drop. The “I” has no tenure in these poems, any more than the sea knows what it is. (I write this in Pittsburgh, at a window opposite the U.S. Steel skyscraper, blocked off from me this minute by a solid snow-squall which makes the building look less durable than snow; the squall will pass, but snow will outlive U.S. Steel.) It's that intuition of several brevities which he puts in the mouth of the Titanic's engineer, one of many:

Where would we be now,
if the winged reptiles and the dinosaurs had not at some point
met with certain problems which proved too much
for their brains? Do you see what I mean?
From which I conclude that it does not make sense to consider
any old episode involving ourselves, for example our own demise,
from an all too narrow point of view. What I, as an engineer,
and inveterate port wine drinker, am saying, is, of course,
not entirely new, and this is why I am about to go under.
(Canto 8)

Notice that the engineer is about to go under not because he can't think of anything new, but because there isn't anything new. The point comes from Galileo who, accepting the nothing new (evolution lets us last only so long), declares our own demise useful: we make room for other life. How this cheerless clear-eyed un-“narrow” point of view bears on lives prematurely but lingeringly closed, only the individual reader can decide, choosing perhaps one of the following: 1. The deaths from the Titanic disaster diminished all of mankind, leaving an irremediable gash in the race. 2. It didn't matter: there are always people to replace people with. 3. Captains shouldn't be reckless, oblivious, or fatheads. 4. All such disasters instruct us in the human condition, which is lethal and full of bad luck; the longer you last (in one sense), the more bad luck you get. Would we resent the Titanic less if it had been full of nonagenarians all with terminal illness? I think not. We'd argue that even they, with “full lives” behind them, had paid their passage money and were entitled to a trouble-free cruise. In the end it's a matter of incongruity: you die, not because there are icebergs, but because some idiot drives his ship too fast. And then the long, pensive, utterly terminal wait until you go into the frigid water. The poem isn't, overtly, about the absurdity of things, but about the irrational quality of human behavior, at one extreme the hot rod skipper, at another utmost composure in the very teeth of death; and perhaps the core of Enzensberger's long poem is this: if we were wholly rational beings, we'd find life more intolerable than we do; but, since we often behave as weirdly as the universe itself does, we can counter its weirdness with our own, and what James called the insolence of accident unhinges us less. Maybe the wholly rational person in extremis can create a flawless composure, simply accepting the ways of God to Man, but it's more likely that more of us are helped by the palliative of what's irrational—not I can't do anything about it, so I won't think about it but Let me come up with something that will keep me from seeing it for what it is. Not truth but blarney. Not fact but ritual. Not so but otherwise. Ship of fools? Hardly. Every fool makes a serious final act. No fool is denied it.…


Some poets have an insufficient sense of the world's clutter. They pare down to essentials, as they're supposed to, but leave the sense of chaotic phenomena behind; the poem no longer comes out of the world, but sits on the page pristine, no longer evoking its origin in the mess. The trick, of course, is to create the artifact that's not only self-sufficient but also implies the irrelevances that have acted upon its making, so that it doesn't end up like a piece of heraldry—an amalgam of homogeneous archetypes—but perches elegantly on the brink of untidiness. Enzensberger, here producing his own English version (and a rather British English at that), does this well, seeking not so much poise or concinnity as lines that seem to have been bound together during an emergency, ready to slip and slide, to wander away. And sometimes there seems no more reason to have something in than to leave it out; behind his own mental clutter, there is the clutter of the world in 1912, sketched almost pell-mell. He drifts about, willing to repeat himself (Canto 2 observes that “there are never enough milk bottles, / shoes or lifeboats for all of us”), and the shoes—“no shoes”—crop up in the next canto too. This relaxed, almost indolent vein enables Enzensberger to juxtapose things without worrying overmuch about distracting his reader. The didacticism is more casual than in his other poetry. The persona of the poet seems unimportant, optionally selfless. And the cumulative tone—one of indignant, bemused musing in the presence of a catastrophe as much symbolic as actual—lets the reader relax, with his own mental swill allowed in: indeed, as if no kind of wrong attention, no intrusion, can damage this not-exactly amorphous but certainly loose-knit elegy. It's not a poem to get dressed up for, or even to read in the order presented. It's not a shuffle poem either, but the lines add up with sometimes minimum circumspection, not quite off the cuff, but sounding fresh from chatter with a friend while walking in the street among hubbub in Cuba or Berlin.

I write these words in Berlin, and like Berlin
I smell of old cartridge cases,
of the East, of sulfur, of disinfectant.
It is getting colder again, little by little. … 

Repeatedly he looks back from Berlin over ten years to Cuba and through that tube of time to the Titanic, weaving things easily together into a human sample, in which Heberto Padilla, the Berlin Wall, Marconi, John Jacob Astor, and Mr. MacCawley, the Titanic's athletics coach “always immaculate in his dapper beige flannel suit,” come congruously together, all in the same boat, so to speak, while the iceberg waits offstage to be trundled in. Any sea will do:

And I looked out with an absent mind
over the quay at the Caribbean Sea,
and there I saw it, very much greater
and whiter than all things white, far away,
and I was the only one to see it out there
in the dark bay, the night was cloudless
and the sea black and smooth like mirror plate,
I saw the iceberg, looming high
and cold, like a cold fata morgana,
it drifted slowly, irrevocably,
white, nearer to me.

Using commas thus, unwilling to halt the flow merely to signal a change of sentence-subject, he backs up the trompe l'oeil with a hands-off, let-it-happen, rhythm. Unchecked by those commas, the iceberg can roam about in Enzensberger's mind, and his poem, like something cooked up by Artuad: an incomprehensible, enigmatic object corresponding to nothing at all and creating nothing less than awe. Featureless, it monolithically counterpoints the host of saliences which compose the ship, much as the sound of it—“‘A thin jingling,’ / ‘a clatter of silver’”—counterpoints the “Wigl wagl wak, my monkey” bleated by the band—“a potpourri from The Dollar Princess.” If there is something eerie about a stratified mini-society floating across three thousand miles of blank, uncaring ocean, with every quirk and comfort transplanted, there is something even eerier when that society gets its death-sentence and, with only hours to live, works itself into the paroxysms or the supercharged protocols of the end of a world. It's like fin de siècle all squashed up into the span of a three-hour examination, and that pressure—akin to the pressure upon any poet to distill and foreshorten—works its way into Enzensberger's poem, attenuating it here, letting it spill there, always informing the merest allusion with suspense (whereas the tension is within the reader, wondering exactly what the interspersed poems are for).

No wonder the poet cannot quite believe what he's doing: paddling his palms in the dust of the dead, making them live and then watching them drown all over again, like Beckett's Watt playing with his rats.

I am playing around
with the end, the end of the Titanic.
I've nothing better to do.
I have time, like a God.
I have nothing to lose. I deal
with the menu, the radiograms, the drowning men.

No commas here. Horror makes the periods. All the sentences are death sentences and short. Not only is the poet the chef, the radio operator, the savior, the latterday Atropos; he is his own executioner too, noticing “men” in “menu” and (perhaps) “dio” in “radiogram.” This, we should remember, is the poet who conjured into being, in another book, the haunting image of the “radar-spider” that overlooks us all and misses nothing we do. The moral point that emerges is not only the semi-triumphant one, vague as it is, of being determined to swim and never to give in to death until it seizes us (postlude to Camus' notion of refusal), but also that, even to set about depicting and re-enacting such a catastrophe (or an atrocity, say) involves you as an accomplice. You become the perpetrator, even if only a bit; and, where the catastrophe is “natural,” the hitherto-absent culprit, a stand-in for the faceless chthonic force. This role upsets Enzensberger, who cannot separate the picking and choosing that goes into the poetic line from, here at any rate, the role of a Fate repeating a notorious past performance. Those periods in the last quotation are the dots he doesn't like to connect up, lest the Gorgon's face appear in the diagram.

Who would not, then, as he does, almost dote on the passengers, who enliven his lethal work? Not in their categories—the steerage drunks, the toffs in their tuxedos, the five Chinese stowaways—but as flotsam agonistes, individuals forced to an unthinkable extreme, given a time limit, yet surrounded more or less with the paraphernalia of social class, of shipboard leisure, and still, in spite of themselves, thinking it cannot possibly happen, not to them. Even amidst the preliminary panic there is time for usual observances: cigar ash into the ashtray, of course, opening doors for ladies, and “after you, sir.” One wonders just how far etiquette can adjust a human to an act of God, or indeed if there isn't a protocol of staring death down. Yes, the British dressed for dinner in the bowels of the jungle, but the people on the Titanic had a chance to push correct behavior all the way to the end of the line. Could it denature death, converting its sting into a solecism? Could drowning (or freezing) be downgraded, through a final series of exquisitely willed amenities, into something like a vulgarism? Or a dull day, a walk in the wet, a Lent of the mind? The individuals are there in the poem, but we see only their iceberg tips, and it is almost like revisiting some of Eliot's crisper portrait collections, those little communities of one-line snubs (“Hakagawa bowing among the Titians”). There is “B. in the smoking lounge, an exile from Russia, / gesticulating, veiled in a blue haze / of exquisite smoke from Cuban cigars … perfectly happy and oblivious of himself, at the green table, not paying any attention / to icebergs, deluges, shipwrecks, / busily preaching the gospel of revolution / to a small band of barbers, gamblers / and telegraph operators.” He emigrates to a more distant place, that is all, countered by a Manchester mill-owner, flushed with anger and preaching iron discipline from beneath his mustache. Someone drags a cello along the deck. “Liftboys, massage girls, bakers line up.” The bandleader lifts his baton for the last tune. Disguised as a woman, with a turban on his head, the veiled millionaire gets into the last lifeboat. Countess Rothes, “witch, suffragette, depraved lesbian,” dominates one lifeboat in her nightgown. No longer, in the Turkish bath, are the hermaphrodites “showing their orifices.” No cabin boy is whipping a dowager under the card table. None of these mini-portraits goes very deep; after all, these people are samples and specimens, the poet isn't narrating their demise or rescue chronologically, and he soon adds to them—almost on the level of the conceit—Gordon Pym, Dante, and Bakunin, with some of the energetic dispassion of the man who painted the Titanic's murals. The mode is explicit, close to the propaganda cartoon, detailed but far from penetrant:

While down below
the water is rising fast, on D-deck the steward
is lacing the boots of a groaning old gentleman
in the machine-tool and smelting trade.

That's all. Touch base and move on. You get the sense of motley. The vignettes snap out at you. There were people on that ship, that's for certain. Why, John Jacob Astor,

 … nail file
in hand, rips up a lifesaver in order to show
to his wife (nee Connaught) what is inside
(probably cork). … 

But what it all comes down to, not at the poem's end but here and there throughout it (as if to disregard the phases of fate were to cheat it), is the attested variety of humanity registered with the dry compassion of an incomplete-feeling heart:

 … Mr. Spaulding,
last seen at 42 degrees 3 minutes North
and 49 degrees 9 minutes West. … 

A word to the wise is enough. Or is it? Faulkner, to take only one practitioner, would have invaded these people with ravaging speculation; he certainly would not have done it from outside, hinging the specimens into his album, but would have gotten ruffled, involved, intemperate, mixing rage with guess, tenderness with parabolical vicarious self-affliction. And none of this drypoint which, while keeping the poem terse and delineative like reeling pointillism, touches and then goes, leaving the downhill final seconds unexplored, unguessed-at, and therefore slighted. In this reportorial shipwreck, the people seem there for local color only, compatible congeners of the brightly painted iron hares which, during dog races on C-deck, “were purported / to have induced mottled greyhounds to illicit exertions.” Enzensberger loves contraptions, as Mausoleum proves, and the same addiction to freakishness shows up here, numbing and starching the doomed much as it lost the inventors and thinkers of the other book in their bizarreries. Only Salomon Pollock, drawing-room artist, “decorating the walls / with an Orient made up of hot air,” has plausible and lasting presence, and even he stands self-indicted. The Titanic going down is not The Rape of Suleika or The Bedouins' Feast, and Salomon Pollock, far from being this poem's Virgil, is only the copious guide to his own juicy fantasies: poignant, ironic, second-rate, but vivid as a bruise. Right out of Mausoleum, in fact.

The poignant saliences are there of course: from “That April night's menu” to the first radiogram “0015 hours Mayday CQ Position 41°46' North 50°14' West” (did they use “Mayday” for distress even then?), and these take their place in our minds all over again as Enzensberger, with deliberately averted eye, reminds us of A Night to Remember, not that bad a movie, and Titanic ashtrays, Titanic T-shirts, almost as if he comes to his theme backhandedly, through its shoddiest appearances in popular lore, which puts him in the position of searching for the Real Titanic, hardly available at all, and raises the question I raised at the beginning of this: How can we know except through empathy? It is typical of Enzensberger that he should feel easiest with the Titanic's myth, where it is most an emblem, and least easy with how the victims' consciousnesses died.

What he is really addressing himself to is Doom, Doomsday and the “Doomsday year,” a terminus which, by whatever name, and “however unpunctual,”

 … will always be
a tranquillizer of sorts, a sweet consolation
for dull prospects, loss of hair, and wet feet.

But, eventually, the seagulls which have followed the Titanic across the ocean, and have even hovered about it during the sinking, wheel away to find another ship. I don't know about the tranquillizer and the sweet consolation. The seagulls tell the truth better, and doom as a desideratum sounds fine for Eliot's protagonist, saying he'd be glad of another death, but not so appropriate for seafarers who, although having put themselves briefly outside the timetables of the land, have certainly not volunteered for death by drowning. Of course, there is the doom of death, about which it seems the dead are not free to meditate, but there is also the doom of the survivors:

it was one of those afternoons
when the survivors slowly, cautiously,
begin to realize
that they are survivors,
when they turn up
in the deserted railway stations, in bunkers,
in tabernacles and other places.

They have been spared for a different death. They have looked the ineluctable in the eyes and come home. I spent a year trying to learn that feeling from what the survivors of the 1944 bomb plot against Hitler finally made known; mostly they seemed to have earned the right to climb down from the pinnacle of matters epic and to spend the rest of their days in somnambulistic mundanity, listening to their bodies creak and gurgle: to their vital signs. In one sense these men and women, after 1944, were irrevocably linked with Hitler's survival in 1944 and his death in 1945, drenched in his history rather than in their own; and the Titanic survivors, as Enzensberger implies, were irrevocably linked with the sea, a force upon whose side he finds himself, mortifiedly thrilled by it, daunted by the winner. With what intricate relish he evokes its horrors, their gradualness, their indivisibility from paddling pools, goldfish bowls, drains, and dew:

it is just a swelling, a steady increase,
all over the place. Dampness is seeping in.
Tiny pearls are forming, droplets, trickles.

A few lines later in Canto 14, he recapitulates the whole thing more grievously, with several assists from Auden (whose mineshafts and quarries are part of this wet):

 … its odorless smell pervades everything.
It drips, spouts, pours, gushes forth;
not one of these things at a time but all of them,
blindly, coincidentally, promiscuously,
wetting the biscuit, the felt hat, the drawers,
lapping sweatily at the wheelchair's tires,
stagnating brackishly in the urinals, leaking
into the ovens; then again it is just there,
horizontal, wet, dark, quiet, unmoving, simply rising,
slowly, slowly lifting small objects, toys, valuables,
bottles filled with disgusting fluids, carelessly
carrying them until they wash away,
rubbery things, dead, broken things; and this goes on
until you feel it yourself, within your breastbone,
the way it urgently, saltily, patiently interferes. … 

The writing here is strong because, among other things, “leaking” evokes the colloquialism of “take a leak” (a preposterous enough thought when it's the sea in question), and then leaks right into the ovens; yet these double values live among the stepping-stones of such ordinary isolate words as wet, dark, quiet, slowly, small. The sea takes over all functions and does them in its own way. If you side with it, the logic seems to be, it will in the end do everything for you: wipe your nose, wash your feet, smooth your hair, keep you clean; and nothing of what you did in intimate, casual thinking ways is lost. It swallows you even as you swallow it. As Enzensberger writes,

something cold and nonviolent coming up, touching first
the hollows of your knee, then your hips, your nipples,
your collarbones; until you are in it up to your neck,
until you drink it, until you feel the water
thirstily seeking your inside, your windpipe, your womb,
your mouth; and you know what it wants to do: it wants
to fill up everything, to swallow, and to be swallowed.

Chilling, that shows Enzensberger at his best, the poet of ebullient candor, scapegrace improvisation, and relaxed build-up. He does bodily sensations in different voices, becoming intimate not with minds but with windpipes, nipples, and so forth, an anatomist rather than one who intuits, which means of course that he stops short after he has been (as here) a long time starting, almost as if he shied away from too clammy or too conjectural an intimacy. His chemisms are disturbing because he spells out the sensations, but they are moving only if you read yourself into the interstices of his snapshots. And this means that, unless you are careful, you may end up crediting him for something he has not provided; he takes you so close to the door into someone, equipping you with all manner of charts and indices, sensations calibrated and auspices made plain, faces and tics and stances and tones, yet eschewing the vital imaginative intrusion which turns cut-out into character, reputation into soul. We may wish to see ourselves as others see us, but we surely don't wish to live as shallowly as others see us. Enzensberger may have a keen sense of our civil liberties vis à vis the cosmos, but his approach is anthropological, spicily generic, and in the end thwarting.

How easy it is to be taken in, as by the following passage which, with its Audenlike astringent expansiveness, its knowing itemizations, lulls you into believing anything that begins this amply must go somewhere deep:

Sometimes, not very frequently, hunting hares in the winter,
you will perceive in the snow, or shortly before Easter,
peering through the half-open window of your sleeping car,
against the dawning day, on the roof of a lonely barn,
on a pile of coal, or on a belvedere across the valley,
a small flock of people dressed in black coats,
led by a prophet with steel-rimmed spectacles
and flared nostrils, motionless, silent, waiting
for Doom to come.

You get the sense that every clause, every phrase, could be opened out infinitely but always filled with the ore of skilled observership; the poet knows what's behind everything in view and what's behind what's behind it. He knows how to give that satisfying, almost gravid sense of deployed delineation, as if, Tiresias-like, he has been everywhere and done everything, yet somehow only as a tourist, an eager, hectoring, informal one, yes, but nimbly withholding for reasons unknown. Perhaps he has an almost voluptuous sense of outline. This is public poetry, as far from Rilke, say, or Stevens, as you can get; and, if it isn't quite on the side of the angels, it's on the side of the avenging angels, and certainly on the side of the exterminating ones, through sleight of mind coming out on top, in the last paralysis not going down with the drowned but sitting it out in a Central Europe of the heart, in those deserted railway stations, bunkers, tabernacles “and other places,” with the survivors, who have nothing to say but mutely share with him reverence for the strong brown or green or black god who let them go. Flukes he reads hugely, as natural intermittences akin to those Proust assigned to the heart, yet without ever, in this book, rising to the level of sentient metaphor that enables Proust, in his promptu-feeling essay on Flaubert's style, to join our lack of embarrassment for having slept to the altogether more putative lack of embarrassment (or confusion) “when we come to realize, someday, that we have made the momentary passage of death.” If you set Enzensberger's Titanic poem alongside, say, the “Grief and Oblivion” section of Albertine Disparue, something emerges about the psychological healing-power of exact metaphors, or, if not healing-power, then power to widen the sense of human experience so much that, because life seems so much fuller and keener, death is somehow cheated.

“Dimly, hard to say why,” the poet ends, “I continue to wail, and to swim.” Jauntily dry-toned in the presence of sea, iceberg, and Doom, he reminds me of his earlier stanza in “Foam”:

okay call me no man: say that i'm no man's kid brother
from no man's land let me break loose so at least
I can rest from all these live people:
let's make out that i'm not one of you that i'm not one
of us
that i'm free from all that, from us, from this foam,
this snivelling smirking sweet-tasting foam
that hangs from the century's mouth that rises
higher and higher. … 

It's one thing to be self-less in the presence of other selves; it's quite another to be semi-self-effacing in the presence of other selves seen mainly as units of human currency. Whether they are right or wrong, it's our visions—our emblems of extruded hope—that say the most about our individuality or uniqueness, and to back away from such material into highly animated and technically adroit vers de société seems spiritually uncouth, as if poetry weren't allowed to be afraid, intuitive, or on the losing side. An earlier Enzensberger title, Poems For People Who Don't Read Poems (1968), has a proselytizing zeal, a roughhouse poignancy, a spruced-up shamefulness, all missing here. I respond to the ikon which is the formally open poem with the tight-lipped heart (volumes implied), but I respond more to the idea of it, and I prefer the formally closed poem with the spilling persona within (such as Dylan Thomas' Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait). A formidable poetic opportunity has gone somewhat a-begging here, not that the poet lacks the equipment; it's just that the poem survives, when it might usefully have gone down, formally open as an exposed rib cage, instead of bobbing brightly and expertly about like a buoy in safe water this side of the reef. After all, the name of the deathship sank an adjective as well.

Reinhold Grimm (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5358

SOURCE: “Poetic Anarchism? The Case of Hans Magnus Enzensberger,” in MLN, Vol. 97, No. 3, April, 1982, pp. 745-58.

[In this essay, Grimm argues that Enzensberger is a practitioner of poetic anarchism, citing the author's fascination with anarchic events, movements, and historical figures, as well as his extreme and sometimes conflicting statements about theoretical aspects of literature.]

Und mit deinen Schlüssen, scheint mir, hast du mindestens insofern recht, als das Unvereinbare (und die Schwierigkeit, das Unvereinbare mit sich zu vereinbaren) den Grundstoff meiner Arbeit ausmacht, ob ich will oder nicht.1

In a lengthy essay published some six or seven years ago,2 I tried to sum up Hans Magnus Enzensberger's existence as a political writer by assigning him an imaginary stance which, on the one hand, would be utopian and, on the other, anarchic, but which in truth would amount to a paradoxical coincidence of both. My argument outlining this paradox, simple as it was, ran as follows. Since, according to Enzensberger, all political systems are systems of domination, what is left to him can solely be anarchism; and if indeed he does conceive of a viable system, a system, however, that has not yet been put into practice, all he can possibly advocate is utopianism. In short, his position would have to be seen as a kind of eschatological vanishing point where anarchy and utopia intersect, as it were—or, I concluded, as a veritable point zero possessing, verbatim, “no place” whatsoever, either in space or in time.

Still, I had to concede—and was happy to do so—that this same man Enzensberger who expressly holds that “politics equals crime”3 has, in effect, never ceased to fight, both as an author and a citizen, for the enlightenment and, thus, betterment of the human race and condition; that, ever so paradoxically, he has been steadfast and determined in leading an active political life, not only as an indefatigable critic but also as one of the finest and most accomplished lyrical poets in contemporary German literature. For poetic creation cannot be separated from political criticism, says Enzensberger: “poetry and politics,”4 as will be remembered, is yet another maxim he subscribes to.

I believe, in all modesty, that my contradictory assessment is as valid today as it was in the early seventies. Enzensberger (though he may grow pale like Brecht's Herr Keuner upon reading this) has not changed. There are, granted, certain shifts of emphasis that can be discerned; but, now as then, the “essence” of Enzensberger's work—as he in turn admitted, albeit not publicly—consists of that which is “incompatible,” as well as of the immense difficulty of coming to grips, somehow or other, with the experience of incompatibility. And isn't there an anarchical element involved in this very struggle? In fact it seems as if Enzensberger's entire career were imbued with a spirit of anarchy, all his concerted efforts notwithstanding. That such an anarchism must be of a special breed, however, ought to be obvious.

What, then, is this anarchism which I have chosen to label, tentatively, a “poetic” one? It behooves me at this point to confess that I am not a student of that ideology, let alone a disciple of any of its persuasions. Nonetheless, a glance cast from an oblique angle, so to speak, and coming (let us hope) from a detached and impartial eye, might have a legitimacy of its own; sometimes, at any rate, the outsider's view has brought about a salutary “alienation” of the issue at hand, and prevented even the initiated from succumbing to rash stereotyping. Isn't the outsider almost childlike in his uninhibited naïveté? If lucky, he may indeed produce effects comparable, in however limited a way, to those of poetry itself, of which we are told: its “kritisches Werk ist kein anderes als das des Kindes im Märchen [who exclaims] daß der Kaiser keine Kleider trägt.”5 Which, incidentally, constitutes one of Enzensberger's pertinent pronouncements. In the sentences immediately preceding our quote, he states categorically: “Das Gedicht ist … anarchisch.” And: “Es überführt, solange es nur anwesend ist, Regierungser-klärung und Reklameschrei, Manifest und Transparent der Lüge.”6

Such statements and pronouncements are numerous, manifold, and, to be sure, often quite dictatorial. But they do not exhaust the motley phenomenon of Enzensberger's anarchism in the least. Actually, there are no less than three different aspects we have to distinguish—although, needless to say, they are closely interrelated. One of them, as we just saw, derives from a concept of anarchy as a specific quality of literature and, in particular, poetry and their respective functions and usages. This brand of “poetic anarchism” appears to be rather original, all the more so since, in addition, it is defined as “durch sein bloßes Dasein subversiv.”7 Contrarily, the two remaining aspects are fairly familiar. They refer to the realm of past and present history, encompassing both historical anarchism and what I shall call, for lack of a better term, anarchic historicity. In other words, Enzensberger adopts as his subject matter the anarchistic prophets and messages, heroes and deeds, factions and developments that have manifested themselves, in varying manner and degree, since the middle of the 19th century; yet, likewise, he perceives and portrays as anarchic, indeed chaotic, processes the explosive socio-political, economic, and ecological events and aberrations going on around him. Their presence inevitably extending into the future, they are linked, of necessity, not only to Enzensberger's utopianism but also to its complement, his dystopian thought.

The most traditional and objective part of this elaborate triad is the one devoted to historical anarchism. In taking it up, however, Enzensberger was by no means prompted by an antiquarian interest. That he knows full well what he is dealing with is evinced, above all, by his book on the Spanish anarchists and their legendary leader, Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie: Buenaventura Durrutis Leben und Tod (1972). This remarkable “novel,” as its subtitle claims, stemmed from a TV documentary for which Enzensberger had done extensive field work and research in archives all over Europe and beyond, as well as conducted interviews with surviving emigrants from Spain in Southern France. What seems especially noteworthy about it is its mosaic-like structure which is in itself a sort of anarchic puzzle meant to provoke the reader's historical—or, if you wish, poetic—imagination and creativeness. The author makes this quite explicit by inserting, in italics, bits and pieces of such a theory of reception, thus diversifying his vast array of most diverse fragments even further.

Less comprehensive and, surely, less innovative are other portrayals of historical anarchism. Yet they are equally telling. They include, for example, two sizable chapters on the anarchist and terrorist movements in Czarist Russia;8 a prophetic essay on the uprising, quelled so brutally, of the sailors of Kronstadt against the newly established Soviet Republic;9 and, last but not least, a long prose poem on Bakunin from a volume of highly unusual ballads unfolding the dialectics of progressive barbarity and barbarous progress.10 None of these treatments, it should be stressed, is in any way unsympathetic toward the anarchists. Dating from 1964, 1967, and 1975, respectively, they may have come to register a few qualms and reservations over the years, or to show occasional flashes of irony; but, on the whole, they betray fascination and approval, admiration and nostalgia. The poet of anarchy is consistent both as a balladeer and a historian. Significantly, his novel of 1972 culminates with an expression of unabashed praise of those stern Spaniards in exile: “Die alten Männer der Revolution sind stärker als alles, was nach ihnen kam.”11In a similar vein, and doubtless inspired by Camus12 rather than by Marx, he glorifies that “unvergeßliche Schar gerechter Mörder” who slew, or attempted to slay, governors and generals, Grand Dukes and Czars, and whose aims and noble attitude “die Kommunisten nie verstanden.”13 As to the sailors of Kronstadt, their rebellion of 1921 is elevated to nothing short of a utopian prefiguration of the “Third [and final] Revolution”; indeed they are said to have inscribed themselves, decades ahead, in the “Annalen der Zukunft” as the true vanguard of humanity.14 And while the poem on Bakunin does indulge in scepticism it nevertheless ends, after a seesaw battle of pros and cons, with the impassioned outcry: “Kehr wieder!” Thrice in one line, the great foe to all law and order (which he deemed oppressive by definition) as well as to their alleged abolishment under socialism, is implored by Enzensberger to return.15

These texts, in spite of their consistency, are hardly devoid of contradictoriness. The same holds true for those signaling what I have termed anarchic historicity. But before we consider them, let me elaborate for a moment on the concept, seemingly so new, of “poetic anarchism” proper, as it reveals itself in Enzensberger's theory. For, here as elsewhere in his writings, contradictions abound. On the one hand, according to his early utterances, poems are “anarchistic” and “subversive” and, concomitantly, utopian in nature; on the other hand, as can be inferred from his postscript to an anthology, they are like the free-wheeling fantasies of children as well.16 Poetry, due to the mere fact that it is “überhaupt Poesie,” transforms, so we learn, the wildest trapeze acts of Surrealism into poésie engagée: that is to say, “Widerspruch, nicht Zustimmung zum Bestehenden.”17 “Poesie tradiert Zukunft,” being always anticipatory, “und sei's im Modus des Zweifels, der Absage, der Verneinung.”18 Yet, paradoxically, Enzensberger also decreed without hesitation, only some hectic years later:

Heute liegt die politische Harmlosigkeit aller literarischen, ja aller künstlerischen Erzeugnisse überhaupt offen zutage: schon der Umstand, daß sie sich als solche definieren lassen, neutralisiert sie. Ihr aufklärerischer Anspruch, ihr utopischer Überschuß, ihr kritisches Potential ist zum bloßen Schein verkümmert.19

The anarchic poet went so far, at this stage, as to pronounce (or help pronounce in his Kursbuch) the death sentence on poetry, for little then mattered to him except plain politics. In the meantime, however, he has come full circle again, and not just readmitted poetry but reinstated it—although, to be sure, in an almost grotesque fashion. What I am referring to is, of course, his speech of 1976, “Bescheidener Vorschlag zum Schutze der Jugend vor den Erzeugnissen der Poesie,” since, analogous to his previous statements, this crude satire bluntly proclaims: “Die Lektüre ist ein anarchischer Akt.”20 We are totally free, Enzensberger assures us in his “Modest Proposal,” to do whatever we please with a piece of verse.

Such words sound exceedingly shocking; in fact, many a dignitary felt they were a slap in the face.21 It therefore strikes me as doubly ironical that, on closer scrutiny, neither of Enzensberger's theoretical extremisms proves to be so original as it seems at first sight. The former, extolling subversion, safely sails in the wake of Theodor W. Adorno, who held that the very autonomy of modern art, whether or not the artist wants or even knows it, is a ruthless attack on the status quo;22 whereas the latter, rolling in arbitrariness, owes its gist to the flat denouncement—as put forth by Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation—of all exegesis as sheer allegorizing.23 Still, what counts is not that dual influence upon Enzensberger, which was fleeting, but rather his position as a poet, which has persisted. In it, his unflinching anarcho-utopian stance, he is entirely himself.

This “poetic anarchism” in a broader sense will emerge once more when, finally, we now turn to anarchic historicity. However, we must take heed from the outset that Enzensberger spans the whole gamut from a jubilant millennialism of truly universal dimensions, right down to somber, merciless, and—quite literally—chilling visions of an impending global catastrophe; and that, worse yet, the prevailing mood in most cases is despair and pessimism, rather than any optimism or hope. Scores of lines and stanzas bespeaking this could be adduced, notably from that ominous volume, Der Untergang der Titanic of 1978, but also from the one of 1975 containing the verse on Bakunin, Mausoleum: Siebenunddreißig Balladen aus der Geschichte des Fortschritts. Moreover, an impressive number of essays could be cited as supplementary evidence, essays such as “Europäische Peripherie” (1965) or “Zur Kritik der politischen Ökologie” (1973), not to mention those apocalyptic yet, strangely enough, rigorous marginalia, “Zwei Randbemerkungen zum Weltuntergang,” again of 1978.24 It was perhaps not by chance that Enzensberger had his summary selection of 1971, Gedichte 1955-1970, begin with his ecstatic rhapsody, “Utopia,” which indeed performs a surrealist “trapeze act” of sorts, transmuting and transfiguring, phantasmagorially, the entire human condition;25 nor is it, in all likelihood, a coincidence that the last poem from his latest collection, Die Furie des Verschwindens published in 1980, should be a terrifying dystopian nightmare presenting the slow, methodic, and gruesome extinction of the entire human race.26 The joyous, exuberant anarchy of the mid-fifties has given way to gloomy chaos and anguish.

Or so it seems, at any rate. But be that as it may, the most thorough verbal embodiment of anarchic historicity is undoubtedly the penultimate poem in Enzensberger's summary of 1971, “Das wirkliche Messer.” Space permitting, I would certainly like to discuss it in detail; and if I were a gifted translator, and sufficiently daring to boot, I might have tried my hand at rendering it into English. As things are, I shall have to content myself with quoting it in German, albeit in full, and with adding the barest commentary as well as my concluding remarks. Enzensberger's “Real Knife” is an uncannily terse and complex text, even in view of his own standards:

Es waren aber Abertausend in einem Zimmer
oder einer allein mit sich oder zwei
und sie kämpften gegen sich miteinander
Der eine war der der Der Mehrwert sagte
und dachte an sich nicht und wollte von uns
nichts wissen Die Lehre sagte er her
Das Proletariat und Die Revolution
Fremdwörter waren in seinem Mund wie Steine
Und auch die Steine hob er auf
Und warf sie Und er hatte recht
Das ist nicht wahr Und es war der andere
der dies sagte Ich liebe nur dich
und nicht alle Wie kalt meine Hand ist
Und der fressende Schmerz in deiner Leber
kommt nicht vor in den Losungen Wir
sterben nicht gleichzeitig Wer erst
hat wenn wir uns freuen recht? Und er hatte recht
Aber Und so fuhr der andere fort Fortan
kann ich deinen Fuß nicht zurück
setzen Wer soviel wie wir weiß
hilft sich so leicht nicht und Ich
komme nicht mehr in Betracht Also komm
in die Partei und so fort Auch wenn
wir nicht recht haben Und er hatte recht
Das wußte ich immer schon daß du das
was du selber nicht glaubst
Das sagte der andere Vor uns hin
Wie ein Messer schleppst Doch hier
steckt es schon bis zum Heft
in deinem Fleisch Das Messer
Das wirkliche Messer Und er hatte recht
Und dann starb der eine und der andere
auch Aber nicht gleichzeitig
Und sie starben alle Und dann
schrieen sie und kämpften gegeneinander
mit sich und liebten und freuten
und unterdrückten sich
Abertausend in einem Zimmer
Oder einer mit sich allein oder zwei
Und sie halfen sich Und sie hatten recht
Und sie konnten einander nicht helfen(27)

I for one cannot help pondering this poem over and over. I do think I grasp and appreciate its message and its technical subtleties, but I am not sure I completely understand every single line of it, much less its wealth of enigmatic allusions. Already its title—or, to be more precise, its central imagery of the knife and the stabbing—poses a problem. Could it be that Enzensberger took his cue from that well-known anthology of poetological tracts, Mein Gedicht ist mein Messer, which was first brought out in 1956, and to which the young writer was asked to contribute when, in 1961, it was reedited in an enlarged version? For here he toys, in a brief though rich account of his craft, with a real, a beautiful, a perfectly sharpened blade glittering in the sun, as opposed to the figurative knife invoked in order to intimate the latent aggressiveness of poetry.28 On the other hand, being stabbed in the back seems to mark a lasting obsession for Enzensberger because, in the elegiac centerpiece of his most recent publication, he muses:

Utopien? Gewiß, aber wo?
Wir sehen sie nicht. Wir fühlen sie nur
wie das Messer im Rücken.(29)

Undeniably, this murderous weapon tends to become an emblem in Enzensberger's work, if only a cryptic one. Is it, for instance, suicidal as well? And is an ideology—any given ideology or the ideology, whichever you prefer—also but a figurative knife, much like poetry in that still popular volume, or is it “Das wirkliche Messer,” as might be surmised from the verse quoted, and, specifically, the poem of the same title? None of this is altogether clear. What is clear, however, is the basic thrust of the poem: namely, its depiction of history as an anarchical process, both in terms of a world-wide entanglement and a personal strife. Equally evident is, or should be, the meaning of the “room” where this bloody turmoil rages: it no longer signifies the mythical slaughterhouse of capitalism only, but denotes the blest premises of socialism, too. In fact, this massacre is ubiquitous, engulfing all countries and societies alike, since all of them offer sites, and are means, of oppression, exploitation, and boundless carnage. The metaphorical room conjured up by Enzensberger is, in sum, the earth in its entirety—just as, at one and the same time, it stands for the torn consciousness of the individual. And there is no way out, neither for the isolated individual nor for the masses or classes. Nor is there the slightest glimpse of dawn in this utter darkness; quite to the contrary, eschatological dusk is falling, indeed an apocalyptic night has already enveloped everything. Or to put it less biblically and solemnly and to point to at least one of the many sources at work: I find it highly revealing that Enzensberger, who knows his Brecht by heart, should allude with his ending to the desperate, utterly hopeless finale of Brecht's opera from the late twenties, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, the punchline of which reads:

Können uns und euch und niemand helfen.30

Amidst an “endless” (Brecht's own word) entanglement and strife and turmoil of chaotic demonstrations milling around on the stage, the people of that doomed city (which is, naturally, as metaphorical as is Enzensberger's room) loudly confess that they cannot help themselves nor us—i.e., the audience—nor anybody in the whole world. All of which bears a striking resemblance to the message and thrust of “Das wirkliche Messer” and, in particular, its final couplet:

Und sie halfen sich Und sie hatten recht
Und sie konnten einander nicht helfen

Of course, being able to help oneself is, within the context of this poem, yet another twist of bitter irony. For, unlike Brecht who wrote his verse before he fully committed himself to politics, though without doing away with literature, and embraced, once and for all, world revolution and the cause of Marxism, Enzensberger composed his lines after the days of his total commitment and ultrarevolutionary revelry. Or, more revealing still, he may well have written them right during the heyday thereof! Wasn't his Untergang der Titanic, as he himself informs us,31 conceived while he was roving the plains of Cuba, allegedly cutting sugarcane, since he too, the frail intellectual, yearned to submit his humble share to Castro's illusory “harvest of the many millions”? What Enzensberger then brandished, whether in his hands or his mind, was also a knife, after all, and might thus be regarded as a possible inspiration for his poem … even if a machete, admittedly, would lend itself less easily to the act of stabbing, and prove far more suitable for cutting throats.

I will be forgiven for this piece of grim humor, I trust, because my only reason for introducing it is the dire need I feel of a strong antidote. A paralyzing gloom threatens to beset any sensitive reader of such and similar outpourings. Are we not really bound to fall a prey to infinite hopelessness, to despair past help? And yet, being students of literature and history, we cannot but be aware that those insights of Enzensberger's, fearsome as they may seem, have a long and equally fearsome pre-history of their own. It was no less a literary giant than Georg Büchner who, in the spring of 1834, said in a letter concerning the events of the French Revolution:

Ich fühlte mich wie zernichtet unter dem gräßlichen Fatalismus der Geschichte. Ich finde in der Menschennatur eine entsetzliche Gleichheit, in den menschlichen Verhältnissen eine unabwendbare Gewalt, Allen und Keinem verliehen. Der Einzelne nur Schaum auf der Welle, die Größe ein bloßer Zufall, die Herrschaft des Genies ein Puppenspiel, ein lächerliches Ringen gegen ein ehernes Gesetz, es zu erkennen das Höchste, es zu beherrschen unmöglich.32

These are words that truly penetrate through historical reality, laying bare to the bones what can only be termed a senseless anarchical process. Yet the young writer who put them down was, as we all know, simultaneously an active revolutionary. And none other than Enzensberger reminded us of this by publishing, along with treatises worthy of being reread, that rousing pamphlet called Der Hessische Landbote which provides the most telling testimony, both of Büchner's subversive activities and of his paradoxical belief in political change—a belief, by the way, that was not relinquished but, contrary to many a critic's claim, indefatigably upheld. If in German literature there is anything whose essence consists of that which is incompatible, it is the inseparable unity we associate with the name of Büchner. Even nowadays, we have not yet come to grips with this bundle of contradictions, as much as we have endeavored to do so for nearly a century and a half.

No, I do not mean to equate Enzensberger with the towering figure of him who gave us, at the age of twenty-two, the greatest and most stirring play on revolution that has even been written. Nevertheless, that there exists an elective affinity between the two men, the author of Dantons Tod and his modern propagator, can hardly be disputed, irrespective of the latter's own protestations.33 Both belong to the same rare species of political writers—rare, in any case, within the confines of German letters. Their comparison, however cursory, ought to have sufficed to substantiate this kinship, especially as to their view of anarchic historicity, and to situate Enzensberger and the fundamental incompatibility pervading his life and work, the very essence of his existence, in the appropriate historical frame.

Little more remains to be added, as our quick look at Büchner has brought us back to where we began. What then, in brief, are the results we have gained in our survey of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's “poetic anarchism”? But let us never forget that they won't be definitive at all. We are dealing with an author whose career has not ended; he, in turn, deals with processes which will certainly outlast him as well as ourselves. Not even their poetic reflection can be said to have reached any finish: the fatal bellum omnium contra omnes unleashed in “Das wirkliche Messer,” a war to the knife indeed, rages on and on in its anarchical frenzy. Namely, those who have died continue, wondrous enough, to shout feverishly, fighting against each other and, mind you, themselves; and not only do they oppress each other and/or themselves, but they also love themselves and/or each other (compare, above all, the dual and carefully modified juxtaposition of “gegen sich miteinander” and “gegeneinander / mit sich”). In fact, somehow or other they manage to be happy (“und freuten … sich”)! It is true, we do not perceive any development in this poem, despite its countless changes and disconcerting moves. Should we say, therefore, what prevails in it is a frantic stalemate? And are we to expand this tentative formula to cover the entire ßuvre and uneasy stance of Enzenberger, including his politics? Is he, the militant critic and marvelous poet, incessantly marking time, as it were?

One thing must be apparent: Enzensberger's anarchism and his utopianism (no matter how dystopian it may have become) are insolubly tied together. This is borne out by any and all manifestations of the threefold phenomenon we have investigated, as well as by their combination and mutual connections. To use the phrase “poetic anarchism” was more than justified, and my typographical provisos can henceforth be dispensed with. Clearly, the poetological notions espoused by Enzensberger are in themselves anarchical, if not always anarchistic; and though, now elated now disappointed, he did voice distrust of that innate anarchic power of poetry—or, more correctly, of those concrete political effects he once ordained—he likewise, and with an overwhelming gesture at that, empowered his readers—or, more modishly put, the subjects of his reception—to treat his poetry in as arbitrary a manner as they might choose. I dare say such are the signs of anarchic poetics or, in general, poetic anarchism … all the more so since, anarchically, they aren't limited to poetry, either. Really, what other label is there at hand? Isn't the treatment accorded the historical anarchists by Enzensberger also a kind of poetic anarchism? He pays both critical and near romantic homage to them and, by so doing, not just poetizes but downright poeticizes anarchy. Furthermore, these two branches of Enzensberger's work are closely intertwined, and no less with each other than with the third and most rapidly growing offshoot of his poetic anarchism, anarchic historicity. The selfsame principle that governs his poetics also rules over the huge mosaic constituted by his novel, Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie. Just weigh the instructions—again eminently worth reading—which accompany it! Are they not, in all seriousness, the creative reverse of his wanton (or, as some would have it, insolent) “Modest Proposal”? And aren't they equally applicable to the sinister, and yet so perfect, workings of his poem, “Das wirkliche Messer”?

I am, naturally, not unaware of the objections that could be raised. The very concept of poetic anarchism might be called a flagrant contradiction in terms. For isn't the poem—any poem—a cosmos to begin with, even when articulating chaos? Isn't poetry, like all art, as devout an affirmation as could be, precisely while and by expressing negation, indeed the most chaotic, most pessimistic nihilism? But stated in such a general way, this insight might as well be called a truism turned into a shop-worn cliché, ever since Gottfried Benn once propounded it; and I therefore shall not pursue it any further. Instead, and in conclusion, let me point to yet another jarring contrast in Hans Magnus Enzensberger's development. In 1980, side by side with his volume of gloomy poetry, Die Furie des Verschwindens, the erstwhile co-founder and co-editor of that highly political journal, Kursbuch—which he then abandoned, surprisingly enough—brought out, in collaboration with a close friend, the first and most impressive issue of a second such journal!34 And while, in the most furious outburst of his recent verse, he explicitly approves of Benn's poetic existence,35 he nonetheless wants to exclude from Transatlantik, as his new journal is entitled, all poetry and fiction alike! He is determined, says Enzensberger,36 to accept and publish nothing but reports based on hard facts and (his own phrase) “field work,” i.e., “Wirklichkeitsforschung en détail.” In the midst of dejection and despair, he thus seems to hark back to the very height of his political optimism and commitment when, citing the examples of Günter Wallraff, Ulrike Meinhoff, and others, he advocated precisely this kind of activistic literatura fakta.37

Art and poetry, those images of a utopian order, persist in Enzensberger's life and work; yet so do anarchy and politics and, perhaps, a paradoxical dystopian activism. Essentially, neither the man nor his production have changed over the years,38 but both betray a chameleonic changeability within their poetic anarchism that even the motleyest triad of notions is far too fixed and orderly to contain.


  1. Enzensberger in a letter to me dated June 8, 1974. The “conclusions” he is referring to are those of my essay, “Bildnis Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Struktur, Ideologie und Vorgeschichte eines Gesellschaftskritikers,” Basis, 4 (1973 [recte: 1974]), pp. 131-174.

  2. Cf. ibid., espec. pp. 155 f.

  3. See his Politik und Verbrechen: Neun Beiträge (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1964).

  4. See his Einzelheiten II: Poesie und Politik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1963).

  5. Ibid., p. 136.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Politik und Verbrechen, pp. 283-360.

  9. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Kronstadt 1921 oder die Dritte Revolution,” Kursbuch, 9 (1967), pp. 7 ff.

  10. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Mausoleum: Siebenunddreißig Balladen aus der Geschichte des Fortschritts (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975), pp. 85-88.

  11. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie: Buenaventura Durrutis Leben und Tod. Roman (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972), p. 284.

  12. See espec. his L'Homme révolté and Les Justes.

  13. Politik und Verbrechen, p. 360.

  14. “Kronstadt 1921,” p. 32.

  15. Mausoleum, p. 88.

  16. See Allerleirauh: Viele schöne Kinderreime, versammelt von H.M. Enzensberger (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971), pp. 352 f. (first published in 1961).

  17. Cf. Einzelheiten II, p. 24 (from his preface to his anthology, Museum der modernen Poesie, eingerichtet von Hans Magnus Enzensberger [Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960]).

  18. Cf. ibid., p. 136.

  19. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Palaver: Politische Überlegungen (1967 - 1973) (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), pp. 49-50 (from “Gemeinplätze, die Neueste Literature betreffend,” first published in 1968).

  20. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Bescheidener Vorschlag zum Schutze der Jugend vor den Erzeugnissen der Poesie,” German Quarterly, 49 (1976), p. 432.

  21. Fully representative, in this respect, is Harald Weinrich's article, “Nicht jeder, der die Zunge herausstreckt, ist deshalb schon Einstein: Hans Magnus Enzensberger und den Deutschlehrern zugedacht,” which appeared as a rebuttal in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 227, 9 October 1976.

  22. See Adorno's Minima moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 31962) and Noten zur Literatur III (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1965); in particular, compare p. 128 of the latter: “Die rücksichtslose Autonomie der Werke, die der Anpassung an den Markt und dem Verschleiß sich entzieht, wird unwillkürlich zum Angriff.”

  23. Cf. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Dell, 31970), pp. 13-23. This book was first published in 1967, the essay of the same title, in 1964. Enzensberger quotes Sontag in extenso on pp. 431 f. of his aforementioned diatribe.

  24. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Deutschland, Deutschland unter anderm: Äußerungen zur Politik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 21967), pp. 152-176; Palaver, pp. 169-232; “Zwei Randemerkungen zum Weltuntergang,” Kursbuch, 52 (1978), pp. 1 ff.

  25. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Gedichte 1955-1970 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971), p. 7. The poem was published in Enzensberger's first book, verteidigung der wölfe (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1957), pp. 26 f.

  26. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Die Furie des Verschwindens: Gedichte (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980), p. 86.

  27. Gedichte 1955-1970, p. 166 f.

  28. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Scherenschleifer und Poeten,” in Mein Gedicht ist mein Messer: Lyriker zu ihren Gedichten, hrsg. von Hans Bender (München: Paul List, 1969), pp. 144-48; espec. p. 148. The paperback edition I am citing is marked “31.-38. Tausend.”

  29. Die Furie des Verschwindens, p. 46.

  30. Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967), II, 564.

  31. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Der Untergang der Titanic: Eine Komödie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978), p. 115 and passim.

  32. Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner R. Lehmann (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971), II, 425-26.

  33. See espec. Enzensberger's remark in Georg Büchner / Ludwig Weidig, Der Hessische Landbote: Texte, Briefe, Prozeßakten, kommentiert von Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1965, 21966), p. 168.

  34. See Haug von Kuenheim's article, “Mann mit vielen Eigenschaften: Wie kommt Herr N. von Lui auf Transatlantik?,Die Zeit (Overseas Edition), No. 44, 31 October 1980, p. 23, although he concentrates on the more ludicrous aspects surrounding Enzensberger's new journal.

  35. Cf. Die Furie des Verschwindens, p. 46. However, as early as 1973, in a letter to me dated November 14, Enzensberger observed: “Benn erlebt hier ein gewisses, halb heimliches come-back [sic]. Man zitiert ihn wieder.”

  36. In a letter to me of May 13, 1980.

  37. Cf. Palaver, p. 53 (again from “Gemeinplätze, die Neueste Literatur betreffend”).

  38. As to the shifts and waverings I indicated in the beginning, compare, among other things, Enzensberger's “Nachbemerkung zur Neuauflage,” in the recent paperback edition of his Museum der modernen Poesie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980), II, 786: “Der rührende Glaube an die subversiven Kräfte der Literatur ist unterdessen [i.e. since 1960]stark in Mitleidenschaft gezogen worden.”

K. Lydia Schultz (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1844

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Hans Magnus Enzensberger,” in Northwest Review, Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1983, pp. 142-46.

[In the following essay, Schultz and Enzensberger discuss his poetry, its hopeful themes, and his use of language in relation to power and politics.]

Munich, July 1982. The windows of the large upstairs apartment are open to the street noise below, to the smells of the city, the summer breeze. Hans Magnus Enzensberger is at home this afternoon, willing to respond to questions I bring from the United States. But before our conversation about reading and writing poetry gets under way, he suggests doing something practical, that is, reading together some translations I did: “Only by working on something do we get to know one another.” He is interested in every word, points out allusions, explains the context. I am intrigued by his lively concern over verifying the vernacular for a particular line. “Are you sure people say that?” he asks while inventing several scenarios to illustrate the tone he has in mind. The guarded manner of his welcome, mixed with a sense of frailty, has given way to an infectious intensity that concentrates on the work before us. His right hand in a cast from a recent accident, Enzensberger is nonetheless efficient and energetic. He quickly pulls a volume from one of the bookshelves surrounding us, and shows me the poem by Paul van Ostaijen, to whom “Poetry Festival” is dedicated, and whose satirical ode to Singer sewing machines is one of Enzensberger's hidden references. Poems are made in response to other texts, he says, and translators need as much background information as possible for their work. Reading is not a question of interpreting, but of writing, of new production. To analyze and discuss what a poem “means” is useless, since too many individual and circumstantial variables come into play. According to Enzensberger, there are no misreadings, only productive and unproductive responses to a text. Translation belongs to the former: a creative response to a text in another language. I ask about his definition of reading as an anarchic act, an act that may well result in new poetry, while interpreting frustrates that impulse. What turns readers into potential poets? And other readers into critics that channel and subdue free expression? Enzensberger is as outspoken as ever in his indictment of social systems that engender institutions, and of institutions that in turn perpetuate themselves. The “official” approach to a poem consists of categorizing and labelling it, of fitting it into a slot, thus avoiding a real encounter with it. His polemic against “the bureaucrats of literature” remains unchanged. In one of his early speeches, “The Making of a Poem,” he wrote that “society has created its own institutions to defuse the poetry it finds intolerable, to make it commensurate with the existing order, and thus render it harmless.” Yet he is convinced that people—all people—still have some freedom left to think and feel for themselves, have corners and niches in their minds that are not manipulable by cultural institutions and the consciousness industry. The point is to claim and to use this freedom. He talks about children, their playfulness as they explore language. When I mention Allerleirauh, the anthology of children's rhymes he has edited, his eyes light up. He refers to the old magic, the bewitching quality many of these rhymes have, because they were made in the magnificent, but non-oppressive, omnipotence of play. Anarchic reading is similarly productive, for as long as no system is imposed, the text remains open. If writing implies hiding to escape social control, reading means securing a place where people can be freely social. Readers, as producers, own the means of production, and discover their own language by responding to another's.

To my question whether he considers the writing of poetry politically subversive, he responds with a careful “No.” Too many false postures appear under the label “political,” too much naive optimism abounds concerning the social effects of poetry. Especially alarming is the tendency to make political prescriptions, to narrow the possibilities of writing to limited forms. Yet his position does not deny his being engaged. Like everyone else, he lives in a particular political context which, he hopes, shows in every line of his poems. But there is no explicit message, no straight-jacketing “line” that demands articulation. Writing is not a political fanfare, but an affirmation of freedom. This is what the Macedonian speech (“A Speech about Making Speeches”) celebrates. Enzensberger even goes so far as to say that “if someone still wants to write about flowers and can carry it off—fine. The proof is in the poem.” His latest book, Die Furie Des Verschwindens [The Fury of Disappearance], contains a poem about the fear of always saying something wrong, a fear that flattens the voice, makes it tinny and thin

“Mark Where Applicable”
What makes your voice flat
so thin and tinny
is the fear of
saying something wrong
or always the same
or saying what all are saying
or something unimportant
or defenseless
or something that could be mistaken
or pleasing the wrong people
or something stupid
or something that's been said before
something old
Haven't you had enough of
nothing but the fear of nothing
but the fear of the fear of
saying something wrong
of always saying it wrong?

(From: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Die Furie des Verschwindens. Gedichte. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1980.)

I ask for the context, and he describes the dangers that fads pose for a writer, the fear of not being “in,” the mistaken notion of being avant-garde while actually just being the fashion-of-the-day. Economically, of course, there are the pressures of the Frankfurt International Book Fair each fall, the pressure not to be passé, to be talked about, published, in short: marketed. He says he wrote the poem both for his colleagues and for himself. While we talk, the telephone rings and he is invited to give yet another speech, a request he eventually declines: “I simply don't feel like it.”

Enzensberger is interested in a remark by Stanley Kunitz about the current “democratization of genius” in the United States, where the quantity of good poetry is unsurpassed, but no really great poems are being written. Yes, the situation is similar in Germany. Technical know-how, the fine imitation of certain “styles,” does not yield the results that skilled experimentation can bring about. That people write much and well is good—but it is not good that so few take the necessary risks and strike out on their own. What does he think of the many Creative Writing Programs offered at American universities? Not much; he is sceptical of the “programming” aspect. Independent writers' groups, on the other hand, hold more promise in his opinion, generating new impulses through reading and mutual critique. Enzensberger does not sound very hopeful on the issue of writers as a social group. Referring to Germany, he states his strong aversion to writers' unions, writers' insurance, writers' pension plans, in other words, to any collective efforts that confuse the risks of writing with those of economic survival. I wonder why he considers being a writer so different from other work, whether he is simply wary of the apathy fostered by social systems that regulate away people's initiative by regulating their entire lives. (In the August issue of Transatlantic he argues the thesis that “The Actually Existing Socialism is the highest stage of underdevelopment.”) Should there be free enterprise for the radical poet so the poet is radicallyfree? I don't ask that, but listen to his vignette of a non-capitalist utopia where poets, like bakers, can sell their products to support themselves. He admits that this analogy is tricky, since the developments in the world are such that corner bakeries hardly have a place anymore—certainly not in the United States, nor, for that matter, in any of the socialist economies.

While we talk about politics, his face reddens and his body moves. The United States completely lacks understanding for otherness, he says with agitation, which shows once again in its current relations with Latin America. Even if he still believed in the unity and hope implied by a “world language of poetry,” he could no longer imagine any real effect of the arts on today's world. The fact that the Reagan administration has cut support for a number of programs for cultural and scientific exchange with other countries, for example, does not imply that it feels threatened; instead it proves its total indifference. If a world language of poetry existed, it would not be acknowledged. There are the far more real concerns of power, the need to exploit and imperialize, to control others by military and economic means. He scoffs at the penchant of American capitalists to adorn themselves with “high” culture and artworks, and at the generosity of the powerful private foundations. The rich in Germany are more blatant, they don't do that. I tell him that I liked his open letter to the president of Wesleyan University, protesting the United States' war against Vietnam, and the complicity of American universities with the military-industrial complex, but he is angry about his action then. He explains that he should have simply left quietly, or better: thought twice about accepting the invitation and grant in the first place. He regrets having made just a gesture—as gestures, Enzensberger says, don't make for good politics or good poetry.

He is pleased with the book I brought him, Adrienne Rich's A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. We look at the passage from “Images,” where she writes she will never be able to romanticize language again, having understood its relation to power. Because of this relationship, does he as a male poet perceive differences between men's and women's writing? He considers differences the necessary result of anyone's personnal and social history, but finds feminist writing quite inaccessible and apart from him, although he is very thoughtful and unself-righteous about his position. Identification on his part would merely be false projection, an error that more politically dogmatic writers are prey to. Effective poetic language comes from one's actual experiences made conscious.

He refers again to the process of translation. Like reading, translating is a kind of text-understanding that, when it goes beyond the text, produces something new. Besides, Enzensberger says, it provides for an opportunity to build up or smooth out weak spots in the writing. The text one reads is always unfinished. His hands move, describe the work—and in a very material sense he strikes me as a maker, as someone who wants to do. He remarks that he has learned much through his own translations; new turns, new thoughts, new perceptions. And smilingly, a spark in his eyes, he mentions a writer's selfish motive for reading: “You always hope to find grist for your mill.”

The next day, I run into Hans Magnus Enzensberger in the subway, and we say hello. From the platform I watch him disappear into the underground, his head buried in a newspaper.

Charlotte Melin (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Autobiography and Epic in Der Untergang der Titanic,” in Germanic Notes, Vol. 22, Nos. 1-2, 1991, pp. 14-16.

[In the following essay, Melin considers the significance of allusions in Der Untergang der Titanic (The Sinking of the Titanic) to Enzensberger's own life and works.]

Commenting on the problematical definition of the authorial personality in The Sinking of the Titanic (Hans Magnus Enzensberger's own English translation of his epic poem Der Untergang der Titanic), an American reviewer observed, “The ‘I’ has no tenure in these poems … ” The remark indicates not a response to an absence of writing in the first person, but a reaction to the nature of this text as a work of public poetry that reveals only the elusive identity for its author. Personal pronouns, in fact, abound in both the German and English versions of Der Untergang der Titanic as the ich or I of the work, a contemporary of the reader, struggles to come to terms with the conflicting details about the disaster. Nonetheless, the general biographical asides Enzensberger makes regarding the ten year composition period of the epic, the broad affinities the text shows to his earlier work, and the persona he assumes by his identification with the fictional painter Solomon Pollock constantly imperil the ontological stability of the poet's self because as a series of disparate impressions they underscore Enzensberger's preoccupation with the impossibility of perceiving the truth about events. Yet, though Enzensberger seems to call his authorial identity into question with these frequent shifts in perspective, a distinct, autobiographical element also enters Der Untergang der Titanic for the text incorporates a number of highly specific references to his earlier, lesser known works.

In the fourth canto, Enzensberger lists passengers he envisioned when writing the first version of the poem, including one Heizer Jerome (Untergang 22). The name of this stoker links him to a figure the author employed earlier, Heizer Hieronymus, who at the conclusion of Enzensberger's 1967 “Nürnberger Rede” comes to represent persecuted individuals. With this speech, a reflection of the politically charged atmosphere of the late sixties, Enzensberger announced his intentions to use the cultural prize awarded to him by Nürnberg to open a fund that would make support available to individuals in the FRG who faced trial under political charges. Heizer Jerome, the person mentioned merely in passing in Der Untergang der Titanic, which was begun two years later in 1969, is etymologically related to Hieronymus via the French derivation of his name from the Greek Hieronomos. This distant, but purposeful, connection allows Enzensberger to recall a period of intense political activity in his life that must have seemed remote by 1977, when he completed the epic, ending it on a tone of resignation.

A second allusion further reveals the poet's ongoing preoccupation with his own past. Enzensberger describes a number of paintings by the aging artist figure, who is his alter ego in the epic, Solomon Pollock, including a work entitled “Heilige Anna selbdritt” in which a “Suppenschildkröte” is placed under the saint's throne. While Enzensberger's references to the history of painting are far reaching, this peculiarly incongruous detail seems to refer to an unpublished piece, “Die Schildkröte,” which was sharply attacked when Enzensberger read it early on in his career at a meeting of Gruppe '47. The obscure allusion adds a literary dimension to the dispute Enzensberger depicts in the poetic sequence “Abendmahl, Venezianisch, 16. Jahrhundert” between strict inquisition judges, who demand serious work from the creative genius, and the artist himself, who resolutely insists that art must also involve pleasure, such as this amusing detail hidden under the saint's throne. Enzensberger thus obliquely rebukes the senior literary establishment for their narrow thinking.

Somewhat later, Enzensberger makes a third reference to work from his earlier career in another poem, “Weitere Gründe dafür, daß Dichter lügen.” Throughout the epic, attitudes, themes, and even phrasings appear that occur in Enzensberger's writings from about the time when Der Untergang der Titanic was composed. For example, the persistent skepticism about technology, especially in the eighth canto, and the references to Bakunin recall the contents of Mausoleum, Enzensberger's previous volume of poetry. Further, the motif of a knife in the back, twice repeated (Untergang 53 and 100), echoes a theme rehearsed in a poem of the late sixties, “Das wirkliche Messer.” Likewise, the “Striptease-Tänzerinnen” of the ninth canto (Untergang 36) evidently correspond to Enzensberger's collaborative effort with Hans Werner Henze on a vaudeville-inspired musical, La Cubana, in the early seventies.

“Weitere Gründe dafür, daß die Dichter lügen,” on the other hand, adopts the cadences of Enzensberger's translation of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot from the 1960 anthology Museum der modernen Poesie. Freely reworking the words Goethe's Faust utters at his death, Enzensberger mimics the final section of Eliot's poem in a series of clauses, all beginning with weil, that meditates on the insufficiency of language to express the truth of the moment. Whereas the translation of “The Hollow Men” begins “Zwischen Idee / und Wirklichkeit … fällt der Schatten” (Museum 639), repeating the initial prepositions and the concluding line of the verse again and again over the subsequent two stanzas, “Weitere Gründe dafür, daß die Dichter lügen” returns ten times to the pattern established in the opening lines where Enzensberger writes, “Weil der Augenblick / in dem das Wort glücklich / ausgesprochen wird, / niemals der glückliche Augenblick ist” (61). Enzensberger in his epic, moreover, clearly shares the spirit of Eliot's poem by virtue of the insight that death brings a halt to living and, hence, the possibility of articulating life.

Obscure as these self-references are, they add an unexpectedly personal element to Enzensberger's complexly structured epic, which reinforces the strong autobiographical undercurrents in Der Untergang der Titanic. Since few readers would be familiar with the sources of these allusions, however, Enzensberger seems to comment ironically on his own work with these asides, suggesting at once confidence in his own stature as a poet and a sense that the author today is relegated to an obscure position in the world. Indeed, when Enzensberger closes the epic with an image of himself yelling unheeded admonishments and swimming on in the midst of catastrophe, he fully acknowledges this problematical role for the writer in contemporary society today, recognizing that an artist must be both a prominent, public figure and an intensely private individual.

Philip Brady (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Poet on a Sit-down Strike,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4816, July 21, 1995, p. 23.

[In his review of Enzensberger's Kiosk and Selected Poems, which was translated from the German by Enzensberger and Michael Hamburger, Brady summarizes the poems in the collection and illuminates familiar aspects of Enzensberger's new poetry.]

When Hans Magnus Enzensberger's first book appeared in 1957—it was a volume of poems whose title, the wolves defended against the lambs, promised unorthodoxy—he was hailed as Germany's angry young man. It was the first of many, often contradictory labels and it stuck for a while, even though it tells us more about what the critics wanted than about what Enzensberger was actually offering. But it was easy to be seduced by the fireworks. Here, after all, was a young poet adept at sustained tirade, bent—to quote the long title-poem of his second collection, Language of the Country (1960), which opens the poems in translation—on attacking a land “overcrowded with absent people”, a “never-never-land where things are looking up but getting nowhere”. But there was more to this young man than anger. Few Jimmy Porters could match his polyglot range or his store of literary cross-references, nor did they speak, as Enzensberger does in that 1960 collection, of “all that lives in the winds / and woods, and the lichen on rock … ” And Enzensberger already had many voices, at one moment the self-disparaging throwaway mode of one who, as he puts it, grumbles but does not budge, at another the lurid imaginings of one who can make of midwives with their “taut and gleaming toolbags” a nightmare threat to more than babies.

For a time in the late 1960s, Enzensberger seemed to be making things easier for the inventors of labels. His involvements grew coherent: he founded Kursbuch, the most important cultural-political journal of the heady days between 1965 and 1975; he went to Cuba and found much to applaud; he wrote a documentary narrative around a Spanish Civil War anarchist, a play about the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a voluminous montage of historical material around the figures of Marx and Engels. There was no party promotion in this, not even a firm faith in the efficacy of political literature, but there was consistency. Enzensberger, whether in fiction or drama, was trying out forms of documentary and reportage, shaping the factual evidence without aestheticizing it and without raising the ideological temperature.

While the documentary-writer explored spheres of political action, Enzensberger the poet, disengaged from the nitty-gritty of politics and no longer prone to tirades, was a more negative, ironic voice, locating the symptoms of non-involvement, the smugness, the strategies for copping-out. In language that is spare, angular and short on flourishes he pinpoints the threat: “That one gets used to everything—/ one gets used to that. / The usual name for it is / a learning process.” And the inactive proclaim their inactivity in chorus:

Something must be done right away
that much we know
but of course it's too soon to act
but of course it's too late in the day
oh we know

This is a poetry of close-ups, catching the non-sequiturs not of creeds but of people. The scale and the focus are indeed far removed from the exceptionally wide-ranging debates launched or enlivened by Enzensberger during these years. He seems to be staking out the ground for poetry in an age dominated by prose. And he seems to be assigning a special role to irony in an age inclined to over-seriousness.

Even for Enzensberger, never prolific as a poet, poems could find strength in numbers, could have cumulative effect. In 1978 he published The Sinking of the Titanic, a “Comedy” in thirty-three cantos (the echoes of Dante are no accident). The Bloodaxe volume offers a substantial selection from the work. With great virtuosity and in a host of voices, beautifully captured in his own translation, Enzensberger rings the changes on the themes of loss, of unheeded Doom, enacting with much self-irony the incongruous strategies of art in which “Doom is happily consummated” and words fall short “because words come always / too late or too soon”. As always, Enzensberger keeps his distance, avoiding politics and avoiding high tragedy. Indeed, if there is hope amid the icebergs then it lies in the capacity of art to play unpredictably—and to survive.

The Sinking of the Titanic is poetry on a grand scale and it is exceptional in Enzensberger's work. In Enzensberger's post-Titanic world the poet has survived, but not the grand scale. In recent years—Enzensberger and Hamburger include poems published in 1991 [in the collection Selected Poems]—there are few wide angles, closer attention to eloquent detail. Not that the heroic beginnings are entirely forgotten—there are few more expressive signs that the times, the poet and the poet's vision have changed than the ghostly reappearance of Fidel Castro in a poem of 1991 entitled “Old Revolution”. He, “a sleepwalker in front of ten microphones”, scans the horizon for aggressors and finds nobody: “Even the enemy / has forgotten about him.”

Forgetfulness and loss affect more than Castro. The predecessors—it is a loaded, imprecise word and it is the title of a poem—have turned away, leaving only “the smooth cushion / the empty cup, / the shirt across the chair”. But all is not lost—Enzensberger finds a kind of security in the everyday and Michael Hamburger, the other half of the formidable pair of translator-poets responsible for the excellent selection, catches it finely:

A mottled quiet spreads out, tiny
and soft, into the morning, half dazed
by the sun, in an every-day trance,
and yellowly stretches, like the cat
on that bag of cement, across the road.

Such quiet moments snatched from the general din may be fleeting, but they seem to have proved durable. After an uncharacteristically short interval of only four years Enzensberger has produced another volume of poetry, Kiosk—and the cat is still there. It is still in the sunshine (“tawny stripes glowed in the sun / as it trained its gaze on me”) and the encounter has again about it a rare kind of quiet:

Eine Metaphysik streifte die andere,
als ich meinen Bückling mit ihr teilte
Unsere Ratschlüsse, ihre und meine,
So schein es mir, waren reziprok
unerforschlich wie die der Götter.

(One metaphysics brushed against another / as I shared my kipper with her. // Our wisdoms—hers and mine—/ were, it seemed, as reciprocally // unfathomable as the wisdom of the Gods.)

Nor is the cat alone—a bee, “living for art”, perfects its assaults on the window until it collapses; a fly, its wings “Ash-grey veined, / glisteningly scaled”, provokes detailed scrutiny as, not unlike the cat, it fixes the observing poet—“With the twice four thousand lenses / of his giant eyes / he looks at me.”

But Kiosk is not a poetic menagerie. It is, however, a favourite strategy of Enzensberger to exploit the sometimes ironic, sometimes alarming contrast between the humdrum in sharp focus and the unfocused intractable worlds outside. In a series of cameos entitled “Old Europe”—and Europe, old and new, has become a key theme for the essayist Enzensberger in recent years—the settings are familiar enough: warm bready air outside the bakery underneath the symbol of the golden pretzel in Greyfriars Lane. But in that setting—“(who were the Grey Friars?)” is the poet's only question—there is an unexplained presence, a fat magician from Guinea selling key-rings. The essayist has waxed eloquent on a problem, the poet highlights a visible contrast.

The title-poem of this new collection expresses with particular sharpness this kind of contrast because it brings Enzensberger's two worlds, the one tame, small-scale, observable, the other wider, more menacing, into close proximity. Even the very notion of kiosk is itself ambiguous: on the one hand the garden pavilion, three of which—white paper models set in rich greenery—give the dust-jacket a deceptively uncomplicated exotic beauty, on the other hand the newspaper kiosk on the street-corner. And it is the latter that engages the poet:

An der nächsten Ecke
die drei ältlichen Schwestern
in ihrer Bretterbude.
Zutraulich bieten sie
Nord Gift Krieg
einer netten Kundschaft
zum Frühstück an.

(At the next corner / the three elderly sisters / in their wooden stall. / Warm and friendly they are offering / murder poison war / to their nice customers / for breakfast.)

By the end of the poem the three old Ladies have become the three Fates.

Inside the kiosk, below the surface—of the skin in one poem, of a silver birch in another, of the earth, indeed of that fly—there are unsettling movements and energies. In a sense, Enzensberger is continuing where Brecht left off, not with Brecht's ideology and his certainties, but with similar acts of lyric Verfremdung, delimiting the observable, hedging it about with explosive understatements, with glimpses below the surface. Not that the tone of voice always has that sobriety that runs through Brecht's later poetry. There are many voices in this collection—it is one of its strengths—and among them can be heard again the angry young man when Enzensberger dedicates a hymn to stupidity or targets the rich who creep unharmed in luxuriant hordes out of the ruins after every débâcle. But matter-of-fact tone and obliqueness of angle have remained Enzensberger's most effective vehicles.

The obliqueness is two-edged because it is not an act of evasion—the poet's obliqueness locates and heightens what is inexpressible while at the same time vindicating poetry itself. Thus a poem elliptically entitled “War, like” is a structured display of poetic simile, yet war is not trivialized by the untoward comparisons that it seems to prompt:

Er glitzert wie die zerbrochene Bierflasche in der Sonne
an der Bushaltestelle vor dem Altersheim
Er raschelt wie das Manuskript des Ghostwriters
auf der Friedenskonferenz
Er flackert wie der bläuliche Widerschein des Fernsehers
auf den somnambulen Gesichtern.

(It glistens like the broken beer bottle in the sun / at the bus-stop outside the old people's home // it rustles like the manuscript of the ghostwriter at the peace conference. // It flickers like the blue reflection of the TV-set / on somnambulist faces.)

And there is obliqueness of another, highly personal kind. Enzensberger has retained those throwaway gestures, indeed they now set the tone. Having attacked the rich he retreats into apathy: “Oh yes, you get used to everything, / till the next time.” The sinister three sisters in their kiosk may be Fates, but the poet avoids histrionics: “They don't trouble me / I too like shopping at the Fates' shop.” “Amazing”—thus the conclusion of a poem entitled “Disappointed”—“that all our lives, time and again, / we believed in the goodness of Man, that we believed in anything”. His, as the title of another poem puts it, is a sit-down strike—“I'm not moving”. They are familiar gestures and they are as ambiguous as ever—the unconcern looks increasingly like a feint.

Enzensberger's ironies and witty evasions are by now second nature and they create a voice that is unique in German writing. In those days when labels were thrown around he was called both a barometer and a seismograph, predicting Germany's future and recording her explosive present. They no longer fit—the state of Germany is not to be read either in these lines or between them; the issues are on the one hand broader—war, Europe, a universal unease—and on the other hand they are personal, the irony of one who playfully and seriously explores his own positions. A playful piece of self-stylization at the close of a poem entitled “Old Medium” sums it up. Armed with his old typewriter and a pencil the poet cultivates an image of one who is out of date and out of step, be we—and he—know better:

dieser schwarz-weissen Tänzer,
ganz ohne Graphik-Display
und CD-ROM,
als Hardware éin Bleistiftstummel—
das ist alles.
Entschuldigen Sie.
Entschuldigen Sie bitte.
Ich wollte Ihnen nicht zu nahe treten.
Aber Sie wissen ja, wie das ist:
Manche verlernen es nie.

(Twenty-six / of these black-white dancers, / without graphic-display / and CD-ROM, / for hardware a pencil-stub—/ that's all. // Sorry, about this. / Really sorry. / I didn't want to cause offence. / But you know what it's like: / Some of us never unlearn things.)

Further Reading

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Brady, Philip. “Watermarks on the Titanic: Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Defence of Poesy.” In Papers Read before the Society, 1987-88, pp. 3-27. England: W. S. Maney & Sons Ltd. Leeds, 1989.

Seeks the thread of “relative certainty in a poet much given to shifting his ground,” comparing two of Enzensberger's works: Der Untergang der Titanic and Das Wasserzeichen der Poesie.

Koepke, Wulf. “Enzensberger and the Possibility of Political Poetry.” In Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice, edited by Betty Nance Weber and Hubert Heinen, pp. 179-89. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Finds that Enzensberger's political poetry compares unfavorably with that of Bertolt Brecht.

Martin, Philip. “Enzensberger and the Iceberg.” Meanjin Vol. 42, No. 2 (June 1983): 181-86.

Considers Der Untergang der Titanican epic for its variety and black humor, and praises its hopeful ending.

McInnes, Neil. “The Intellectual Terrorist.” In The Times Literary Supplement (June 3, 1977): 667.

Reviews two of Enzensberger's books, Mausoleum, a volume of poetry, and Raids and Reconstructions, a collection of essays, assessing the two as relevant political documents of the times.

Melin, Charlotte. “Williams, Enzensberger, and Recent German Poetry.” Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 29, No. 1 (1992): 77-93.

Studies Enzensberger's poetry in relation to that of William Carlos Williams in style and form, and also compares him to other contemporary German poets.

Monroe, Jonathon. “Between Ideologies and a Hard Place: Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Utopian Pragmatist Poetics.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 1997): 41-77.

Considers Enzensberger as an essayist and a poet, using his most current examples in those genres, Civil Wars: From L. A. to Bosnia and Zukunftsmusik,to emphasize the differences between the them.

Schultz, Karla Lydia. “Writing as Disappearing: Enzensberger's Negative Utopian.” Monatshefte Vol. 78, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 195-202.

Explores two poems from different periods of Enzensberger's career, one reflecting a positive utopian view, the other reflecting a negative view.

Additional coverage of Enzensberger's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 116, 119; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vol. 43.

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