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.
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.
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.
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.