Although Reiner Kunze was ultimately forbidden to publish in the GDR and even became a nonperson in the eyes of the cultural bureaucracy, it is also true that if he had not attained maturity and received his education there, he might never have taken up writing. Born to working-class parents in the region of Thuringia, Kunze was originally destined to become a shoemaker, and he was somewhat surprised to find himself in 1951 with a completed secondary school diploma, facing a choice between art studies at the Academy of Art in Dresden or studies in journalism in Leipzig. As the son of a father who had been trained as a plumber but spent most of his life as a miner and a mother who supplemented the family income by crocheting piecework in her home, Kunze was an unlikely candidate for a learned profession. In keeping with the policies of the new regime, however, Kunze’s talents received active encouragement precisely because of his working-class background, and therefore, in spite of his father’s strong reservations, he studied journalism, philosophy, and literature in Leipzig from 1951 to 1955. Kunze was young, idealistic, more than a little naïve, and extremely grateful to the new government that had granted him such unexpected opportunity. It is not surprising, then, that his earliest poetic works, written during this period, contain a great deal of uncritical praise of the state and of the Socialist Unity Party, which Kunze had joined in 1949. To a certain degree, he was simply repeating the clichés and formulas taught him by his teachers but he also believed what he wrote. Although he later distanced himself from these early poems, which are now nearly inaccessible and justifiably forgotten, Kunze was sincere and cannot be charged with having consciously prostituted his art. At that time, he must have appeared to the authorities as everything they could wish for in the new generation of writers.
By 1959, however, Kunze’s inability to reconcile Socialist theory with concrete experience led to severe political attacks upon him. Disappointed and disillusioned, he was forced to suspend his doctoral studies and teaching activities in the journalism faculty at Leipzig. Today, Kunze regards the year 1959 as the absolute low point, the “zero hour” in his life. Ironically, the year 1959 also saw the publication of his first major collection of poems, Vögel über dem Tau (birds above the dew).
Following a period of work as a manual laborer in the heavy equipment industry and as a truck driver in Leipzig, Kunze lived in 1961 and 1962 in Czechoslovakia while recovering from a serious heart ailment and waiting for permission to marry a Czech citizen, Dr. Elisabeth Littnerová, an oral surgeon who had begun a voluminous correspondence with the poet after...
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