Although initially in complete agreement with the ideals of humanistic Democratic Socialism, Reiner Kunze is by nature a shy, sensitive, reflective man whose poetic interests have always tended toward the private sphere, and it is ironic that he first became known to a wider audience primarily as a political dissident, as a sensational case in the often sordid history of East German cultural politics. As is the case with any writer living in a system where literary questions are by definition also political issues, it is impossible to avoid the political dimension when discussing Kunze’s work. His achievement as a poet, however, rests on the modest virtues of directness, honesty, and basic humanity, not on any polemical stance.
Kunze has always been a “popular” poet, both before and after his exile from the GDR to West Germany. His poetic images are concrete, drawn almost exclusively from everyday life, and easily accessible without being merely simpleminded or naïve. From Heinrich Heine, Kunze learned satire and wit, from Federico García Lorca a bold metaphoric vision, and from Bertolt Brecht the knack of accommodating apparent opposites through dialectical thought; his chief claim to originality lies in his expansion of the possibilities of a lyric poetry of extreme brevity and concentration. His strength is the sudden, insightful aperçu, and some of his best work falls formally between epigram and graffiti. Kunze’s playful, almost childlike view of the world, and of language in particular, allows him to exploit wordplay and create metaphors in ways that are both refreshingly original and genuinely insightful. He is capable of puckish good humor and wit, even when he has good reason for bitterness and despair. On the whole, his is a poetry of hope, however precarious. Kunze has said that he intends his poetry to reduce the distance and isolation between human beings, to make himself and his readers aware of their common humanity; at his best, he succeeds.
A fundamental characteristic of poetry can perhaps best be described as a tension between reason and emotion, between the demands of society and the needs of the private individual, between civilization and nature. In short, it is the clash of the Enlightenment with Romanticism. At different stages in his career, Kunze has resolved this tension now in one direction, now in the other,...
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