Sarah Kirsch Essay - Critical Essays

Kirsch, Sarah


Sarah Kirsch 1935-

(Born Ingrid Bernstein) German poet, prose writer, memoirist, short story writer, children's writer, diarist, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Kirsch's career through 1998.

Regarded as one of the most renowned German-language poets of the late twentieth century, Kirsch came to prominence as a leading voice of East Germany's “lyrical wave” during the 1960s. This literary movement, championed by a new generation of East German poets who sought to reconcile individualistic lyric verse with collectivist socialist ideals, represented a remarkable artistic flowering in the otherwise restrictive communist-bloc country. Kirsch's poetry is noted for its highly subjective and fantastical thematic material in which contrasting images of the idyllic natural world and quotidian social reality culminate in moments of deeply personal revelations or insights. Though committed to the utopian ideals of socialism, Kirsch's ambiguous, multilayered verse often contains subtle political commentary that, while ostensibly focused on private experience, often suggests dissatisfaction with official socialist policies and conformist behaviors.

Biographical Information

Born Ingrid Bernstein in Limlingerode, a small village on the edge of the Harz Mountains, Kirsch spent her childhood in the city of Halberstadt in central Germany. After World War II, Halberstadt became part of communist-controlled East Germany (GDR). Kirsch's father was a telecommunications worker for the East German government, and she was herself an enthusiastic socialist. She later changed her first name to Sarah in a symbolic act to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. After completing her secondary schooling, Kirsch studied biology at the University of Halle, completing her degree in 1959. While at Halle, she met writer Rainer Kirsch, whom she married in 1958. Following her graduation, Kirsch joined a writing group headed by Gerhard Wolf and was soon admitted into the GDR Writer's Association. During this period, she also demonstrated her commitment to socialist ideals by working in factories and on collective farms. From 1963 to 1965 she attended the Johannes R. Becher Institute for Literature in Leipzig. Her first two published works, the radio play Die betrunkene Sonne/Der Stärkste (1963) and Gespräch mit dem Saurier: Gedichte (1965), a volume of poetry, were collaborations with her husband. The couple divorced in 1968, and Kirsch moved to East Berlin. The following year she gave birth to a son, Moritz, fathered by avant-garde writer Karl Mickel. In 1976 Kirsch was expelled from the Socialist Party and the GDR Writer's Association for signing a petition in support of Wolf Biermann, an East German poet whose GDR citizenship was revoked. Subsequently, Kirsch applied for permission to leave East Germany, which was granted in August 1977, and moved to West Berlin. After travelling throughout Italy, France, the United States, and Bremen, she settled in Tielenhemme in the north German province of Schleswig-Holstein in 1983. Kirsch has won several prestigious literary awards, including the Heinrich Heine Prize in 1973, the Petrarca Prize in 1976, and the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in 1984.

Major Works

Kirsch is best known for her poetry, which is characteristically imaginative, rhythmic, and oblique to the point of ambiguity, an effect achieved largely through allusive language that suggests multiple meanings. Flight is a central metaphor in her work, and she frequently sets images of the natural world against human emotions such as isolation, loneliness, and despair, evincing an ongoing preoccupation with the distinction between the public and private spheres. Throughout her work, this dualism recurs in doubled meanings and her juxtaposition of the idyllic and the ominous. Gespräch mit dem Saurier, her first volume of poetry—or half-volume, since the collection is equally divided between her own work and that of her husband—features childlike verses and rhymes that stand alongside pointed political commentary. In the poem “Hierzulande,” for example, a group of snails argue that progress can be achieved only by using slime. In Landaufenthalt (1967), her first solo collection, Kirsch portrays the rural world as a realm of escape for city dwellers, in the process suggesting the imperfections of GDR society and human relations in general. Recurrent images of flying appear in Landaufenthalt as a critique of the GDR policy denying its citizens travel outside the Eastern bloc. These images are also used to express criticism of American atrocities in Vietnam and to describe the general longings of those inhibited by physical and psychological constraints. In two of her most significant poetry collections, Zaubersprüche (1973) and Rückenwind (1976), Kirsch recounts a variety of personal experiences in which the political subtext is thinly veiled by double meanings. Particularly prominent, especially in Zaubersprüche, is the pain of difficult romantic relationships. In the poem “Herzkönig” (“King of Hearts”), a woman's appeals to a recalcitrant lover can be taken on a personal level and simultaneously as political critique.

In Katzenleben (1984; Catlives: Sarah Kirsch's Katzenleben), whose poems recount a year of seasonal variations and activities on a farm, Kirsch explores dimensions of memory, foreboding, and pleasure with imagery drawn from nature and from literary tradition. As the title suggests, cats appear frequently in the collection, acting as a metaphor for a complex self-image—detached, restless, vain, and hedonistically able to settle down wherever they please. The Brontës' Hats (1991), a bilingual collection of Kirsch's poetry consisting of previously published work, demonstrates her characteristic verse style and preoccupation with the natural world, particularly as inspired by the stark landscape of Schleswig-Holstein. The fluctuating, incongruous quality of these poems is reflected in the title poem, in which the nineteenth-century literary Brontë sisters suddenly make an appearance in northern Germany. Erlkönigs Tochter (1992), whose title alludes to a tragic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is Kirsch's first major poetry collection published after the reunification of Germany. Nearly half the volume is occupied by travel poems that portray Kirsch's own sense of displacement, alienation, and feelings of impotence. In Erlkönigs Tochter, Kirsch's recurring flight metaphor is decidedly negative, suggesting that death and devastation are pervasive and unavoidable. Ich Crusoe: Sechzig Gedichte und sechs Aquarelle (1995) is a retrospective collection of Kirsch's verse over a period of thirty years; only a few of the volume's sixty poems were previously unpublished.

Although Kirsch often employs iambic, trochaic, or dactylic rhythms, her poems' surfaces are characteristically roughened by prose cadences and colloquialisms. Despite such overlap, Kirsch has published a number of volumes devoted solely to her prose, though some of these works defy strict genre classification by incorporating elements of journalism, memoir, diary, and poetic writing. Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder (1973; The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder) is a transcription of taped interviews conducted by Kirsch with five East German women: an aging communist revolutionary, a mid-career party official, a former competitive swimmer, a factory worker, and a circus animal trainer known as the “Panther Woman.” By East German standards, these women speak with considerable frankness about their personal and professional lives. While attempting to counter the idealizing practices of GDR journalism with authentic testimony, Kirsch also imparts her own authorial voice onto the narratives through subtle editing. Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (1973) collects seven short stories, written between 1968 and 1972, that describe the daily lives of women in the GDR from perspectives that range from the ordinary to the fantastic. Although such problems as rape, broken engagements, and the inability to conceive form the core of the stories, their ironic and matter-of-fact narrative style pointedly avoids pathos. In “Der Schmied von Kosewalk,” a father finances a wedding for someone else's daughter after his own daughter is jilted by her fiancee. Another story in the collection, “Blitz aus heiterm Himmel,” challenges social traditions and sexual taboos by dealing with the subject of sex change. Beneath the surface gaiety of the story lies sharp social analysis and deep-seated skepticism, in which a pair of lovers find themselves able to cooperate and share only after the woman transforms herself into a man.

Kirsch's next prose works, La Pagerie (1980) and Irrstern (1986), more closely resemble poetry than traditional narratives. Many of the brief pieces in Irrstern describe events and objects from the daily life of the North Sea country—a visit to a neighbor, the opening of a new village tavern, the birth of a lamb—utilizing punctuation and hypotaxis, both of which are rare in Kirsch's poems. However, the prose in these volumes often dissolve into the rhythmic, evocative phrases and ambiguous syntactic constructions for which Kirsch's poetry is known. Similarly, the prosaic frames yield regularly to imaginative transformations of the real and familiar—an elderly neighbor suddenly appears as a fairy-tale-like figure of Time, with twelve rowdy geese each named for the months of the year. Other pieces in La Pagerie and Irrstern remain grounded in empirical reality but move unexpectedly into reflections on the Falkland War, a dying friend in East Berlin, or the possibility that the concrete world may be only an illusion. With Allerlei-Rauh: Eine Chronik (1988), Kirsch satisfied her long-standing ambition to write a sustained narrative of significant length. The title is borrowed from a Grimm fairy tale about a golden-tressed princess who, wearing a coat made of the pelts of many animals, flees her home and life of privilege to escape the incestuous demands of her widowed father. Despite a few ironic changes, Kirsch preserves much of the original story, splitting it into two sections as well as inserting a chronicle of her life in Schleswig-Holstein and her own reminiscences about her days in the GDR. Schwingrasen: Prosa (1991) presents fifty-five short prose pieces that discuss, among other things, Kirsch's childhood, her failed marriage, current events, and her disdain for television talk shows, all set against the Nordic environment of Schleswig-Holstein. A diary account of her travels from 1988 to 1990, Spreu (1991) is interspersed with a number of Kirsch's own watercolor illustrations. She continued her exploration of self with Das simple Leben (1994), a fragmentary, journal-like prose volume that records Kirsch's disillusionment following the German reunification. In 1997 Kirsch published Luftspringerin: Gesammelte Gedichte und Prosa, a wide assemblage of poetry and prose pieces from eight previously published volumes spanning from 1982 to 1996. Since the publication of Luftspringerin, Kirsch has released two additional poetry collections, Schwanenliebe: Zeilen und Wunder (2001) and Tartarenhochzeit (2003), as well as Islandhoch (2002), a selection of diaristic prose pieces.

Critical Reception

Although Kirsch had difficulty gaining critical acceptance in East Germany early in her career, since the 1970s, she has attracted growing international attention as one of the leading German-language poets of her generation. A reflection of the “lyrical wave” movement, Kirsch's “I”-centered poetry had drawn sharp criticism from GDR scholars, who faulted Kirsch for refusing to incorporate economic analysis in her poetry and for suggesting that the vaunted political and technological advances of socialism had little affect on poetry and fundamental aspects of the human condition. However, after the reunification of Germany, Kirsch's reputation has been able to move beyond GDR partisanship and into the wider world of letters. Her literary reputation has been primarily established by her poetry, which reviewers have consistently praised for its easily recognizable “Sarah sound”—a lyrical blend of natural imagery, colloquialism, and introspection, in flowing, sparsely punctuated lines. Though some commentators have taken issue with the soft focus of Kirsch's impressionistic style, most have noted that her work is decidedly unsentimental—even foreboding—and that her attention to ordinary details belies a sophisticated ambiguity and complexity. Nicholas Catanoy has commented that, “[Kirsch's] technique is so flexible, her handling of language so careful and delicate that she is able to give her most elegant poems the air of spontaneity.” Critics have consistently lauded Kirsch's preoccupation with natural imagery, with some arguing that it is the essential theme in most of her work. Scholars have also complimented the subtlety with which Kirsch freights her interior forays with political content, expressing particular admiration for her precise, striking imagery. Kirsch's prose, considered by many to be an extension of her poetry, has drawn similar critical acclaim. Even her more experimental prose works, such as The Panther Woman and Allerlei-Rauh, have been received warmly by reviewers, who commented favorably on Kirsch's unique and atypical narrative techniques. Since the 1990s, several critics have asserted Kirsch's later works are not as strong as her earlier efforts, with some attributing this to her apparent struggle to overcome feelings of dislocation and disillusionment after the reunification of Germany.

Principal Works

Die betrunkene Sonne/Der Stärkste [with Rainer Kirsch] (radio play) 1963

Gespräch mit dem Saurier: Gedichte [with Rainer Kirsch] (poetry) 1965

Landaufenthalt: Gedichte (poetry) 1967

Gedichte (poetry) 1969

Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder [The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder] (interviews) 1973

Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (short stories) 1973

Zaubersprüche (poetry) 1973

Es war dieser merkwürdige Sommer: Gedichte (poetry) 1974


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Ernestine Schlant (review date winter 1977)

SOURCE: Schlant, Ernestine. Review of Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 51, no. 1 (winter 1977): 86.

[In the following review, Schlant asserts that Kirsch focuses on the personal struggles of women in Die Pantherfrau, as opposed to the ideological conflicts facing East Germany as a whole.]

During the past decade Sarah Kirsch (b. 1935) has established herself as a promising lyrical poet on the East German literary scene. In her poetry and also in her first collection of short narrative pieces, Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (1973), a subjective and...

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Nicholas Catanoy (review date autumn 1977)

SOURCE: Catanoy, Nicholas. Review of Rückenwind, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 51, no. 4 (autumn 1977): 613.

[In the following review, Catanoy praises the metaphorical richness and technical prowess of Kirsch's verse in Rückenwind.]

Poets, like photographers, may be divided between those who put sharp edges on life and nature and those who prefer soft focus. Sarah Kirsch belongs with the best East German poets—those who view the world as if through an impressionistic eye.

There is a mild elegiac tone in Kirsch's new volume of poetry, Rückenwind, a quality that shapes her sentiments in much the same way that the laws of...

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Diether H. Haenicke (review date winter 1979)

SOURCE: Haenicke, Diether H. Review of Landaufenthalt, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 53, no. 1 (winter 1979): 108.

[In the following review, Haenicke discusses how the personal is related to the political in Kirsch's Landaufenthalt.]

Among the relatively few lyrical voices to be heard in East Germany, that of Sarah Kirsch is a particularly powerful one. Her first poems appeared in the late sixties; in the early seventies of her work became known to a broader audience when several of her books of poetry appeared in a West German publishing house. The volume Landaufenthalt is a collection of poems many of which were published before. It comprises...

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Ann Clark Fehn (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Fehn, Ann Clark. “Authorial Voice in Sarah Kirsch's Die Pantherfrau.” In Erkennen und Deuten: Essays zur Literatur und Literaturtheorie, edited by Martha Woomansee and Walter F. W. Lohnes, pp. 335-46. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1983.

[In the following essay, Fehn compares Die Pantherfrau with several works of documentary literature by other German feminist writers, drawing attention to the organizational techniques by which Kirsch inserts her own authorial presence in the work.]

A striking feature of feminist literature in the two Germanies is its emphasis on documentary reports as a supplement to theoretical writings and as a means of...

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Rachel Hadas (review date July 1985)

SOURCE: Hadas, Rachel. Review of Sarah Kirsch: Poems, by Sarah Kirsch. American Book Review 7, no. 5 (July 1985): 3.

[In the following excerpt, Hadas lauds Kirsch's roving imagination and use of metaphor in Sarah Kirsch: Poems.]

Sarah Kirsch has a more developed style and voice than either [Katerina] Gogou or [Thalia] Kitrilakis. I have not read Kirsch in German and suspect [Jack] Hirschman's [translated] “versions” [in Sarah Kirsch: Poems] are insufficiently lyric; still, Kirsch's imagination comes through clearly. Gogou and Kitrilakis are poets of stasis, eloquent on the claustrophobia of a city neighborhood or the slowness of life in a village...

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Judith Ryan (review date winter 1986)

SOURCE: Ryan, Judith. Review of Katzenleben, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 99.

[In the following review, Ryan asserts that the farm life depicted in Katzenleben is not idyllic, but rather oppressive and cumulatively “tiresome.”]

Idylls have always had their dangers, and the “cats' lives” of Kirsch's title poem [from Katzenleben] are not the comfortable snoozes they might seem. The image is an emblem of the farm life that forms the subject of the collection. Beginning before the onset of winter, the cycle follows the year through until the next fall. Like farm life itself, the poems are full of little...

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Charlotte Melin (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Melin, Charlotte. “Landscaping as Writing and Revelation in Sarah Kirsch's ‘Death Valley.’” Germanic Review 62, no. 4 (fall 1987): 199-204.

[In the following essay, Melin provides a detailed analysis of Kirsch's poem “Death Valley,” noting its significance as a reflection of Kirsch's role as a writer and her relationship to Germany.]

Sarah Kirsch's poem “Death Valley” from Erdreich (1982) recounts the descent of its narrator into the unexpectedly treacherous desert and her reemergence after a cathartic encounter with wild, powerful nature. Its occasionally Mannerist formulations and extravagant imagery elicited criticism, on the one hand,...

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Jerry Glenn (review date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Glenn, Jerry. Review of Allerlei-Rauh: Eine Chronik, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (winter 1989): 97-8.

[In the following review, Glenn discusses Kirsch's shifting, fanciful poetic style in Allerlei-Rauh.]

The spectrum of the dozens of recent German Dichtung-und-Wahrheit memoirs is broad indeed, ranging from largely documentary chronicles to fanciful collages in which factual reports are difficult to identify with any degree of certainty. In terms of content, Sarah Kirsch's Allerlei-Rauh probably falls somewhere in the middle. Its style, however, definitely crowds the fanciful extreme. The motto is programmatic: “Alles...

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Hilda Scott (review date January 1990)

SOURCE: Scott, Hilda. “The Women behind the Wall.” Women's Review of Books 7, no. 4 (January 1990): 10.

[In the following review, Scott commends Kirsch's insightful portraits of East German women and GDR life in The Panther Woman, though notes that Western readers may miss some of the work's subtle subtext.]

The Panther Woman, a very slim volume of interviews with five East German women, which reaches us in the University of Nebraska's “European Women Writers” series, was first published in the German Democratic Republic in 1973. It offers a look back at the generation of women whose adult children we have watched on TV, crossing the Hungarian...

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Nancy Derr (review date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Derr, Nancy. “Germany East and West: The Twain Meet.” Belles Lettres 5, no. 4 (summer 1990): 9.

[In the following excerpt, Derr commends Kirsch's realistic portrayal of East German women in The Panther Woman.]

In The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder, Sarah Kirsch presents a collection of monologues she recorded, then transcribed and edited much as a film director edits hours of takes. The collection, a fascinating snapshot of life in socialist East Germany, offers a depressing portrait of five women from all walks of life. The reader gains a sense of the historical development of this country from a fascist dictatorship to its...

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Peter Graves (review date 29 May 1992)

SOURCE: Graves, Peter. “Schleswig-Holstein Questions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4652 (29 May 1992): 23-4.

[In the following review, Graves discusses Kirsch's East German background and offers a positive assessment of The Brontës' Hats, Schwingrasen, and Spreu.]

With all that is known about the former German Democratic Republic it may strain the imagination to conceive of that dour little State having once experienced anything as alluring as a “lyrical wave”. That, however, was the description given to the remarkable outpouring of poetic activity among the young writers of East Germany in the 1960s, and the term is not inappropriate. Into a...

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Beth Bjorklund (review date autumn 1992)

SOURCE: Bjorklund, Beth. Review of Schwingrasen, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 66, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 718.

[In the following review, Bjorklund comments favorably on the lyricism, ambiguity, and pastoral quality of Kirsch's prose in Schwingrasen.]

Schwingrasen is an archaic word for “moor,” a poetic place par excellence. The short prose pieces collected under that title serve as reconfirmation of Sarah Kirsch's reputation as one of Germany's best living poets. Her prose style is not greatly different from that of the poetry; both live from the originality of perspective and the freshness of voice. The lyric “I” speaks in a...

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Rita Terras (review date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Ich Crusoe, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 394.

[In the following review, Terras notes Kirsch's hopeful and resigned tone in the poems of Ich Crusoe.]

The last words of the last poem in Ich Crusoe echo and confirm what Sarah Kirsch had predicted nearly thirty years earlier in “Der Baum,” the first poem in the volume. Swinging in a tree and looking out at the shores of a body of water, the lyric persona is not unhappy. She does not complain about her situation but, at the same time, is confident of being able someday to cut loose from the confinement of tree and rope: “Ich hänge...

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Rita Terras (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Luftspringerin, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 72, no. 2 (spring 1998): 368.

[In the following review, Terras praises Kirsch's use of image and language in her prose and poetry collection Luftspringerin.]

The present volume of Sarah Kirsch's verse and prose [Luftspringerin,] contains pieces from eight previous collections dating from 1982 to 1996. The title poem, “Luftspringerin” (1989), is appropriate, as it presents the poet's art in quintessence: the poet identifies with Lot's wife (perhaps following the example of Anna Akhmatova), looking back at her life, “having loved something that drove her almost to...

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Further Reading


Cosentino, Christine. “‘An Affair on Uncertain Ground’: Sarah Kirsch's Poetry Volume Erlking's Daughter in the Context of Her Prose after the Wende.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 21, no. 1 (winter 1997): 141-60.

Cosentino analyzes Kirsch's reaction to the reunification of Germany, as reflected in her poetry in Erlkönigs Tochter and several of her post-1989 prose works.

Hulse, Michael. “Inner Emigrees: Helga M. Novak and Sarah Kirsch.” Antigonish Review 62-63 (summer-fall 1985): 223-33.

Hulse compares and contrasts the poetic voices of two female German poets,...

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