Sarah Kirsch Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.