Wolf Biermann is a political poet. He follows in the tradition of François Villon, Heinrich Heine, Kurt Tucholsky, and Bertolt Brecht, with whom he shares both an acute political awareness and a biting, aggressive wit. As with these forerunners, art, life, and politics are virtually inseparable in Biermann’s work. He is, as one collection of critical essays refers to him in its title, a “Liedermacher und Sozialist,” both a “maker of songs” and a dedicated socialist; his poetry records with great feeling his own political struggle as a socialist poet and his personal political fate as a renegade and exile.
Biermann’s connection with the tradition of Heine and Brecht is apparent. He is the prototypical “troublesome” poet, unwanted and rejected by his homeland—a homeland which he “loves” and “hates” in nearly equal degrees. In a recurring image in his early poetry, Biermann portrays himself as the embattled but unrelenting poet caught in the no-man’s-land between East and West, as the poet balanced precariously on the Wall—neither understood nor at home in either Germany. He is torn as Germany itself is torn, not between socialism and capitalism—for his political position as a socialist is clear—but torn by the disparity between Germany’s promise and its reality. He is both the victim and the uncompromising critic of this disparity, which is given concrete form in his poetry in the image of the Berlin Wall.
This intense intermingling of the personal with the political is central to all Biermann’s poetry and provides the key to its understanding. One cannot separate the poetry from the man and his experience, or hope to understand it fully outside the political and historical context of his personal struggle. Although his poems and songs display a rich variety of themes, Biermann’s central concerns may be summarized under three broad headings: Germany’s fascist legacy, division, and unification; the unfulfilled promise of socialism; and the poet’s celebration of life despite its many contradictions. As these themes suggest, the poetry often exhibits an antithetical structure built upon the contradictions and antagonisms which Biermann perceives around him—antagonisms between the real and the possible, between that which exists and that which remains to be done, and, ultimately, between the forces of quiescence, stagnation, and death and those of life. The conflict expressed in the major themes is mirrored in Biermann’s own mixed feelings regarding the world around him. These reactions are expressed in a broad range of tones, from anger and bitterness to ecstatic celebration. Biermann’s poems are alternately sad and accusatory, aggressive and subdued, but there remains in them always a determined optimism and a fundamental affirmation of life.
The Wire Harp
Biermann’s first collection of poetry, The Wire Harp, introduces many of the central themes and formal hallmarks of his work. His preference for a simple lyrical style and for everyday rather than literary language is clearly demonstrated here, as is his reliance upon traditional lyrical forms and rhymed verse. He reacts in these poems both to the broader world—as in his critically optimistic picture of socialism in the “Buckower Balladen” (“Buckow Ballads”) and in his indictment of American racism in “Ballade von dem Briefträger William L. Moore” (“Ballad of the Letter-Carrier William L. Moore”)—and to the more immediate personal world of his loves, his joys, and his sorrows, as illustrated in the “Berlin” poems of this volume. Included under the heading “Portraits” are tributes to both Brecht and Eisler, as well as the well-known “Ballade auf den Dichter François Villon” (“Ballad on the Poet François Villon”). Here, Biermann celebrates the rude and drunken Frenchman with whom he so obviously identifies. He, like his “brother” Villon, is always in trouble with the authorities, and he never tires of ridiculing their petty fears. In this poem, Biermann is at his provocative best, and he revels in the impudent, mocking tone of his great predecessor.
In the group of poems titled “Beschwichtigungen und Revisionen” (“Reassurances and Revisions”), Biermann addresses his ambivalent relationship to the Communist Party. He alternately asserts his role as the critical outsider in “Rücksichtslose Schimpferei” (“Reckless Abuse”) and affirms his solidarity of purpose with his comrades in “An die alten Genossen” (“To the Old Comrades”). These poems characteristically illustrate Biermann’s defiant subjectivity and his refusal to accept the Party’s demand for artistic and political conformity. In the poem “Tischrede des Dichters” (“The Poet’s Table Speech”), Biermann presents his criticisms by means of a simple culinary metaphor: He complains that his comrades reject his rich and varied cuisine, preferring instead their bland “single-course dinner of happiness.” The tone of the poem is assertive and yet conciliatory as Biermann defends his role as critic and argues for greater artistic tolerance.
Mit Marx- und Engelszungen
In the poems and songs of his second collection, Mit Marx- und Engelszungen (with the tongues of Marx and Engels—or angels) Biermann continues his attack upon the blandness of officially sanctioned literature. There is, however, a discernible difference in tone in these poems. Although the poet’s voice is no less insistent here, the tone has become more earnest and betrays some hint of the bitterness and frustration which have come of Biermann’s prolonged isolation. In the love songs included in this volume, Biermann celebrates life and love, combining traditional images of spring and hope with good-humored earthiness. The poems express the poet’s hope against the background of his personal political struggle, and they represent an attempt to counteract his growing sadness.
In one of the last songs in the collection, Biermann finds the source of this sadness in the deep division of Germany itself. He concludes his poem “Es senkt das deutsche Dunkel” (“The German Darkness Falls”) with the paradoxical assertion that, though he lives in the “better half” of this divided land, he feels “double the pain.” This doubly intense pain is the pain of hopes betrayed, a theme which comes to play an ever-greater role in his work.
Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen
The idea for Biermann’s long narrative poem Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (Germany, a winter’s tale) was taken from Heine’s verse satire of the same title, which appeared in 1844. Biermann’s poem was written in 1965 shortly after a visit to his native Hamburg, where he had stopped during his Western concert tour the year before. Biermann uses the occasion of his trip, as Heine had done more than one hundred years earlier, to reflect satirically upon Germany’s current political “misery” as mirrored now in the country’s political division. He has retained both the tone and the simple folk-song verse (four-line stanzas rhyming abab) of the original, and he consciously imitates and parallels Heine’s masterpiece at every turn.
The return to this “foreign” homeland evokes a mixed response in Biermann. Though he views the “German question” from the perspective of a socialist, critical of Western capitalism, he does not gloss over the heritage of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. He concludes his “winter’s tale” with the important programmatic poem “Gesang für meine Genossen” (“Song for My Comrades”), which...
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