J A C K E T # 4 |
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Reviewed by Lawrence Joseph
This piece is 1,600 words or about five printed pages long.
In the summer of 1956, both Bertolt Brecht and Gottfried Benn died. Hans Magnus Enzensberger's first book of poems appeared a year later. Enzensberger, born in 1929, was twenty-eight, of a generation that came into adolescence during world war. Seven years later, in 1963, Theodore Adorno proclaimed that "all we have in German literary criticism, in fact, in criticism as such, is Hans Magnus Enzensberger . . . and a few scattered attempts." Enzensberger was, at thirty-four, already considered a major writer: a poet, essayist, critic, editor (of a world-renowned "encyclopedia" of international poetry, A Museum of Modern Poetry), a virtuoso of various forms, the likes of which Europe hadn't seen since -- well, since Benn or Brecht. His formal range would continue to expand, to include, among other things, a play, Hearings from Havana, in 1970; a documentary novel in 1972, The Short Summer of Anarchy: Life and Death of Buenaventura Durruti; a book-length collection of prose and poetry pieces, Mausoleum: Thirty-Seven Ballads from the History of Progress, in 1975; and, in 1978, The Sinking of the Titanic: A Comedy, an epic poem of thirty-three cantos (which Enzensberger translated into English himself, creating what has also become a masterpiece of English poetry. Twenty years later, in the midst of a billion dollar "Titanic business", its metaphorical depths prove more prescient than ever) .
In the introduction to the first book of Enzensberger's poetry translated into English in the late sixties, Michael Hamburger pointed out the effect that Brecht and Benn had on Enzensberger's poetry. (Let me say, parenthetically, how important Hamburger, as a translator and a critic, has been not only to our understanding of Enzensberger and German other writing, but also to our appreciation of poetry. His The Truth of Poetry: Tensions of Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s remains among the century's most profound critical explorations of the nature of the art.) In 1972, J. M. Ritchie observed in his monograph Gottfried Benn: The Unreconstructed Expressionist (published in London by Oswald Wolff) that the battles in Germany between nihilism and dialectical materialism were still being fought in the fifties around the figures of Benn and Brecht.
"These two men," Ritchie goes on to say, "seemed a key to the mentality of a divided Germany, and reading them together showed not only how far apart they were both ideologically and aesthetically, but also how close they were in so many respects. Both were highly intellectual and sophisticated writers reacting to the same set of circumstances -- 1914-1918, the Roaring Twenties, inflation, the rise of National Socialism, the war and the post-war era of restoration. Against this background their world seem complementary, indeed symbolic of the choices facing Germany. Similarities between Benn and Brecht were, of course, not always immediately apparent for both produced highly individual theories and critical terminology which were often greater barriers than they were aids to comprehension. However, similarities there were, not least in their mutual obsession with the problem of alienation . . . Brecht, of course, is famous for his simple poetry and use of popular art forms, while Benn is notorious for his formalism and linguistic obscurity. Yet they meet in a shared fondness for colloquial speech and aphoristic conciseness and precision . . ."|
These were the kinds of tensions (to use a phrase of Benn's) "in the air" when Enzensberger began writing poems. Early on, Enzensberger realized that both Benn and Brecht made the same imaginative mistake: each, in his own way, had tried to collectivize an intensely individualized, even deterministic, aesthetic into a political theory of the state, and each failed terribly, to the detriment of his art. Enzensberger had no intention of falling into the same trap. Choosing to begin where Brecht and Benn ended, he would resist any subordination of individual consciousness and conscience to mass-created collectivizations, whether in the form of the "state," "culture," or "society." He would employ his social intellect at its most fervent critical pitch, embodying a cosmopolitanism that he'd define, first of all, by its opposition to forms of oppression or terror, no matter how, or where, they might appear. He would remain, imaginatively, idiosyncratic, isolated if necessary, profoundly ironic, even comedic or satirical, in the classical sense, acting the role of the provocateur by continuously creating (in Goethe's phrase) "form-combining possibilities." He would create an on-going field of verbal inquiry -- a terminology, a language; he would, often, expand this language into other languages, by reading prodigiously in them and translating from them. He would write from inside the spoken -- out of actual speech, what could be said, heard, thought, felt. As a moralist, with an acute sense of history and a compulsion toward the "real" (or "things as they are," to quote Wallace Stevens), he'd insistently infuse considerations of right and wrong and good and evil into his work, with aphoristic concision.|
Walter Benjamin wrote of Baudelaire that he "came before the public with his own precepts, codes and taboos." The same holds true for Enzensberger, perhaps more than for any poet of his generation anywhere in the world. Among the poets of his generation, whose work has delved into and captured the thought of our time to the extent that Enzensberger's has?
Enzensberger's most recent book of poems translated into English translation is Kiosk, published last year by Bloodaxe (which also published Enzensberger's Selected Poems in 1994. The Selected Poems includes poems from The Fury of Disappearance and Music of the Future, neither of which had appeared in English in book form). Most of the poems in Kiosk are translated by Michael Hamburger; Enzensberger adds six translations of his own.
Any book of Enzensberger's -- in any form -- is worth reading, even studying, a book of poems especially. Kiosk is made up of four parts: "Historical Patchwork," "Mixed Feelings," "Diversions Under the Cranium," and "In Suspense." Each can be read as a small book in itself; and, of course, the poems in each part are related, in all sorts of ways, to poems that appear in the other parts. Each part, for example, includes a Roman numerically demarcated poem "Flight of Ideas." Intrigued, I made separate copies of each "Flight of Ideas", then put them together to read as a single poem in four sections. One of the endless pleasures of Enzensberger's poetry is the multitude of ways to read them.
Personally, every time I read a new book of Enzensberger's poetry, I find myself going back to his other works, in poetry and prose. No poet I know of has Enzensberger's vocal range and range of subjects. Two things that have remained constant in Enzensberger's poetry are his preoccupation with how a poem sounds -- everything that's said in a poem is spoken by someone -- and an acute, sophisticated sense of how these voices can be constructed in a poem. Often, a poem will switch, or seem to switch, speakers; we're in aesthetic realms similar to those of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery. Listen, for example, to the opening stanza of "On the Algebra of Feelings":
I often have the feeling (intense,|
obscure, indefinable etc)
that the I is not a fact
but a feeling
I can't get rid of.
Voice, for Enzensberger, is alive, emotional; when you read an Enzensberger poem you're inside a patchwork, a mix, diversities of thought, held in suspense. What's "poetic" are those measures of space where the voices on the page, and what they are expressing, are transposed into different feelings. One could endlessly elaborate on how Enzensberger does this, but, as always with poetry that enacts its own aesthetic, the real elaborations exist in the poems themselves. The intricate yet compelling ways in which Enzensberger creates his poetic territories are so imaginatively integrated that every poem in Kiosk works.|
I'll keep, here, to a simple exercise, a look at Kiosk's opening and closing poems. The book begins with "Kiosk":
At the nearest corner
the three elderly sisters
in their wooden booth.
Blithely they offer
murder poison war
to a nice clientele
Fine weather today. Homeless folk
weird as the mammoth
Murder poison war; the rich and the poor; the political economy of finance capital (an imaginative concern Enzensberger shares with Dante, Ezra Pound and Goran Sonnevi) -- transformed into both a ringed-tusked animal and an insect that looks like it's praying: but the poet, ironically (well, maybe, half ironically), undisturbed, is a buyer too, and we are, too, right there with him at the kiosk. Then, in the poems that follow, we're taken in and out of reality's pressures, watching the metamorphosis of murder, poison, war, what's bought and sold, through the poet's extraordinarily wide-ranging, insistently changing, witnessing, revelatory, voices.|
Kiosk's final poem is "The Entombment." Like "Kiosk," it has three stanzas:
Our mortal frame,
they call it.
But what did it hold?
The psychologist will say:
the personal manager.
The butterfly which is to rise
About which nothing is known -- said by a poet whose probings of what can and might be known are now a crucial part of world literature. Did you notice, however, that the butterfly is one that is to rise? That which will rise from body, psyche, soul, personality, anima, imago, daemon, identity, Ego (not to mention the Id and the Super-Ego) will be a "species" (a coded homage to one of Dr. Benn's cranial diversions) "about which nothing is known."|
An Enzensberger poem of -- "I too like to do/my shopping at the Fates" -- resurrection.
Lawrence Joseph was born in Detroit and was educated at the University of Michigan, Cambridge University, where he read English, and the University of Michigan Law School. He is presently Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Before Our Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993). A book of prose, Lawyerland, was published by FSG in 1997 and in paperback by Plume in May 1998. It will be published in Germany by Dumont in Spetember 1998. Married to the painter Nancy Van Goethem, Lawrence Joseph lives in downtown Manhattan.
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