Poetry takes down Günter Grass

Günter Grass

The world of political poetry has suffered some significant losses in recent months. Václav Havel, a poet long before he was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, died in late December 2011.

Although many of Havel’s poems were whimsical “concrete” poems, a good number were pointedly critical of Czechoslovakian society and politics of the time. These works, along with his other dissident activities, landed him in jail from 1979 until 1984.

February this year saw the death of the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, whose poems chronicled Polish history from WWII, through Stalinism and beyond. “My poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life,” Szymborska once remarked, “but, of course, life crosses politics.”

Feminists – and certain political regimes – have long believed that the personal can be very political indeed. It’s a message reiterated by Adrienne Rich, one of America’s most influential contemporary poets, whose poetry books have sold close to a million copies.

As a woman and a lesbian of Jewish descent, Rich was concerned with the politics of identity long before the idea became de rigueur. Poetry is a map, she declares in her poem, “Dreamwood”: not a revolution, “but a way of knowing / why it must come”. Rich’s death on 27 March dispatched a wave of mourning around the world.

The marriage between poetry and politics has a long history. Archilochus wrote some of the earliest political poetry, and Horace’s tribute to Augustus’s principate in the Roman Odes is among the greatest political poetry ever written.

While much of the earliest political poetry was written in tribute to leaders, much of contemporary political poetry is written in protest.

Robert Hass, American poet laureate (1995-97), elucidates the contemporary view: “I think the job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice, which is going dead in us all the time.”

Nevertheless, political poetry can be difficult for the critic to esteem. Harold Bloom held it to the highest measure in his attack on The Best American Poetry 1996 anthology, edited by Adrienne Rich, calling it “a stuffed owl of bad verse”. He was unable, he claimed, to find in it more than an authentic poem or two.

“It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. Sincerity, as the divine Oscar Wilde assured us, is not nearly enough to generate a poem.”

Yet sincerity is precisely the stuff of which Günter Grass’ incendiary poem, “What Must Be Said”, is made. The poem’s argument is two-fold. First, Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a threat to the Iranian people and “endangers an already fragile world peace”;

Second it argues why for a long time he has felt unable to voice his fears owing to a greater fear of being punished for the sins of his German forefathers:
But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Despite his declared attachment to Israel, Grass was right to worry. The poem caused a tremendous ruckus when it appeared on 4 April in several European newspapers.

It demonstrated decisively that poetry can “make things happen” after all, on 8 April Israel declared Grass a persona non grata and denied him future entry into the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the poem’s allegation that Israel poses a greater threat to world security than Iran – “a regime which denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel’s destruction” – is a “shameful moral equivalence”.

Grass was quick to apologise for the wording in his poem: instead of saying Israel, he should have said “the Netanyahu government”.

Despite the brouhaha the poem has incited, most critics agree it isn’t particularly good. Heather Horn, who translated it from German, chided its “needlessly Teutonic constructions” and “winding and parenthetical tone”.

Someone once said publishing a poem is like throwing a feather off a cliff and waiting for the thud. In Grass’ case the feather turned out to be an elephant and he was standing under it.

The absurdity of fuss generated by an average-at-best poem would be amusing, were it not for the toll it appears to have taken on Grass’s health.

On Monday this week – two weeks after the poem’s publication – Grass was admitted with suspected heart problems to a hospital in Hamburg. “There’s no danger to his life,” his doctor said in a written statement, assuring the world that the 84 year-old poet would return home by “the end of the week at the latest.”

In some societies – past and, sadly, some present – poets pay with their lives for the gall of social critique.

Putting politics aside, let’s hope Günter Grass’s price will not be so costly.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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The cambridge companion to creative writing: so much depends upon the line

Extract from chapter in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

“The line,” as James Logenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines.

Cambridge_University_Press“The line,” as James Longenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

 glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

As prose, the sentence moves swiftly so that its essential meaning can be easily grasped. But set in lines, language slows down: each word in the poem is clarified, intensified, and raised in stature. The words are experienced not only as signifiers but as objects in themselves. At a reduced pace meaning opens up and multiplies. The portmanteau “wheelbarrow”, for instance, is cleaved so that we are encouraged to contemplate the word “barrow”, which can refer to not only a cart but also, perhaps, to a burial mound. This is not to argue that “burial mound” is the preferred reading in this particular poem, but rather to show how a word, when isolated, can be unmoored from its strict context so that its alternative meanings might come into play.

In prose, a sentence has a single beginning and an end, but set in lines beginnings and endings are abundant. Each line in a poem refracts into additional beginnings and endings inside the sentence, which grants not only heightened significance through emphasis – the start and end of a line are always hotspots – but lines also offers a sense of equivalence in which words and phrases can be weighed, or balanced, against other words and phrases. Michael Dransfield’s “Pas de deaux for Lovers” offers an excellent example. The poem opens with a statement that “Morning ought not/to be complex” but the sun, the poet observes, has been “cast at dawn into the long/furrow of history”. The poet appears to be weighing this ideal of detachment against a dawning attachment to a lover:

To wake
and go
would be so simple.

Yet

how the
first light
makes gold her hair

We can imagine the poet looking down as he completes the image in the next stanza: “upon my arm.” The poem spins on the word “yet” which stands in isolation at the heart of the poem as a single-word line (and stanza). An otherwise small and almost insignificant word, “yet” is granted primacy of placement and as such it demands to be taken as central to the poem’s meaning. It punches above its weight and undoes both the argument and the poet, who is helpless against his growing emotion for his lover: “Day,” he concludes, “is so deep already with involvement.”

the end of the line

Determining where a line ends – or breaks – is the art of the poet. “There is at our disposal,” as Denise Levertov argues, “no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line break if it is properly understood”. Essentially there are two types of line breaks: “end-stopped” in which the line ends with a clear and natural pause created by punctuation; and “enjambed” in which the phrase, clause, or sentence continues across a line-break to decrease the pause and speed up the rhythm and flow of the thought.

As we’ve seen, the interplay between the line and the sentence creates a dynamic unique to poetry. Sometimes, in the case of end-stopped lines, the line and the sentence correspond exactly, as in the opening lines of “Under One Small Star” by Wislawa Szymborska:

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.

The structure of the line is simple and clearly marked out for the ear by punctuation. The directness of the line accords a sense of formality to the poem that proceeds as a list of transgressions so human we would absolve the poet immediately, if we could. Szymborska achieves audible interest, however, in the middle of the poem and again at the end, as seen here, by extending the sentence beyond a single line:

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labour heavily so that they may seem light.

Here, the end-stopped lines maintain balance and form, but the smaller pause of a comma contrasts with the longer pause (and breath) signalled by the full-stop to achieve a graceful fluency and increased flow.

But more commonly in contemporary poems – and as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above – a poet will aim for a more dramatic line-break by using enjambment. In Sharon Olds’s heavily enjambed poem, “I Go Back to May 1937”, the poet imagines her parents “standing at the formal gates of their colleges” in the late May sunlight:

I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air …

Olds’s trademark narrative energy moves not just horizontally with the line but plunges down the page, her lines breaking on prepositions, articles, adjectives, and pronouns, forcing the reader to leap ahead, dizzily, for the noun or the verb. Sometimes the ride through an Olds poem is so violent it feels as if the poet has taken a pen in her fist and torn it down the page. Such heavily enjambed lines invigorate with their wilful incursion into the sentence, even if their liveliness comes at the cost of being harder for the ear to hear the structure.

Enjambment offers the additional quality of allowing the poet to spin meaning on its head. Working in a highly condensed form, poets often celebrate the possibility of generating multiple meanings from a single statement. In Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”, for example, the poet offers the idea that desire is full, amplified, but this meaning holds only for a moment before it is shattered in the next line:

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

When the syntax resolves we discover that we haven’t so much misread the first line but that the bittersweet enjambment has allowed two separate meanings to run concurrently.

the length of the line

Short lines, as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above, frequently can be found in contemporary free verse, where the poet determines line length based on a desire for equivalence, hesitation, emphasis, and other strategic effects. But sometimes a poet wants a more fulsome line: lines we can carry around in our bodies in the hope that we may summon them at a later date for the wisdom, consolation, wittiness, or joy they offer. Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be: that is the question”, for instance; Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – “; or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”.

The success of these lines, and countless others, may have something to do with the way we think. In their article, “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time”, Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel make a case for a remarkable congruency between poetry and the human nervous system. After examining a sample of metrical poetry from about eighty different cultures – from Africa to North and South America, Asia, and Oceania – they found a predominance of lines that take on average about three second to articulate. For Turner and Pöppel, this is no accident: a “the three-second period,” they argue, “roughly speaking, is the length of the human present moment”. In English a line of iambic pentameter corresponds most consistently – though not exclusively – with the three-second duration of our experience of the present moment. Which may account for tremendous popularity the ten-syllable line has had with poets through the ages.

Poets have used other parts of the body – the lungs in particular – to determine the length of their lines. Walt Whitman famously took his line to the end the human breath, which in turn inspired Allen Ginsberg to conduct his own experiments with the line as a unit of breath. Each line in “Howl”, for example, is designed be read in one breath:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …

Ginsberg’s line pulls the reader to its natural end. The lines are ecstatic to read, especially aloud, as the poet, like a puppeteer, pulls the strings on the reader’s body. Similarly, in his seminal essay, “Projective Verse”, Charles Olson formalised the idea of a “breath-line” – in so doing, he hoped to connect the poem again to the human body.

This extract is from a chapter, “Poetry and Poetics”, by Bronwyn Lea in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Ed. David Morely and Philip Neilsen. Cambridge UP, 2012: 67-86.