Enzensberger Critical Essays On Heart

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SOURCE: “The Making of a Poet: H. M. Enzensberger,” in German Life & Letters, Vol. XXI, No. 1, October 1967, pp. 27-44.

[In the following excerpt, Bridgewater finds that Enzensberger's first three verse collections evince the influence of such writers as Bertolt Brecht, Gottfried Benn, W. H. Auden, and others.]

Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in 1929. To date he has published the three books of poems that are about what we might expect from a poet of his age: verteidigung der wölfe, 1957; landessprache, 1960; blindenschrift, 1964. In considering the work of a poet still only in his mid-thirties, it is legitimate and instructive to see what he has learnt from other poets. All young poets learn from their poetic predecessors—they would be fools, and there would be no poetic tradition, if they did not. It is, of course, what is learnt and how it works which is of interest. In the following discussion I am therefore interested not in the extent to which Enzensberger has been or appears to have been ‘influenced’ by this or that poet, but in what certain parallels between his work and that of older poets can tell us about his own work.1

The poets from whom Enzensberger seems to have learnt most are (in verteidigung der wölfe and landessprache) Brecht, Benn and W. H. Auden, and (in blindenschrift) William Carlos Williams. To a lesser extent he has benefited from the example of several other American, Latin-American, and German poets. His first collection was essentially a mixture—bound to be successful in 1957—of Brecht and Benn: these are the main sources of his characteristic combination of politics (in theme) and modernism (in expression), a combination more reminiscent of modern Latin-American, than of German, poetry. The most productive models have been Brecht and W. C. Williams. Benn and, to a lesser extent, Auden have been rather negative influences who tended to confirm Enzensberger in his own weaknesses. His earlier attitude towards his poetic models was indeed largely uncritical, though it is sometimes difficult to tell whether one is faced with uncritical or parodistic treatment of the model, that is, whether Benn, say, is being imitated or guyed. It is only with his latest collection, blindenschrift, that Enzensberger has come of age poetically; this was the first volume to be based on a mature and constructive view of poetry (as opposed to one based on the worst elements of Benn's and Brecht's poetics).

Enzensberger's statement that ‘It was between the positions of Brecht and Benn, and in a dialogue with these poets … that the most recent German poetry developed’ (‘In Search of the Lost Language’, Encounter, September 1963) is certainly true of his own first two collections with their mixture of artistry and social involvement, experimental techniques and social realism, collections in which Benn's cerebral smartness and concatenated imagery are combined with something of Brecht's pre-1928 public style and later political toughness. The younger poet is less vitalistic than Brecht, certainly, and the topical or fashionable element in his work is naturally a different one. Both poets, despite obvious differences of period and vocabulary, are aggressively anti-bourgeois. Like Brecht, Enzensberger insists on the functional value of poetry. And both poets reacted against a tragically similar situation, for both the First and Second World Wars showed the younger generation that the Germany of their parents was morally bankrupt. The post-war nouveaux riches described with such hatred in Enzensberger's ‘socialpartner in der rüstungsindustrie’ are the sons and grandsons of the bloated financiers attacked so bitterly by Brecht, George Grosz and others. But then history repeated itself.

Yet compared with Brecht's truly revolutionary attitude and temperament, the young poet's ‘Wut’ seemed rather suspect, seemed to rest (in the first two collections) on too negative a basis; we are faced there with more than just the ‘negative’ nature of satire as such (‘Und wo bleibt das Positive, Herr Kästner?’). While Brecht believed to the end in a theoretical Marxist Utopia, Enzensberger—understandably—does not believe in the future. While Brecht was moved by a genuine compassion for the victims of life, Enzensberger had an almost obsessive hatred of the ‘little nobody’, as the poem ‘die würgengel’ (in Akzente, 5/1958) showed. In this he was reacting not only against his own background, but against the twentieth century as such. There is frequently considerable justification for his attitude; it makes good sense to attack the (German!) lambs for their love of the wolves, for instance. But his ‘angry poems’ are too indiscriminate; these angry leaflets lost through being handed out at random. Brecht aimed to shock people into political action; but is Enzensberger's desire to shock justified? Though he regards himself (as Brecht did) as a ‘sager der wahrheit’, the desire to shock for its own sake, a perhaps irrepressible gaminerie, too often gained the upper hand over his concern with truth in verteidigung der wölfe and landessprache. A lasting impression of his early verse is that for all its aggressive brilliance there is a persistent lack of substance. Compared with the political poets of the 1920s, their most prominent mid-century successor seemed to lack guts.

In Enzensberger's first two collections there are many direct echoes of the earlier, ‘public’ Brecht; it is only with blindenschrift that he comes to terms with his first master, who then becomes a productive model. Anyone reading ‘option auf ein grundstück’ will at once recognize the model:

meine kinder wünsche ich keineswegs zu verkaufen, sondern im setzen der segel, im harpunieren zu unterrichten. zu unterrichten ist vom sichern endsieg der metzger, und in der herstellung von kadavern die jugend.

The polarity here between innocent nature and butcherous humanity—emphasized typographically—is itself entirely Brechtian, as is the allegorical use of nature; there is a close parallel between harpooning whales and butchering men. Enzensberger's black humour is paralleled in the work of Brecht and Benn alike. Both the last stanza of ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’ with its reference to the poet's fellow-countrymen asleep in their burning shirts, and his earlier poem ‘candide’ with its reference to how those same fellow-countrymen will enjoy spreading their honey while the universe explodes, are strongly reminiscent of Brecht's ‘Gleichnis des Buddha vom brennenden Haus’ with its attack on those who persist in asking what is to become of their money-boxes and best Sunday trousers if there is a revolution. Enzensberger has learnt from Brecht to use this bitter mockery—which has its eventual source in Heine—to try to shake his readers out of their political apathy. Another close parallel is between Brecht's anti-sermon ‘Gegen Verführung’, and Enzensberger's ‘aschermittwoch’, a wickedly effective gloss on the antiphons for Ash Wednesday. Both poems are informed by the same conviction, expressed in the last line: that there is no after-life. And both poems have the same aim: to make people realize that man's future—if any—is in his own hands, and that the future can only be assured in the present. Like Brecht, Enzensberger uses the language of the Church (in his case in direct quotation within a collage) to mock the teaching of the Church. The social satirist or political poet aims to make people face the facts. The title-poem of his first collection,‘verteidigung der wölfe gegen die lämmer’, is entirely in the spirit of Brecht's ‘Lob des Zweifels’: both poems aim to make the reader see himself and his position for what it is.

But as I have already implied, an examination of the parallels between Enzensberger's poetry and Brecht's soon shows that as man and poet he continually falls short of his model, though he instinctively chose the best and most relevant model. Thus while Brecht's poem ‘1940’ (= ‘Mein junger Sohn fragt mich’) illustrates his essential faith in life, faith in the future, Enzensberger's comparable ‘ins lesebuch für die oberstufe’shows only his cynicism; as a poem it nullifies itself. Brecht's Schweyk-like social anarchist ‘Der Kirschdieb’ has never had it so good as in Enzensberger's ‘prozession’, where we find him sitting like a god in excelsis. A comparison of ‘geburtsanzeige’ with Brecht's ‘Von der Freundlichkeit der Welt’ shows that Enzensberger lacked in 1957 Brecht's deep humanity and compassion. That he also lacked Brecht's humility is clear if one contrasts his condemnation of his “stinking brothers” with Brecht's attitude in his famous poem “Vom armen B.B.” in which he admits that he himself is no better than his fellows (whom he condemns). The crux of the matter is that while Brecht was moved by a revolutionary idealism, Enzensberger's attitude was not—in 1957-60—free from ressentiment and arrogance, not free from what he himself calls intellectual snobbishness. This is a fatal mistake for a would-be political poet. While both poets seek to enrage the reader, Brecht's readers really are enraged at the injustice of life and the inhumanity of man, while Enzensberger's readers are surely annoyed—if at all—by the young poet's own arrogance. If Enzensberger was hoping to change the world (in a political sense) he certainly went about it in the wrong way. His attacks on the ‘Wirtschaftswunderland’ which supports him also seem rather like ‘Spiegelfechterei’ compared with Brecht's attacks on the Third Reich. Most importantly, Enzensberger lacked, in his ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ poems, the poetic ability, the lyrical ‘Grazie’ of his master. But in a few personal poems and in much of blindenschrift he has developed a lyrical grace and simplicity that bears comparison with Brecht's.

Brecht's poems ‘Vom armen B.B.’ and ‘An die Nachgeborenen’ seem to have impressed Enzensberger more deeply than any others, which is hardly surprising since they contain Brecht's poetic testament in a highly memorable form. The poem ‘lebenslauf’ is a direct imitation of ‘Vom armen B.B.’. But while Brecht's poem is original, tough, and memorable, Enzensberger's is derivative and self-centred, and not at all memorable. In the same collection there are also several direct echoes of ‘An die Nachgeborenen’. A comparison of ‘lebenslauf’ with the poem ‘weiterung’ in blindenschrift shows how much Enzensberger's attitude to Brecht changed between 1960 and 1964. The later poem is a deliberate review and critique of the famous final section of ‘An die Nachgeborenen’; it reads:

wer soll da noch auftauchen aus der flut, wenn wir darin untergehen? noch ein paar fortschritte, und wir werden weitersehen. wer soll da unsrer gedenken mit nachsicht? das wird sich finden, wenn es erst soweit ist. und so fortan bis auf weiteres und ohne weiteres so weiter und so weiter nichts keine nachgeborenen keine nachsicht nichts weiter

This is an important poem, for it shows that Enzensberger has achieved a genuinely critical attitude towards his model. Here he uses Brecht's poem critically and continues the argument where Brecht left off, a perfectly legitimate procedure. He has rewritten Brecht's poem in the new context of the thermonuclear ‘flood’: the world has changed out of all recognition since 1938. Previously, as in ‘lebenslauf’, he had been content to echo Brecht uncritically. Now he seems to have come to terms with the great poet on whom not a little of his early work was modelled. This impression is confirmed by another poem, ‘küchenzettel’. The sign of continuing life at the end of the poem (‘links unten ganz in der ecke / seh ich einen katzenteller’) parallels the equally simple but equally momentous ending of Brecht's ‘Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils’ (‘Sieh den kleinen Kastanienbaum im Eck des Hofes, / Zu dem du die Kanne voll Wasser schlepptest!’). But this new echo of Brecht comes in a poem in which the theme is developed in a way which is at once original and genuinely Brechtian, a poem which shows a real personal commitment. The new simplicity of Enzensberger's style in this poem may owe much to Brecht's example; but it is original in a way in which the language of his earlier poetry was not. The theme of the poem is the acceptance of reality as it is—the main theme of the lyrical poet or ‘Taoist’ in Brecht. If Brecht's ‘private’ poetry has helped Enzensberger to his new-found acceptance of reality—necessary for the poet since poetry is about reality—this will be Brecht's most important contribution to his work. It is now that he is no longer imitating Brecht and borrowing from him, that his work has become genuinely ‘Brechtian’.

Though Enzensberger has rejected Benn's aestheticism, there is no doubt at all that he has learnt a good deal from Benn in terms of poetic technique. His method of composition is surely basically what Benn described as ‘prismatic infantilism’, saying that it probably reminded people of children's games—shining mirrors in people's faces while themselves remaining in the shade (see Benn, Der Ptolemäer, 1949, 137 f.). Enzensberger's attitude in too many poems in verteidigung der wölfe and landessprache is—like Benn's own—that of the naughty child drawing attention to itself. But despite this element of exhibitionism, his attitude also tends to be an ‘ohne mich’ one: he sees the most manifold phenomena as part of a larger reality, but does not himself enter into this larger reality. He is all too often merely ‘Anti um jeden Preis’—again like Benn. While satire may thrive on negative reactions, poetry is less prone to do so.

What Enzensberger has learnt from Benn is above all the collage technique with its concatenated images. This is clear if we compare the following lines from his ‘candide’:

nichts ist gewaltiger als der mensch; d.h. spiralnebel, kulturkrisen, weltkriege sind ephemere belanglosigkeiten, stroh der zeit, kindereien.

with the passage from Benn's ‘Fragmente’ which they recall:

Ausdruckskrisen und Anfälle von Erotik: das ist der Mensch von heute, das Innere ein Vakuum, die Kontinuität der Persönlichkeit wird gewahrt von den Anzügen, die bei gutem Stoff zehn Jahre halten.

In verteidigung der wölfe there are a number of other lines and passages which also owe a direct debt to this characteristic technique of Benn's, for instance in the poems ‘erinnerung an die schrecken der jugend’, ‘anrufung des fisches’, ‘abschied von einem mittwoch’, ‘prozession’, and ‘ratschlag auf höchster ebene’. Such parallels sometimes show Benn uncritically adopted rather than critically digested; but there are also passages in which Benn is parodied, e.g. in the last stanza of the poem ‘candide’ just quoted:

dämonie? ist gewöhnlich dilettantismus. katastrophen? kaffeeklatsch der geschichte, überdauert von tonkrügen, von profilen, und von deinen aprikosen, candide.

or again in the poem ‘goldener schnittmusterbogen zur poetischen wiederaufrüstung’.

The concatenated image technique is one that needs to be handled very carefully if poetry is to result. Disparate and diverse details only produce poetry if a significant pattern is imposed upon them. In poems such as ‘schaum’ and ‘gewimmer und firmament’—which admittedly owe far more to Allen Ginsberg's ‘Howl’ than to anything written by Gottfried Benn—poetic self-control and self-criticism is totally lacking. An intrinsic weakness of the collage-technique as used not only by Enzensberger and Grass, but also by Benn and W. H. Auden, is that it lends itself to uncritical ‘Aneinanderreihung’; all too often artistic self-discipline, the art of selection, goes by the board. In his essay ‘Entstehung eines Gedichts’ on the genesis of the poem ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’, Enzensberger wrote of his own early drafts of the poem: ‘Sein Satzbau ist brüchig und undurchsichtig, mehr eine additive Reihung als eine haltbare Konstruktion. … Die einzelnen Angaben sind ungenügend verzahnt.’ This is very honest self-criticism, and in the final draft of the poem in question this fault has been to some extent overcome. But this same uncritical ‘Aneinanderreihung’ is none the less seen in too many of Enzensberger's earlier published poems; until the early 1960s his self-criticism was not sufficiently rigorous. The essay to which I have just referred is a brilliant piece of retrospective poetic self-analysis, but one which is perhaps too explicit; the poet's very articulateness makes ‘an alle fernsprechteilnehmer’ seem contrived, too intellectual and abstract.

In using the concatenated image technique Enzensberger has also tended, like Benn, to lack the poetic tact and self-control that would prevent his work from slipping into the merely topical or into abstract slogans. A juxtaposition like ‘die nike von samothrake und von cap canaveral’ may be effective in its concision and width of reference, but the effectiveness depends, or depended, on its topicality. Since Enzensberger wrote the line the Nike missile has become obsolescent, and Cape Canaveral has been renamed. It is precisely the poet who is most...

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