Günter Grass stands so prominently in the line of fire of Germany’s still polarised and politicised cultural life, and has been sniped at so often since The Rat (1986) – A Wide Field (1995) was literally ripped up for the benefit of the press by that other Grand Old Man of German letters, the critic and TV personality Marcel Reich-Ranicki – that it comes almost as a surprise to find a barely noticed survivor: Grass the poet.
As the cover of this modest Selected Poems attests, Grass was a poet before he had his colossal success in 1959 with the first of his three Danzig novels, The Tin Drum: indeed, his first publication was a book of lyrics, improbably named The Advantages of Windfowl. It announced some of those obsessional objects which dominate Grass’s writing: mobile furniture, Polish flags, prophets and flapping nuns. Wit is an angel of connection for Grass; the exuberance of mood, association and image suggests a poet drawn to a Surrealist code of practice, a member of that Aesopian line that extends from Arp to Holub and Popa. Even early on, Grass works as a moralist, not by means of direct statement or logic, but by manipulating imagery. Oskar Matzerath’s refusal to grow up into a world of fallenness in The Tin Drum is prefigured in ‘Family Matters’, a short poem in which a collection of briny foetuses observe the secular attitudes of Sunday culture-goers:
In our museum – we always go there on Sundays –
they have opened a new department.
Our aborted children, pale, serious embryos,
sit there in plain glass jars
and worry about their parents’ future.
The Advantages of Windfowl appeared in 1956, a determining year for German poetry. Both Brecht and Gottfried Benn died that year; the first famous for his moral exhortations, cigars and artful-dodger support for the fledgling GDR; the other a more acquired German taste: a former Expressionist, a dermatologist-venereologist in private practice in Berlin, and an esprit fort, who flatly declared as far back as 1926 that ‘works of art are phenomena, historically ineffective, devoid of practical consequences. That is their greatness.’ Benn’s star seems to be in the ascendant again, judging by the young and very productive East Berlin poet Durs Grünbein’s hard-bitten urban topographies, though it is surely the case that however much eclipsed his reputation as a dramatist, Brecht’s example as a poet will always serve as a stumbling-block to poetic self-absorption, especially of the German variety.
Grass’s distinction was to tread a wary path between Brecht and Benn’s positions through the turmoil of the Sixties and beyond. It was a balancing act with a superficial resemblance to the one practised by Seamus Heaney a decade later in Northern Ireland, in which the poet had to pay lip-service to the claims of the ‘cause’, while the poetry insisted on occupying a free state of the imagination. If anything, Germany – and certainly German literature – has been politicised in more far-reaching and radical ways than Ireland: Grass’s response to those who insisted on ‘commitment’ was to involve himself in party politics, campaigning in 1961 for Willy Brandt’s distinctly unrevolutionary Social Democratic Party; what he wanted from his growing readership, he claimed in ‘On the Lack of Self-Confidence among Scribish Court Fools in the Light of Non-Existent Courts’, was the freedom to be a jester. ‘Poems allow no compromises,’ he said in that lecture, ‘though we live by them. Whoever can endure this tension every day of his life is a fool and changes the world.’ It is, as Michael Hamburger remarked in his survey of postwar German writing, After the Second Flood, an earnest of Grass’s sophistication as a dialectician: by putting his shoulder to the wheel of gradual social change while insisting on art’s autonomy he was demonstrating to his critics that he was that unusual thing in Germany, a cook who tasted as he cooked, not one who followed the book – even if he did tend to overdo the salt.
In fact, one of the poems in this bilingual edition, more than half of which replicates the Penguin selection of 30 years ago, is a recipe for jellied pig’s head – Schweinekopfsülze, one of those echt German dishes like the Saumagen Helmut Kohl once had served up to a bemused Margaret Thatcher. As with so many of his early poems (it comes from his second book Gleisdreieck, 1960, the title taken from the Berlin S-Bahn station), its pseudo-logical structure recalls the poet’s debt to Dada; in his recipe, the simple substitution of a term is used to circumvent expectation and standard categories. The effect is of a kind of purposeful automatic writing. The ingredient that makes this gargantuan pig’s head suitable for consumption is the addition of a level tablespoonful not of Maggi sauce, but ‘mittlere Wut’ – ‘medium rage’. After boiling and the dissection of edible portions, the head is left to set ‘all by itself and communicated rage,/that is, without power and gelatine paper’. Whatever else it is, this disintegrating and not entirely apolitical head is as powerful an image as those complexes and fetishes that Grass fed into the short lyrics of his first collection. Not all his catalogue poems have the gusto and verve of ‘The Jellied Pig’s Head’, however; some of them wander aimlessly through empty registers of meaning.
The other poems from Gleisdreieck and those from Ausgefragt (1964) suggest that, after the success of his trilogy of novels, Grass felt less at liberty to let metaphor carry him towards that child’s-eye suspension of moral judgment that had been so successful with The Tin Drum’s Oskar. The pervasive influence of Kafka’s parables on his writing of these years is quite clear, much as it is in American poets writing at the same time, like Elizabeth Bishop; it is Oskar’s legacy, the intrusion of self-consciousness. Given Grass’s involvement with the Social Democrats, and the hundreds of podium speeches he delivered for them in the 1965 electoral campaign, the publication of his third book was as much a political as a literary event. For all his attempts to steer his ‘third way’, in ‘Powerless, with a Guitar’, Grass seems pressured by the decision to air his private dilemma about public protest.
We read napalm and imagine napalm.
Since we cannot imagine napalm
we read about napalm until
by napalm we can imagine more.
Now we protest against napalm.
In contrast to the agonising of ‘Powerless, with a Guitar’ some of Grass’s poems of this period are too overtly polemical and haranguing – ‘Do Something’, for instance – and it is almost a relief that the cook who wanted to recite ‘The Jellied Pig’s Head’ as an attack on the morally complacent should have been seduced by his salivary glands. The radical Left, meanwhile, saw ‘Powerless, with a Guitar’ as a slight.
‘Catholic deep down I smoked,’ Grass writes in a later poem: like ‘Family Matters’, some of his best poems verge on the blasphemous. Repeatedly, it is the briefest lyrics which draw the reader up short, and which exhibit the fool free in a realm of moral compunction. The title of ‘Müll unser’ (‘Our Litter Which’) parodies the Lord’s Prayer and closes on another kind of blasphemy:
Looked for pebbles and found
the surviving glove
made of synthetic pulp.
Every finger spoke.
No, not those daft yachtsman’s yarns
but of what will remain:
While we, mislaid,
will be nobody’s loss.
One of the most intricate poems in Gleisdreieck (and Grass’s own favourite, according to Hamburger’s introduction) is a sinister ‘children’s song’ with quadruple rhymes and an intricate play on bureaucratic language: ‘Wer spricht hier, spricht und schweigt?/Wer schweigt, wird angezeigt’, which is Englished adroitly by Hamburger as ‘Who speaks here or keeps mum?/Here we denounce the dumb.’ No criticism can be levelled at a translator who has to work at such a density of compaction, in which it is impossible to convey the full finger-pointing menace of that ordinary German verb angezeigt, especially when here, as elsewhere, he shows such resourcefulness in responding to the challenge that makes translation worth doing in the first place. Hamburger’s skill with German idiom is sometimes inspired: he equips the abstraction at the end of the poem in praise of cigarettes, ‘Coffin Nails’, with a set of dentures it doesn’t have in the original – ‘That’s why I smoke/in the teeth of all reason.’
Formal restraint is the predominant quality of the last section of the book, a suite of 13 sonnets about Germany after Reunification. Essentially, it represents all the new work in the collection. ‘Novemberland’ is Grass’s coinage for the country that has contrived to have a number of events in its recent history fall on 9 November: Hitler’s putsch in 1923, the Kristallnacht riots in 1938, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Novemberland is a dismal place of Konjunktur, overcrowding, inflation, fat old Germans and younger ones with pension plans, a fortress to fend off ‘Black, Fellah, Jew, Turk, Romany’. And if the pressures of intrusion aren’t bad enough, Novemberland is plagued by enemies within – among them, the threat of ‘imminent Christmas’. Citizen Grass has turned fully moralist, and left his fool’s garb in the drawer. Not to mention his cook’s apron. A rant about talk-show society – ‘quite glibly on their stools now they debate/why on occasion humans lapse from the human state’ – reminds us that Grass himself famously writes at a lectern, standing up: it sounds from the poem as if sitting on stools is a sin as heinous as debating human lapses. Several poems evince a curmudgeonly resentment about having to pay what others will write off against taxes. Altogether, the tone is indignant and peevish, and the poems topical in a way that binds them to their recent occasions: the asylum in Mölln set on fire by Neo-Nazis in 1992, for instance, or the utterings of the carnival figure of the former Government, employment minister Norbert Blüm. Hamburger has chosen to pour English poems into the rhymes and prosody of the originals, although the results are anything but fluid. His initially baffling line, ‘That changeably remains the same’, does duty for ‘Das bleibt veränderlich sich gleich’: surely a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Another poem has the tortuous ‘Yet on returning to the home control/
to market I must carry still my dyed-in wool’, which is slavish in its concessions to the German rhyme (Kontrolle/Wolle) and word order. Not only that, but the unhappy ‘home control’ suggests domestic surveillance rather than a simple customs shed this side of the frontier.
Hamburger is not entirely to blame. The original poems are a long way from Grass at his best: they are turgid, bilious, and their intentions on the reader are all too palpable. Rhythmically tongue-tied, they have little in common with the wit and linguistic poise of poems such as ‘Nursery Rhyme’. Oh for windfowl and all their advantages! Nor is it just the poetry. Grass’s lack of literary acumen since Reunification seems to be confirmed by his latest prose work My Century, to be published in English next month. The very neatness of its conception – a book containing a hundred three or four-page vignettes – betrays a publisher’s brain-child. Frustratingly, they include an imaginary meeting between Benn and Brecht at Kleist’s grave which, given its imposed brevity, hardly gets beyond preliminaries.
Perhaps Grass, who seems to have nothing left to prove as a writer, has decided to assume the full burden of being his ‘nation’s conscience’, a responsibility made even weightier by the oddly redundant award of the Nobel Prize. Grass has long seemed bigger than the award, as if he had already won it – say, in 1972, when it went to Heinrich Böll. Or perhaps in its wisdom the Nobel Committee had it earmarked for him years ago, this last Nobel of the bad old century. Indeed, the latter half of the century in Germany has been his century, for how many writers have seen their private myth-kitty fund a modern state’s sense of itself? Sad that his poems finish down in the mouth, in a Novemberland that seems to need rescue from its ‘soaked neighbourliness’, or as the poet, for once rising to his own provocation, puts it,
On the victor’s side we lived, divided, safe
till unity struck us and proved merciless.