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Poets from the former East Germany have shared a difficult fate:  because of the peculiar history of 20th-21st century Germany much of their potential terrain for poetry was overrun by the events that surrounded them. Like many poets suffering terror regimes and/or exile their roots became invalidated and or irrelevant. Like many from totalitarian regimes they had to develop a technique of ‘inner emigration’. My interest lies in the diverse ways certain poets managed, in this historical trashing, to find a terrain for poetry.  I have translated the work of a number of poets whose lifetimes overlapped the Nazi, war-time, communist, post-Wall periods. Some, like Peter Huchel and Gunter Eich, lived out the whole period from the Hitler nightmare through the apocalyptic end of the war, when thousands died being driven westwards by the Russian forces from the now Polish regions in the East; they experienced the firebombing of cities; and then the reduction of many areas of Germany to stone- age conditions and heaps of rubble inhabited by homeless, hungry, often stateless refugees from the camps; and the occupying forces trying to restore some semblance of order. Others arrived post-Hitler and knew only the GDR. Those remaining in the East were first subject to the totalitarian regime eventually finding themselves in a free capitalist world for which they were scarcely prepared. All this created an enormous amnesiac gulf between their time and that of the earlier rich treasury of German literary culture prior and up to the Weimar Republic.
In the aftermath of the war there was, in literature, a great silence. Germans as both perpetrators and victims were silenced by a kind of narrative wreckage that made it impossible to reconstruct any cultural terrain for a long time. In the East the communist narrative of Nazism and the holocaust was quite different to that that emerged gradually in the west of Germany, being seen through the lens of critiques of capitalism.  The horror of all these events was and is only partially to be explained. Subsequently under the communist regime there was constraint on what could be written and published and this often led to coded forms, explicable only to others living in that society. Only the relatively young, with the vitality to engage subsequently with an unfamiliar capitalist world could make themselves at home, poetically, when they found themselves in affluence and freedom. But the near half-century under communism was now revealed as a period of economic, political and cultural failure – whatever large parts of the population may have believed or wanted to believe about it. It had become invalid.
Nevertheless the past remained –  though only partly articulated. For example the young poet Durs Grunbein, though he had the brilliance and energy to fully exploit in his work post-Wall many perspectives and many cultural opportunities, nevertheless devoted one poetry collection to his birth city Dresden, whose appalling destruction in the closing months of the war he’d been too young to witness, and which his poems nevertheless address.
The great literary silence around these apocalyptic events must have been, aside from the difficulty of explaining them due also to the dual role Germans had to embrace as at once perpetrators of these horrors and victims of them.  Why is this of interest to poets of today? Firstly of course many poets in the world at large will find their cultural terrain trashed by political events –though mostly they will be exclusively victims of such events.. Yet even those living in comparative freedom and affluence may find a world around them disenchanted and commoditised and inimical to the creation of poetic art, and that so similarly offers slight refuge for the poet –though he’s perfectly free to do and say what he likes. Some such poets may too find themselves in ‘inner emigration’.
In the work of poets like Gunter Eich, Reiner Kunze, Heinz Czechovski and Peter Huchel and others we can find strategies for creating terrains for poetry in the face of cultural narrative wreckage. Here it is the work of Peter Huchel I want to offer now as a fine poetic survival. Peter Huchel’s life was a struggle against every outside pressure – whether political or through literary trends and canons. His translator, Michael Hamburger wrote of him: ‘at the cost of producing no more than 4 books in half a century…at the cost of silence, exile…and what to some looked like compromise’,  and, I would add, wrote some of the most profound and beautiful poetry in the whole history of German lyric. He was extremely reticent and fairly indifferent about how his work was received, though it must be said he won eventually some highly prestigious prizes. He avoided outward commitment in order to stay true to his inner ones. And he suffered for it.
Born in 1903 near Berlin to a middle-class family he was 30 when Hitler came to power. He went to university in Berlin, Freiburg and Vienna and then travelled to France., working as a labourer and then moving on to the Balkans. From 1934 until 1940 he worked writing radio plays ( as did some other poets) – but we know little of any public statements he might have made about the Nazi regime. In 1940 he was conscripted into the war and in 1945 imprisoned briefly by the Russians. Much of his early life had been spent on his grandfather’s farm in rural Brandenburg, and it’s that flat, misty land of lakes and forests, rain and snow that forms the constant background and companion to much of his poetry. – in spite of his travels in the sunny south and east of Europe.
His early poems are much in the tradition of the romantic German nature lyric; they recall for me both Wordsworth and John Clare in their absorption into  the natural world and into the innocence and freedom of childhood. His poem ‘Elderberry’ illustrates this (in spite of the grim realities around him).’ Underneath the elderberry hollow/we’d sleep the whole spring…holy to us it sang’.  But these landscapes and his lyrical use of them pervade all his work whatever the themes. It’s clear too that, equally, early on and prior to Hitler he’s haunted by the deprivation and alienation of the poor and the migrants working on the land around him. For example he writes of the ‘fire at the heart’ of the Polish reaper as he harvests what he will not enjoy: ‘none of the scythed corn belongs to him’.  Huchel, like many GDR poets was a socialist in spirit and soul; nevertheless it’s that lyrical connection between the natural world, their habitats and the soul of the inhabitants that is at the heart of this early work.
His first collection Knabenteich (Boy’s Pond) was withdrawn before publication when the Nazi’s came to power and only re-appeared much later in 1948 under a different title –Gedichte (Poems). He was married but divorced in  1946 and re-married in 1953. Peter Huchel would have been in his 40s during the apocalyptic time of the bombing, migrations and chaos of 1945. Those scenes appear in poems, not in their literal forms, but as landscapes marked by and speaking of them. He continued in the GDR writing radio plays but also, importantly, edited a radical and influential journal ‘Sinn und Form’ in which he published such writers as Sartre, Neruda, Brecht and many contemporary Germans. In 1961 it was censored and Huchel dismissed and publicly disgraced. From 1962 and until 1971, when he was allowed to leave, he lived in isolation under Stasi surveillance and forbidden to work or to publish. Nevertheless his collection ‘Chausseen, Chaussen (Highways, Highways) was published in West Germany. When he left the GDR he settled in Staufen near Freiburg. The next five years was a period of success –travel, prizes, readings –but he was soon to fall ill and died in 1980. Subsequently all his work –poetry and prose- has been published in special editions by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt.
He always supported vigorously other writers – Brecht and particularly Reiner Kunze –and they saw immediately the power of his work – even though, or perhaps especially, because he avoided so many popular trends for example that mundane, up-to-date, colloquial style and the irony of much post-war writing –still marked by the statements that there could be no poetry, to write a poem about a tree, would be an offense after Auschwitz. The writer Hans Nossak wrote of him: ‘how highly political is Huchel’s anti-political attitude – only we of two world wars can understand’. He was right! That preservation of one’s unique  outlook, ideas and imagery, that poetic terrain that belongs to inwardness in general, is the only weapon against the controlling frameworks of any political or cultural milieu – whether totalitarian or simply vulnerable to the entertainment and promotional frameworks of the capitalist world.  I suspect it was precisely his inwardness and ambivalence towards the world outside that aroused more hostility on the part of the GDR regime than any straightforward opposition would have done.
It is his intense lyricism that contrasts him with most poets of his milieu and generation. He also had an extraordinary capacity for rhyme and metre –more available to German given its regular morphology than to English. It’s his lyricism rooted in place, in the inhabiting of a place, the intimacy he feels with nature – its weathers, plants and forests, its fields and lakes, that have witnessed the horrors of human life at its worst, it is this that answers the question: what terrain was left for the poet after the violence of the 20th century.? It is the natural world and our inhabiting of it and our response to it that remains for the poet a primordial terrain. Much of Huchel’s poetry is winter poetry, the melancholy of winter,, calling to mind the great Schubert song-cycle Die Winterreise (The winter Journey) that makes Huchel’s poetry so distinctive. Here are three of Huchel’s poems I’ve particularly loved and so translated

SNOW

 Der Schnee treibt
das grosse Schleppnetz des Himmels,
Es wird die Toten nicht fangen.

Der Schnee wechselt
Sein Lager.
Er stäubt von Ast zu Ast.

Die blauen Schatten
der Füchse lauern
im Hinterhalt. Sie wittern

die weisse
Kehle der Einsamkeit.
SNOW

 Snow is driving
the great dragnet of heaven,
it will not catch the dead.

The snow
shifts camp.
It sprinkles itself
from branch to branch.

The blue shadows
of foxes lurk
In ambush. They sense

the white
throat of loneliness.

 

WINTERPSALM

Da ich ging bei der träger Kälte des Himmels
Und ging hinab die Strasse zum Fluss,
Sah ich die Mulde im Schnee.
Wo nachts der Wind
Mit flacher Schulter gelegen.
Seine gebrechliche Stimme,
In den erstarrten Ästen oben
Stiess sich am Trugbild weisser Luft:
“Alles Verscharrte blickt mich an.
Soll ich es heben aus dem Staub
Und zeigen dem Richter? Ich schweige.
Ich will nicht Zeuge sein’’
Sein Flüstern erlosch
Von keiner Flamme  genährt

Wohin du stürzt, o Seele,
Nicht weiss es die Nacht. Denn da ist nichts
Als vieler Wesen stumme Angst.
Der Zeuge tritt hervor. Es ist das Licht.

Ich stand auf der Brücke,
Allein vor der trägen Kälte des Himmels.
Atmet noch schwach,
Durch die Kehle des Schilfrohrs,
Der vereiste Fluss?


WINTER PSALM

There I walked by the lifeless cold of heaven
down the street to the river,
I saw the troughs in the snow
Where of nights the wind
Had leaned a flattened shoulder.
Its frail voice,
above in the frozen branches,
Came against a mirage of white air:
“All that’s been buried gazes at me,
must I raise it from the dust
and expose it to justice? I’m silent.
I will not be a witness’.
Its whispering dies out.
Unfed by any flame.

Wherever you fall, oh soul,
the night knows it not. For there’s nothing
but the dumb fear of many beings.
The witness steps forward.
It is the light.

I stood on the bridge
alone before the lifeless cold of heaven.
Is it the icy river
Still breathing weakly
through the throat
of the reeds?

DIE WASSERAMSEL

Könnte ich stürzen
Heller hinab
Ins fliessende Dunkel

Um mir ein wort zu fischen

Wie diese Wasseramsel
Durch Erlenzweige,
die ihre Nahrung

vom steinigen Grund des Flusses holt

Goldwäsche,. Fischer,
stellt eure Geräte fort,
der scheue Vogel

will seine Arbeit lautlos verrichten

 

THE WATER OUSEL

 If I could swoop
brightly downwards
into the flowing dark

to fish for myself a word,

like this water ousel
through the alder branches
whose sustenance

the stony riverbed keeps.

Gold washers, fishermen,
put away your gear
the shy bird

wants to work in silence.

Judy Gahagan March 2012

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Snow is driving
the great dragnet of heaven,
it will not catch the dead.

The snow
shifts camp.
It sprinkles itself
from branch to branch.

The blue shadows
of foxes lurk
in ambush. They scent

the white
throat of loneliness.

Translated by Judy Gahagan

Schnee

Der Schnee treibt
das grosse Schleppnetz des Himmels,
Es wird die Toten nicht fangen.

Der Schnee wechselt
Sein Lager.
Er stäubt von Ast zu Ast.

Die blauen Schatten
der Füchse lauern
im Hinterhalt. Sie wittern

die weisse
Kehle der Einsamkeit.

                                        Peter Huchel

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