The practice of elusiveness, Bill Sewell

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, poet and commentator

I first encountered Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s work at the University of Auckland in 1969, when my stage 1 German literature class was asked to analyse the poem “Middle Class Blues” from his third collection Writing for the Blind (1964). This was the start of a continuing interest which would have a profound influence on my own poems and culminate in a close study of his poetry for my doctorate. It would include a memorable afternoon in January 1976, sitting in Enzensberger’s elegant but sparsely furnished apartment in Berlin, sipping port and talking about the recently published volume Mausoleum: Thirtyseven Ballads from the History of Progress, which I still consider to be his most successful work.

My first reaction to “Middle Class Blues” was to feel ripped off ‑ by the title, first of all, because it was in English and weren’t we supposed to be studying German? ‑ but also by its dreary catalogue form. A few careful readings dispelled my first impression. I came to realise that this was a very clever indictment of the post‑war wirtschaftswunder mentality, expressed in a language which reflects its essential sterility:

the grass grows,
the gross national product,
the fingernails,
the past.


And there was something else: this was a poet who looked outwards, who used an American English term to sum up what in the first instance was a West German malaise.

So in this initial encounter two characteristics of Enzensberger’s writing became apparent: he was a political poet‑ a species I hadn’t registered up until that time ‑and he was a cosmopolitan. Later, of course, I learned that he was a great deal more than that: fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and Norwegian, as well as English; and better read than I could ever hope to be, not only in world poetry but in philosophy, politics and history. While his work is very much rooted in the German poetic tradition and makes him a clear successor to the antithetical sub‑traditions represented by Bertolt Brecht and Gottfried Benn, it also shows unmistakable traces of non‑German poets like William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Nazim Hikmet.

Enzensberger’s first collection came out in 1957 and at the last count he had published nine collections of poetry, although over a career of nearly 40 years that is a relatively modest count. The reason is that he has never regarded poetry as an all‑embracing literary activity. He has been a prolific and influential essayist on topics ranging from the media to ecology, an anthologist and a travel writer. He has also produced a children’s book, a libretto (together with Hans Werner Henze), a “dramatic reconstruction” about the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion and a documentary novel about Buenaventura Durruti, the anarchist leader of the Spanish civil war.

He has a crisp, alluring prose style, with a sure sense of narrative, rarely wandering too far into the abstract. But he has not achieved the prominence outside Europe of Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll and perhaps Christa Wolf. The reason, I believe, has nothing to do with his literary prowess and more to do with the fact that the one literary form which he does not seem to have tackled is genuine fiction.

A decade younger than Boll and only a little younger than Grass, Enzensberger is nevertheless a member of the same postwar German literary generation, the generation which had to come to grips with the aftermath of the second world war, whether as returned soldiers (like Boll) or as late adolescents (like Enzensberger). He was born in Bavaria in 1929 and was therefore old enough to be drafted into Hitler’s Volkssturm at the end of the war ‑ though it appears that he refused to wear the uniform. After the war he made ends meet by dealing in the black market and working as a bartender and interpreter. By 1949 he had made it to university where he studied modern languages and literature and philosophy, obtaining his doctorate in 1955 from the University of Erlangen with a thesis on the poetic technique of the romantic poet Clemens Brentano. This is still a seminal study of Brentano and is especially interesting for its analysis of the device of entstellung (literally “dislocation” of language) and the light which it throws on Enzensberger’s own poetry.

His first collection, In Defence of the Wolves, made an immediate impact. It is divided into three parts ‑ “Pleasant Poems”, “Sad Poems”, and “Angry Poems” ‑ and of these it is the last which captured the imagination of the poetry-reading public. It established Enzensberger as a German version of the Angry Young Man, with a notoriety based on lines like the following from the title poem:

Blessed are the thieves: you
ask them up for a rape, then
throw yourself down on the mouldy bed
of submission. Moaning
you stick to your lies. You’d love
to be torn limb from limb. You
won’t change the world.


His message was a simple one: so long as the apathetic majority (“the lambs”) fail to resist their exploiters (“the wolves”) they will only encourage them and are therefore responsible for their own subjection.

While Enzensberger’s anger and horror directed themselves first at the materialism and amnesia of postwar West German society, he also looked outwards. Many poems in the first three volumes (the second, Language of the Land, appeared in 1960) are concerned with the seductiveness of and distortions created by capitalism in general (“Economic Boom”, “Froth”) and the threat posed by nuclear weapons (“Isotope”, “Countdown”). They also picture a post‑nuclear world with no inhabitants, reflected in titles like “Nobody Sings” and “Ode to Nobody”. At their best these poems are powerful, witty and inventive; but too often they degenerate into a loose, almost adolescent invective.

This is political poetry, but it is political poetry without a clear focus. Enzensberger believed at that time ‑ under the sway of the philosopher Theodor W Adorno ‑ that poetry by its very nature was subversive: “Its very presence puts the status quo in question. For that reason authority cannot abide it. It is intolerable to all totalitarian regimes.” Much of the time Enzensberger’s anger is resigned to its ineffectuality. The poet can scold ever so ingeniously, but there is no expectation that his scolding will ever change anything. This indicates one of the major polarities in Enzensberger, out of which he was eventually able to fashion some of his best poems. His nature is divided between the will to political engagement and the will to resignation, to opt out into a pure environment unsullied by human perversity. This often prompts an internal dialogue of the kind featured in the magnificent poem “Lachesis Lapponica”, which is set in the sparsely populated Northern wastes:

Here it is bright, by the rusty water, nowhere. Here,
these are the grey willows, this is the grey grass,
this is the dusky bright sky, here I stand.

(That is no standpoint, says the bird in my head.)


It is probably true that Enzensberger wrote himself into something of a corner by the mid‑1960s. “Lachesis Lapponica” is one of a number of poems in Writing for the Blind which tend towards solipsism, many expressed in the reductionist language of “Middle Class Blues”: poems like “Remote House” and “Shore”. Others grope after a point of reference and find it in the persistence of lichen, in a lighthouse, or in the subtle variations on the colour white: “Between almost nothing and nothing / the cherry resists and blooms white.” (“Cherry Orchard in Snow”). After this volume there was a poetic silence. It was in this period his nine essays on Politics and Crime appeared, as did another collection of essays, Germany, Germany Amongst Other Things, and he founded the periodical Kursbuch (literally “Timetable”).

Kursbuch began life in 1965 as a literary periodical but it was founded at what proved to be a bad time for literature. In Germany, as elsewhere in Europe and the United States, tensions were building which exploded in the 1968 student and worker unrest. Enzensberger was caught up in these events and, in Germany at least, became one of its intellectual mentors. It is something which to this day he does not regret, even though he concedes that there were excesses.

In 1968 he published an essay, “Commonplaces Concerning the Latest Literature” which was widely taken to herald the death of literature. In fact it merely expressed the opinion that in the current political circumstances literature (and particularly poetry) was peripheral and there were more important tasks towards which to turn creative energies. One was to combat the influence of the increasingly powerful and manipulative “consciousness industry”, which creates the necessary mindset for mass exploitation and lies behind the media and advertising (obviously), but also public relations, fashion and even tourism.

Enzensberger was still writing poetry. In 1971 he brought out a selected poems, to which he added some 30 new pieces. Some of these are especially interesting for what they tell us about his state of mind during those years. Poems like “A Faint Memory”, “Two Mistakes” and “Song of Those to Whom Everything Applies and Who Already Know Everything” provide a vessel for the poet’s serious doubts at some of the political developments with which he was so closely involved. One poem in particular both expresses these misgivings and points the way towards his next collection, Mausoleum (in which it reappeared). This poem is “To Niccolo Machiavelli, born 3 May 1469”, which concludes with the lamenting paradoxes:

Niccolo, scoundrel, poet, opportunist, classic and hangman:
you are Original Man according to the book, and for that I praise your book

Brother Niccolo, for that I shall not forget you; and because your lies
so often tell the truth, for that I curse your withered hand.


This poem provides not only the theme but also the paradigm for the “Thirty‑seven Ballads from the History of Progress” which make up Mausoleum. It is a rather sobering work, because its conclusion is that there is no such thing as progress in the linear sense. Such progress as there is in human history is cyclical and the implication seems to be that resistance to its course is futile. As one of the ballads puts it: “We still live / in these Middle Ages.” (“Giovanni de’Dondi (1318‑1389)”).

Each of the ballads is a “lyrical biography” focusing on an individual responsible for some contribution to the history of progress. All are white and male and originate from the wealthy or educated classes. But their achievements are almost always treated with considerable scepticism, whether it is “the relentlessness with which he, throughout his life, / championed the most superfluous things” (said of Chopin) or “[t]he exploitation of science becomes the science of exploitation” (summing up Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American labour economist).

Mausoleum is the most cohesive of Enzensberger’s collections of poetry. The fact that it is a series of portraits ensures this, as also does its use of a free ballad form. Ballads traditionally combine the three principal literary modes ‑ epic, dramatic and lyrical. These poems are epic in their biographical narrative drive, dramatic in their juxtaposition of fact, quotation and comment and lyrical (although only sparingly so) in their compression and the way they manage to articulate the poet’s disappointment. Read together, they not only tell us a great deal about the dubious achievements of western civilisation, they also have enormous emotional impact.

Enzensberger’s next volume, The Sinking of the Titanic (1978), is the one which has most satisfied him. It is an epic poem, composed of 33 cantos and described as a “comedy” (in the Dantean sense). In one respect, it continues the preoccupations of Mausoleum, since it focuses on one of the icons of twentieth-century progress, again in documentary detail ‑ to the extent of including the first class dinner menu for 14 April 1912. The German for “sinking” (untergang) also means “decline” (as in civilisation) and “destruction” and Enzensberger shows that decline, catastrophe and apocalypse ‑ symbolised in the poem by the iceberg ‑ are themselves myths from which humanity draws a certain comfort:

… that the end of the world repeatedly,
and however unpunctually, savours of manna,
that it is a kind of reassurance, a sweet solace
when things look black, your hair’s falling out,
and you’ve got wet feet.


Titanic, unlike Mausoleum, is also highly self‑referential, recording even the actual composition of the poem (he lost the first draft during his 1968‑69 Cuban sojourn).

A collected poems appeared in 1983, and since Titanic Enzensberger has produced three new collections: The Fury of Disappearing (1980), Future Music (1991) and Kiosk (1995). All contain interesting individual poems and the last two in particular reveal a warmer, less abrasive, more tolerant poet, but no major development in theme or poetic technique. The notion of “disappearing”, for example, has always been fundamental and represents both the poet’s desire to disappear m the physical sense and also his very elusiveness as poet and thinker.

This elusiveness also manifests itself in his play on the concept of “balance”, and the difficulty of achieving it (as in “Chinese Acrobats”), which is a concern of the two most recent volumes. For in the end he is impossible to pin down: always the gadfly, the irritant, never satisfied with an established position; one moment the Marxist‑leaning journalist; the next subjecting his comrades to severe criticism; one moment downplaying the importance of poetry; the next producing a lovely lyric like “Cherry Garden in Snow”. It is trite to say translation cannot do justice to a foreign language poet, but Enzensberger is no exception and it is significant that he has on occasion made his own translations into English. But while there are aspects of his language which will escape the English‑speaking reader ‑ the use of syntax and the exploitation of ambiguity and sound ‑ it is possible to appreciate some of the structural elements. For instance, the dividedness in the poet himself is reflected in the very shape of many of the poems. At the simplest level, this is expressed in the juxtaposition of two opposed voices, as in “Lachesis Lapponica” or many of the Mausoleum ballads. But it is also found in Enzensberger’s fondness for paradox, often as the impulse driving the whole poem, as in “Hymn to Stupidity” from Kiosk, and sometimes with epigrammatic precision, as in the Machiavelli poem.

Another favourite device ‑ and evidence of Enzensberger’s very robust wit ‑ is to deconstruct the idiom or the cliché. The procedure is to create a catalogue of phrases revolving around a single theme or word and by careful arrangement to reveal both the emptiness and the subtexts of current usage, as well as to suggest unexpected new meanings:

He makes a start, is on the make
makes an impression, makes progress
makes good, a mess, racket, trouble;
he makes a fortune, is a self‑made man
makes himself important, noticed, popular.
Make no mistake: he has it made.
(“Usual Story”)

Writers often choose to read to an audience only from their most recent work. Enzensberger’s new collection, Kiosk, is a disappointment: whether he will read a retrospective selection in New Zealand ‑ as I hope he will ‑ will depend on his current attitude towards his earlier work. It will also be interesting to discover what his current attitude is towards poetry in general. Will the recent appearance of Kiosk mean that he is still enthusiastic about poetry and its impact? Or will he be in one of his phases of indifference, having purged himself for the time being of the need to unburden himself  in poems? Whatever, one of the most interesting minds in Europe will be engaging with a New Zealand public.

Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher, poet and critic. He completed a doctorate on Enzensberger in 1978 and has published articles and lectured on his poetry and prose.

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