Friday, February 23, 2018

A Translation of "Über Gedichte," a Lecture on Modern German Poetry by Ingeborg Bachmann

On Poems

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A beginning has been made, and the foundation-stones of the first misunderstandings have been laid.  At the beginning the beginning seems like the hardest part--but once you have finally started speaking, uttering a thing or two, the continuation proves to be even more difficult.  Such being the case, I would prefer for us to go on a ramble rather than discuss something specific, and as we ramble to and fro to bend over to pick up a word that was dropped at the beginning.

There is nothing more daunting for someone who has written poems himself than to present a survey of contemporary lyric poetry; his knowledge is for the most part slighter than one assumes; moreover, whatever new is being produced in other countries will remain hidden from all of us for a long time; for the most part we become familiar with it after a lag of one or two generations; we know Eliot, Auden, and Dylan Thomas--perhaps simply because he died recently, because he is a legendary drunkard; we know Apollinaire, Eluard, Aragon, René Char almost as the most recent of the French poets; of the Italians we hardly yet know Ungaretti and Montale, of the Russians Blok and Mayakovsky and finally Pasternak, owing to a questionable political dust storm, and this is not merely because poems are rather rarely translated; even if we happen to have another language or several other languages at our command and try hard to keep a watchful eye on the other side of every border, our present view of poems is still very much a blurry one.  When they possess a new power of comprehension, this power is appreciable only within their respective languages and does not manifest itself to the outside world like that of novels and plays.  There is scarcely a single new novel, a single new play, of whose publication or performance in Paris or New York or Rome we would not expect to receive speedy news; there is scarcely any such work that we do not speedily set about reading or are not speedily forced to see.  But poems also happen not to be very marketable, and so their effect even within their own language communities remains extremely minimal even when—as is asserted today in a few countries, including Germany—the most vigorously gifted writers are to be found among the lyric poets. Whether the assertion is accurate or not is anybody’s guess--in any case, there is also another, more disagreeable, side to this, for there is no setting in which dilettantism burgeons more abundantly than in the lyric poem, and there is nothing that gives most readers a poorer idea of whether or not this or that author has really “got something.”  And many people are even so disagreeable as to assume that no volume of poetry in our language could ever have any effect but to encourage twenty more young people to start writing poems themselves.  I am more troubled by the question whether confining ourselves to German poems as representative of modern poetry is simply a mistake.  I do not believe that it is, not in this case, for of course they initially demand to be perceived as what they truly are here and now and by us; their foreign words, their foreign bodies wish first and foremost to be adopted by their own language.  

Admittedly you are not now going to become acquainted with all the modern poets in existence--for that purpose, there are plenty of treatises in which they are ranked and sorted into nature lyricists and lyricists of consciousness and God knows what else, complete with examples; there are anthologies, reprints every month in every magazine, and there are volumes of poetry that can be found in the libraries; with these you can adequately brief yourselves.  For I am incapable of presenting them to you with individualized labels on them and coining some pithy adage about each of them.

So on to our rambles…

Contemplate your fingertips: is their color already changing?
One fine day it’ll come back, that eradicated plague.
The postman will chuck it like a letter into the rattling mailbox,
put it on your dinner plate like a ration of herring!
the mother will nurse with it like a breast.
What do we do now that no one’s left alive
Who knew well how to keep company with it?
He who is good friends with the horrific
can await its visit equanimously.
We keep on preparing ourselves for happiness
but it doesn’t willingly sit in our chairs.
Contemplate your fingertips!  When they change color to black
it is too late.

This poem is by Günter Eich.  I hope that nobody is inclined--if such a thing were possible--to raise his hand because he has been unsettled by the question, What is the poet trying to say here?  But what observations are we capable of making; what could actually emerge from a preoccupation with this poem?  I for one am inclined to assume that this poet drafted his design in a different way than poets a generation and two generations before him.  It is quite hard to picture him as a prophet or as an artist, as a magician, as [---]; there is not a jot of self-importance, of presumption, in his conception of himself, for throughout the work such a conception is evident; his claim, his position, is constantly being asserted.  Here there is already a change in which one can observe that something has taken place here, namely an alteration in the position of the producer himself.  And yet despite the resignation on so many [---] no abdication, no retreat is available to the speaker even though the place from which he is speaking has been shifted into a fatal solitude, shifted not voluntarily, not arrogantly, but rather as a punishment imposed by a society in the midst of society, a place in which he does not feel at home, and staying awake becomes difficult for a person who must, can, will, be watchful.  A watchful man is speaking; he is a sleepless quarry of exposure dwelling in our midst...  

When the window is wide open
And the earth’s ghastliness is blowing in
The infant with two heads
--one of them slumbering, the other screaming—
screams at us from the world’s length
and suffuses the ears of my beloved with horror.

The vocables of reality simply are what they are [in Günter Eich’s poems]; their stage is populated by window, garbage dumps, rubbish, freight train, rain-, rust-, and oil-stains, thermos, bakery, factory, subway; the world is questioned but not left at a loss for answers.  The only entity left at a loss for answers is this I, which is pursued, warned, and asked to issue warnings of its own.  What this specifically means, ladies and gentlemen, is that nowadays there can no longer be any talk whatsoever about a sacred song, about a mission, about a chosen community of artists.  By way of deliberately drawing your attention to an extreme version of this tendency, I shall quote a profession of faith made by a member of Stefan George’s circle during its heyday:

We are of the proud belief that for these years we have not merely gathered the best that a plenary assemblage of tribes in a specific domain of human ability was capable of producing; rather, we hope that we have also paved the way in pursuing which those who are to come and become after us will discover an ever-purer artistic firmament. 1     

But for all the weightiness of this “pure artistic firmament”’s foundations, it proved unsustainable, and these spirits, who at that time quite understandably rose up against a trite, insipid school of naturalism and whose achievements we shall not forget, have somehow managed to survive the collapse of their artistic firmament.  Expressionism soon dealt the first counterblow, and under the impact of the First World War isolated human voices asserted themselves, sometimes in execration, sometimes in exhaustion.  And new aesthetic revolts followed, revolts that must also be talked about, specifically because they led to never-endingly influential linguistic discoveries and discoveries about reality, although in one respect they have been disavowed for exemplifying what we now regard as the worst tendencies.

I am thinking here even of surrealism with its idea of beauty:  the surrealists insisted that beauty had to be terroristic, breathtaking, and demonically bewildering, that surrealism was going to lead us to our deaths, and in the second surrealist manifesto, André Breton, the spokesman for the new literary movement, wrote that surrealism was by no means an artistic school, that, rather, it was striving for total insubordination, for outright sabotage, that everything must conspire to annihilate the ideas of the family, the fatherland, and religion--so far, so good; this was quite impressive--but then came the apodosis: that surrealism was striving for nothing other than power. “The most simple surrealist act consists of picking up a revolver, going down into the street, and shooting randomly into the crowd as long as one can.”

This prescription was of course never subsequently put into practice by the surrealists; oh, no; and yet you probably also know that all writers and painters were discredited, ostracized, threatened with death under the German dictatorship, and yet there remains an unexplained residue, a suspicion that without realizing what they were doing, its victims allowed their language to converge at its limits with the language of power.  Naturally surrealism had intellectual weight, an anti-bourgeois animus; it was serious about wishing to shock; it had nothing in common with the factitious praxis of murder that was carried out later on by a completely different party.

Much more questionable still were the beauty-proclamations of the futurists, for they called--understandably, to be sure, in a thrust, a violent burst of desire--for the embracing of the technical world in its beauty and, to be sure, for recognizing it as nothing but beauty.  It was Marinetti who with a young man’s flair for fanaticism cried:

We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

In the later futurist manifesto, which coincided with the outbreak of the Ethiopian colonial war, one reads:

For twenty–seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as antiaesthetic.. . . Accordingly we state: ... War is beautiful because it establishes man's dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the ceasefire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others. . . . Poets and artists of Futurism! . . . remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art ... may be illumined by them!2

This is the way the apotheosis of l’art pour l’art can sometimes look.   Here the flashover was formulated distinctly enough.

Please do not suppose that I am so narrow-minded as to dwell insistently on questions of guilt in artistic matters and to push such questions into the foreground.  Let us calmly take yet another step forward.  I by no means regard it as a matter of pure chance that Gottfried Benn and Ezra Pound---a writer whom a few of our young poets must discover for themselves at this moment of all moments, an American who had the most convoluted ideas about revitalization and a renaissance of the Renaissance--that in the case of both of these poets (and they are both poets; of this there can be no doubt), it was only a step from the pure artistic firmament to currying favor with barbarism.

But there is a maxim from which Karl Kraus can never be dissociated and which one hopes never to tire of emphasizing: “Everything of any merit in a language is rooted in morality.”  And morality here does not signify anything that can be popularized or liquidated, like bourgeois or Christian morality--not a codex--but rather that airstrip on which the standard of truth and lies must be established ever anew by every new writer.  Just now we were hit by a maxim: “War is beautiful because by means of gas masks, flame throwers…” and so forth...

And here is a poem of our time in which a gas mask also makes an appearance; this poem has been included in an anthology of love poems from recent years, and you can see the different sort of light into which its objects have been thrust; a light that signalizes the shattering of an entire aesthetics of delirium: “Frog Prince the Bridegroom” by Marie Luise Kaschnitz:

How hideous
Your bridegroom is
You virgin Life

His countenance a gas mask
His girdle an ammunition pouch
His hand
A flamethrower

Your bridegroom the frog prince
Rides with you
(A bike flies hither, once thither)
Over the houses of the dead

Between two
He presses himself
Into your lap

Only in the darkness
Do you touch
His wettish hair

Only at daybreak
Only at
Only at

Do you behold his

The only things that are still called beautiful here are the bridegroom’s eyes, his mournful eyes.  “Mournful” precedes the word “beautiful.”  And at the beginning this man with a flamethrower, with an ammunition pouch, this man with a claim to power, is referred to in a line that reads “How hideous your bridegroom is...”

There are such things as new specifications that are met, new definitions, even in poems.

At this same moment, in Sweden, the oldest living German female poet is writing something that applies to young people and likewise describes what they are doing and what they have to do: this poet is Nelly Sachs.

Here she is writing about a young man who lacks a sense of direction, a young man who is in conflict with all the lights of heaven:

From the races
acclimatized to rocking chairs
he divests himself

having strayed outside himself
in his fiery helmet
he vulnerates the night.

(Reminding us “who are building the new house,” of the foundation on which we are building, of how many graves, how many sites of sins, this foundation consists; and at the same time imploring us not to sigh, not to waste our minutes on weeping, but rather to insure that our walls and equipment are as receptive as Aeolian harps.)

But here the prophetic and psalmodizing mode is not be confused with artistic prophesying; this is no gesture, but rather a movement arising from the experience of suffering. And could it be accepted in any other spirit? Have we not become both quite sensitive and quite sober and excessively dismissive of intoxication with language on the one hand and conservative verbal Biedermeiers on the other; now affectedly ill and now affectedly healthy; are we not on the point of being permanently impervious to fascination by any word at all?  Do we not perhaps desire nothing more than to establish a legal relationship between language and humankind?

And shall we not make use of this legality or of no legality whatsoever, and do we wish to forge a path through the errors and the yielded truths, or no path whatsoever?

What does the literature that lies behind us really amount to?: words hewn from the endocardium and a tragic silence, and fallow fields full of talked-to-death words and sloughs of fetid, rotten silence; everything, language and silence, has already been imparted, and in a twofold fashion. And we are constantly being beckoned and tempted by both of them; our sympathetic participation in error is of course fully secured, but where does our sympathetic participation in a new truth begin?       

How does a poem--because we are trying to talk about new poems--how does a poem begin to participate sympathetically in such a truth?

[Hans Magnus] Enzensberger’s

must the vulture feed on forget-me-nots?
what do you want the jackal to do,
skin himself?—and the wolf? must
he pull out his own teeth?
what don’t you like
about politruks and popes
what on the lying TV are you
dumbly peeping at from the laundry basket?

who sews the stripe of blood
on the general’s trousers? who
carves the capon before the usurer
who proudly hangs the tin cross
before his snarling navel? who
takes the gratuity, the silverling
the hush-penny? there is
much stolen, few thieves; who
rewards them with applause, who
pins on their insignias, who
pants after their lies?

look in the mirror: timid,
shrinking from the labor of truth,
averse to learning, consigning
all thinking to the wolves
your nose-ring your costliest jewel
no hoax too unsubtle, no solace
too feeble, extortion itself
is always too kind to you.

you lambkins are sisters,
interchangeable ones, who bleat:
you blend into one another.
brotherliness rules
among the wolves:
they roam in packs.

all hail the predators: you
enticements to rapine throw
yourselves on the fetid bed
of obedience. lying even
as you whimper. you long
to be torn to bits. you
aren’t changing the world.

“You arent changing the world.” Indeed.  And what about poetry itself?  What effect does it have?  Is it not perhaps the case that because a poem like this makes us unhappy, because it manages to do this, and because there are new poets who can make us unhappy, there is also a jolt within us, a jolt instinct with insight, a jolt under whose influence we comprehend the larger one that is taking place?  There is a really wonderful letter by Kafka about what he demands from a book:

"If the book we’re reading isn’t waking us up with a punch to the skull, why are we bothering to read the book?  So that it will make us happy…?  Good Lord, we would be happy already if we didn’t have any books at all, and if push came to shove we could always write the kinds of books that make us happy ourselves...A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.  I believe this."

Perhaps it has been bothering you for I while now that I have said nothing about the new forms in the new poems, and hardly anything about the new language in them.  But in connection with this poem I would like to say something on these topics in a roundabout way.  There were recently published two books by a man who was not really a literary historian but rather something of an outsider; I am referring to the pair of studies entitled Die Welt als Labyrinth [The World as a Labyrinth] and Manieirismus in der Literatur [Mannerism in Literature] by Gustav René Hocke.  These books deal with the authors I have mentioned, along with many others, complete with illustrative quotations; and the thesis propounded in them is basically as follows: the provocative formal and thematic phenomena that we have been observing not only in literature but also in the other arts since about 1850 are not new, and this is not the first time that they have come upon the scene; rather, the modern artists themselves have been adhering to a hidden tradition; their audacious linguistic sallies and their “intellectual vices,” as he terms them, are ultimately of Greco-Oriental origin. The second revolution took place in the middle of the sixteenth century and faded away in the middle of the seventeenth.  In the domain of literature, the last such revolution dates from Baudelaire’s debut.  These three epochs have been subsumed under the generic heading of “Mannerism” for the sake of more firmly defining the anti-classical constant in European intellectual history.  The poets of these periods are trying to be “modern.”  They are characterized as such: they eschew immediacy, love obscurity, grant admittance to sensuous imagery only in abstruse, highly camouflaged metaphors; an intellectual system of signs is utilized towards the end of apprehending the real or super-real; their works are enigmatic, hieroglyphic, and this is why they evade aesthetic scrutiny with the help of classical standards.  I have no intention of going beyond this outline and can only urge you to read both studies, even at the risk of your temporarily smelling a whiff of “mannerism” everywhere and in everything and forgetting your judgment thanks to your astonishment.  But this highly stimulating book with its important findings has triggered an extremely remarkable reaction.  For it admittedly cannot exit the stage without first letting a few drops of wormwood fall on the new linguistic drilling-grounds, on the metaphor laboratories and the fission of verbal nuclei.  Because somebody has always stolen a march on this sort of thing, whether in 1600 or in 1900.  I hear tell that a couple of hundred years ago a man by the name of Athanasius Kirchner constructed a metaphor machine that could generate a complete poetic image out of nothing. We are now witnessing at least the third occurrence of abstract orthography: letterism, which Isidor Isou inaugurated as a last resort a couple of years ago in Paris in order to slit open the alphabet in order to conjure up Being with the aid of a few new supplementary characters, has a precursor in the third century, and another one is Hugo Ball, who in the first year of Dadaism in Zurich wrote letterist poems, admittedly with a different intention; namely, a polemical one.  This state of affairs seems a bit sad to many people who believe that revolutions and reclamations of land in literature must be primarily sought in formal experimentation and sometimes overlook the fact that the latter can only take place in the aftermath of a new idea.

On the other hand the discovery of “mannerism” was honey to many critics because they were now at last being handed a couple of solid criteria for the judgment of modern literature, criteria as applicable to verbal salad-mixing as to true verbal might.  Thank goodness, we’ve always already been here before; none of it is actually new; we don’t need to be intimidated anymore when we run into metaphors like “black milk”; of course the exact same thing can be found in Marino’s “red sea” (of the sixteenth century); we’ve always already been here before; ultimately we understand it, and understanding everything means pardoning everything.  Or else, if the critic is a member of a different, barbed armor-clad species, it means this is all passé, and so it’s not interesting anymore; this has already been done better, it’s a shoddy imitation, a carbon copy; the Surrealists did this too, and did it better, the Poètes maudits also did it better, and naturally the ancients did it better still: remember Marino, remember Góngora, remember, remember.  

But whom should we resolve to remember as we reflect once again on this poem [“the wolves’ plea to the lambs”]?  Is its author a mannerist?  He has written poems in which neologisms like “manitypistin” and “stenoküre” occur, so yes: he certainly is one (but with what intention?: that is the real question!).  And if we were compiling an anthology of younger authors, as long as we stuck to hunting down formal structures, to gaping at metaphors, at similarities, at the authors’ exploitation of an anonymous lexicon, at their canny facility with certain fashionable cocktail recipes, we would certainly have a very easy time figuring out what they were fundamentally all about.  But at the same time we would fail to see the most important thing; namely, when we are dealing merely with affectations, with finger exercises, or merely misbegotten trial runs, and we would fail to see when someone is actually trying to commit a robbery and is being robbed by language and robbed by truth, when the inimitable is devouring the imitable.  Because of course all of them, almost all of them, have, I believe, some tincture of the merely fashionable about them, and we also keenly sense this when we take up older works of long-established stature; we sense that their period lexica and period figures of speech hold their own only thanks to the firm and fairly robust context in which they appear.

But why--and you are perhaps still unsure of the answer to this question--did I happen to select these particular poems, and what am I trying to demonstrate by discussing them?  Perhaps the good “disposition” of these authors.  This conjecture is certainly plausible.  But what is a disposition, and who does not emphatically claim to have one?  To be liberally and amicably disposed, and from there it is no longer any great distance to well disposed, but well-disposed to whom?  And if the radicalness of every form of aestheticism has bequeathed to us a certainty that is binding, it is the certainty that with a good disposition it is no longer possible to produce a good poem.  I do not know whether it was really true, as a few people, including Benn, believed, that it was necessary to remind the Germans of this over and over again because they had still never managed to grasp it and were still highly receptive to “versifying” and “atmospheric images.”  So let us remind ourselves of it one more time, even though, if one thinks of the young people who have published poems in the last ten, fifteen years, one gets the feeling that hardly anybody caters to this plebiscitic desire anymore.  Much more onerous is the desire of a few for art [----] critics with their diagnoses and prognoses; for them everything is always in a crisis, they demand that the crises should be overcome; and recently even mannerism has been expected to be overcome, and then there are the crisis in the novel and the crisis in the theater; everything is expected to be overcome or integrated to some extent.  But when one finally ponders these sentences one begins to get cross, for who after all is expected to be overcome by whom here?

You can overcome an adversary or a pain or a weakness, but as for a crisis in the novel or in culture or in one of those flayed conceptual monsters—nobody can overcome such a thing.  The statements are worthy ones; they are often creditable; they often hit the mark, but the questions that affix themselves to them are poorly framed, of practically no importance, and merely squeeze the former out of the small circle of genuine questions that are posable at all.  Admittedly the sting of these questions can be felt only by the individual, and by those who have been more moved by a couple of apothegms from afar than by an entire assortment of problems, and one of those apothegms, apothegms that do not even ask to be vulnerated, is for example that of Bertolt Brecht: “What kinds of times are these when a conversation about trees is almost a crime because it encloses a silence about so many foul deeds?”  This is why people of later birth are somewhat shy about showcasing their worries about form, about expression, about intellectual capacity, worries that have been agonizing from time immemorial.

In a few passages in Günter Eich’s work there is talk about discomfort caused by beauty, discomfort caused by happiness; that whole tension between horror and beauty, which of course condition each other; the cult of beauty and of horror has given way to another one.  The poems, which are highly heterogeneous, are not savory but rich in insight, as if in an age of extreme linguistic distress they were obliged to make something out of their extreme contactlessness in order to ablate the distress.  From this achievement they derive a dignity, a dignity that they do not even dare to aspire to.

Having strayed outside themselves in their fiery helmet they vulnerate the night. This is also true to a large extent of the poet about whom I will speak in conclusion.  About Paul Celan.  He made his first appearance among us with an epitaph, his “Death Fugue,” and with some highly illuminating dark words that undertook a journey to the end of night.  And this I in these poems also forgoes an oppressive blueprint, an extorted authority, and gains an authority, even as it asks for nothing for itself other than: “Make me bitter, count me with the almonds, count me with…what was bitter and kept you alive…”

But today I have brought along his most recent collection of poems, “Sprachgitter” [“Speech Grille”] because it tours a new and still little-known territory.  The metaphors have completely vanished; the words have cast off every vestment, every veil; not a single word flies towards another one any longer; another one intoxicates.  After a painful figure of speech, an extremely severe inspection of the references of word and world, it arrives at new definitions.  The poems are entitled “Matière de Bretagne” or “Railway Embankments, Waysides, Waste Places, Debris,” or “Blueprint of a Landscape” or “Debris Barge.”

They are uncomfortable, palpating, reliable, so reliable in being called what they are that their titles must go exactly as far as they do and no further.


But suddenly, on account of the severe retrenchment of scope, it is once again possible to say something, to say it quite directly, unencryptedly.   It is possible for somebody who says of himself that he is chafing at reality and questing for reality as he commences to speak with his existence.  At the end of his great poem “Engführung” [“Stretto”], there is a particularly striking passage, and I would like to close with this passage--and before I do, I would also like to mention that for Celan the stars are “the work of man,” that here they are to be understood as a human construct.

still has some light
nothing is forsaken

  1. Blätter für die Kunst. 3 Folgen, 5 Bände, Auslese aus den Jahrgängen 1892–1898. Verlag Georg Bondi, Berlin 1899. Text aus der Einleitung. S. 24. [Art Journals.  Three Series, Five Volumes, Selections from the Years 1892 to 1898.  Georg Bondi Publications, Berlin 1898.  Text from the introduction, p. 24.]
  2. As Bachmann’s editors point out, here she is quoting Marinetti indirectly (if at all [for they add that Marinetti’s daughter was unable to find the passage in her archive of her father’s works]) via Walter Benjamin’s essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter der technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), which is also the source of the attribution of the context of the passage to the Ethiopian colonial war.  The translation is Harry Zohn’s from the Hannah Arendt-edited collection entitled Illuminations.
  3. According to the editors, in her typescript Bachmann did not indicate what poem was to be read here.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Frankfurter Vorlesungen.  Probleme zeitgenössischer Dichtung [Frankfurt Lectures. Problems in Contemporary Literature], Munich and Berlin: Piper, 2016.  This is the second of a series of five lectures that Bachmann delivered at Goethe University Frankfurt during the 1959-1960 winter semester and recorded for Bavarian Radio in April 1960.

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