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Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems

By Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Translated by David Constantine, Michael Hamburger, Hans Magnus Enzensberger

2016 Number 3 - The Blue Vein

...his critique of German post-war economics in this first poem rings true of a modern-day Europe under cruel austerity measures that pit the less well off against those even worse off : ‘here the partly disabled wage war against the wholly disabled, | here the rule is: be ruthlessly nice to each other…’

Review by Jen Calleja

‘To my mind poetry is an omnivore; it can take up any subject, whether it be a tree, whether it be an enemy, whether it be a love, whether it be an insect, nothing can escape poetry …’

– Enzensberger to Anne McElroy, BBC Radio 3, June 2015

HME is compelled to write poetry as an act of judgement. It’s as if each subject or object he deems worthy must be processed through the machinery of his mind to be dismantled, displaced and reconfigured as a thing unquestionably and immediately in need of attention.

The New Selected Poems opens with the title poem of his 1960 collection Landessprache (‘Language of the Country’) which helped win him the title of ‘angry young man’ and which is definitive of his incredulity of the ‘New Germany’:

           my two countries and I, we’ve gone separate ways, 
           and yet I am wholly here
           in sackcloth and ashes, and ask:
           what is my business here? 

It’s interesting to see that his critique of German post-war economics in this first poem rings true of a modern-day Europe under cruel austerity measures that pit the less well off against those even worse off : ‘here the partly disabled wage war against the wholly disabled, | here the rule is: be ruthlessly nice to each other…’

The relevance of his work is, of course, far beyond historical tourism and comparison. Though a well-known documenter of the particular spectrum of rifts – in national identity, in language, in the ability to trust – felt by the younger generation in Germany after the end of the Second World War, Enzensberger’s themes and subjects tend towards the transnational, the universal and the personal.

‘Song for Those Who Know’ cuttingly mocks those who fail to act in global aff airs and who have a passive interpretation of foreign policy:

           Something must be done right away
           that much we know 
           but of course it’s too soon to act
           but of course it’s too late in the day 
           oh we know 

He is frustrated by large international organisations as they don’t really hold the power to change things. Bureaucracy is slow, and international bodies are rarely democratic. It is down to the individual, who has complete choice to choose to opt out of capitalism (‘it is not enough | that leisure booms and steps on the gas and gets going …’ ‘Language of the Country’), to save your fellow man (‘Now and again it happens | that somebody shouts for help | and somebody else jumps in at once | and absolutely gratis’, ‘Optimistic Little Poem’) and to speak up (‘What makes your voice so flat | so thin and tinny | is your fear | of saying the wrong thing…’ ‘Delete the Inapplicable’).

If he comes across as rather didactic and lecturing, it comes from a place of utter frustration with the world and obviousness (to him, at least) of the right way of going about and considering things. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a will for superiority or righteousness, but rather from a very human, moral compulsion. For him, there is no possible other option than to rebel, to protest, to intervene.

Everything is out to get us, everything is a disappointment, be it large corporations, governments, or life itself. Even the tap whose ‘cold enamel | says COLD, in bold letters … runs warm’ (‘The Bell Jar’). My favourite section is poems taken from his 1980 collection The Fury of Disappearance, which contains more personal poems about relationships and human weakness. ‘The Divorce’ maps the lead up to and the time immediately after a split, the unseeing of love as the other becomes ‘odourless and sharp | like a passport photo, this unknown person | with a glass of tea at table, with staring eyes’ and finishes with what remains, which could also be after a war: ‘These are the documents | This is the bunch of keys. This is a scar’. In ‘At Thirty-Three’ a woman who has failed at writing her thesis and who wears dresses that are too wide for her figure drinks ‘cucumber juice for hours in front of the mirror’, which is where she presumably does the weeping that, we’re told in the last line, makes her look nineteen. The anxiety-inducing ‘The Employee’ is a montage of the paralysed thoughts and inactions of a ‘regular guy’: ‘He thinks, better not.’

But Enzensberger isn’t a comfortable recluse passing sentence. In 2011, he opted into the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Initiative (just as an aside, it’s rather funny to think that Enzensberger, who has railed against the comfort of consumerism and The Rich in his work, agreed to this set-up, which is as problematic as it is prestigious) acting as writing mentor for the poet Tracy K. Smith, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Life on Mars during her time on the mentorship. Smith said of Enzensberger that ‘I can see that there is something kindred between us. I think we’re both, on one key level, concerned with the individual and society, and with how an individual responds to systems that are not of his own choosing’. This personal engagement with a younger poet, their shared need to question and bear witness through poetry, along with his public discussions on everything from Bosnia to Ukraine to the European Union, cements Enzensberger as not an intellectual German or European poet in a tower, but as a communal, sociopolitically engaged subject of the world.

Enzensberger’s thanks for the volume must, of course, go to that special group of people, of whom he is one: ‘To the noble coolies of poetry, translators in East and West, with gratitude.’ Enzensberger is himself a translator of many of the poems here – all of the poems from The Sinking of the Titanic and nearly all the poems from Music of the Future – so the non-German speaking reader has the rare experience of knowing that they are in fact reading a foreign poet in their own words. (Is it just a coincidence that all my favourite poems in the collection were translated by Michael Hamburger? I think he had me when he made ‘plimsolls pant past’ in ‘The Holiday’).

Enzensberger’s status as a poetry powerhouse of the twentieth century is now irrefutable, but he is reluctant to be the wise man, the prophet. He has a very pragmatic, comical view on his place in poetry now, as he told McElroy:

I may be something of an enfant, but I’m not an enfant terrible anymore. There’s always a child hidden in the old man. In other respects, of course, you may be an old geezer, or an elder statesman – involuntarily of course, who wants to be an elder statesmen? Certainly not me ...

You have been around for such a long time. Other very important writers have died, they’ve left us, so by dint of survival you end up in this corner. 

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