Theater of Cruelty

When you approach your limits

Light Poems
Forfatter: Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Forlag: Suhrkamp Insel (Tyskland)
POETRY / In a collection of poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, there may be a touch of criticism of civilization. Like when the political commitment ebbs and allows the artistic expression to intensify – melancholic and energetic.


The foremost German poet of our time' alongside the more intimate Sarah Kirsch – this is probably how many have viewed the recently deceased Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

He was born and grew up in an ice-bombed Nuremberg. In his early youth he was a member of Gruppe 47, and he established himself in the 60s and 70s as a leading writer and communicative intellectual. As a model for his use of direct speech in poems we find Brechts poetry. Enzensberger can be considered a modernist with classicist elements, who is close to realism and is considered an accessible poet.

Ties to Norway

The straps to Norway were several: Norwegian wife, Norwegian-born daughter, living in the country, and with a very large number of own essays published and collected in Norwegian. He was never a deep thinker. It is more of a humorous, everyday, somewhat distant Enzensberger who speaks about Norway in Norwegian act (1984). It can be noted that the Norwegian publisher at the time softened the original's title Norwegishe Anachronismen. The book is a defense of an unfashionable left behind and semi-poor, but stubborn Norway – the 80s Oslo he describes can thus be revisited somewhat nostalgically by the reader of our time.

His style is nevertheless not without bite, and in the following words he described the Norwegian Culture of the time: "Now as before, you meet it everywhere in Norway: the café bohemian, the culture-radical editor, the poet-hermit and the seminar Marxist, with his fondness for bombastic idealism, hometown doctrine and self-assertion, genius cult and swarmery, as if they themselves were characters in an old-fashioned Norwegian novel."

In the second half of the 60s, Enzensberger gave a platform to the student and youth uprising through the left-revolutionary journal Kursbuch. Twenty years later it sounds like this instead – without remorseful denial, but with a completely different, worldly and slightly resigned tone: "The gradual death of the state – today one must look with a magnifying glass for anarchists who wholeheartedly believe in a future world where every form for dominion has vanished. Inarticulate defiance has supplanted this old fantasy.”

However, Enzensberger never hid his radical starting point when the EU issue came up; he remained a doubter of, yes, an opponent of a Brussels which, not unlike Novalis two hundred years earlier, he stood in opposition to the European spirit and culture: "In the long run, the European peoples will not put up with banking, armor -, chemical and agricultural lobbies' rule."

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Criticism of civilization

But back to Enzensberger's poetry. His first poem was characterized by the neomodernist wave of the time, but also by the time's now recognizable fear of the atomic bomb. But it is later, in the wake of the failed revolution and with the disappointments of the #68 generation during the maturing 70s, that Enzensberger writes what is probably his greatest collection of poems, The sinking of the Titanic (1978)

In this collection of poems, the view expands over German history and finds parallels in the more radical part of the Reformation, and in the peasant revolts of the 1400th and 1500th centuries, in addition to the old German and Flemish masters, the friction-filled transition between Gothic and Renaissance. A hint of civilization criticism is added, while the political commitment ebbs. At the same time, the artistic expression is enhanced; it is melancholic, energetic.

Now, less than a year after Enzensberger's death, his poetic estate, a selection of 38 compiled poems, published in Germany under the title Light Poems. There are poems that seem to be prepared for publication and in a coherent whole. The poems are shorter, but the form is recognizable from before, a verse libre with strong personal characteristics, but mixed with poems in older verse, madrigal, villanella, rondeau, ballad. An illustrated book where, for once, the pictures have something to add to the text – with exciting collages, in colour, by the artist Jan Peter Tripp.

"The gradual death of the state – today one must look with a magnifying glass for anarchists who wholeheartedly believe in a future world where all forms of domination have disappeared. Inarticulate defiance has supplanted this old fantasy.”

But the poet cannot be said to be at his peak in these late poems. Language approaches its limits, to cease. The classical forms emit more silence than any real message. Death seems to breathe between subordinate clauses; most of it has already been said and done. Time has run out, and the circumstances demand "slowly leben wie die Schildkröten / und die heidnischen Götter, gedultig". The summary of life takes place with a Goethe's balance, but does not really want to convince – it has become perhaps just too worldly.

The memory fragments

Instead, reading captures more the small, scattered ones minnethe fragments that emerge in consciousness from a long life. As when the poet's thoughts stop at how, having been recruited as a teenager into the collapsing Wehrmacht's 'Volkssturm', he fled westwards from the advancing Red Army. IN poemet "Ein Fund auf dem Dachboden", ("A find in the attic"), which is translated here in its entirety:

This is just a bit of fluff.
Where it now fell out from
an aunt's love letter,
she who took care of me
when I was a young fugitive,
on the run from the Russians,
as it was. And now will be
staying, getting stuck
on my thumb, so that
I can't get rid of her.

It is also with a chord of uncertainty that Enzensberger concludes for the future, most things seem to be in motion – even "the fixed star flickers". In a monologue poem, Enzenzberger connects to Heine as a radical forerunner, where the latter lies slowly dying, in the hospital bed in his Parisian exile. No real clarity can be gleaned from it, only that one has done one's best and that "autumn is so warm". The last two words in the collection of poems – if the location is the work of the poet or the editor – are 'Vergangenheit'' and 'verschwindet', past and disappeared. But before that one can – from the most influential German poet of the last fifty years – also read the self-ironic words: "in letzter Minute, / ein unerfüllbarer Wunsch!" – finally: an unfulfilled wish!

Håkan Sandell
Håkan Sandell
Sandell is now MODERN TIMES' regular poetry critic. He is a Swedish poet and literary critic. He is now a regular poetry critic in MODERN TIMES. Sandell has published around 30 books, and for several decades he has also worked as a culture writer for the Swedish morning newspaper Sydsvenskan. His latest book is the collection of poems The world opens the gates (2023).

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