Much Ado About... A Poem?

How did a bad poem become the cause of international diplomatic conflict?

As the world looks on with mild bafflement, Germany has been in uproar since last week about a poem by Nobel-prize winner Günter Grass. As the BBC explains to the Anglophone world, “in Germany, artists are taken very seriously.” Not just in Germany: Grass has been declared a persona non grata by the Israeli government, joining the ranks of outspoken Israel-critic Noam Chomsky and Irish Nobel-prize winner Mairead Maguine, also banned from entering the country by Netanyahu’s government.

The reason for the ban is a poem striking neither in form nor in content. German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki slammed Grass’ poem as worthless in both political and literary terms. Indeed, it’s the ideal example of how combining poetry with politics can lead to a serious flop. Grass’ poem, many argue, is nothing more than a political diatribe masquerading as poetry: apart from line-breaks, it does not fulfill any of the necessities for an effective poem. But even so—isn’t a bad poem still a poem? And therefore, should it not be treated accordingly?

Let’s take a step back and examine the cause for outrage. With his “last ink” Grass attacks Israel’s nuclear politics, claiming it is a threat to world peace. Much has been said about Grass’ failure to grasp politics: placing Iran and Israel on the same moral plane, implying Israel wants to annihilate Iran, etc. However, the gist of Grass’ argument is neither new nor controversial: as the New York Times states, “those views are relatively common among European intellectuals.” What has thrown most of Germany into vitriol is rather the allegation that criticizing Israel is taboo. In his poem, Grass claims that he has kept silent until now because he was afraid of being hit by what Germans colloquially the “Nazi-mace,” or allegations of anti-Semitism. Given his personal history as an SS-man, Grass’ posing as a moral figure in his criticism of Israel is naturally rather dubious. He has indeed been accused of “educated anti-Semitism” by a gamut of German and Israeli politicians.

Moshe Zimmerman’s commentary that “the debate on [Grass’] controversial views needs to take place on the culture pages of newspapers—not in politics” is indicative of how these two categories have been conflated in the debate, revealing the rather artificial distinction in the first place. Of course, genres exist for a reason: they establish a useful framework of expectations that can then be fulfilled or subverted. Having an entire country’s political sphere up in arms about a poem does beg the question: to what extent can poetry be politicized and how free can it be? Had Grass written a “better” poem in the literary sense, would it have been so controversial? In “What must be said,” the political garble is so obvious to the reader that it must be addressed. But had it been buried deeper into the core of the poem, would it then perhaps have been accepted—and dismissed—as an emotional perspective, with little to no political relevance?

“If Meir Dagan (former Mossad director criticial of the current government) were to publish a poem, I would find it just as embarrassing as when Grass publishes a nuclear analysis,” declared Israeli historian Tom Segev. Grass did not publish a nuclear analysis. Admittedly, it was a poor poem, but the newspapers accepted it as such. This leads us to question the people who accepted it for publishing: the culture desks at the “Süddeutsche Zeitung,” “El Pais,” and “La Republicca” and their own ideas of publishable quality.

Can a country ban an individual for writing a bad poem? No. The Israeli government made a point of emphasizing Grass’ past in the SS—grounds on which they can legally deny him entry. Poetry, unlike politics, does not have an inherent commitment to the “truth,” and carries within it more creative freedom than a pamphlet. Günter Grass is an example of a writer who has attempted to harness poetry for the use of ideological politics, and thus his poem, and political views, were doomed to fail. For an effective political critique, detailed analytical thought, and a solid grasp of facts is necessary; for an effective poem, emotions need to be shown not told. Grass did neither, and in the process stepped into a hornet’s nest, which is probably what he intended to do to begin with. He knows how to boost his book sales by causing controversy: he admitted to being in the SS as a teenager in an interview shortly before the release of his memoir in 2006. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.”

Read more in this column Anna Polonyi: The Iron Curtain’s Comeback

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