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The Spanner in the Works

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by Axel Vieregg


Günter Eich (Photo by Hilde Zemann; used with kind permission of the copyright holder, H. Mulzer)

At last a major portion of the poetry of Günter Eich (1907 – 1972) has been made accessible to an English-speaking readership in a new translation. Angina Days is the title that Michael Hofmann, the translator and himself an acclaimed poet, gave to his selection, quoting a line from one of Eich’s poems. Eich would have enjoyed the ambiguity: “Angina”, in German, is a harmless tonsillitis, and so it is in the poem, while in English it is a critical heart disease. On another  level, the difficulty any translator of poetry has with rendering not just words but also meaning is, in this instance, resolved: “Angina” is a cognate of “Angst” – and that is a feeling which pervades much of Eich’s work.

In an interview of 1964 Eich stated that his main concern had been to “make suffering visible”, to prevent it from being overlooked. He had had high hopes after the end of the war in 1945 that a better world would rise from the ashes. His famous Inventur (Inventory), written when he was still in an American P.O.W. camp on the banks of the Rhine ranks as one of the most striking examples of that spirit of “Zero Hour”, which saw in a radical break with tradition the precondition of a new beginning. Defiantly, the poem lists the writer’s building blocks, his most basic possessions:

This is my cap,
my coat,
my shaving kit
in the burlap bag.

This tin can:
my plate and my cup.
I scratched my name
in the soft metal.

Scratched it
with this precious nail,
which I keep out of sight
of thieving eyes. […]

The pencil lead
is my favourite:
by day it writes out lines
that come to me at night.

This is my notebook,
this is my canvas,
my towel,
my thread.

Language is here pared back to the minimum, rhyme and conventional poetic vocabulary have disappeared. The poem culminates in the utensils of the craft of the writer, “pencil lead” and “notebook” as if to say: Mind will triumph over matter. The pen will be mightier than the sword.

Michael Hofmann’s judicious selection allows the reader to follow Eich’s development as a poet in detail. It is a journey which accompanies and reflects upon the personal, political and social issues of his time, the Cold War, rearmament, the German “Economic Miracle”, the  Vietnam War, the suffering of the poor and oppressed. It is also an inner journey which was going to lead Eich far away from his earlier beginnings. Needless to say that the optimism expressed in Inventur was not going to last.

In his poetry Eich hardly ever addresses issues directly. Rather, they seem to loom behind his texts, affecting imagery, mood and tone – one of the characteristics that make Eich’s later texts seemingly enigmatic. That is a challenge, and in most cases Michael Hofmann has met it admirably. Fluid and succinct, his translations catch Eich’s dry and laconic sound extremely well. Problems, however, arise when subtleties are overlooked, or when the nature of the text is such that an adequate rendering into readable English is well-nigh impossible.    

What follows here is therefore not intended as a critique, but as annotations and footnotes  meant to clarify some of Eich’s major concerns. Too awkward in a handsome volume of poetry, they seem to me nevertheless required in order to shed additional light on the work of one of the leading poets of post-war Germany, who has been “unjustly neglected in English”, as Hofmann rightly says.

Older Germans will remember the hours they spent listening to their valve radios when a new radio play by Günter Eich was broadcast at primetime. In the 1950s, television, in both East and West Germany, was still a novelty and few people owned a set. Radio plays provided the sounds that entered the mind more deeply and affected it more personally than any TV image ever could. Voices became inner voices, dramatic conflicts became inner conflicts. The medium suited Eich ideally: “I perceive the world through the ear rather than through the eye”, he once said, and his probing, questioning and searching enquiry into ever elusive certainties and realities made for an enthralling radio experience.

Eich’s approach was also ideally suited for the early post-war period. There was in Germany, at a time when the  Cold War was looming and before the  “economic miracle” began  benefiting the individual, an all-pervading sense of unease, of Angst  (Eich uses the word repeatedly). There was an awareness of loss: the loss of lives, of property, of beliefs and old certainties, even of self-worth. There was also an underlying feeling of guilt, mostly unacknowledged and hidden under self-pity, complacency and – almost frenzied – efforts to rebuild one’s own life, home, and self-respect. Eich saw through such efforts, exposed the unease and underlying guilt, but, first and foremost, he called for vigilance to avoid a relapse into an unfeeling barbarism.

The point of departure – and often it is an actual departure – of his “classic radio plays (1950 – 1958) is the sudden loss of the security of empirical reality. Träume – “Dreams”- is the characteristic title of the first of his great post-war radio-plays (1950). It hit the German radio audience like a bombshell and drew furious responses from many listeners who wanted to be entertained rather than disconcerted.

In “Dreams” Eich describes our waking state as a sleep “into which we have all been lulled” while to dream means in fact to awaken in the true reality. The listener is confronted with five endgames, each located in a different continent and hence universal. They are parables of man’s bleak existential situation, recognised with terror in the dream, but immediately forgotten on awakening. The play ends with the ever louder gnawing sound of termites and the crumbling to dust of a world where “the ground on which we stand is just a thin skin, everything is hollow inside.”

Eich then adds a coda which became famous as a poem in its own right (translation Hofmann, my own closer reading in square brackets):

Wake up, your dreams are bad! Stay awake, the nightmarishness [horror] is coming nearer.
To you it is coming, though you live far from the places of bloodshed. […]
No, don’t sleep while the governors of the world are busy!
Be suspicious of the power they claim to have to acquire on your behalf!
Do what is unhelpful [what cannot be used], sing songs from out of your mouths that go against expectation [those songs they don’t expect to hear from your mouths]!
Be ornery [Be obstreperous], be as sand, not oil in the thirsty machinery of the world!

Or: “Gum up the works” as Hofmann himself suggests, in his introduction, as an alternative rendering of Eich’s ringing appeal: “seid Sand, nicht Öl im Getriebe der Welt!” – “be the spanner in the works” would be the closest idiomatic equivalent of the German saying. A clear understanding of these lines is important. Because it is from here that Eich’s concerns, his motives and motifs, as well as his imagery can best be traced.

Few people recognised at the time to what extent the appeal owed its intensity to Eich’s very own and very personal feelings of guilt. Not until the 1980s, through the investigations of Glenn R. Cuomo in the United States and those by Hans Dieter Schäfer and Wolfram Wessels in Germany, did it become apparent that Eich had indeed been “oil in the machinery” of Hitler’s Third Reich. The 1991 edition of his Collected Works, as well his correspondence which had by then become accessible, could confirm that, with over 160 contributions to the Nazi broadcasting system, which culminated in the 1940 anti-British propaganda play Die Rebellion in der Goldstadt, Eich had been one of the most prolific and popular radio authors of the Third Reich. He was no follower of the regime, but, as the title of Cuomo’s investigation Career at the Cost of Compromise suggests and his investigation then shows, had certainly not sung songs “which go against expectations”. His ”songs” had met them rather: numerous pieces of light, folksy entertainment, as demanded by the authorities, precisely to “lull” the German audience “asleep”. His assertion, in his CV of 1946 or 47, which Hofmann quotes, that in the previous “ten years I did not write a line” (i.e. of poetry, but that, too, is not strictly correct) rings hollow.   

While Eich never revealed his involvement in Third Reich broadcasting openly and in plain prose, much of his post-war production reflects his attempt to come to terms with the past, to distance himself from it, to warn against gullibility and to draw the moral and aesthetic consequences. Fallibility and awakening, guilt and atonement, the appeal to recognise and to mitigate suffering, self-sacrifice in the service of others – these then become the dominant themes. Despair that so little has been learnt, indeed that Creation itself is deeply flawed, characterises the work of his final years.

A poem written in 1961 and dedicated to the Jewish (!) poet and Nobel-Prize winner Nelly Sachs comes closest to a confession. It also clearly develops Eich’s aims as a writer:

Game Paths

for Nelly Sachs

Don’t mention the hunters!
I sat by their fires,
I understood their language.
They know the world from the beginning
and do not question the woods.
You nod to their answers,
the smoke of their fires, too, affirms them,
and they are practiced
not to hear the scream
which annuls all world orders.

No, we want to be alien
and be astounded at death,
collect the breaths of the uncomforted,
cut across the tracks
and deflect the barrels of the rifles.

(translation A.V.)

It is hardly necessary to consult Nelly Sachs’ poetry for the numerous inter-textual references Eich makes to recognise what is meant by the hunters, their game, their fires, by the smoke. Michael Hofmann, in his introduction, talks about Eich’s many “gestures of refusal”: “Eich affirms one of the most ancient human freedoms, that of saying ‘no’”. This poem, which Hofmann does not include, could have served as an illustration.

There are other, oblique references which Eich makes to his past. The shortest is a three-line poem where the “gesture of refusal”, the rejection of any demands made on him is dialectically linked to his early entrapment. Unfortunately, due to the impossibility of rendering the ambiguity in English, the reference is lost. Michael Hofmann translates:

Thank you, but leave us.
We have already been to the caves
of the rat catchers.

Whereas Eich really says: “Long ago we had already been inside the caves / of the Pied Pipers”, (“in den Höhlen der Rattenfänger“). It is a “Once bitten twice shy”, or, as the equivalent German saying goes: “Gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer”, a burnt child shies away from the fire. That is the meaning of “the burnt children” – “die gebrannten Kinder” – in the poem Brothers Grimm, an allusion which the literal translation in Angina Days also cannot convey. German 20th ct. history is indeed a Grim(m) fairy tale!

Increasingly, Eich developed a cryptic, hieroglyphic style of writing. “Templates for meditation” he called his late texts. The reader is sent on a quest for meaning – through empathy, through following cross references and deciphering key words, through unravelling plays on words. This presents a daunting challenge to any translator. Michael Hofmann translates the last lines of Bestellung (Order) as follows:

hurry up and serve the dishes
that don’t exist,
and uncork the marvels!

Then we won’t mind
opening our mouths
and paying what we owe.

Lost in this translation is Eich’s play on words in the last line, and lost with it is the theme of the poem: “was wir schuldig sind” translates not just as “what we owe” but as “for what we are guilty of”. Currency is the obolus for Charon: “the penny under the tongue”. An early draft of the poem underscores the context of guilt and atonement. One of the “marvels” the speaker wants “uncorked” is a “brandy distilled from tears”.  A similar constellation occurs in the earlier poem Andenken, (Memorial). While the fires are out, their smoke still lingers: “The wind is full of black dust. / It scours the names off the gravestones / and etches in ours / on this day today” – and not “etches this day into us” as Michael Hofmann translates.

Eich’s “gestures of refusal” focus on the opposition to all forms of “Einverständnis”, i.e. agreement, acceptance, assent and affirmation. In Dreams and in its coda, or in Wildwechsel, the emphatic “no” can be understood as a largely political and social protest. Gradually, however, Eich’s rejection of any “establishment” widens into an all-embracing existential revolt, a revolt against God: “I am mad at the establishment, not just the political, but the establishment of Creation”, he said in 1970 in an interview with students from a Berlin High School. Or again in 1971, a year before his death: “Today I no longer accept nature: even although it is unalterable. I am against acceptance [das Einverständnis] of things in Creation. It is always the same thought process: acceptance no longer [das Nichtmehr-einverstandensein].”

Such a rejection of consent calls for persistent questioning, for a rejection of “answers” to which one simply “nods”, as in Wildwechsel.  “With my verse I raise questions. My faith in answers is minimal, my agreement [Einverständnis] is lacking.” The ultimate question for Eich is that which, with the black humour so characteristic of his late work, he calls the “Schlupfwespenfrage (I, 341), i.e. the “ichneumon-question”. It is, of course, the age-old philosophical problem of theodicy, the question why God allows evil and suffering to exist. A passage from the project of a requiem (1957) which remained unpublished during Eich’s lifetime illustrates what is meant:

[…] you can add Creation,
tally-ho and feast of slaughter,
the mouse between the teeth of the cat,
eggs of the ichneumon
in the paralysed body of the caterpillar,
the harmony of horror…

The ichneumon-fly with its sting paralyses the caterpillar, lays its eggs into its body, which is then eaten alive by the larvae. That, for Eich, made Creation a scandal. Such is the scandal that it makes even the dead stir in protest: “the shaking of the gravestones / when the caterpillar arches under the paralysing sting” (Two in the Afternoon). But this is not what the reader finds in Angina Days. Michael Hofmann’s translation fails to evoke the significance of this central concept of Eich’s, and so the line reads instead: “the crippled caterpillar wriggles” – which eliminates the sting, and with it the ichneumon-fly.

Such a scandalous state of the world convinced Eich that any seeming harmony and beauty in nature were just a thin veneer, a ploy even, to make us acquiesce, so as to obtain our “Einverständnis” with the world as it is: “In the evenings / the sunsets are intended to reassure you”, he wrote already in 1955. In his late subversive prose pieces, the Maulwürfe (“moles”, because they undermine all accepted tenets), Eich revisits his themes in a self-mocking theatre of the absurd. In Hausgenossen (“Flat Mates”) “Mother Nature” enters, her mouth smeared with blood, and proudly displays her latest model: “Here, the praying mantis. While his abdomen copulates with her, she gobbles up his thorax. Yuck, mama, I say, you are unappetising. But the sunsets, she giggles.”

In Michael Hofmann’s selection all these aspects are present, but, unfortunately, his translations frequently obscure or ignore them. In Poor Sunday he gives a splendid English rendering of Eich’s mocking picture of the good citizens, all dressed up for their Sunday outing: “it’s hoist all sails and nipples / erect and health here we come.” Basking in self-satisfaction it is their hour: “hour of the magnificent” (“Stunde der Prächtigen”), and one might well hear an echo of “Lorenzo der Prächtige”, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Medici banker. (Before the advent of leisure-wear, conservative Germans used to don their “Sunday Best” – “hoist all sails” – for a stroll through the park; that was then to become designer sportswear.) These are the yes-men, those who have all the answers. But Hofmann translates the line as “hour of splendor” and so the people and the allusions disappear. For Eich, after all, it is but a “poor Sunday”. He mocks the show of wealth and jollity which cannot hide the existential void, nor can the beauty of nature, in this case that of the “sycamore glades”. Their “abgekartete Schönheit” does not translate as “hand-me-down beauties”, as Hofmann has it, but as a beauty “rigged”, a beauty “connived”. Consequently, a useless reject, it can now be consigned to “the museum of consolations” [where] “the drooling sun / points at the merry dust.” Dust to dust – it is a poem about the vanity of all things, a mockery of all solace.

There is a similar derision in Ohne Unterschrift where Eich does list “The answers: caterpillars under the bark / of felled poplars […] // A world order of cut flowers / and the pleasing line of forest edges. […] // no more questions now, assent [Einverständnis]…” But, with the caterpillars, the ichneumon is not far. These answers are not his answers: he refuses to subscribe to such cheap and naive satisfaction. The title translates as Unsigned. Rather, these answers are those of “my enemies / with their assent”, as he says in Zwei [Two]: “die Feinde / mit ihrem Einverständnis.” Here, however, Michael Hofmann translates: “with their common purpose”. Consistency is lost and with it a central element of Eich’s thinking.  

Eich’s late work is steeped in utter pessimism: “Vain the cruel hope / that the screams of the tortured / might pave the way for a brighter future” (Topography of a Better World). Vain also – Eich had come to realise – was any hope that his writing, intended “to make suffering visible”, could have any consequences. The optimism expressed in the Inventory of 1945 is refuted in a poem from 1966, not included by Hofmann. The similarity of its minimalism makes it almost look like a companion piece, but this time it is a balance sheet – with nothing under the bottom line:


Fewer goals
and smaller,
rice-grain sized.

Not lavish,
most things
in meditations.

Already suited
for poverty and

Brief screams still
across the tarmac,

Told or
and rice-grain sized.

(Translation A.V.)

The “screams” of the suffering which Eich wanted his readers to hear in so many of his texts (cf. Game Paths) still re-echo, but whether “told or untold”, it makes no difference. By now, Eich had reached his ultimate position: that of the Oriental sage, withdrawn into his “rock garden”, meditating over a grain of rice: “I have been here / and here / I could have / gone there too, or stayed at home. / You can understand the world / without leaving home. / I encountered Lao Tse / before I met Marx.[…]”. (Delayed, from Occasions and Rock Gardens) Eich had indeed studied Sinology.

The “meditations” are reflected and passed on in what became Eich’s final literary triumph, the anarchic short prose texts of his “Moles”, “Maulwürfe”, most of them still waiting to be translated into English. They are cackling deconstructions of any form of “Einverständnis”, of acceptance, including that of logic and grammar, a rejection of and reduction to absurdity of a world gone awry. A poem written shortly before Eich´s death, and definitively rendered by Michael Hofmannn, points the way:


Fog fog fog,
in my ears, a
and Raissa’s sweet laugh.

Experience tells
what belongs with what
what belongs with and,
only with and.
No rationale.

It will last
as long as the and doesn’t
slip my mind like the other words.
It’s enough, thanks, it’s plenty.

Günter Eich: Angina Days. Selected Poems
Translated and introduced by Michael Hofmann
Princeton University Press, Princeton 2010.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4008-3434-1
Cloth, 216 pages, US$24.95

Axel Vieregg has written extensively on  Günter Eich and edited Vols. I and IV of his Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works), 1991. He lives in Palmerston North, New Zealand, where he was a professor of German literature at Massey University.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books.