05 January 2006

Poetry and Change

Amidst life-altering events and shifts, poetry is well placed as a genre because of its immediacy. The way poetry has of setting our internal house in order, of formalizing emotion difficult to articulate, is one of the reasons we still depend on it in moments of crisis and during those times when it is important to know, in so many words, what we are going through.
The poem is able to capture the very first responses to change, as well as later, more considered ones. In his ‘Lebenslinie’ lecture on poetry for example, Günter Kunert looked back at his own poems and identified their ‘Zeitabhängigkeit’. He argued that poetry is essentially the poet’s reaction to the times. The poem can also seem to shift of its own accord, however. The passage of time alters the way an extant poem is read, so that its words seem to have different referents as history unfolds.
German history of the 20th century is full of discontinuities, radical breaks and fresh starts, which have been negotiated by poetry. Many poems in a period of historic change reflect a renewed sensitivity to questions of history and genre. The German poet Heinz Czechowski’s 1990 poem ‘Festtage’, for example, identifies the Eastern European revolution of 1989 with a clash between poetry and prose. In this poem, the generic opposition between the prosaic and the lyrical is a clash between the realistic and the utopian, between the commercial imperative of the West and ‘unsere Träume’.

See also Memory Traces