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Dramatic satire in poetry

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of Germany’s most important poets, is a provocative cultural essayist and one of Europe’s leading political thinkers. Selected Poems includes poems from collections published during the past 30 years, with a large selection from The Sinking of the Titanic, his last British collection. For George Szirtes, writing in The New Statesman, it was “a dramatic and philosophical statement of compulsive power… our emotions and our reason are driven along together as in the best of Brecht”.
“The author uses satire, wit, political imagination, and lyrical gusto to overcome the Nazi past and maintain his reputation as one of Germany’s greatest cultural essayists and political thinkers.”
Documentary filmmaker Tarun Bhartiya, currently reading the book, says, “I discovered Hans Magnus Enzensberger in State Central Library in the late eighties. I bought his Selected Poems for a mere ten rupees from Daryaganj footpath in Delhi.”
“Selected Poems’ libertarian Marxist verses have new textures. Always historical and provocative, they are not romantic or metaphysical,” adds Bhartiya.
Coming of age after the Third Reich, Enzensberger builds his poetry upon titanic German wreckage and tradition.
His humanity dares to sport a sublime malice toward all and charity for few. His revelations have something in common with certain post-Renaissance painters, whose Madonnas are both spiritual and lascivious.
Lawrence Joseph, in his introduction to Kiosk, writes, “Enzensberger, more than any poet of his generation anywhere in the world, comes before the public with his own precepts, codes and taboos… Whose work has delved into and captured the thought of our time to the extent that Enzensberger’s has?”
Translated by the author and Michael Hamburger, this dual-language book offers a conspectus of Enzensberger’s distinguished career from 1960 to 1991, including material from his much-praised The Sinking of the Titanic (1978). He started out wanting to write “poems for people who don’t read poems”, a familiar ambition, and never stops furnishing ‘Further Reasons Why Poets Do Not Tell the Truth’.
This Brechtian abrasiveness sometimes wastes itself on truisms and cosy nay-saying, but it proceeds from a fiercely humorous intelligence. The voice never stops asking its blizzard of questions: ‘We make the tables turn, we ask reality / How real is it?’
Enzenberger’s poetry is a complex fusion of dramatic satire and meditative verse, quietly fixed on structures of oppression and coercion. Enzensbeger proceeds with intense, incisive portraits drawn as though by an inverse Whitman — the pensioner, the employee, the discreet detective.
This painterly method is often coupled with jarring transformations of figures and contexts, used not for the sake of aesthetics but for invoking moral consciousness, as in the early ‘Poem about the Future, November 1964’: “Two men appear on a tractor/ (Chou En-Lai is in Moscow)/ Two men in stone-grey overalls/ (Nobel Prize-winners in evening dress)/ Two men with slender sticks/ (gold medals from Tokyo)/ at the wayside amid yellow leaves/ (the dead guerillas of Vietnam)…”
The dangers of piety and self-righteousness are avoided by generous doses of self-indictment; Enzensbeger is a master of deflating senses of middle-class accomplishment, his own often foremost among them.
The later work, particularly the new poems of Kiosk, gives way to a more philosophical, forgiving tone where observations and speculations on nature, evolution and mind are given freer reign: “The thought/ behind the other thought./ A pebble, ordinary,/ homogeneous, hard,/ not for sale.”
The translations are consistently clear capturing the sharp, spare style. Though the forms and focus of this poetry change over time, its intent and integrity remain consistent, as do its richness and clarity.
“Selected Poems is a wonderful read
and which is very thought-provoking. I would like to recommend this to all,” says Bhartiya.

Reading suggestions for the week:
1. Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri
2. Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

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