True or false:

1. Major daily newspapers no longer publish poetry.
2. Poems are not about anything.
3. Nobel laureates in literature politely remove themselves from the public forum immediately after nomination.
4. Poetry is too difficult for the general reader.
5. Bad poems still bite.

Last Wednesday on the 4th of April, Günter Grass put paid to the first four of these post-Victorian shibboleths, while running the fifth straight up the mast.

And now it would seem that all of us—poets, lovers of poetry, hired guns, etc.—have a bit of explaining to do. It’s no wonder no one at Harriet has broached the subject. It’s embarrassing, not only the poem itself but what it’s doing in a leading European newspaper, the Süddeutschen Zeitung. After all, a poem—of whatever quality—usually doesn’t ask us to agree or disagree. It’s considered “bad form” to do so. That’s not the way poems are supposed to work. So why is one poet’s wondering out loud in verse on the world stage about why he has kept silent enough to silence the lot of us? The poem has fired the imagination of prime ministers, presidents and an array of commentators. But of all the responses I’ve read since it appeared, not a single one of them has been by a working poet. Why hasn’t our Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, spoken up?

As political analysis Grass’s poem is hardly sophisticated. No matter what you believed previously about Israel’s brinkmanship, your mind is not likely to be changed after reading “What Must Be Said.” The author conflates Israel’s increasingly strident arguments for preempting Iran’s nuclear build-up (which he suggests might not even be taking place) with Israel’s own nuclear capacity, predicting that a “first strike option” will lead to nuclear war and the extermination of the Iranian people. The idea that Israel is going to preemptively bomb Iran with nuclear warheads is patently absurd. In spite of Israel’s continuing refusal to sign on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, their fissile weaponry is held in a posture of deterrence, a policy that dates to the postwar origins of the Israeli state.

Geopolitical Intelligenz-Quotient aside, poets, and Grass is no exception, have a way of decorating their fictions with unintentionally revealed truths. The various translations of his poem into English that have appeared since Wednesday fail to do justice to the roiled undercurrent of obliquely expressed shame that runs through the poem in its original German. The first version to appear in The Guardian was truncated, omitting phrases and whole verses. It rendered the first line as follows: “But why have a kept silent until now?” This was later upgraded in a second, full translation by Breon Mitchell to: “Why have I kept silent, held back so long…” In the German original the line is: “Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange…”  It would be hard to reproduce such sounds in English, especially if you are translating under strictures of the 24-hour news cycle. To find this kind of alliterative density in English you have to peer back deep into the tradition. Try the second line of Cædmon's Hymn: metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc. Grass produces a similar aural traffic jam with schweige and verschweige. The second word, formed, like many German compounds, from the root verb and the suffix ver, repeats and intensifies the meaning of “schweige” (be silent, say nothing) to “keep secret or conceal.” Mitchell’s translation doesn’t quite reproduce that feeling of malevolence. The only translator to so far catch this detail is Heather Horn in The Atlantic. On the other hand, if Grass is speaking of simple self-imposed reticence, the word verschweige would seem extreme. Only if we consider revelations in the author’s personal history do we begin to understand the gradations of concealment revealed.

By describing one layer of silence Grass provides a running commentary on another one, namely the fact that he neglected to tell the world that, as a young man, he volunteered for and served in the Waffen SS, the combat unit of Hitler’s special paramilitary force charged with (and indoctrinated in) the annihilation of European and Russian Jewry. This fact, which the author finally revealed in his 2006 memoir, Peeling the Onion, while not explicitly referred to in the poem, shadows his assertion that modern German history is a countervailing force stymieing Germans’ ability to speak out, or more explicitly, to criticize Israel. For Grass though, speaking out and leveling charges of hypocrisy are themselves expressions of hypocrisy, those of a man who spent his whole adult life exhorting his countrymen to deal transparently with their past while keeping his own past hidden. In a 2007 article in The Guardian, Michael Hofmann, one of our greatest living translators of German literature, did not mince words. Reviewing Grass’s memoir he accuses the author of having “carefully incubated his particular shame for 60 years, all the while encouraging others to talk about theirs. Now, possibly threatened by its imminent disclosure—the relevant documents have surfaced lately in Grass's Stasi file—or in an attempt to keep some sort of "authorial" control over it, he has published it, and impertinently required readers to pay for it, the only significant revelation in a long and miserably bad book. This lifelong silence, and the manner of his breaking it, have hurt Grass's reputation in ways from which it will never recover, and which, depressingly, he seems not even to have understood.” Five years later it would seem that he still doesn’t understand.

On Friday, in an interview, Grass admitted that he should have distinguished between Israelis and the present government of Israel. Netanyahu had gone out of his way to comment not only on the content of the poem but (ad hominem) on whether or not Grass was qualified to pronounce upon the Israeli body politic. Grass's moral and ethical qualifications—his license to speak—have been taken up by a range of commentators.

Moral questions about the author’s suitability to even address these subjects aside, Grass's defense of his poem sheds light on not only what he has to say but, inadvertently, on how he wants us to see the poem qua poem, which, in turn, broaches the question of what a poem is and what it is capable of doing. Certainly the fact that a published poem has been taken up in a timely fashion by the transnational chattering machine is significant for practicing poets. Suddenly concerns normally thought to be outside the purview of contemporary practice have been ceased upon by a practicing poet with reverberating consequences. As Nicholas Kulish and Ethan Bronner tell us in an April 6th article in the New York Times, “Jacob Augstein, the publisher of the weekly magazine Der Freitag, said that it was neither a great poem nor brilliant political analysis, but that ‘one should thank Grass’ for starting the debate about the threat Israel poses to peace.”

Could it be that Grass deliberately contrived to make his poem more unwieldy than he might have, utilizing a kind of bric-a-brac construction so as not to undercut or delegitimize the urgency and authenticity of his message by fussing about with something too apparently literary? This side of the debate raises the question of poetry’s instrumentality; is a poem’s use-quotient always a matter of degree, or, on the other hand, is it a question of kind. The first argument would claim that all poems, just as any other literary text, are instrumental and that Grass’s poem is another case of this, albeit coming in at the extreme end of the spectrum, little more than confused agitprop. The second argument is that a poem is essentially about a set of inseparable convergences, fact with form, emotion with expression, process with aesthetics; It was snowing / And it was going to snow.  Most of us have learned the art of poetry according to the tenets of this second option, one form or another of “Pure Poetry.” One of the consequences of the prevalence of this last school of thought has been a growing distance between poetry and popular readership. It is important to remember that this notion of poetry was not always and everywhere dominant.

Yet, broadcasting from their hidden country, literary critics and editors have been quick to dismiss “What Must Be Said” as a poem, using this hastily perceived failure to disqualify it from functioning authoritatively and as an equal participant in the current geopolitical discourse. One commentator asked why Grass hadn’t settled for an essay. Condemning the poem as a poem—after less than a week of published life—is to dodge the question of what the poem was up to and, more generally, what poems can be expected to do. Literary critics across the board are refusing to learn from the poem itself as a published artifact grounded in currently unpopular notions of poetic instrumentality. That a poem could be written for its social usefulness, its ability to leverage a message, is simply beyond the pale.

Again, Michael Hofmann, in an article published in The Liberal, around the time of the one cited above, tells us that before Grass’s reputation was indelibly tarnished by his confessions in Pealing The Onion he reminded his readers in Die Welt that the waning of Bertolt Brecht’s work was unfair. “Brecht’s remained a large and important oeuvre, and the poetry in particular was magnificent and diverse.” Looking at Grass’s poem against the backdrop of the older poet’s example is revealing. Although Grass’s poem lacks—to use Walter Benjamin’s terms—the lapidary ironies and satirical bent that informed Brecht’s poetics, he certainly shares Brecht’s concern for the social relevance of poetry and his impatience with literary niceties and ivory towers.

In fact, Benjamin is still our best guide to what drove Bertolt. In the posthumous “Commentaries on Poems by Bertolt Brecht” (translated by Ana Bostok in a Verso edition, 1998) Benjamin remarks: “The difficulty to be surmounted here consists in reading lyric poetry today at all.”  Speaking about the evolution between Brecht’s Hauspostille and Svendborg Poems, he says that the asocial attitude of the first is transformed into the social attitude of the second. He goes on: “It is necessary to point out what the different collections of verse have in common. Among their multiple attitudes there is one you will never find: that is the unpolitical, non-social one. It is the commentary’s purpose to pinpoint the political contents of passages chosen precisely because they are purely lyrical…”

Grass’s poem is admittedly a mishmash of the tradition of engagé literature. Imagine “J’Accuse” drawn through the filter of Brechtian poetics. It’s like Zola through the looking glass. Instead of accusing a state of anti-Semitism, Grass is accusing a state (the state of Israel) of using the charge of anti-Semitism as a default criticism designed to nullify his argument and impinge upon his freedom to speak. That is, he is accusing a state of accusing him, before the fact, of anti-Semitism. He got that much right. This is Grass’s problem. Our problem is to read his poem with the passion we bring to all our readings, and look at it critically, especially since it has created more hubbub than anything we’ve written lately.

Originally Published: April 10th, 2012

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...