Telling Refusal: Günter Eich’s Angina Days

Angina Days | Selected Poems by Günter Eich
Princeton University Press, 2010, Cloth, $24.95

     The narrative of discovery and recovery of a writer we can describe quite reasonably as essential is compelling.[1. 1. Two earlier collections exist. Pigeons and Moles: Selected Writings of Günter Eich, translated with an Introduction by Michael Hamburger, Camden House, 1990. Hamburger’s selection is includes three of the radio plays, and an excerpt from Eich’s Büchner Prize speech. Oberlin College press published a selection in 1981, Valuable Nail, translated by Stuart Friebert, David Walker and David Young. It includes a good introduction by Young and a short essay by Eich. These editions make no mention of Eich’s complicated past, but the relevant information was not available until after they were published.] But the case of Günter Eich is more complicated than this extraordinary new collection makes it appear. Thanks are due to Princeton University Press and to Nicholas Jenkins, series editor of Facing Pages, for Angina Days | Selected Poems, the best effort yet to bring Eich to our attention.[2. 2. Eich’s book is the seventh to appear in a series that includes at least one other indispensable collection: Landscape With Rowers: Poetry From the Netherlands, translated and introduced by J.M. Coetzee, 2005.] Thanks to the translator, poet and critic Michael Hofmann, who has worked, it seems indefatigably, to bring English readers the riches of recent German literature.

     Why do we know almost nothing about Günter Eich? In part it is a matter of his temperament. Born in 1907, he studied law at his father’s behest, Chinese for pleasure. He became a full-time freelance writer in Dresden in 1932, an inopportune moment to begin any self-directed project in Germany. In his own version of his story, Eich was drafted into the Wehrmacht in August 1939, and discharged after a stretch in an American POW camp in 1945, left with nothing but a backpack. According to Hofmann, an Allied bomb destroyed his Berlin apartment in 1943. “A little late, in summer of 1945, I came back . . . but with the balance of my goods and chattels on the far side of the Oder-Neisse-Line.”[3. 3. Eich quoted in Hofmann’s introduction to Angina Days, op cit, and PG xiv.] Eich continues:

I wrote my first poems at the age of ten, and first saw my name in print at twenty. The poems I have for you now came about after ten years in which I didn’t write a line, in POW camp and after. They do not mean to project the reader or listener into a more beautiful world; their aim is to be objective.[4. 4. Ibid, PG xiv.]

     Eich received the inaugural prize of Gruppe 47 in 1950, and the Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor, in 1959. “Eich seems to have been entirely without the careerist ambitions of most poets — even the successful ones. Books were tickled out of him by impatient or silver-tongued publishers; prizes came to him without anxiety or agitation on his part: the most important radio drama prize, the Hörspielpreis der Kriegsblinden (Radio Play Award from the War-Blind) in 1953 . . ..” [5. 5. Angina Days, xvi.] What Hofmann idealizes in the first part of his sentence he addresses after the colon. Eich was an acknowledged master of the radio play.[6. 6. In his introduction to Pigeons and Moles Hamburger writes: “Between 1932 and 1973 Eich wrote at least forty-six radio plays, not counting the variant versions of some of them.” See note 9.] The success of his radio plays, and reading tours sponsored primarily by the Goethe Institute, allowed Eich an extraordinary degree of freedom.[7. 7. See Hamburger’s introduction for another explanation of why Eich may not have reached a wider audience in England.]

     We also know so little about Eich because of how little he may want us to know. Eich applied to join the Nazi party on 1 May 1933. In November of the same year “the membership process had been stopped on the basis of a letter.”[8. 8. See “Opposition or Opportunism? Günter Eich’s Status as an Inner Emigrant” in Flight of Fantasy: New Perspectives on Inner Emigration in German Literature, 1933-1945, Ed. by Neil Donahue and Doris Kirchner, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2003, 178.] Eich did join the Reich Chamber of Literature, and he worked for German radio, one of the principal instruments of Nazi propaganda, until 1940.[9. 9. Eich wrote or co-wrote 140 radio scripts from 1933-1940.] “More than a third of Eich’s postwar volume of poetry Distant Farms (Agelengene Gehöte, 1948) was written during the Third Reich and partly published in journals and newspapers.”[10. 10. See Schäfer, Hans Dieter, “The Young Generation’s Non-National Socialist Literature During the Third Reich” in Flight of Fantasy, 49. Schäfer continues: “Eich claims that his numerous radio plays . . . were hardly noticed at the time. This is contradicted by the fact that his play Death at Hands, (Tod an Den Händen), . . . was chosen as one of the most popular radio plays in the winter 1938-1939.”] Hofmann renders Distant Farms as Remote Smallholdings. It is the first collection he selects from.

     It cannot pass unnoticed that Hofmann has given us Eich as he wanted himself to be seen. Crucially, these omissions cast doubt on the status of all the biographical information in Hofmann’s introduction. And there is reason to doubt it. Though Eich was drafted in 1939 and trained as a radio operator, he served in Berlin at “a secure desk job,” where he reached the rank of sergeant, until 1944.[11. 11. See Cuomo, Glenn, Career at the Cost of Compromise: Günter Eich’s Life and Work in the Years 1933-1945, Rodopi Editions, Amsterdam & Atlanta, 1989, 26-28.] In the spring of that year he was transferred, serving in a communications unit in Dresden and Geisenhausen bei Landshut. The Americans captured him on the Western Front in 1945.[12. 12. Cuomo, Ibid, 27-28]

     The matter of the bomb that destroyed Eich’s apartment is of some importance in sorting out Hofmann’s views of Eich, and our views of the two of them. Eich filed for compensation for the loss of his possessions in an Allied bombing on November 20th, 1944. It seems unlikely that Eich would wait more than a year to recoup the losses incurred during the bombing, suggesting that Hofmann’s dates the bombing incorrectly.[13. 13. Cuomo, Ibid, 27.]

But Hofmann is not merely sure of his facts; they carry him away. Eich repudiated his pre-war poetry, and simply denied that there was any work at all from the Nazi era.[14. 14. Eich’s first collection appeared in 1930.] Hofmann argues that Eich “ . . . Betjeman-like, had cause to be grateful to the Allied bomb . . . that demolished his flat.” Good riddance to bad lyrics. But his first post-war collection contained a few examples in a more straightforward lyric style.[15. 15. See Pigeons and Moles.] Hofmann purged this work from his selection. He swallows Eich’s own editorial decisions about his life and his work whole. The historian Glenn Cuomo, who has written extensively about Eich, offers an opposing view of both issues: “ . . . after the collapse of the Third Reich less than a year later, the loss [of his apartment and manuscripts] became very advantageous to [Eich], since with the annihilation of the overwhelming majority of his radio texts from 1933 to 1940, almost all evidence of his Nazi-era writing had disappeared.”[16. 16. Ibid, 27.]

     Why does Hofmann let Eich mislead us as he misled his post-war auditors? This is a difficult problem, and a review is not a place to contemplate or assign blame. It is a troubling decision, particularly in a volume that strives to “introduce” Eich, as this carefully selected collection does. Even if his biography gives us second thoughts, even makes one queasy, Eich’s reputation as a poet is secure.


     Eich’s work travels from the lyric to the gnomic. If Hofmann had included a few of the lyrics that Eich included in his first post-war selection, Eich’s astonishing development would have been more apparent. In Remote Smallholdings, his 1948 collection, the title poem is in four rhymed four-lined stanzas. (The pattern is a b a b, c d c d, a e a e, f g f g.) Hofmann does not carry this rhyme scheme into English. (Fortunately, en face originals allow us to see rhymes in German.) The presence of rhyme seems to be a residue from Eich’s youthful lyrics. Everything else about the poem speaks to Eich’s postwar style: narration, when present, is drained of agency. Metaphor is kept to a minimum. The penultimate line is almost witty: “the saps of the world learn to circulate.” The final line reads: “smoke rises like a fiery poem.” The line might invoke smoke from concentration camp chimneys; it might suggest poetry is a destructive force.


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.

In my bread bag is
a pair of woolen socks
and some other things
I don’t tell anyone about,

it serves me as a pillow
for my head at night.
This piece of card I lay
between my body and the ground.

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

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

     The canonical “Inventory,” one of the most widely read poems in all of German literature, a poem that “makes a haunting pair with its exact contemporary, Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’” is deceptive. [17. 17. Ibid, Hofmann, xv. A similar claim is made in Hamburger’s introduction to Pigeons and Moles, xi. Hamburger makes this additional point I was unable to verify: “That ‘Inventory’ parodies a pre-war poem by a Czech writer available in a German version, does not detract from its singularity.” In his introduction to Valuable Nail, David Young quotes, but sadly does not cite, Hans Magnus Enzensberger heaping praise of Eich’s “Inventory.”] It is a list of possessions, including a secret. The poem points to its own creation in the fifth stanza but the pencil lead is the speaker’s favorite, not his essential, possession. The remarkable thing happens in the fourth stanza: “and some other things / I don’t tell anyone about”. These unnamed things are kept in a sack that pillows the speaker’s head. Given the poem’s commitment to the literal we assume the speaker refers to a physical object. But the pillow is the poem’s sole image of comfort. The secret consoles him. Enduring the deprivation of liberty, confined in captivity, the importance of privacy — a kept secret — cannot be discounted. Given Eich’s actions before his internment, the sense of secrets kept has added meaning.

     This becomes Eich’s enduring theme: telling refusal. As Hofmann aptly puts it, Eich “affirms one of the most ancient human freedoms, that of saying ‘no.’” (Some might accuse Eich of saying yes precisely when he should have said no.) At times he even refuses to refuse, as when he describes himself in “Delayed” as “caught at the left moment, / the right having already gone.” This again displays wit, a stoic acceptance of circumstance, an almost Zen-like knowing: even if the left is not the right or the ‘right’, it isn’t wrong. Marx’s “social hieroglyph” appears, giving the poem an explicit political meaning. But Eich does not choose between right and left. He chooses left because right has flown.

     As Hofmann seems blind to Eich’s biography, occasionally he misses what is most characteristic of Eich’s poetry, even when he remarks on it. Hofmann asserts, “ . . . it seems to me, in a piece like ‘And,’ Eich was making poems almost without words.” Hofmann’s praise teeters on the precipice of his qualifier ‘almost.’ Hofmann can’t mean “almost without words” literally, so he must mean ‘almost’ as a comment on the apparent poverty of Eich’s vocabulary. The poem “And” uses plain words, but to immense effect. Of fifty-two, “belongs” appears twice, “what” three times, “with” twice, the first line repeats “fog” thrice, and “and” appears six times, seven if we count the title. In German the compression is more profound. Hofmann translates the last line as “It’s enough, thanks, its plenty” but the phrase “es reicht” appears three times. Hofmann’s version is more colloquial – he is honest about preserving tone at the expense of linguistic exactness — but in this case he deprives the poem of a crucial element of repetition.

     And “And” is crucial. “Experience tells /what belongs with what, /what belongs with and, /only with and, /no rationale.” This is as close to a program as we are likely to find in late Eich. The debate is settled. The hypotactic is long gone, diminished and dismissed as “rationale.” The paratactic is fragile. Fragments are fitted together without explanation, which is to say links are made but not explained, and may in fact be unexplainable. In the next stanza, and by this point in Eich’s oeuvre the term fits loosely if at all — the poems shrunken, almost skeletal in appearance — Eich offers a poignant endorsement of his “and” (the translation reinforced with italics): “it will last/so long as the and doesn’t/ slip my mind like the other words. / It’s enough, thanks, it’s plenty.” Eich says, at minimum, so long as the fog does not seep into my head, then fog and friendship are proof of life.[18. 18. For this reviewer Hofmann’s version of the final line evokes the end of Geoffrey Hill’s moving “September Song:” “This is plenty. This is more than enough.” I can only assume this echo is unintentional.]

     There are outstanding poems in this selection, too many to mention by name, much less discuss in detail. In our current poetic climate, where Pound-inspired homage remains an accepted — even celebrated — mode, Eich’s “Friend and Reader of Horace” is a sober alternative, a rebuke to the reader of Horace and the reader of Eich’s poem.

Please don’t talk to me again about Horace
and learning to die.
No one learned that,
it just befell them,
a bit like being born.

The penultimate poem in Hofmann’s selection is “Hospital Colors.”

It’s possible to
get on the case of that gray green,
the walls, the paper,
the second you come round you will experience it;
if you still have a question,
bite it back,
so that the grass green girls
can’t take it away with them
in their grass green bonnets, surgical masks,
their grassgreen words.

Here unfamiliar circumstances intensify natural suspicion: the speaker, a patient, is afraid to ask even an innocent question, since the first thing one says on regaining consciousness is given a weight that it may not deserve. In this setting a question can be taken as a symptom, an action characterized as a ‘behavior.’ One might keep one’s pain a secret for instance so as to feel something. The kept secret is the one thing that doesn’t happen. Unlike birth and death it doesn’t “befall” one. It is a compliment to say “he took the secret to his grave.” Eich, who died in 1972, apparently took his share. According to his wife his last wish was to have his ashes “deposited in Switzerland next to those of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.”[19. 19. See Cuomo in Flight of Fancy, 176. “The request was denied.”]

Michael Autrey (© 2011)