Academic journal article German Quarterly

German Unification: Concepts of Identity in Poetry from the East and West1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

German Unification: Concepts of Identity in Poetry from the East and West1

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the period immediately following the fall of the Berlin wall, writers East and West turned to poetry as a genre for expressing their grasp of what German unification would mean for individual and national identity.2 The sudden popularity of this genre may come as no surprise to such critics as Harald Hartung, Walter Erhart, Erk Grimm and Ruth Owen, who have recognized that poetry conveys a subjective immediacy and functions as signpost for personal, often intensely spontaneous, responses to social and historical upheaval (Hartung 181; Erhart 145; Grimm 123; Owen, Poet's Role 14).3 Viewing poetry as a type of litmus test for such responses, this paper examines the positioning of lyrical voices in representative poems written and published in Germany during the early 1990s. My analysis illuminates the way East and West German writers attempt to reconfigure their own and their country's identity in the wake of this largely unforeseen event-the unification of two Germanies whose citizens had lived for forty years in disparate political, social, and economic circumstances.

Scholarship on literary treatments of identity in this period generally focuses on novelistic fiction (e.g., Riordan; Parks; Peitsch; Soldat; Bremer).4 The few studies that do address poetic works are largely restricted to one particular poet.5 Broader analyses of poetic responses to unification in East and West Germany have concentrated mostly on establishing the degree to which such writing can be viewed as distinctly "East" or "West." Katrin Kohl, for example, assesses the implications of heteroglossia-the differing uses of quotation and cliche in East and West German poetry-in establishing two distinct poetic traditions. Judith Ryan looks at GDR poetry after the two major historical disruptions, 1945 and 1989, as acts of repression.6 Similarly, Karen Leeder focuses on East German poetry as a "voice of opposition" to official GRD language ("Gegensprache" 413) and the effect of unification on the dynamics of such oppositional poetry.7 Ruth Owen examines poetic responses of both older and younger former GDR poets to the loss of their central status and role as mediator between state and people. Arguing for a particular type of unified poetic tradition that exists in spite of dual nationalities, Axel Goodbody notes parallels in East and West German poetry, but only with regard to "Okolyrik" as a concern common to both East and West German culture (378).8

To my knowledge, only the works of Max Noordhoorn and Walter Erhart explore the treatment of identity issues in poems written during the period of unification. Both base their arguments on two poetry anthologies dealing with the prospects of a united Germany published in rapid succession in the early 1990s. Of these anthologies, Grenzfallgedichte: Eine deutsche Anthologie (1991), edited by Anna Chiarloni and Helga Pankoke, presents mainly East German perspectives before and immediately after unification, while Karl Otto Conrady's Von einem Land und vom andern: Gedichte zur Deutschen Wende (1993) represents both East and West German authors. Since Max Noordhoorn's analysis focuses on the collection Grenzfallgedichte, he is chiefly concerned with the Eastern perspective as expression of loss, alienation, and disorientation. Though it is the only scholarly reference to Conrady's collection of poets from both East and West, Erhart's analysis nonetheless focuses largely on East German poets with particular attention given to the East German Durs Grunbein. In Erhart's view, the poems in Conrady's anthology function as a form of "Psychotherapie, in der Verlusterfahrungen bearbeitet, kompensiert und bewaltigt werden" (153). In short, while most critics emphasize the underlying feeling of disjunction and dispossession in the lyrical voice, especially with regard to the East German individual, no critical analysis has examined in what way post-unification poetry represents identity in East and West Germany. …

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