A NEW DIVAN
TALK: DIVAN ECHOES
Prof. Dr. Hendrik Birus
Dr. Jonathan Landgrebe
No one knows Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan better than its editor, Hendrik Birus, and no living German-language poet feels more indebted to the Divan than Durs Grünbein—who never travels without the book. In their discussion, the two will explore the Divan’s poetic echoes.
Divan Echoes in Contemporary Poetry
A decade and a half after the first publication of the West-Eastern Divan Heinrich Heine wrote of Goethe’s book: “The magic of this book is beyond description: it is a salaam sent by the Occident to the Orient… This salaam signifies, moreover, that the Occident has grown weary of its frozen, meagre spiritualism and wants to experience again the healthy corporeal world of the Orient.”
It’s no surprise that the first direct echoes came from the orientalist side. Two hundred years later, however, it is a totally different side of the West-Eastern Divan that finds resonances in contemporary poetry.
In his 2007 poetry collection August the Clown, Günter Grass reproduces Wanderers Gemütsruhe, a poem from the “Book of Ill-Humor.” Here Grass tries to free himself, through literature, from the furore over his admission in his book Peeling the Onion (2006) that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS in his youth and from the ensuing journalistic campaign by Frank Schirrmacher in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Wanderer’s Peace of Mind
Let no one raise a complaint
over the malign;
for it is mighty,
whatever one may tell you.
In evil it presides
and makes big winnings,
and it deals with the good
exactly as it pleases.
Wanderer! Do you really want
to battle against such necessity?
Whirlwind and desiccated dung.
Let it spin and crumble.
And then, on the opposing page, Grass’s response:
As he in the year after Leipzig
still displayed on his swollen chest
the medal from Napoleon’s hand,
Goethe got to know the malign
and rhymed it forever with the mighty.
Yes, even in the year nineteen
as the assembled princes in Karlsbad
lopped the head off their much praised freedom,
he incorporated the poem “Wanderer’s Peace of Mind”
into the “Book of Ill-Humor.”
Because I’m no Goethe and have no furniture,
that could be as comfy for me as a divan,
I don’t want to wait until the wind subsides,
especially as the Karlsbad Decrees
have been updated for the latest media.
And so I say it now, that where—in Frankfurt am Main—
the malign, like the mighty,
makes big winnings and whirls desiccated dung,
I renounce—by necessity—
these inherited rhymes.
Whether this poetic bid for freedom succeeded is a matter for debate. That it is a remarkable literary echo of the Divan is unquestionable.
—Hendrik Birus, from Divan Echoes