Wednesday, January 04, 2012

What is a Poet?

Do we read poems to find our views confirmed? Hardly. Those are the bad poems. We read poems because they express something we did not know.  Because they voice something we always felt but were unable to express. Because the best poems put into words what cannot be captured in words, which is a contradiction.
A consummate poem marks the poetic moment in which the contradiction is solved – in one verse, one line, one word, one syllable.
Günter Kunert gives the answer to a question that the poem does not pose. In other words: Kunert answers the one question that every poem poses, the question about the one who is speaking. What is that, actually, a poet? How do you recognize one?
According to Kunert, the poet is characterized by his instinct for the only right word, the only possible diction, the harmony of the metaphors, the apodictic irreversibility of what has been said. It makes hesitating and looking for words needless. A poet's studio is not an alteration shop.
Ossip Mandelstam once asked how poetry ideally would have to be. And he answered himself: “Maybe poetry does not have to do or be anything. It does not owe anything to anyone and all its creditors are forgers.” By this, he meant the ideologists of Stalinism, who put the poet in a labour camp, where he died. Some of his poems were only preserved because friends of Mandelstam had learned them by heart; manuscripts and copies were prohibited.
So there is something that poetry has to be. As Kunert writes, poetry has to be more than just a notice of a special style of writing and, as Mandelstam's example shows, it has to find a way to survive even in the most hopeless situations. Poetry also stands at the edge of the abyss, because the abyss is very often the place where poetry is written.

The Frankfurt Anthology is a collection of German poems and their interpretations. Every year it awards one of the interpreters with the Prize of the Frankfurt Anthology; in 2011, it was Günter Kunert. The above is an excerpt of a eulogy delivered in his honour.

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