Poets in Their Youth

Scenes from newly published memoirs by Durs Grünbein (The Vocation of Poetry) and Les Murray (Killing the Black Dog).

Durs Grünbein: “For me it all started with a noise—a not at all harmless noise—more of an acoustic irritation. The strange thing about it was its suddenness and the rift it left in my overall perception. In those days, I used to roam the fields and woods on the northern outskirts of Dresden, where my parents and I had moved into affordable housing. Throughout my school years and beyond, Hellerau—a model suburban picket-fence community since long before World War II—was the place from which I would strike out, alone or with friends, to explore my small world. Immediately behind Hellerau’s low, picturesque row houses with their prim gardens, there began a rugged, artificial wilderness made up of landfills, sand dunes, and fir groves—a stretch of hill country largely used for military exercises, such as extensive maneuvers with tanks and other machinery; that’s why the locals referred to the forest bordering on Hellerau as the ‘Russians’ copse.’ We used to spend whole afternoons there, oblivious to the past glory of the crumbling and widely mourned baroque city down in the valley. Then, one day, as I was wandering through those desolate fields, a pigeon darted up out of nowhere so close to me that I literally felt its wings flapping into my face. I can still remember the moment in all its vividness, trivial though it may seem. It set something in motion that hasn’t stopped working to this day and became a template for many a future (and much more consequential) moment of epiphany. For that’s what it was, this brief, unexpected encounter that had illuminated my entire being in a flash: an epiphany.  The poem it inspired was soon forgotten and disappeared in one of my many folders, until I rediscovered it in my early twenties—surprised and almost saddened by its lost simplicity—when I decided to write for a living…

Today I believe that with these eight indigent lines I had gained access to a hoary secret society. Without seeking official permission and empty-handed, I had entered and invisible institution, the global airspace of poetry—it was that simple. Besides, who could those permission-granting officials possibly have been? There was no more Parnassus, nor, far and wide, a brotherhood or bohème. I heard of a poetry scene for the first time when I enrolled at Humboldt University in Berlin. That Prenzlauer Berg with its run-down buildings would later become my very own Montparnasse, my drab Salon des Indépendants, populated by similarly idealistic stragglers as I, was unplanned. The muses, I soon realized, while taking courses at the local adult education center, were nothing but a worn-out Greek allegory. This line had long been disconnected: you might as well try reading your poems to the ladies at the municipal registry, or the tellers at the post office. No, no, there was no formal accreditation process. You had to begin from scratch, cut off from both the classical and the modern traditions, in the vacuum of a society that tolerated literature only as a mouthpiece for ideology. Even if you couldn’t see yourself that way: You were the young barbarian who undertook to carry the burden of a discarded culture on his frail shoulders in defiance of all evolutionary logic.

“You inserted a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter, hit the keys, and read what you deemed original and worthy of public display into a small circle of like-minded fellow travelers. If the thing was well received you knew that you belonged and that you were virtually made an as an author, songwriter, poet, or underground publicist. Samizdat was a word I heard for the first time in a radio broadcast on Deutschlandfunk. This Russian term perfectly captured what we, in East Berlin, had been doing all along: running a tunnel-like network of publishing venues under the radar of the state-controlled official presses.

“Petitions, official requests of any kind have never been my forte, and I have rarely had to write a job letter. This once, however, everything depended on being heard. Amidst the like-minded, you developed a keen sense of what makes a poem. Here you could test whether the magic trick of making your words levitate worked, or whether they would crash immediately after take-off …

“I still remember the first setback—for instance, the time when a batch of poems I had submitted to a teen publication was returned to me, accompanied by the editor’s avuncular suggestion that I sign up for the annual Central Poets’ Workshop in Schwerin. This was out of the question, however, as the workshop was run the the Free German Youth, an organization that I had had enough of already in school. The very idea of being consecrated as poet amidst a bunch of blue-shirts made me shiver. I could deal with the fact that my poems had fallen on deaf professional ears; but having them discussed by a pack of eager socialist teachers’ pets under the national party leader’s omnipresent portrait would have probably ruined poetry for me for good. I preferred working underground, unnoticed by friends and nosy relatives, creating my own private Eden from which nobody could chase me.”

Les Murray: “I’d grown up with no social skills at all, beyond boasting and showing off and giving lectures about things I knew or pretended to know. All the same, though I only met children on a regular basis from the age of nine, when I started school, I didn’t fare badly among the rather innocent kids of my own culture, in the country and village schools around our district [in rural New South Wales, Australia]. No one bullied me or called me by a nickname till, after a year’s lay-off following the Intermediate Certificate, I resumed my education at Taree High at the age of sixteen. There, among neatly dressed town kids for the first time, I made all the wrong opening moves and promptly died for it. I came on as friendly, puppy-like, as well as a Brain and a show-off, and the unanimous verdict was that I must be reminded constantly that I was fat and ridiculous. In the next two years, only one fellow student, a boy, ever called me by my real first name. To the rest, I was known as Murray or, more usually, by a plethora of fat nicknames; my then only slight corpulence outweighed any other characteristic, and was the only thing about me that was allowed to be talked of. Every sentence addressed to me had to allude to it. Some of the boys occasionally flagged from the sheer effort of this, but no girl ever broke ranks. Those who didn’t go in for name-calling and hysterical bouts of coming on to me and then running away in shrieks of laughter to join their cheering fellows maintained a stony reserve in which they never met my eye or prolonged an exchange. I reacted to all this by pretending, to them and myself, that nothing untoward was happening, trying to confuse them by turning the other cheek. As we say in handicapped-child circles, I was Extinguishing the Behavior. Turning the other cheek is hard, though, as I didn’t know then; it has to be done with love, not disguised fury…

“The prime site of my illness, then, was sexual. Common enough. As I unearthed my buried troubles, I saw how closely bound up they were with features of modern society that I loathed, such as demonstrations, in which I always heard the echo of the schoolyard, or radicalisms which seemed to enlarge the schoolyard into a whole ideal world. In the chants of early militant feminism, I heard the accents of Taree High. In a column I used to write for the short-lived Independent Monthly I coined the term ‘erocide,’ meaning the deliberate destruction of a person’s sexual morale, and speculated that we victims of that process probably outnumber all other victim-groups combined, but we will never rise up and demand redress. We are too deeply shamed, and too darkly aware that those rejected for reproduction or pleasure are scapegoats for the pain which sex entails even among the attractive. I came to see that the tone of much in the Totalitarian Age that may now just be drawing to a close exactly resembles clinical depression. It is the secret co-opted fuel of many Causes, and is not exposed for what it is because it is as common, and exploitable, on one side of politics as the other. If, as shrinks tell us, a fifth of all people in this stressed age will suffer at least one depressive episode in their lives, there is clearly an enormous pool of potential recruits among people who haven’t identified the real roots of their trouble and so will reliably hate substitutes or near-enough versions. We’ve all observed the desperate bored fatigue which overcomes activists when any topic not on their agenda is raised, or the bristling that arises when playful spin is put on their obsessions. If you are energy-depleted, it’s natural that you will have time only for  a manageable list of issues, insisting that all talk be about those, and in deadly earnest. At the heart of all the proclaimed love of abstractions and absolutes there is the characteristic inability to love actual persons, or to forgive them. Because they are usually the wrong persons, and we can only forgive as it were outwards, starting with those who are the real source of our pain. We have to identify these, and face our own actions in respect of them, giving ourselves and them the benefit of proportion. So far as we know, neither we nor they had lived before, or come into the world well prepared for what we’d encounter. We couldn’t always get it right the first time…

“Being called on to talk in public about school bullying and the Black Dog over the years has helped me to insight and flashes of gratitude. Most teachers know, for instance, that trying to support a bullied student is apt to get them them a much worse time. Real help needs to be sidelong. The English master and his wife at Taree High who introduced me to twentieth-century verse, way beyond the then curriculum, and the sports master who showed me modern Australian poetry, gave me the entrée to an art form they may have guessed might save me, even as my unconscious aptitude for it might have caused my miseries.”

The Durs Grünbein passages appear in The Vocation of Poetry, translated by Michael Eskin, recently published by Upper West Side Philosophers. Read a section of Grünbein’s essay from Little Star #1, “The Stroke of Apollo” here. Ashes for Breakfast, his collected poems was translated by Michael Hofmann.

The Les Murray passages appear in Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression, an essay accompanied by an illuminating selection of poems, recently published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux alongside a new book of poems, Taller When Prone, his thirteenth. Read Les Murray’s poem from Little Star #1, “The Daylight Cloth,” here.

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2 Responses to Poets in Their Youth

  1. [...] van Durs Grünbein (The Vocation of Poetry) en Les Murray (Killing the Black Dog) zijn hier te lezen. Vooral het relaas van Les Murray over de wrede pesterijen die hij moest ondergaan op de [...]

  2. [...] Les Murray lives in New South Wales, Australia. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently Taller When Prone, which appeared alongside an updated edition of his 1996 memoir, Killing the Black Dog. After reading this book, it is impossible to read his work, or that of any other major poet, in the same way again. Read a portion of it on our blog here. [...]