Reviewed by Joshua Daniel Edwin
As a poet, translator, critic, and essayist, Karl Krolow’s influence is enormous. In his remarks on the back jacket of Puppets in the Wind: Selected Poems of Karl Krolow, translator Stuart Friebert notes that “[f]ew writers who lived during Krolow’s lifetime were without his direct or indirect support.” In addition to emphasizing Krolow’s importance to the world of 20th century German letters, Friebert’s remarks touch upon a rift that many English-language readers may not be aware of. Friebert mentions that, on receiving the esteemed Büchner Prize in 1956, Krolow chose not to comment on his life during the Nazi era. This omission, which was emblematic of Krolow’s refusal to discuss publically his experience under the Nazis, stands in stark contrast to other comparable figures, including Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, whom Friebert mentions were championed by Krolow in the years after the war. This framing opens up important questions about Krolow, the man, and about what responsibility, if any, poetry has to history.
In his book-length scholarly treatment, Karl Krolow and the Poetics of Amnesia in Postwar Germany, published in 2002, Neil H. Donahue explores and seeks to explain the silence that Friebert mentions. Although Krolow repeatedly refused to discuss his life during the Nazi years, Donahue is able to uncover some basic facts: Krolow was a member of both the Hitler Youth and the Nazi party, and he held a low-level leadership position in the latter. He also published dozens of poems and prose pieces in newspapers that were either Nazi-approved or actively Nazi-supported (17-18). Although Krolow’s writing in these organs did not participate in Nazi discourse or propaganda, merely appearing in the pages of party-approved journals during the war years meant playing a part in the Nazi’s ideological machine. Other German writers left the country or simply stopped publishing, but Krolow, a young and ambitious man of letters, published poetry, lyrical prose pieces, and literary criticism throughout the war years.
Apart from its historical import, Puppets in the Wind offers some mysterious and wonderful delights. In Friebert’s skillful translation, many of the poems are rich with a strange and ambiguous beauty. Drawn from across the poet’s six-decade career, Friebert’s selections seem to be arranged thematically, moving from the private to public sphere and back again. The first section is private, concerned with love, death, and thought as they touch the individual. The poet appears mostly alone, or alone in a crowd, observing scenes, experiences and memories with an incisive eye and wit. The poems use a disarmingly direct address to create a shadowed and magical world, filled equally with death and music. Friebert handles this voice with great tact, retaining the directness and simplicity of Krolow’s address, together with the irrepressible oddness and mystery of many of these poems, which seems no simple feat.
The first poem in the book, “Visitor’s Coming,” exemplifies some of Krolow’s best qualities. Written in the first person, it presents a highly ambiguous and unexplained scenario in which the narrator describes his preparations for the arrival of a visitor. These preparations indicate equal amounts of hospitality and hostility, including as they do, cake, beer, venison pie, a cat, a mantrap (or caltrop), “especially pretty knives,” and “a pocket pistol under the table cloth.” The narrator seems to be anticipating this visit with relish, although it’s not clear why, and the matter-of-factness with which the descriptions are made could be understood as either reassuring or chilling. Friebert holds this tension tight, pacing the last lines perfectly as: “Slowly a newspaper / turns its pages / to the obituaries. / That’s due to the draft. / It comes from the door / that I open” (17). Another poem in the first section, “Almost Nothing,” occupies a slightly lighter space, finding the poet alone in a garden celebrating “the way there are lucky moments / in which almost nothing happens” (33). “Transitory” incorporates both the lyrical and morbid aspects of the poet’s work, beginning with: “The talented season / falls with snow and pears / through castles of air / between January and January, ” pausing as, “In friendly fashion / a knife cuts into meat. / One person gets lost / in another, without / naming her name,” and ending with the reminder that “Quietly one can / observe the terror / in the open eyes / of the dead” (43). The first section demonstrates Krolow’s skill and reminds the reader how powerful and invigorating poems can be without touching on what’s in the newspaper.
The second section, in which Krolow steps out into public view, raises some questions, especially when read in the light of Friebert’s remarks. These poems are concerned with Politics and History as concepts, rather than as categories for understanding experiences in the lives of real people. For Donahue, Krolow’s insistence on an “imagined aesthetic insularity” (17) allows him to treat poetry, during and after the war, as a world apart from history (history as the lived experience of human beings). By focusing on the intricate workings of poetry as a literary genre, on the magical music of verse, and on the power of the imagination as a creator of spiritually refreshing new worlds, Krolow severs poetry from real historical events completely. In fact, Donahue argues that, “Krolow’s particular and peculiar blindness and ahistoricism emerges as the defining characteristic of his oeuvre…” (9). This is an important position to understand—but given the ongoing debate about poetry’s responsibility to and role in history, we might stop to ask: how important is it? And why?
In section two, Krolow describes generic death and bloodshed with a tone of heavy resignation. He ends “Atmosphere” by noting, “Someone or other’s always dying. / Things will stay that way” (65). The term Gewalt becomes key in this section. Friebert renders it variously as “force” and “power” and, in related form (Gewaltat), as “violence.” These variations serve the text well, highlighting the way that, for Krolow, force and power will inevitably intertwine with violence. State power is a great Potemkin village, and violence will always find its way through the facade. Krolow illustrates this evocatively, writing in “Force” (Gewalt) that, “Soon the street-battles / will reach us. / Soon we’ll be alone / With the muzzles of guns. / Who among us will be the first / To sink headdown / On his table?…” (75). There seems to be a humanist impulse at work here, as Krolow joins the soon-to-be-killed (“Soon we’ll be alone”) and condemns the aggression that will kill them.
But this is precisely where Krolow’s historical amnesia, as defined by Donahue, comes into play. Who initiated that street battle? Who wields the guns? Krolow refuses to assign responsibility for the violent use of power to any person or group of people. He treats this plague of Gewalt like a mythological force or an archaic god who rains violence down on innocent, or at least hapless, people. History itself is his prime mover, and people merely the willing puppets who carry forth its torches, setting fire to the world. In this way, Krolow deals with Politics and History as a single, sad dead-end, using the tone of someone who is completely fed up with these follies and who expresses this feeling with directness and chilly elegance. This position is understandable, given the events he lived through and the horrifying pageant of state power to which he had a front-row seat. But it also adds up to a dismissive half-reckoning with history, perhaps a history in which Krolow himself played a part (who was his “we” in those days?). Is Krolow responsible for commenting on the dramatic slice of history that he witnessed, a slice of history with definite instigators? Is it enough to mourn, intelligently and genuinely, the cyclical violence to which man is prey, or does an ex-Nazi have a responsibility to shine some light on the specific wheels of violence that he had a role in turning? And if he refuses this responsibility, what does it mean for his poems about gardens?
The third and final section of the book returns to the private sphere, to the concerns of the individual. Death is still prevalent, but it is now the private death that awaits an elderly man and his friends. Again, Krolow seems resigned to death, but since he contemplates a private and personal death—his own, observed as it approaches—the stance feels stouthearted, instead of evasive or cold. This is the death that everyone must face on his own, regardless of public history, and Krolow watches its approach with steady eyes and a sense of humor. In a poem called “In Old Age,” he writes, “Finally my behavior / became misunderstandable. / I laughed at my face. / I showed my tongue / to every mirror. / It went blind / from my breath, / which I took for life” (137). The book’s final poem, “The Image You Leave Behind,” ends with “death, which finally took possession / of the life you were living” (145). The eerie directness and stark imagery of the first section, so ably rendered by Friebert, returns to close the door on the mysteries Krolow has conjured.
Returning to Friebert’s remarks on the back jacket, we can now see in the mention of Krolow’s support for Celan and Sachs an attempt at compensation for some barely-named failings (the muffled historical allusion very much in the style of Krolow himself). We, as readers, are left to ponder what sort of compensation would satisfy as expiation for these obscure sins, and whether poetry ought to be the field for this expiation.
Donahue, Neil H. Karl Krolow and the Poetics of Amnesia in Postwar Germany. Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2002.
Krolow, Karl. Puppets in the Wind: Selected Poems of Karl Krolow. Tr Stuart Friebert. Fayetteville, New York: Bitter Oleander Press, 2014.