The opening sentence of the introduction to this handsomely produced book reads, ‘Volker Braun is one of Germany’s foremost lyric poets’. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Constantine and Leeder just further down the page declare, ‘…he is perhaps better known, internationally at least, as a dramatist, novelist and essayist.’ Later, they strenuously deny that Braun writes ‘agitprop’, whilst admitting, ‘Political jargon or quotations from fellow poets appear in upper case or italics or, more often than not, unidentified in the poems.’ All of which seems to stretch the definition of ‘lyric’.
Braun was born in Dresden at the time of the beginning the War and grew up and was educated in the GDR. He seems to have been seen as a thorn in authority’s side from the beginning and both his publication and his education were obstructed by those authorities. Yet the later Braun has won more prizes than you can shake a stick at. And this book convincingly shows why.
The influence of Pound, remarked upon by the translators in their preface, shows through Braun’s work from the beginning. In the wonderful ‘Walter Benjamin in the Pyrenees’, the poem starts with a description of Benjamin ‘Striding calmly into the wall of fog./ Arms swing awkwardly but keep time./Following the scrap of paper across the precipice.’ There’s a lovely sense of the richness with which Braun imbues this picture: the possibility of ‘wall of fog’ as pathetic fallacy; the arms both awkward but keeping time, as if this were a portrait of Benjamin in the Arcades Project both flaneur in Paris but also denizen of the place. This latter is supported with Braun’s quoting the Arcades Project a little below this in the poem ‘I have nothing to say. Only to show.’ And there is a sense of Braun’s pointing to the contradiction in this as ‘to say’ is ‘to show’; as if, in modern parlance, to show is always to tell. And finally, Benjamin follows the paper across the precipice; Benjamin the intellectual, the writer, follows the argument and the need to write that argument down, to communicate it to someone, somewhere, follows that over the precipice that such a need will lead him to. In Benjamin’s case, to suicide. In this piece, then, the Poundian influence is the narrative influence, the influence that Pound himself acknowledged came from Browning.
Elsewhere, the Poundian influence is present in Braun’s willingness to swing from formal rhythm and rhyme, through open form displacements around the page, to prose poetry. And these swings in form are rendered immaculate in Constantine and Leeder’s loving translations. Here is the second and final verse of ‘Iguanas’,
We the iguanas, creatures of a coming age,
Camped in the crumbling citadels of finance
We watch the banks collapse in total silence.
Not the slightest laughter, not a hint of rage.
And power, time? They rot and fall away
And the sun just rises on another day.
After forty years of railing at the communist GDR, Braun has lost none of his desire to kick at the pricks of contemporary capitalism. And one wonders who might have put it better, or had it better translated.