- The Cambridge Introduction to German Poetry by Judith Ryan
This is an exceptional book: despite being billed as an introduction, it has as much to offer to specialists as to novice readers, and it combines a clear sense of literary and historical context with nuanced readings of individual poems, allowing those not familiar with them to get a first taste of the real thing rather than second-hand descriptions, while also setting out the reasons that particular texts are chosen and offering brief but illuminating comments on their textual history.
The introductory chapter sets out Ryan’s method: by encouraging readers to consider each poem as a puzzle and to note the elements which may be difficult to understand, she sets out two central elements of her understanding of poetry: it is by nature an art form which courts difficulty even where it presents a facade of artfully constructed simplicity, yet to readers patient enough to note the moments at which a poem says things in unexpected ways it offers the key to a better understanding of the poem and also of its subject.
The overall structure of the book is chronological, stretching from love songs of the twelfth century to poems written in the twenty-first century. Each chapter focuses on a particular period as well as a theme, though each concludes with a brief section which considers the modern reception – thus highlighting what happens, and what changes, when later poets appropriate a poetic persona or a particular mode of speaking. In this way, the sections on later reception, far from undermining the sense of historicity, persuasively argue for the importance of historical context.
Reducing a complex literary movement such as romanticism or Weimar classicism to a single phrase and theme could easily lead to reductive simplifications, yet in the hands of Ryan, there is never any danger of that. Instead, each chapter gives a sense of exploration, often developing a narrative across chapters without suggesting a facile sense of linear progression. This is perhaps most evident in the chapter on medieval poetry. Where anthologies and introductions include a section on pre-modern texts, the underlying narrative is usually simplistic, suggesting that such earlier texts are mere precursors of more modern texts, or more fully developed individuality. Ryan, in contrast, focuses on medieval poetry as performed song rather than texts intended primarily for reading and thus highlights the aspect which has attracted increasing attention in the specialist scholarship. Her presentation of some of the most famous female-voiced role poems illustrates the complexity which medieval authors achieve in adopting changing [End Page 501] viewpoints. At the same time, a discussion of Romantic songs differentiates medieval courtly love song from the later use of specific speaker roles.
Frequently, the chapters combine the presentation of central themes and poems with unexpected sidelines: the chapter on baroque rhetoric of passion highlights the significance of the sonnet and traces its use through later centuries, touching on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s playful critique of “Sonettenwut” as well as Rainer Maria Rilke’s notion of pure song not inflected by object-centred desire. Yet by including Günter Grass and Durs Grünbein as a form of coda, the chapter neatly returns to its opening by arguing that, for both, use of a specific form allows the poets to set their comment on contemporary political developments in a broader cultural context. Georg Trakl’s war poem “Grodek” and Celan’s “Fadensonnen” receive a new reading when seen against the background of Romantic attempts at translating the language of dumb nature into human language, or rather song, and comparison of Goethe’s “Lied der Mignon” with Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’s tango from the 1970s underlines the double distance achieved by alluding to classical antiquity.
In the later sections of the book, the historical distance between the core of the chapter and the examples of creative reception diminishes, yet the comparative sections serve to highlight the distinctive features of poems within their own time: Rilke’s...