British Museum blog

The divided self: Germany, art and poetry

Edward Doegar, General Manager, The Poetry Society

When the British Museum contacted the Poetry Society about commissioning an event responding to their exhibition Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation, we were thrilled. It seemed particularly fitting as the fate of the artists represented was shared by so many of the poets of the period. The exhibition traces the work of a generation who were all, at some point, forced into exile moving from East to West Germany. This unwelcome journey was also familiar to many of East Germany’s dissenting poets, most famously in the case of Wolf Biermann who found himself stripped of his citizenship in 1976 while on an officially organised tour in the West. Sarah Kirsch, Reiner Kunze and Kurt Bartsch all followed soon after.

If the challenges of artistic life in the GDR were shared by many, this certainly didn’t reduce the vitality and range of the art (and poetry) that it produced. Indeed, the author of the exhibition catalogue, John-Paul Stonard, has explained (in a post on this blog) how the sense of division that exile created was often intensely personal and psychological in its effect, so the highly individual artwork that resulted seems inevitable. With this in mind, we decided to broaden the commission to an evening of poetry exploring the theme of the ‘divided self’ and asked three remarkable poets to write a new poem responding to this. The poems were then premiered during an evening of readings in the Museum’s Clore Education Centre as part of the British Museum’s BM / PM series. The event was held on 11 April and was tremendously successful; below you can listen to each of the commissioned poems.

Sam Riviere is a formally inventive poet whose work often engages with new media. His first collection 81 Austerities was published by Faber in 2012 and won Forward Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. His recent work ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage‘ was published as a blog series which was available online for only 72 days, mirroring the length of Kardashian’s marriage.

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), ('Untitled (Self-portrait)'), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), (‘Untitled (Self-portrait)’), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

His commissioned poem, ‘Preferences’, seems to recall A R Penck’s Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt). In Penck’s ink drawing the self-portrait emerges from an almost-uniform blanket of spaced dots, recalling a dot matrix printer. Likewise, Riviere’s poem is designed to completely fill a piece of A5 paper with a one inch margin, yet out of this seemingly arbitrary setting he makes the language flex with meaning and wit.

Kathryn Maris’ many awards include Academy of American Poets University & College Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She has published two highly-acclaimed collections, the second of which, God Loves You, was published by Seren in 2013. Maris’ work couples a fierce intellect with an emotionally resonant lyric fluency. Her commissioned poem, ‘The House with Only an Attic and a Basement’, seems to originate principally from the idea of the theme itself, taking an epigraph from R D Laing’s book The Divided Self.

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen ('Two Stripes'), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen (‘Two Stripes’), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

The wonderful symmetry and asymmetry of the poem keeps us oscillating between laughter and a shocked silence. In its polarising verticality the poem seems a match for Baselitz’s Zwei Streifen (Two Stripes).

Finally, Michael Hofmann is an award-winning poet whose Selected Poems appeared from Faber in 2008. In addition to his own work he is also one of the world’s leading translators from the German and has introduced Anglophone audiences to the work of Dürs Grunbein, Gunter Eich and Gottfried Benn. We were very lucky to be able to persuade Hofmann to come over from Florida in order to deliver his commissioned piece in person. His poem, ‘Baselitz and his generation’, offers a sort of multiple choice version of the lives of the artists in the exhibition. The language of biography is wittily turned on its head, so that the phrases with which we usually distinguish individual lives become a means to amalgamate them.

All three of the commissioned poems are available on the Poetry Society website and were printed in The Poetry Review 104:2. The exhibition is now in its final weeks and is not to be missed.

Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, written by John-Paul Stonard.

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