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GŁnter Grass

Gunter Grass

"Measure progress in crayfish gait." ~Grass

Here comes the 20th century.

Grass was born in 1927; in 1999 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Strange thing about Grass: I would not consider him as one of my favorite poets, though I do like his verse very much and his poetry had influenced mine. His poetry may be well compared to an egg - you can eat a certain amount with pleasure, the rest you eat by force, egged on by the fact that it's good for you, but then you just have to stop and take a really long break before eating the next one. I find it physically difficult to read him in large doses, but the little "bites" are sweet.

Grass's poems are an intriguing combination of the surreal and the mundane - in his own words, "the absurdity of the normal." They seem at once to portray the stifling reality, and yet retain some mystical spirit about them, at once so wondrous and so familiar. Many of his poems have social and political themes, musing on the post-war German society and the future that awaits it. He is very much in tune with the current world issues, and this is another thing that makes him great: not only is he a poet, but a social critic as well.

Poems below were written in 1950's and 60's; translation is by Michael Hamburger.

For pic titles and artist names, hover on pictures with your mouse.


An empty bus
hurtles through the starry night.
Perhaps the driver is singing
and is happy because he sings.

The Sea Battle

An American aircraft carrier
and a Gothic cathedral
simultaneously sank each other
in the middle of the Pacific.
To the last
the young curate played on the organ.
Now aeroplanes and angels hang in the air
and have nowhere to land.

Don't Turn Around

Don't go into the wood,
in the wood is the wood.
Whoever walks in the wood,
looks for trees,
will not be looked for later in the wood.

Have no fear,
fear smells of fear.
Whoever smells of fear
will be smelled out
by heroes who smell like heroes.

Don't drink from the sea,
the sea tastes of more sea.
Whoever drinks from the sea
henceforth feels
a thirst only for oceans.

Don't build a home,
or you'll be at home.
Whoever is at home
waits for
late callers and opens the door.

Write no letters,
letters that vex us end up in Texas.
Whoever writes the letter
lends his name
to the posthumous paper game.


In this big house --
from the rats
who know about the drains,
to the pigeons
who know nothing --
I live and suppose much.

Came home late,
opened the house
with my key
and noticed as I hunted for my key
that I needed a key
to enter my own home.

Was quite hungry,
ate a chicken
with my hands
and noticed as I ate the chicken
that I was eating a chicken
which was cold and dead.

Then stooped,
took off both shoes
and noticed as I took off my shoes
that we have to stoop
if we want to take
shoes off.

I lay horizontal,
smoked the cigarette,
and in the darkness was certain
that someone held out his open hand
when I knocked the ashes
from my cigarette.

At night Saturn comes
and holds out his hand.
With my ashes, he
cleans his teeth, Saturn.
We shall climb
into his jaws.

"Sleep" by Salvador Dali

Sudden Fright

When in summer in an easterly wind
September dust whirls and in the belated paper
editorials are almost mystical,

when the powers want to change beds
and are allowed to beget openly
new instruments for control,

when around footballs holiday makers camp
and the playful glance of the nations
mirrors weighty decisions,

when columns of figures put one to sleep
and through dreams a camouflaged enemy
breathes ans crawls nearer,

when in conversations always the same word
is backhandedly held in reserve
and a match can strike terror,

when from the backstroke position in swimming
skyward only the sky seems to tower,
frightened people hurry back to the shore,

a sudden fright hangs in the air.

A street in Berlin, 1965
A street in Berlin, 1965

(In this column, Grass sticks a needle in the backside of politicians and social activists and protestors who do nothing but protest without even knowing what the foundation of issues are... He was not political and avoided taking sides, and instead simply wrote from the side of Reason. In the turbulent scary decades in Germany after WWII, rife with paranoia and angst and tension, someone had to protect that greatest German quality, Common Sense.)

The Steam Boiler Effect

Always ready to hiss.
Sooner hissed than thought.
No longer with fists
people argue, but hissing.
Soon they will say:
He was hissed to death.
But still he's alive and speaks.
His questions were answered by hisses.
Look at this people, united in hissing.
Hissomaniac. Hissoplex. Hissophile.
For hissing is a leveller,
costs little and keeps warm.
but it costs whose money
to train
this elite, witty and hissing.
As though letting off steam
could move the local Nero
to the thumb-down sign every time.
Whistling is fine. Not anyone can whistle.
But this thing, anonymous,
is worrying and makes one fear...

Powerless, with a Guitar

We read napalm and imagine napalm.
Since we cannot imagine napalm
we read about napalm until
by napalm we can imagine more.
Now we protest against napalm.
After breakfast, silent,
we see in photographs what napalm can do.
We show each other coarse screen prints
and say: there you are, napalm.
They do that with napalm.
Soon there'll be cheap picture books
with better photographs
which will show more clearly
what napalm can do.
We bite our nails and write protests.
but, we read, there are worse things than napalm.
Quickly we protest against worse things.
Our well-founded protests , which at any time
we may compose fold stamp, mount up.
Impotence, tried out on rubber facades.
Impotence puts records on: impotent songs.
Powerless, with a guitar. --
But outside, finaly meshed
and composed, power has its way.

the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall: a 20th century absurdity that needlessly divided one people

In the Egg

We live in the egg.
We have covered the inside wall
of the shell with dirty drawings
and the Christian names of our enemies.
We are being hatched.

Whoever is hatching us
is hatching our pencils as well.
Set free from the egg one day
at once we shall make an image
of whoever is hatching us.

We assume that we're being hatched.
We imagine some good-natured fowl
and write school essays
about the color and breed
of the hen that is hatching us.

When shall we break the shell?
Our prophets inside the egg
for a middling salary argue
about the period of incubation.
They posit a day called X.

Out of boredom and genuine need
we have invented incubators.
We are much concerned about our offspring inside the egg.
We should be glad to recommend our patent
to her who looks after us.

But we have a roof over our heads.
Senile chicks,
polyglot embryos
chatter all day
and even discuss their dreams.

And what if we're not being hatched?
If this shell will never break?
If our horizon is only that
of our scribbles, and always will be?
We hope that we're being hatched.

Even if we only talk of hatching
there remains fear that someone
outside our shell will feel hungry
and crack us into the frying pan with a pinch of salt.
What shall we do then, my brethren inside the egg?

"the birth of the New Man" by Salvador Dali
"Geopolitical child watching the birth of the New Man" by Salvador Dali

Tour de France

When the leading bunch
were overtaken
by a brimstone butterfly
many cyclists gave up the race.


Suddenly the cherries were there
although I had forgotten
that they exist
and caused to be proclaimed: There never have been cherries-
they were there, suddenly and dear.

Plums fell on me;
but whoever thinks
that I was transformed
because something fell and hit me
has never been hit by falling plums.

Only when they poured nuts into my shoes
and I had to walk
because the children wanted the kernels
I cried out for cherries, wanted plums
to hit me -- and was transformed a little.


As complicated as a nightingale,
as tinny as,
kind-hearted as,
as cease-proof, as traditional,
as green grave sour, as streaky,
as symmetrical,
as hairy,
as near the water, true to the wind,
as fireproof, frequently turned over,
as childishly easy, well-thumbed as,
as new ans creaking, expensive as,
as deeply cellared, domestic as,
as easily lost, shiny with use,
as thinly blown, as snow-chilled as,
as independent, as mature,
as heartless as,
as mortal as,
as simple as my soul.

Magical Exercise with the Brides of Christ

Out of Celestial Pots

Who thought up this little game?
The chefs leap into the courtyard,
startle the nuns
or grab at them on the staircase,
in the cellar, in the attic,
in passages, breathless,
with hairy hands
with spoons they beat
and stir up
what was about to settle,
and skim off what concerned him --
the Bridegroom.


Chefs, nuns and birds.
then a wind from the wings
and right at the beginning a glass breaks
so that there are shards enough when at the end
the nuns take flight -- their course southeasterly.
Birds too usually go to Heaven,
because in plumage they are superior
to chefs and the wind.


Nuns disported themselves on the beach
and in washed hands held
black umbrellas,
so that the heat
would not tan innocence.
Little feet trod on shells,
so that there would be no ear
when Agneta, the novice, stumbled over words
as she often does.

No Dove

A seagull and a nun
And the seagull
hacked out the nun's eyes.
But the nun lifted her veil,
like Mary invited the wind,
blindly sailed up and away --
What remained was the Catholic beach,
it believed in dazzling sails,
seashell cried into seashell's ear:
Beloved in the Lord and on the beach,
if not in the guise of a dove
yet the Holy Spirit appeared to her,
and white those wings beat, so that I may believe.

The Nuns

They are made for the wind.
They always sail, even without sounding the depth.
What to them is the Celestial Bridegroom
elsewhere is known as the Ship's Hobgoblin.
I once saw nuns,
a whole fleet of them.
They wafted off to the horizon.
A fine day, a day for sailing,
the day after, Trafalgar, the Armada sunk.
What, after all, did Nelson know about nuns.

"Division" by Siegfried Zademack

"We've learned in school that the present comes after the past and is followed by the future. But I work with a fourth tense, the paspresenture. That's why my form gets untidy. On my paper more is possible. Here only chaos foments order. Here even holes are contents. And loose threads are threads that have been left radically untied. Here everyting doesn't have to come out even."
~GŁnter Grass (from "Headbirths, or the Germans are dying out")