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A tribute to Heinrich Heine

150 years later

a poetic reflection not from exile, but from outside of Germany

There are several ways of honoring a poet. One way could be to undo the fact that too often he had been overlooked. It is best done by letting simply the impact of his written words be felt.

No one stands in the way, if you wish to read poetry! That would be the obvious answer, but who would listen? At least, there is the recognition that the world needs artists, but artists need people who do listen.

More than ever poetry is at risk to be pushed to the sidelines, or else be squeezed in-between fast moving images. They flicker across screens so that people can no longer make a distinction between advertisement, official messages and artistic expressions. It has become the literary business of publishers, book fairs and instigated disputes to mark the successful, less successful or the ill conceived one. As if branding literary works has become the culture. It is a part of the industrial and commercial like salesmanship which makes sales managers push books to ever new frontiers. They are sold everywhere and yet most of it good literature can never be found except in few exceptional places. At the same time, reading as a true receptivity seems to be no longer of any importance.

When the “Literary Quartett” organized by critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki discussed Heinrich Heine with Hellmuth Karasek and Iris Radisch, it was not poetry, its content which received attention, but the so-called biographical determination of what artists stand for: a great lover, a romantic fool, a poet in exile, etc. And if these categories do not suffice, then more qualitative statements are added, in order to get apparently a sense for how things stand today compared to what was the taste of yesterday.

For example, Hellmut Karasek thinks Heinrich Heine found Italy ‘boring’, but then one would have to ask, if Heinrich Heine meant by 'boring' a part of his travel experience and not how he would condemn an entire country? Naturally, there is at risk to compare such descriptions with the secret dialogues of Goethe. He unravelled them in his travel diary when on his way to Palermo.

Still, in the style of modern casualness, Iris Radisch had to include the assertion that Heinrich Heine had nothing to say to women. Then, so Marcel Reich-Ranicki, it would be good to keep in mind that poets must not speak all the time. Here one could wonder a bit since Heinrich Heine could be as provocative to Germans in his poems as he was quite able to tease women when standing beside his bed.

Attention turned then to the interlude Monika Maron made about Heinrich Heine being a player with masks. Of course, there is a need to forget for a moment Watteau. What strikes one about this remark is that poetry becomes suddenly a test case for someone being without a mask, equal to an ideology! Still one wonders. After all in those days the romantic mood caught up with poets sooner or later. That could also be considered to be a part of a kind of ideology, and as said already above often naivity is equated with being romantic. And if not that, then the poet is simply a fool.

It is said that women hate men who romanticize too much while they dream in secret exactly of a very romantic uplift. For the sake of the argumentation, Romanticism is still being equated with that search for a true love. In that sense a poem written out of a love ends up being a paradox in which many good feelings get lost. It leaves the mind wandering off. So can be imagined the person walking all alone along the Seine and contemplating whether to jump in or not. Some did it. And Celan ended forcefully his life in Paris.

All these remarks in that literary round made then possible a hint at his Jewishness, even though Heinrich Heine converted after his studies in Berlin, including by Hegel, to Protestantism in the hope of landing a job as civil servant, but which of course he never did.

So while the so called literary world steam rolls over pages of history or of his poems (by this time one is not sure what matters the personal life when seeking to understand a poem), an aura is cultivated without caring what has been flattened in the process.This may be called the making of the literary highway to fame.

Yet if it is possible to stand just for a while beside the road, then it should be said that Heinrich Heine belongs to more than just poetic inscriptions of life around the time of Napolean. He was not so much at home in Germany, but he did have a solid position in the political movement of his time. This came about thanks to a visitor who became curious what the poetic, and not the political or philosophical word has to say.

Engels visited once Heinrich Heine when already sick in Paris. After that his poems became something mandatory for every follower of Marx and Engels. It reflected an attempt on their part to link political concepts with what culture means amidst all political turmoil. To confront the world with poetry, that elevates something written outside the bounds of the state as Hegel had never envisioned, to being more than mere consciousness, regardless whether now false or true. For poetry means to bring about another way to relate to reality. It is done by uplifting poetry to a level at which sense perception does play a role in how things are perceived, thoughts expressed and true sentiments followed.

In other words, poetry is all about what Michel Foucault would later describe as expression of the sanity of man. Only Hegel had banned poetry from any philosophical consideration of truth. Heinrich Heine neither confirmed Hegel's negation of poetry not did he try to refute it consciously. He simply let it be. But to overcome this negation by writing the way he did, he had to flee Germany and write from Paris.  And this was also due to the Prussian police state which Hegel had endorsed.

Since Heinrich Heine allows a a way to understand poetry by showing where love is too often amiss, it is in his honour that a poem in prose form was composed back in 2006.


A tribute to Heinrich Heine

Always writing from exile is a forlorn business,
or as Heine put it once, heroes leave the world stage,
and only clowns, spies and thieves remain to fill the spectacle.
That seems to amuse all till it gets first loud, then bloody
and afterwards, when too late, the stillness of the cemetery reigns
not above, in the clouds, but within the depth of every German city.
Never did they behold the importance of this poet not gone mad.
Grief it may be or even despair when words are written in exile,
but still his poems made it across borders despite them so thick and tall,
that no one could ever see beyond them to catch a glimpse of future.
If his poems have a melancholic ring to them, yes, that is true!
It comes with life ending in sickness before death, but how did he
compare to the others, with Freud deciding for euthanesie due to cancer
or Nietzsche who looked back upon life from a chair of deadly silence?
Heine differs greatly even when he was confined to a mattress as if a groove,
for his appetite for love never ceased and people parted, not him.
In his satire, ironic thoughts about the self broke the hardness of life.
For sure it deems such a poet to be so close to a mockery of the self
but he was not caught up in reflections of endless mirrors in Versailles
as if they reflect still pools of blood after the French revolution
forever there since the bourgeoisie returned as it was again safe to be in Paris.
Always in his words is retained that laughter in his eyes
especially when a young girl would sing for him songs.
No wonder he confounded the publisher standing beside his bed
since his will was so strong that it ensured all poetic messages did reach home.

Hatto Fischer


This article was first published in heritageradio


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