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Poetry After Auschwitz

October 7, 2020

Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949 that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’:

“The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Prisms, 1955, MIT Press.

He later softened this much-cited dictum, at least a little – though in so doing, while allowing the potential of poetry, he went on to pose the even greater – and for him, deeply personal – question of whether it was possible to go on living at all, after the Holocaust. Both his original and modified comments provoke a stream of questions for poets and other artists: how can beauty continue to co-exist with brutality? What purpose can or should it serve? How could the same German nation that had produced such sublime artistic expressions as the music of Bach, Beethoven and – yes – Richard Strauss who had been co-opted by the Nazis, also have committed the barbarism of genocide? How dare a poet claim to create beautiful strings of words, in a world still resounding with the echoes of Auschwitz, and the misery and cruelty that has continued to pile up since? Indeed, how do those of us lucky enough to live in less miserable situations reconcile our good fortune with the values of fairness, equality and universal love?

Book cover, featuring Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee, 1920

In my newly published collection of poems, named for Adorno’s quote, I don’t answer these questions. But many of the poems in the collection do explore them. Indeed, the title poem – which can be read on the publisher’s website, was a specific, personal response to a meditation on Adorno’s words: words which I admit I do not fully understand.

In another poem, entitled Debris, I imagine Stalin’s daughter using Walter Benjamin’s image of The Angel Of History as a way to channel her feelings and insights about her father’s motivation. (Benjamin – whose prose can be at least as difficult to understand as that of his friend Adorno – committed suicide while fleeing from occupied France to Spain in 1940.) Debris also provides the inspiration for the book’s cover, featuring a Paul Klee print, Angelus Novus, of which Benjamin owned a copy and which he used as a reference for his Angel of History.

I’m interested in how the brushstroke of history touches each of us in our particular landscape, and what remains of us after the brush has passed. The book draws partly on my experience of working with people in some troubled places. But the poems also touch on love, landscapes, gardens and plenty more besides. Many of them are written in formal forms – sonnets and the like – where I have tried to exploit the energy created in the convergence of and collision between form, ideas, music and emotion, to explore what poetry offers – perhaps in a kind of shadow or reflection of the dialectic to which Adorno refers.

For anyone interested to read the poems, the book can be bought for £7 plus P&P from the publisher, through local bookshops, Amazon or other websites. I also have some copies to hand, which I’d be happy to sell at the same price plus P&P – and even sign if you like! My email is phil.e.vernon@gmail.com

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