Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Letter from Berlin

Letter from Berlin

It's now some years since one had wandered in various states of mind Berlin's present main drag, the Kurfürstendamm, along whose two-mile stretch, as the Berlin Tourist Office's very useful guidebook tells us, are "1,100 shops, department stores, boutiques and art-galleries . . ." Whatever it is or was that accounts for the scaffolding surrounding the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, adjacent to the Europe Center, the heart of the city's swirling consumerism, this blasted remnant of World War II bombings still echoes without apparent change the world that did, in fact, end here.

I am classically new in town, a writer who speaks only one language, and that with remarkably little confidence. I share what has been my country's persistent and statistically determined lack of interest in a language other than English. Yet I have been brought here by an intensively active academic sponsor, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst or more exactly, its Berlin Artists Program—which interestingly, provides for foreign artists to be brought to no city other than Berlin. DAAD, as it's called ("Day-Ah-Ah-Day "), provides most usually for a year's residence without duties except for the presumption that one will have company with local artists, hardly very much to ask. So, shortly after my arrival, Ted Joans, also American and a poet, gets me out to Wannsee on a bus that takes us through a substantial patch of the Grünewald to the edge of a lake where the Berliners go in the summer to enjoy

Washington Post Book World , December 18, 1983.


"the white sandy beach . . . one mile long and 250 feet wide . . . ," again as the guidebook says.

Our fellows are met at the Literarisches Colloquium, whose fact and influence has much to do with the poet-professor Walter Höllerer, now in his sixties. Through such magazines as Akzente and Sprache im technischen Zeitalter , and in the landmark anthology Neue Amerikanische Lyrik (Young American Poetry) , edited with Gregory Corso here in Germany in the early '60s, he has argued for a freeing of German diction, particularly in poetry, and so had much to do with the authority which American poets such as William Carlos Williams (through Enzensberger's excellent translations) and Frank O'Hara (possibly the most presently valued) have had. The Colloquium has been for years an amiable and far-reaching consensus of mutual interests beyond the simply national.

Back in the street, I am slightly claustrophobic as I again construct in mind die Mauer , the Wall, that literally encloses this city and has done so now for almost forty years. As I ride on the excellent buses and subways, I watch, furtively, my fellow riders and wonder if their covert studying of me is only my own paranoia. But here one is close to all the proposed bogeys of American propaganda. A visit to Berlin's Amerika Haus involves a confrontation with the security guards our embassy has put there since a bomb incident of about a year ago. Several stand outside the two-story building (a block or so from the central Zoo stop on the subway, where the junkies used to hang out and one can mail a letter twenty-four hours a day). Inside Amerika Haus are several more guards, who question those who enter for the art shows, the movies or lectures, or just for private business as myself. The guards' effect on public sense of Americans would be interesting to know.

Writers here are of a very particular world. For example, I asked the poet Karin Kiwus if feminism was an active center for women writers as it is in the States, and was answered that neither it nor any similarly determined factor of sexual nature, e.g., gay lib, had such attention, although they were certainly present and provoked the usual responses. It was the peace movement that engaged all articulate women and served as a political base among them. She gave as instance the East German poet, Christa Wolf, whose first book, published in the '60s, is aptly called The Divided Sky or Heaven —the German word Himmel translates as either. Her newest work, Cassandra , uses that archaically echoing voice of prophetic challenge—the artist's only resource against the increasing abstrac-


tion of human presence in the increasingly complex manipulations of power.

In a sense it is curious that writers and artists here generally have insisted upon information from their East German confreres. The first Writers Conference involved with this exchange was held in East Berlin about a year and a half ago, and the most recent was on this side of the Wall, last February, at the Akademie der Kunst, of which Günter Grass is now president, Karin Kiwus head of the department of literature, and K. P. Herbach, one of the city's most significant bookmen and authors, the secretary of press and public affairs. So writers such as Wolf Bierman and Sarah Kirsch have become as significant in West Berlin's literary and social thinking as they have been in the East.

What is harder to convey is the extraordinary spate of public readings, some forty a week at present rate, and all with an audience of some eighty to two-hundred people utterly pleased to be there. I watched, for example, the charmingly elder Berlin author and actor, Robert Wolfgang Schnell, read from his expansive autobiography, Sind die Bären Glücklicher Geworden? (which certainly sounds good!) and was impressed that a decorous lady to my right was rolling soundlessly in fits of laughter, while a gentleman to my left snorted with Germanly reckless abandon. It must have been funny. Next night I was at another reading, this time with American novelist and playwright Cecil Brown, who got more than a fair hearing from a predominantly young group of night-clubbers, and finally, the third night, at an art gallery where Ted Joans was having a finissage of his surrealist and historical artifacts—including a great film of himself in Timbuktu, which the Germans loved, with fine readings by Richard Anders, a poet we should know far better, the younger Ernst Bauerschaum, and Ted himself. By and large such readings are characteristically sponsored by book dealers, art galleries and cafes rather than the academic or institutional sponsors familiar to Americans. They feel local, almost like neighborhood action, and it is quite true that Berlin has its favorites, as the actor Schnell or the inimitable Johannes Schenk, with his great hat and country manners, who may or may not be known beyond the city limits.

So—es geht ganz gut! And now to learn some German. . . .


Letter from Berlin

Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.