Sebald’s Poetry and Constraint

Recently I was invited to Stockholm to participate in a seminar on the poetry of W.G. Sebald. For those familiar with his prose, myself included, Sebald’s poetry can prove cryptic. The following is my presentation, which I wrote largely in an attempt to clarify certain aspects of the poems to myself. I am posting it for those who might be interested, with thanks and acknowledgements to Axel Englund, the conference organizer, and the other participants.

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It is almost certainly asking too much that the right thing be liked for the right reason, and so, when a writer such as W.G. Sebald becomes a sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of books, while Jean Améry, Kluge, and many of those on whose shoulders he stood remain cult authors at best, I cannot help but feel a measure of suspicion. In my own country, the United States, which is not renowned for the thoroughness of its concern with the historical antecedents of disaster, I have the sense that it is may be too costly, psychologically, to take a proper inventory of the countless infamies to which we have been party, and that the periodic symbolic condemnation of nazism has come to stand in for proper self-reckoning. Hence, in a country that by European standards translates nothing, you find on the lists of bestsellers, year’s best, and various other bests, the whole menu of Holocaust entertainments: Bernhard Schlink for the followers of Oprah’s book club, Modiano for the upper-middlebrow, and Sebald somewhere near the top.

The poetry, though, has sidestepped somewhat the weight of Sebald’s legacy, in part because, being less explicitly condemnatory, it eludes readers whose enthusiasms reflect their vision of themselves as moral actors. The poems are vague, and have about them only the aftertaste of a melancholy that is expressed, in Sebald’s fiction, in a systematic form. Of course, it was also published well after the peak of the Sebald craze, and even in the most fortunate cases, poetry is a commercially dubious undertaking.

Before proceeding, I would like to delimit somewhat the boundaries of my own inquiry. When I speak of Sebald’s poetry, it is generally with reference to the more or less fragmentary verses of Across the Land and the Water. I ignore After Nature insofar as, to me, it represents an intermediate stage between the earlier poetry and the mature prose works; most of the poetic effects found therein have their equivalents in the novels, and the themes, the approach taken to them, and even the syntax are hardly distinguishable. I overlook as well the late poems For Years Now and Unrecounted, which for me are simply too gnomic to arouse any particular emotional effect.

An essential document for approximating Sebald’s thinking about poetry is his 1975 conversation with Rainer Kunze, in which he quotes from the poet’s book Zimmerlautstärke: “The poem as stabilizer, as an orientation-point of the I.” Later he describes poetry as a form of self-therapy, as a way of achieving a degree of freedom, as a method for making the earth inhabitable. I think it is clear these are not mere literary-critical remarks, but impend upon Sebald’s own evolving poetic praxis as well as on the later prose works, in which disorientation, the fragmentation of identity, and art as, at once, a symptom of and a countercharm against madness will have pride of place. From the beginning, the poetic object, for Sebald, is linked to a sense of instability which is first of all perspectival. This is apparent in the switch of viewpoints in the untitled opening poem of both the English and German editions of Sebald’s poetry, in which an observer from a train car is observed to vanish by the landscape he himself had seemed to be observing, as well as in the quote from Merleau-Ponty’s Le visible et l’invisible that Sebald arranges into a stanza in Unrecounted:

I have felt

On certain days

That it was

The trees which

Were watching me.

We see similar reversals throughout Sebald’s mature work, notably in the Nocturnium episode in Austerlitz. This perspectival instability has a passive and an active component; in other words a psychological and programmatic aspect. As far as the former, Sebald asserts that human history, humankind, must be observed not with reference to the liberal ideal of the emancipated individual as posited from the Enlightenment onward, but as a natural-historical, mass phenomenon within which the individual is borne along, to quote Georges Bataille, “like a wave lost among many other waves.” To the extent that consciousness transcends this organic or materialist aspect of human history, it does so less through resistance than through neurotic behaviors that incorporate and reproduce in miniature the nature-transfiguring movements of the larger mass: I am thinking here of the countless poets, scholars, artists, and tinkerers who populate Sebald’s work, whose disposition is inevitably saturnine and encumbered. This extends to Sebald himself, who frequently commented with evident displeasure on his métier as writer and scholar, its dubious merit, and its necessary kinship to melancholy and exhaustion, seen again, to return to the poetry, in his portrayal of “exhausted eyes” of the novelist Marianne Fritz in the fairly late poem In Alfermée.

The sense of self-displacement necessary, epistemologically, if one is to examine human conduct from the natural-historical perspective as opposed to that of individual freedom, necessarily stresses the moment of embodiment as an intermediate stage between generation and destruction, bordered at either end by the extinction of the consciousness-mechanism. Anyone who has considered life deliberately in this way knows how unsettling it is, and how urgently the need assails one to subsume the resultant horror, whether through the attenuation of consciousness into intellectual flights of fancy or more robust methods of self-abnegation.

Concerning the programmatic aspect, it might be best to turn to Sebald’s 1984 essay on Canetti, which is a categorical denunciation of the creative propensities of authority. Canetti, according to Sebald,

Describes the processes of power as those of a closed system which, in perpetuation of itself, continually makes victims of outsiders.

Sebald goes on to declare the “fundamental affinity between power-politics and paranoia” as the basis for a totalizing impulse, “a longing for total order” for which life is dispensable. Though initially, Sebald’s critique seems applicable to a more traditional understanding of power, the artistic implications of his words become clear in his disparagement of the attempt, on the part of novelistic culture in the course of the diffusion of bourgeois society, to develop comprehensive codices and systems. As examples he offers the brothers Mann, Broch, Musil, Arnold Zweig, and Döblin, contrasting them approvingly with Canetti’s assertion, after abandoning his intention to compose his own Comédie Humaine, that “Every work, by its sheer mass, is a violation. One must find other, purer means of self-expression.”

In this critique of power, of authority, lie the roots of Sebald’s inclination for the oblique and a preference for letting others speak to the detriment of his own voice. In the late prose work, this will evolve into an almost medieval method of attributing auctoritas to a select group of figures, most of them marked by exile and suffering, for whose words Sebald limits himself to providing annotations, as though there were something inherently validating about the standpoint of the victim. This approach develops over time, and is first fully evident the two initial cantos of After Nature, in the biographical sketches of Grünewald and Steller. The appropriation of biography, and in particular the absorption of others’ words into what thereby becomes an intersubjective text, are the culmination of writing as bricolage, such as Sebald practiced and sang the praises of throughout his life. Well known for his hostility to the traditional strictures of academic writing and investigation, Sebald praised bricolage as a “pre-modern form of research” that was, presumably, untainted by the totalitarian residue of ends-based rationality.

The process begins, as early as 1967, with scattered or occasionally more allusions: to Butor in the long poem Breston, to Félix Timmerman in Winter Poem, most significantly for me, because in the kind of source employed and the author’s slightly aloof perspective, Dürer in Pneumatological Prose. Slowly, acquired knowledge, arranged more or less cryptically, comes to stand in for the natural locus of sentiment in sensation and memory.

… I should probably say something about coincidence, since it was the ostensible subject of my presentation but has largely disappeared from its final version. Coincidence is a uniting thread of Sebald’s mature prose work, subsuming otherwise disparate themes and providing a sense of order, however haunting, for historical and organic processes tending toward entropy and chaos. Because it lies, or appears to lie, beyond the author’s or narrator’s influence, coincidence, like photographs and other documentary evidence, provides a means for establishing global narratives that dispense with the more dubious aspects of authorship. In general, whether because of formal restraints or a lack of definitive method, these ordering mechanisms are mostly absent in the poems, which thus become exemplary of the primitive aesthetic encounter between Sebald and his material. The poems’ subjects are fragmentary, but whereas the fragmentary form has at times been adopted, particularly in thrall to a certain probably fallacious notion of the aims and capacities of so-called Eastern poetry, to emphasize and draw attention to the sufficiency of the object in itself, in Sebald the fragment seems to be reaching outward, as though to alert the reader to an absence without which it is incomprehensible.

The question as to whether the fragmentary in itself is possessed of sufficient artistic vigor or whether it represents an intermediate stage to be contrasted with the highly finished later prose works is an open one, though it appears that for Sebald, the choice was not an absolute one. While Sebald recycled parts of his poems in After Nature as well as in the novels, he continued to write poetry throughout his life, indicating that there was, so to speak, a remainder that the prose works failed to subsume and for which poetry continued to be the most adequate means of expression.

An example of these contrasting methods is clear in the specific brevity of Sebald’s meeting with one poet, Jesse Kleemann, viewed against his extensive narration of an afternoon spent with the schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, as recounted in Vertigo. Herbeck is introduced with a capsule biography and a photograph, is described at length, and two examples of his work are presented, including a very charming improvised verse about England.

Jesse Kleemann, on the other hand, appears as a pure anecdote, slightly sensationalized as a “living / Greenlandic / poet in the flesh” uttering “double vowels and double vees” with several words left in something approximating her original language. Given first that Kleeman’s appearance at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin took place in late 1997, second that the idiom of other Sebald poems from around that time is much closer to that of the prose works, and third that it was prepared for publication, Calm November Weather should not be thought of as a draft or an abstract; clearly Sebald, who was famously scrupulous in such matters, saw it as a proper piece of work.

It is perhaps wistful to say that it was only in brief snatches that Sebald could permit the intrusion of bare life, stripped of literary references, temporal coincidences, historical connections, and so forth, but it is true that here, and in such poems as I Remember, composed in English, a hint emerges of another, less laden, possibly warmer kind of writing toward Sebald might have tended toward, had it not been for his untimely death.


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