I can’t read German, but it’s hard to imagine that Günter Grass’ “What Must Be Said” constitutes striking lyricism in any language. The poem, which criticizes Israel’s nuclear program and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkishness, sparked an international outcry that culminated in Israel’s Minister for the Interior banning the 84-year-old Grass from entering the country.
Yet there’s precious little trace of the poetic muse in lines like “I hope too that many may be freed / from their silence … / may insist that the governments of / both Iran and Israel allow an international authority / free and open inspection of / the nuclear potential and capability of both,” as Breon Mitchell’s translation in The Guardian goes.
Rilke this is not. For that matter, it’s not really Grass either — “Whoever drinks from the sea / henceforth feels / a thirst only for oceans,” the Nobel laureate wrote in his younger years. (That was Michael Hamburger’s translation, but I don’t think that’s the key difference.) “What Must Be Said” is an op-ed with line breaks.
Nor is it a particularly controversial op-ed, purely in terms of content. Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull made essentially the same points in The New York Times in January: It’s dangerous to have nuclear weapons anywhere in the Middle East; Israel is likely the only Middle Eastern nation with a nuclear arsenal; at the very least, Israel should allow international inspectors access to its facilities. Telhami and Kull backed up their points with some encouraging surveys of the Israeli public, the majority of whom oppose a strike on Iran, favor nuclear disarmament and would welcome inspectors.
If the point isn’t offensive enough to provoke a travel ban from Israel — neither Telhami (who is Palestinian) nor Kull have been declared persona non grata by the Jewish state — then why take such extraordinary measures against Grass, an otherwise respected artist?
Grass’s teenage conscription into the Waffen SS, which came to light in 2006, was Israel’s legal basis for the ban, based on a 1952 law that forbids former members of Nazi organizations from entering Israel. But Grass was not banned in 2006 — he was banned in 2012, following the publication of an unimaginative bit of political verse.
And while Israeli ministers treated the poem as something of a Trojan Horse bearing fascist anti-Semitism under the guise of European intellectualism, Grass alludes fairly openly to his Nazi past in the sixth verse: He calls Israel “a land / to which I am, and always will be, attached.” This attachment, the deep scar of historical sin and current responsibility, is central to the poem’s message. As a participant in the unconscionable evil that necessitated Israel’s creation, Grass is uniquely responsible for ensuring that nation survives by listening to the better angels of its nature.
Most commentators missed this point, focusing instead on Grass’s inelegant lines about submarine deliveries and Israel’s shrill fatwa against the writer. Both poem and proscription were ill-advised — the latter because it was an unnecessary populist gesture that undermined Israel’s crucial commitment to democracy and free speech; the former because it was a poem.
Poetry and song are gloriously powerful as expressions of humanity; they are dangerously reductive as political statements. We celebrate poets and novelists — and painters, directors, dancers and singers — because they enlarge our souls; they enrich our human experience by linking lonely existences in a chain of communion.
Yet artists who use their media of choice to advocate specific political agendas should always warrant our suspicion, regardless of our feelings on the agenda in question. Artists have won their public pulpit by mastering a chosen form of expression and using that form to profoundly affect others, not through their well-reasoned and insightful approaches to the crises of the modern era.
Regardless of your stance on its policy, “What Must Be Said” is bad poetry, and it is bad poetry on two levels. It is heavy-handed and bland, and it irresponsibly relies on its poetic form and its author’s fame to skirt the insight, reasoning and moral seriousness demanded of any writer who addresses the modern Middle East.
And we, in turn, are bad readers on two levels. We miss the key point of responsibility under Grass’s rhetoric, preferring to focus on a senseless diplomatic fracas, and we abdicate our democratic responsibilities by granting undue weight to the political platforms of the famous, the charismatic and the under-informed.
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.