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This review is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.

POLITICS AND ETHICS Wolf Biermann, Poems and Ballads, translated by Steve Gooch (Pluto Press) paperback, £1.50.

To a translator Wolf Biermann's poetry is a special case not because it has been turned into one by political pressures culminating in the author's expulsion from the German Democratic Republic, and by the resulting publicity, but because the greater part of it is intended for performance by Biermann himself, combined with his tunes and accompaniment, usually on the guitar. Quite a number of prominent East German writers have followed Biermann into exile, including poets, like Sarah Kirsch or Bernd Jentzsch, far less overtly political; and those who have not continue to be subject to public inquisition and censure. Biermann remains a special case because he is primarily a performer. His progress as an artist cannot be appreciated by literary criteria alone, since it has more to do with his growing mastery of the musical medium, the growing range and subtlety of his rhythmic and vocal invention, than with the quality of the texts as such. Even the scores appended to Steve Gooch's translation do not help very much, since they reproduce only the melodic line; and the distinction of his later work lies not in the melodies, but in their combination with Biermann's peculiarly raucous, but agile, voice on the one hand, with the accompaniment on the other, which breaks and counterpoints the melodies with an astonishing variety of partly mimetic, partly expressive effects, not always produced by the strings of his guitar (or the pipes of his harmonium, in one outstanding instance). Whether or not these effects ...


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