The power of poetry


How does my writing work? Mely Kiyak addresses this big question against the backdrop of Heinrich Böll's Nobel Prize lecture, in which he dealt with the unfathomable prerequisite for his own writing.

Illustration: Böll nachdenklich
This is an automatically translated article.
Translated with DeepL.
Original language: Deutsch

What a consolation that Heinrich Böll, the great, the unique, also asked himself this absolute nonsense question, this one question that every writer asks himself: How does my writing work? Perhaps this form of surveying - also called poetics - is a helpless attempt to filter out some kind of formula so that one can apply it to future writing assignments and deliver the product expeditiously. And although one knows that writing is continually changing because the demands on one's own work are moving, one always descends like a miner into the depths of the creative process and yet comes up empty-handed from the dark shaft. If one knew, one would have control over one's own work. But the truth is: as a writer, you lurch from madness to crisis, to weariness, and back again - and somewhere along the way, it happens: something emerges.

"Writing is like a fingerprint"

Heinrich Böll spoke about exactly this 50 years ago in his Nobel Prize lecture: about the unfathomable prerequisites of one's own writing. He begins his expedition into his method by placing himself in relation to the baker of bread and the builder of bridges, stumbles in his attempts at explanation from the chemical and technical imponderables with which an engineer just like him would also have to deal, to the elements, then on to man, woman and animal, love, and ends up with God. In other words, he does not know himself either. A "parallel protocol" of writing could perhaps explain how literature comes about, but who has the nerve to take down the chronicle of his own creative work along with the text?

Böll was honest and confessed that he needed the banal activities to fill him up. Sports reports on television for the "kick" or "jump" into consciousness. It is often the trivial activities that help you sort out your thinking and catch the tip of a fleeting thought. You know this about yourself, but you think a Nobel Prize winner is made of different stuff. In any case, anyone who struggles with his profession as an author should know the first half of Böll's Nobel Lecture. For it shows that Böll was also just a man who had no plan, just as one often has no plan oneself. In any case, he is supposed to give a big speech and has set himself the task of describing his profession - and what does he do? He measures his desk ("76.5 cm high, 69.7 by 111 cm large") and shares the dimensions as if someone would come up with the idea of saying that anyone who wants to become a Nobel Prize winner for literature should first trim (or lengthen) his worktop to those dimensions.

Every piece of writing - I'm saying this, not him - is like a fingerprint, a lot of coincidence plays a role, a lot of individuality, imprints, influences. Of course, there are always authors who describe in interviews exactly what time they start work and what kind of suit they wear. These are tourist tours through the profession, which on the one hand are meant to entertain the listener, but actually they are always also an attempt to mystify oneself. You could also call it image cultivation and marketing. For I know writers who like to tell people that they would be at the secretary's desk with their suit on at 8 o'clock sharp, but everyone knows that the big booze-up starts at 12 o'clock at the latest, wearing a suit but losing their composure in a different way. A little folklore is good for any job description. But Böll didn't do that, and that suits him very well again, that he remains modest about it.

But then he changes the subject and talks about what every writer has the greatest knowledge and expertise of: language.

For writing is only the act - but language is what ennobles one from mere recorder to literary figure. Böll reminds us that everything we know about states and social constructs is language. Perhaps that's why it's a good idea for writers to think politically and engage in discourse after all. Because only they understand right away that everything is assertion, just as in literature.

Take money, for example. The bill or check in itself is worth nothing. It is simply a piece of paper. Only because someone tells you that it is worth something, does it gets its meaning. It is the same with marriage. When a man and a woman have a marriage (same-sex marriage didn't exist in Böll's time), then wedding or marriage is just a word. It is a symbolism, because of course there is no marriage. Cohabitation is only given this term because someone claims that through a certain ceremony a marriage has now been established. It is merely an assertion, a ritual at best, that attaches meaning to the word marriage - man and woman living together and wearing a ring on their finger. Married people differ from those who live without a marriage certificate by nothing. They experience the same things (eating, having sex, going on vacation together). Living together is vaulted with a narrative.

Complicated processes

What makes Northern Ireland different from Ireland? It is the narrative of the different religious communities that think they are different from each other in narratives about their identity. But what is a religion? Just a narrative about people who have not been alive for a long time. This can be discussed in any number of ways. About states or political acts - it is always all language. One could also say invention. Language and imagination always belong together. We invent the world for ourselves by labeling it with words. And that is already the whole secret. If we leave Böll for a moment and go to the present, to Russia, China, Turkey or Hungary, we see the best example of what language and invention can do. After all, the invention differs from the lie only in that the one remains inconsequential and the other kills. All warriors, emperors, fascists, autocrats invent the world in such a way that they can legitimize their destructive intentions with it. Russia claims that Kiev is the mother of Russia. But how can mother and child speak two different languages, have a different culture? As you can see, you can't get anywhere with logic here, you have to believe the lie, otherwise the reality is not true.

These are complicated processes, one would have to think about it longer and better here, Böll did that too, most writers do that, we try to explain to our societies with our craft and our knowledge what happens with the mere tool of language. Böll asks, "Why do you think the Catholic Church has long blocked direct access to the literalness of texts declared sacred, or kept it hidden in Latin and Greek?" His answer: because the Church scented the poetry of the embodied Word and to protect the reason underlying its power from the dangerous reason of poetry.

That's it! The power of poetry. To strip that, to peel the murderous intent from the language of the powerful, is even today degraded as activism, as if activism is something sordid and we writers are artists only when we string together beautiful words. In Böll's day, it was the accusation that one belonged to the camp of committed literature.

The core competence of every author

The distinction between committed and uncommitted literature is very silly. What is the point of unengaged literature? All literature is engaged because it always begins with a purpose. The content, the plot, the story. Its core. That can be singing about a blade of grass or describing war, for which Serhij Zhadan received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. But the singing of the blade of grass always shines only in contrast to the war, that makes the beautiful beautiful. Only when the ugly rages next door can we recognize the beautiful. A writer knows this, because he works with the means of contrast.

Böll warned against a classless literature. I translate it this way: one must be able to afford the (mere) singing of a blade of grass. But large parts of our colleagues in the world can afford the luxury of this singing about beauty less and less. In the dungeon, in the bunker, in the confines of flight, exile, or poverty, one does not see the blade of grass. One writes what one sees, what one recognizes - that is the core competence of every author, every writer. We peel the meaning from the words of those in power and unmask their speeches by turning them into simple translations for the people. We show them what words can and should do. Is that engaging? You bet it is! That, too, is our profession. We can all tell you a lot about that.

But about writing, please don't ask us anything.

No one can explain it, not even the legendary and only Heinrich Böll.

Mely Kiyak is a writer and columnist. Her most recent book, "Will they deport us with FlixBus?" was published by C. Hanser Munich. (2022). She has been honored with numerous awards, including the Kurt Tucholsky Prize (2021) for literary journalism and the Theodor Wolff Prize.