The themes are those of the songs: everyday scenes, events, experiences, emotions of life in the Democratic Republic (pre-1976), in the Federal Republic, and, ultimately, in united Germany. There are love poems, lyrical descriptions, occasional poems, political poems, sonnets, ballads, "shaggy doggerel" poems (Neil Donahue's felicitous coinage in the review cited above), and aphoristic pieces. What is common to all this disparate material is Biermann's sovereign control of language, and also a joie de vivre deriving from semantic games and linguistic excesses. At times Biermann verges on the baroque, as in "Barrikade": "vorwarts aufwarts hoher weiter/menschen-auflauf unbehaarte/aufgebrachte affen uffen/schneller schoner blitzgescheiter/aufgekaufte knechte knuffen/aufgebrochne haufen grolen/gang, der auffenrechte warte!" There are old, much-quoted favorites such as "Antrittsrede des Sangers," in which Biermann somewhat immodestly celebrates his effect on the regime: "Die einst vor den Maschinengewehren mutig/bestanden furchten sich /von meiner Gitarre/Panik breitet sich aus/wenn ich den Rachen/offne. Und Angstschweiss/Tritt den Buroelephanten/auf den Russel, wenn ich/mit Liedern den Saal heimsuche." Such poems might as well be songs - somehow Biermann's strident voice and gnashing guitar can be heard as one reads them. Then there are the Heinesque twists which reduce lyricism to scurrilous near obscenity, and the virtuoso wordplay, which not so much dazzles as shakes and batters the audience into an enthusiastic acceptance of the message.
Biermann is often self-deprecating, never smug, always simple, never trite. He recognizes that he is never better than when he inveighs against injustice, and that, deprived of the GDR, his poetic talent is starkly reduced: "Ach, meine niedre Muse/trallert nicht mehr keck/Wie in der schweren Zeit/als alles leichter war." And for all his bitter denunciations and vitriolic invective, he remains, as he all too readily admits, naively trusting and accepting of humankind: "Ich bin nicht so verruckt/an Gott zu glauben, nein/Ich bin verruckter, denn ich/glaub an sein Geschopf."
Biermann's voice so unmistakably rings out in all these poems that one may catch oneself questioning their poetic worth: are they not simply catchy songs? Can the "Liedermacher" go beyond mere catchiness, beyond the polemically effective? The fact is that Biermann's cleverness often obscures or distracts from his poetic worth, but that poetic worth is nevertheless always firmly present and insistently effective. "Meleken an der Elbe bei Brokdorf" is a disarmingly simple, playful, but deeply sincere love lyric. In another simple and wonderfully effective lyric Biermann tells how the Japanese call the pebbles worn smooth by the ocean "Handschmeichler." The poem ends: "mir geubtem Griff schmeichelt meine Hand/den Unregelmassigkeiten des Steines/die Unvollkommenheit! sie vollenden/die Vollkommenheit der Form, so auch/im Gedicht, so auch/in diesem." Too much perfection can ruin a work of art, which needs the tension raised and thrust upon it by slight imperfections. Biermann is a master of such subtleties in his rhymes, rhythms, and diction. Alle Gedichte exemplifies this mastery magnificently.
David Scrase University of Vermont