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January 15, 2021


The second entry in our series of transcriptions, this one from German poet and dramatist Günter Eich. Some Remarks on “Literature and Reality” was originally published in the 1981 collection Valuable Nail from Oberlin College Press, translated by Stuart Friebert, David Walker, and David Young.


All the views that have been presented here assume that we know what reality is. I have to say for myself that I do not know. That we have all come here to Vézelay, this room, this green tablecloth, all this seems very strange to me and hardly real.

We know there are colors we do not see, sounds we do not hear. Our senses are uncertain, and I must assume my brain is too. I suspect our discomfort with reality lies in what we call time. I find it absurd that the moment I am saying this already belongs to the past. I am incapable of accepting reality as it presents itself to us as reality.

On the other hand, I do not wish to play the fool who does not know he has bumped into a table. I am prepared to orient myself in this room. But I have the same sort of difficulties that a deaf and dumb blind man has.

Well, all right. My existence is an attempt of this kind: to accept reality sight unseen. Writing is also possible in these terms, but I am trying to write something that aims in another direction—I mean the poem.

I write poems to orient myself in reality. I view them as trigonometric points or buoys that mark the course in an unknown area. Only through writing do things take on reality for me. Reality is my goal, not my presupposition. First I must establish it.

I am a writer. Writing is not only a profession but also a decision to see the world as language. Real language is a falling together of the word and the object. Our task is to translate from the language that is around us but not “given.” We are translating without the original text. The most successful translation is the one that gets closest to the original and reaches the highest degree of reality.

I must admit that I have not come very far along in this translating. I am still not beyond the “thing-word” or noun. I am like a child that says “tree,” “moon,” “mountain,” and thus orients himself.

Therefore, I have little hope of ever being able to write a novel. The novel has to do with the verb, which in German is rightly called the “activity word.” But I have not penetrated the territory of the verb. I shall still need several decades for the “thing-word” or noun.

Let us use the word “definition” for these trigonometric signs. Such definitions are only useful for the writer but it is absolutely necessary that he set them up. In each good line of poetry I hear the cane of the blind man striking: I am on secure ground now.

I am not saying that the correctness of definitions depends on the length or brevity of texts. A novel of four hundred pages is likely to contain as many “definitions” as a poem of four lines. I would consider such a novel a poem.

Correctness of definition and literary quality are identical for me. Language begins where the translation approaches the original. What comes before this may be psychologically, sociologically, politically or any-cally interesting, and I shall gladly be entertained by it, admire it and rejoice in it, but it is not necessary. The poem alone is necessary for me.

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