East Germany has never lacked for gifted poets; its problem has been holding on to them. In the aftermath of Wolf Biermann ’s expatriation in the mid-70s, bankrupt cultural politics caused even such left-thinking writers as Gunter Kunert to leave for the West. In some ways, Ulrich Berkes is a bridge from Biermann’s generation to Steffen Mensching’s, Berkes’ two books of poems (the first consisting entirely of prose poems) are mainly focused on the immediate surroundings of his daily life, and on travel—whether in the figure of Orpheus, Icarus, or Rimbaud, This politically disengaged stance typifies the way many writers reacted when they saw the dire consequences of unorthodox political involvement.
Since the early 1980s, the new generation of poets (including Mensching, Uwe Kolbe, Thomas Boehme, and others) has seemed once again willing to probe the bounds of the acceptable. While some poets such as Sascha Anderson headed West, others of true talent stayed on. Mensching, for example, has met with exceptional critical and popular success (he was just twenty-six when he received the East German equivalent of the Yale Younger Poets award in 1985). His best poems are those in which past and present, history and the quotidian, play off each other In others it is the political and the personal (often sexual) which are brought together to create an intimate tension.
It is to be hoped that Berkes, Mensching, and their fellow poets can keep writing not only as they are, but where they are, for the sake of readers everywhere. We have all read enough of the poetry of exile.