If You Want To Write, Despite Adorno, Poetry After Auschwitz

"It is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.”
                    —Theodor Adorno

Resist the temptation to compile
one more clichéd catalogue of monsters.
No Hitler—that posturing, mustached marionette
posing on one balcony after another,
extended right arm saluting an adoring swarm
of narcotized German bodies.
He’s not new news.
No need to give him a public forum.
He’s available for viewing in massive archived footage
of black-and-white newsreels from the forties.
Moreover, madness on his scale is beyond our comprehension.

Nor should you waste even one poetic line
on SS-Obersturmführer Rudolf Höss.
His pride in his efficient extermination—
gassing, burning, starving, wasting by disease—
of three million tormented persons
is already fully documented.
By now history has taught us many times
that even great evil is banal,
and is done on orders from above.
Höss claimed, when captured, that he was quite sane,
which, if true, does not speak well
for what passes in society for sanity.

You will inevitably consider
devoting at least one laudatory stanza
to Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar,
who Christ-like volunteered to take the place
of another prisoner—a common soldier—
one of ten selected to be starved to death
as a warning to anyone dreaming of escape.
But his martyrdom, albeit noble and inspiring,
exceeds our understanding and our competence.
And, in any event, Father Kolbe was later canonized
and has no need for our attention.

Indeed, if you feel a need to write
poetry after Auschwitz,
take as your subject the nameless Polish peasants
who threw bread to Jews in passing cattle cars
on their way to Auschwitz—
despite the threat of being imprisoned or gunned down.
The camp survivors say it was the fact
that the world still held people who would see them
and throw bread that gave them a reason to stay alive. 

 

 

Carl Auerbach is a Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University, specializing in the psychology of trauma, with an emphasis on collective trauma and mass violence. His work has been published in many literary journals and he has been nominated for four pushcart prizes, three for poetry and one for short fiction. He lives in New York City.

 

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