"What Must Be Said" - Blog

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"What Must Be Said"

A controversy has erupted over a 69-line “poem":  “What Must Be Said,” written by Günter Grass, the German novelist and Nobel laureate, that appeared in several German newspapers on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. As reported in The New York Times on April 5 and 7, in his “poem” Mr. Grass wrote: “What do I say only now, aged and with my last drop of ink, that the nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace? Because that must be said which may already be too late to say tomorrow.”

José Garcia Villa’s paramount “don’t” in the writing of poetry was: “If you can say it in prose, don’t write it as poetry.” Among Villa’s most-important messages in his theory of poetry was his counsel: “After reading a poem, the question to ask is: “How did the poet do it?” – not: “What did he say?” In simplified terms, Villa said this because, as he also said: “A work of art is not what it is about, but what it actually is.”

Villa also said: “The ‘poems’ of prose-writers have a laxness and imprecision of language – they are not language yet for they use the language of prose. That satisfies prose; it does not satisfy poetry. And these prose ‘poems’ have a looseness of technique – prose-writers do not know how to tighten the vise of a poem to that finality of authority that is required.”

Jakob Augstein, the publisher of the weekly magazine Der Freitag, said of Grass’s “poem” that it “was neither a great poem nor brilliant political analysis, but that ‘one should thank Grass’ for starting the debate about the threat that Israel poses to peace.'"  For his part, Mr. Grass said he did not mean to attack Israel but Mr. Netanyahu’s policies, adding: “I should have also brought that into the poem.”

Villa, in his theory, said: “We must not think of poetry as in the service of something else. We speak loosely of poetry as narrative poetry, satirical poetry, didactic poetry, dramatic poetry, but none of these is related to the art of poetry.” That a Nobel laureate should present as a “poem” this particular piece of didacticism is his greatest offense, far more harmful in the long run than any imputation of anti-Semitism, bad politics or moral blindness.  

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    a reader from Beijing Tuesday, 01 October 2013

    I understand your blog as what follows:
    Poetry can be divided into lyric and semi-lyric. The best poetry is born from the gifted poet. How does it say and what does it say are two ends of a spectrum. In a good poem they don't conflict too much, since the way a poet expresses his thought is categorized into "How" item, so in this sense what he says can be turned into how he says, am I right?
    Thank you for your valuable blog.

  • Bob King
    Bob King Wednesday, 02 October 2013

    You are basically correct. Put another way, an art object can be achieved only by paying attention to the medium (language) and to form, not to the ego. The good poet maintains a superb indifference to subject matter - he or she is to discover the subject matter and emotion only after the poem is finished.

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Guest Tuesday, 20 February 2018