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last updated: 10 December 2008

Reiner Kunze & Mireille Gansel

In Time of Need

A Conversation about Poetry, Resistance and Exile

What use are poets in time of need?’ — Hölderlin

This volume is the record of an urgent, spontaneous conversation about German poetry in the twentieth century. Because of its poetic intimacy and detail, this exchange between close literary friends also constitutes a profound text on the essence of poetry itself.

The conversation centres on the life and work of the major German modern poet, Peter Huchel (1903–81), whom both authors knew personally.

Huchel first published in the nineteen twenties and thirties, knew ‘inner emigration’ in Nazi Germany in the forties, before being forced again into inner then outer emigration at the hands of the German Democratic Republic regime in the sixties and early seventies. It is because of this long history of imposed and self-imposed isolation that he is still one of Europe’s least known great poets.

Focusing on the survival of poetry, and on the tenuous existence of resistant poetry in Nazi Germany and during the most rigid years of the East Germany regime, the volume forms an extensive reflection on a neglected aspect of the history of German literature and, through the testimony of numerous examples, is an assertion of poetry’s survival in extreme and hostile environments. This conversation is therefore relevant not only to Germany’s past, but to the situation of poets in any country under political duress, or who are forced into inner or outer exile.

Ritchie Robertson’s essay is a carefully weighed consideration of Peter Huchel’s life and work, and the difficult, often exemplary decisions he was compelled to make about questions of politics and literature, which still arouse controversy in present-day Germany and in the wider world.

REINER KUNZE (born 1933) was a dissident East German poet until his enforced move to the Federal Republic in 1977. He was a close friend of Peter Huchel. His own distinctive, often minimalist, always oblique and low-voiced poetry is translated into many languages. He is the winner of the Georg Büchner and of the Friedrich Hölderlin prizes; he lives near Passau in Bavaria.

MIREILLE GANSEL taught German literature in Paris and Lyons. She is the French translator of the German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (3 volumes, 2000/05), and of her correspondence with Paul Celan. Her bilingual edition of Reiner Kunze’s major collection, Un jour sur cette terre, appeared in Paris in 2001, and her translation of the collected essays of Eugénie Goldstern, the recently rediscovered anthropologist of the High Alps who perished in the Holocaust, was published in 2008. Mireille Gansel lives in Paris; her own poetry collection Larmes de neige appeared in 2006.

RITCHIE ROBERTSON, Professor of German at Oxford University, is the author, among other books, of Kafka — Judaism, Politics and Literature (1985), Heine (1988), and The ‘Jewish Question’ in German Literature (1999).

EDMUND JEPHCOTT is the translator of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, among other texts in the four-volume Harvard edition of Benjamin’s writings.


‘unusual and fascinating … striking things are said about the relationships(s) between poetry and politics, between poetry and power’


‘constructive and serious … raises difficult questions that won’t go away’

London Magazine

‘Libris … should be congratulated for this beautifully produced and well-annotated volume. Kunze and Gansel’s conversation is a compelling read ’

Poetry Nation Review

book cover