German poet Peter Hamm plays a major role as an essayist in Germany’s literary life today. However, he is neither as recognized, nor as prolific, as his older colleague Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Though Hamm’s essayistic writings are rare, they are nevertheless unique in the way they treat their subjects. Using an intimate, plain, yet lucid style, Hamm conveys the sense that he knows personally all the authors he is writing about, even if they are removed in time (like Goethe) or in place (like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa). Of course, Hamm does know many contemporary writers personally, and his portraits of them are intriguing accounts of their lives and works. But even if he has not met an author face to face, he takes his readers on a haunting trip into the intellectual and emotional worlds of those he is portraying. Since it is always the lives of his subjects that most interest Hamm—he once wrote that he does not have faith in people who claim to be interested only in an author’s work—his approach is decidedly nonacademic and as such never claims objectivity or bothers itself with the latest theories. Instead, Hamm leaves enough space for readers to draw their own conclusions from the careful, almost caressing way in which he presents biographical details intertwined with the writings of both wellknown and lesser-known writers.
Hamm’s personalized yet critical method is best described by looking at one of his essays, a speech on Ingeborg Bachmann. Besides meeting her several times throughout his life, he also directed a film portrait on her. In “Rede zum 60. Geburtstag von Ingeborg Bachmann” (1986; Speech on the 60th anniversary of Ingeborg Bachmann’s birth), Hamm asks himself and his audience: “What is it that I needed from Ingeborg Bachmann?” By confronting the audience with such a simple, seemingly naive, and egocentric question, Hamm invites us to ask that same question about the woman who had then already been dead for 13 years. This invitation to communal self-reflection creates an immediate bond between the listener/reader and Bachmann, the subject. At the same time, however, Hamm warns us that when we think we are close to really understanding an author, it is usually the reflection of our own self that we are projecting onto the perceived Other. Thus, ultimately, Hamm never answers his opening question.
Instead, he takes his audience on a journey to Søren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, E.M.Cioran, and T.S.Eliot, comparing their responses to literature with his own feelings as a 16-year-old boy when reading the first lines of the celebrated poet. He goes on to describe some of his personal encounters with Bachmann, which he illuminates by references to lines of her poetry. The outcome is a description of her life and writings as the journey of a holy martyr, finally raising the question: What is it that I need from Ingeborg Bachmann?
René Wellek’s insight, that the combination of poet and critic in one person is not always successful, is certainly justified in many cases. For Peter Hamm, the opposite is true. His essays never lack a critical perspective. This can perhaps be explained by his participation in Gruppe 47, the major literary movement of postwar Germany. The experience of being exposed to the critique of friends and colleagues—as a poet—at the meetings of the Gruppe, while at the same time developing his own critical method further, sharpened his literary instinct at a young age. Writing for the two major periodicals in German intellectual life, Die Zeit (The age) and Der Spiegel (The mirror), Hamm has often been among the first to respond in public to new and upcoming contemporaries, such as Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, or Martin Walser. Because of his role as a poet-critic, he is also concerned with the aims and purposes of literary criticism. He wrote about the self-image of the critic in the late 1960s and mediated a selection of different critics’ reflections on their profession by editing the volume Kritik—von wem/für wen/wie: Eine Selbstdarstellung deutscher Kritiker (1968; Criticism—by whom/for whom/how: a self-representation of German critics).
In his essayistic writings, Hamm is mainly influenced by French philosophical thought, more specifically by Blaise Pascal, Paul Valéry, and above all Simone Weil. Her exploration of the loss of religion and faith in modern times is a recurring theme for Hamm, inspiring many of his essays. Because of a difficult childhood during World War II and its aftermath, Hamm turned even as a teenager to non-German cultures and avantgarde movements. He soon developed a fundamental knowledge of other European cultures, editing and translating collections of Swedish and Czechoslovakian poetry, as well as poems by Artur Lundkvist and Jesse Thoor. Hamm’s ambivalent feelings toward the German tradition are best characterized by the title of his collected essays: Der Wille zur Ohnmacht (1992; The will to powerlessness), a play on Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht (1901; The Will to Power), reflecting his critical, yet modest and personalized reexamination of traditionally accepted authorities.
Born 27 February 1937 in Munich. Studied at Catholic boarding schools in Baden- Württemberg: left school at age 14. Worked for a time at a small publishing house;
music, cultural, and literary critic, Bayerischer Rundfunk radio station, Munich, from 1960. Film director and producer: subjects included Ingeborg Bachmann, Heinrich Böll, Hanns Eisler, Hans Werner Henze, Alfred Brendel. Has one daughter.
Essays and Related Prose
Der Wille zur Ohnmacht, 1992
Deutschland—du mein Traum: Ein Familienleben in einer menschenverachtenden Diktatur, 1994
Other writings: poetry. Also edited and translated anthologies of German, Swedish, and Czech poetry.
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