Adios Avenidas: Poetry as Sexual Aggression?

The question: can a poem be a sexual aggression? Or more precisely: can this, the above poem, by Swiss-Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer be seen as a sexually aggressive poem & therefore condemned to be removed from the Berlin high school — the Alice-Salomon-Hochschule — where it has adorned a side-wall for a few years now?

Here’s the poem in my English translation:

avenues & flowers

flowers & women

avenues & women

avenues & flowers & women &
an admirer

I remain gob-smacked: for a year now hundreds of newspaper articles & radio-interventions have dissected the aesthetic & ethical pros & cons of this little, rather harmless, 20-word poem. No poem has been more intensely & widely discussed in Germany in recent history — which may be the best part of this whole insanity. But a decision has now been taken: the school’s students’ representative committee has come to the conclusion that the poem smacks “unpleasantly” of sexual agression. And the poem will be removed & replaced with another poem (&, further decision, there will now be a new poem every 5 years — something that hadn’t been part of the initial idea).

Meanwhile Gomringer’s poem will be “remembered,” in that a commemorative plaque with the poem in Spanish, German & English will be affixed to the bottom of the wall. As the journalist Bendict Neff writes in the Neue Züricher Zeitung: “The Germans are masters of memorial-culture, this comes well to the fore concerning the Avenida-wall. The past is wiped out, but then a plaque will point to it.  This process corresponds to the German capital: Berlin is a city without tradition, it is a city of recollections. (Berlin ist eine Stadt ohne Tradition, es ist eine Stadt der Erinnerung.)”

Gomringer — who wrote the poem in 1950 & who is now 93 — commented on the whole affair: “To achieve such an effect with so few words, that has always been my aim.” His daughter, the poet Nora Gomringer, has meanwhile started a guerrilla action & wants posters & handouts of the poem to be distributed & glued everywhere. You can check this out at #avenidas and read her thoughts here. She has also suggested a sardonic improvement of the picture of the wall via a blinking neon heading that reads “Here once stood” above the poem (see below).

Addendum: My certainty about the silliness of the removal & wall-cleaning has been shaken by Nicole Peyrafitte’s, my wife’s, take: Nicole, after reading the poem carefully a few times, did come to the conclusion that the poem is insulting & demeaning to women, that it is but an old washed-up male romantic trope that associates “women” (a generalization) here with flowers and architectural matters, in effect dehumanizing them. A macho gaze, thus, that I was not able to recognize as such. Which is true: I did not read the poem that way, thought of it mainly as a minor lyrical statement of a somewhat classical Latin-American romantic facture. What was uppermost on my mind was the question of censorship.

Where I do agree with Nicole is that it is good that the poems on that school wall be changed, a new one put up every few years — actually there are so many good poems around that one a year would be better. The next wall-poem will be by Barbara Köhler — & I hope it will be from her book Neimands Frau (Nobody’s Woman) which tells the story of the Odyssey form the perspective of its female characters.

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