Der Lyrikabend

The Lyrikabend of 11 December 1962
GDR Poetry’s “Geburtsstunde” as Historiographic Artifact

Alan G. Ng

Under the supervision of Professor Marc Silberman

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison


The poetry reading organized by Stephan Hermlin at the East Berlin Academy of Arts on 11 December 1962 is recognized as a watershed event in the history of GDR literature. This dissertation examines the formation in East and West of the legends surrounding the reading. Chapter 1 presents a genealogy of Lyrikabend reception through 1984. Political instrumentalizations of this poetry reading reflect ideological polemics in the GDR press as read by FRG observers. Literary conceptions of the reading through 1984 ignore the primary poetic texts and take the reading to stand for a nearly arbitrary range of literary developments. A reliance on the “opinio communis” among Germanists leads Wolfgang Emmerich finally in 1983 to conclude that the Lyrikabend was “die eigentliche Geburtsstunde der DDR-Lyrik.” A survey of trends in Western historiography of GDR poetry establishes a process of critical canonization which reveals Emmerich’s thesis as a reflection of trends in Germanistik rather than of knowledge of the Lyrikabend. Chapter 2 finds a less fragmented set of views after 1984 which, despite methodological improvements, retain the focus on the reading’s political aftermath. Chapter 3 presents new archival research to answer questions left open by Lyrikabend commentary to date, particularly regarding the reading’s prehistory. The analysis aims to satisfy interest in GDR Öffentlichkeit and the process of literary-historical change, concepts which emerge in chapter 2 as major categories of recent Lyrikabend reception. Two discoveries are presented: an increase in public, grass-roots interest in poetry in the GDR began already earlier in 1962; and the well-established, massively popular poetry scene in Moscow involving the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko exercised significant influence in the GDR. Pursuing more literary questions, the vanguard role of love poetry during 1962 figures as a crucial and previously ignored forerunner of the poetic shifts historians have identified around the time of the Lyrikabend. Finally the sixty-three poems selected by Hermlin are briefly surveyed in order to demonstrate their remarkable literary span. The poems emerge as a complex performance of a dance between the publicly discursive and privately lyrical spheres which GDR poetry inhabited.

This dissertation was defended orally on 13 May 2002, and filed in its final form on 10 June 2002.