Trending: Where rhyme and reason part company

The subject matter of Günter Grass's poem about Israel isn't the problem – it's the quality of his writing, says John Walsh

Günter Grass is the heart and conscience of German literature. Grim-faced, Nietschze-moustached, pipe-smoking and combative, the Nobel-winning author of Dog Years and The Tin Drum, has such a starry reputation, it eclipses the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS during the war. You'd think, at 84, he'd be taking it easy. Instead, he's managed to scandalise the international community, to be accused of anti-Semitism and to be barred from entering Israel.

The reason is a poem called "What Must Be Said," a polemic that criticises Germany for exporting to Israel a submarine equipped with nuclear warheads, and warns that Israel may use them as a first strike against Iran. As a letter to his countrymen, it has a polemical force; as a personal wrestle with guilt about being anti-Semitic, it's interesting – but as a poem it's astonishingly prosaic: "I've broken my silence/ because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy; /and I hope too that many may be freed/ from their silence, may demand/ that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,/ may insist that the governments of/ both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of/ the nuclear potential and capability of both."

There have, in the past, been politicians who were also successful writers (Milton, Marvell, Sidney, Disraeli, er, Jeffrey Archer) but it's a curious fact that engaging with politics often sees writers come a cropper. Grass's Tin Drum was an overtly political study of wartime Germany, but the theme was leavened with myth, allegory, religion and folklore. Choosing directness and poetry was a bad idea. The same problem bedevilled Harold Pinter, the great playwright. He wrote about American warmongering with a brutal frankness that never worked. One poem called "Democracy" read: "There's no escape./ The big pricks are out./ They'll fuck everything in sight. /Watch your back." They inspired Craig Brown's parodies, from which they are often indistinguishable.

The former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, hit a wall when he published "Causa Belli," criticising the Iraq war, contrasting what's said by pro-war politicians and what's understood by ordinary people: "They read good books, and quote, but never learn/ a language other than the scream of rocket-burn./ Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:/ elections, money, empire, oil and Dad." Its simplistic quality enraged American commentators. Several offered alternative versions: "They buy my books, and say, This stuff is shite/ But that doesn't stop me preening, or dashing off more tripe/ Once you're Poet Laureate, you can never get the sack./ The only way to shut me up is to invade Iraq."

Ian McEwan's reputation took a nose-dive in 1982 when he wrote an oratorio for the composer Michael Berkeley: it had an anti-nuclear warfare theme, and climaxed with: "Will there be womanish times/ Or shall we die?" Martin Amis also wrung his hands about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Einstein's Monsters in 1988, where he described rocket warheads as resembling hellhounds at a children's tea party. It's among his least regarded works.

The moral seems to be: unless prepared to embed themselves in conflict zones or to confront politicians head-on, writers are well advised to avoid making topical political points (especially in verse) for fear of seeming tendentious. There's nothing worse for a writer's reputation than to sound as if he or she has just dashed off a jolly cross diatribe on current affairs to the Letters page of their daily newspaper.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape