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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there