expressionism in poetry

Expressionism works on the raw, inchoate emotions that find little expression in the everyday life. Poets feel alienated from society, and take extreme measures to get that discomfort across. They form disruptive social movements, go off on spiritual journeys, adopt adolescent poses, or become pioneers in threatening, inner worlds of their own creation.

Technique may seem elementary, but is wary of too finished an article.


Expressionism was a phase of twentieth-century writing that rejected naturalism and romanticism to express important inner truths. The style was generally declamatory or even apocalyptic, endeavoring to awaken the fears and aspirations that belong to all men, and which European civilization had rendered effete or inauthentic. The movement drew on Rimbaud and Nietzsche, and was best represented by German poetry of the 1910-20 period. Benn, Becher, Heym, Lasker-Schüler, Stadler, Stramm, Schnack and Werfel are its characteristic proponents, {1} though Trakl is the best known to English readers. {2} {3}

Like most movements, there was little of a manifesto, or consensus of beliefs and programmes. Many German poets were distrustful of contemporary society — particularly its commercial and capitalist attitudes — though others again saw technology as the escape from a perceived "crisis in the old order". Expressionism was very heterogeneous, touching base with Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, Dadaism and early Surrealism, many of which crop up in English, French, Russian and Italian poetry of the period. Political attitudes tended to the revolutionary, and technique was overtly experimental. Nonetheless, for all the images of death and destruction, sometimes mixed with messianic utopianism, there was also a tone of resignation, a sadness of "the evening lands" as Spengler called them.

Expressionism also applies to painting, and here the characteristics are more illuminating. The label refers to painting that uses visual gestures to transmit emotions and emotionally charged messages. In the expressive work of Michelangelo and El Greco, for example, the content remains of first importance, but content is overshadowed by technique in such later artists as van Gogh, Ensor and Munch. By the mid twentieth-century even this attenuated content had been replaced by abstract painterly qualities — by the sheer scale and dimensions of the work, by colour and shape, by the verve of the brushwork and other effects.

Expressionism often coincided with rapid social change. Germany, after suffering the horrors of the First World War, and ineffectual governments afterwards, fragmented into violently opposed political movements, each with their antagonistic coteries and milieu. The painting of these groups was very variable, but often showed a mixture of aggression and naivety. Understandably unpopular with the establishment  — denounced as degenerate by the Nazis — the style also met with mixed reactions from the picture-buying public. It seemed to question what the middle classes stood for: convention, decency, professional expertise. A great sobbing child had been let loose in the artist's studio, and the results seemed elementally challenging. Perhaps German painting was returning to its Nordic roots, to small communities, apocalyptic visions, monotone starkness and anguished introspection.

What could poetry achieve in its turn? Could it use some equivalent to visual gestures, i.e. concentrate on aspects of the craft of poetry, and to the exclusion of content? Poetry can never be wholly abstract, a pure poetry bereft of content. But clearly there would be a rejection of naturalism. To represent anything faithfully requires considerable skill, and such skill was what the Expressionists were determined to avoid. That would call on traditions that were not Nordic, and that were not sufficiently opposed to bourgeois values for the writer's individuality to escape subversion. Raw power had to tap something deeper and more universal.

Hence the turn inward to private torments. Poets became the judges of poetry, since only they knew the value of originating emotions. Intensity was essential.  Artists had to believe passionately in their responses, and find ways of purifying and deepening those responses — through working practices, lifestyles, and philosophies. Freud was becoming popular, and his investigations into dreams, hallucinations and paranoia offered a rich field of exploration. Artists would have to glory in their isolation, moreover, and turn their anger and frustration at being overlooked into a belief in their own genius. Finally, there would be a need to pull down and start afresh, even though that contributed to a gradual breakdown in the social fabric and the apocalypse of the Second World War.

Expressionism is still with us. Commerce has invaded bohemia, and created an elaborate body of theory to justify, support and overtake what might otherwise appear infantile and irrational. And if traditional art cannot be pure emotional expression, then a new art would have to be forged. Such poetry would not be an intoxication of life (Nietzsche's phrase) and still less its sanctification.  Great strains on the creative process were inevitable, moreover, as they were in Georg Trakl's case, who committed suicide shortly after writing the haunting and beautiful piece given below.



Am Abend tonen die herbstlichen Wälder
In the evening sound/ring the autumn woods/forests
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldenen Ebenen
From deadly  weapons, the golden plains
Und blauen Seen, daruber die Sonne
And blue lakes, over which the sun
Dustrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Dark/gloomy rolls; encircles the night
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Dying warriors, the wild/rugged lament/complaint
Ihrer zerbrochenen Munder.
Of their broken/shattered mouths.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
But/still quietly/silently gathers in the pastures/grazing lands
Rotes Gewolk, darin ein zurnender Gott wohnt
Red cloud, in it an angry god lives
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kuhle;
The spilled blood itself, moon coolness
Alle Straßen munden in schwarze Verwesung.
Every road/street to flow/lead in black decomposition.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Under golden branches of the night and stars
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
There sways/shakes the sister's shadow through the silent grove,
Zu grußen die Geister und Helden, die bluntenden Häupter;
To greet/salute the mind and heroism, the bleeding heads
Und leise tönen IM Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
And quietly/softly sound in the reed the darkening flutes of autumn.
O stolze Trauer! Ihr ehernen Altäre
O proud grief! Your earlier altars
Die heiße Flamme Des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
The hot/scorching flame of the mind/spirit feeds today a huge pain,
Die ungebornen Enkel.
The unborn grandchildren.


The evening echoes with the sound
of deadly weapons: forests, golden plains
and deep blue lakes, and over these the sun
now darkly rolls. Night encompasses
the fallen warriors; a fevered muttering
from broken mouths

There gathers, silently, among the grazing lands
a dark red cloud, the dwelling of an angry god
that spills with blood. A placid moon and roads
that run out everwhere to black decay.

Beneath the golden branches of the night and stars
the sister's shadow travels through the quiet grove
to greet the spirits of the heroes, the bleeding heads,
and solemnly, among the reeds, the darkening flutes of autumn sound.

How proud is desolation on whose earlier shrines today
the spirit's scorching flames drink in the countless griefs
of grandsons yet unborn.


Translation by author. Now collected in a free ebook published by Ocaso Press.


Beat Poetry

The Beats came to prominence with Allen Ginsberg's first public reading of Howl at the Six Gallery on October 13, 1955, {4} but were proceeded by ten years or more of innovation and experimentation from Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr and others. {5}. Success owed much to Ginsberg's electrifying performance, to the San Francisco jazz and literary scene, to Kenneth Rexroth's group that met over Jack's Record Cellar, to established poets like Robert Duncan and to the "Howl"'s obscenity trial. But it also tapped into a genuine feeling of discontent with academic poetry and American conformism generally. Ferlinghetti went home to compose a telegram that echoed Emerson's praise of Whitman: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?" and Gary Snyder would eventually make his pilgrimage to Japan, the beginning of travels by thousands seeking new lifestyles and spiritual refreshment.

Ginsberg picked up an obsession with drugs, crime, sex and literature while a freshman at Columbia University, alternated between straight and gay phases, and embraced bizarre lifestyles. Many of these traits became characteristic of the movement, and are well documented by Internet sites. {6} {7} {8} {9} Though only 29 when Howl was published, Ginsberg never wrote better, and his later work became looser, more candid but also self-parodying. Howl is something of a period piece, but still commands admiration: {10}


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, lluminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine . . .

From Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Much European and American poetry came together in that long poem: the defiance of Rimbaud and Nietzsche, the prophetic voice of Blake and Hart Crane, the open forms of the Black Mountain School, and the reportage style of William Carlos Williams. {11} Most impressive is the unflagging energy of the dithyrambs sending us through the underside of city life, and the ecstatic tone that canonizes the drug addict without making excuses or obscuring the reality.


Ginsberg is not usually seen as an Expressionist, and other Beat poets are very different. Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder are quieter: {12}


The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
                        ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
                        a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
                        with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
                        all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

From RipRap by Gary Snyder.

and Lawrence Ferlinghetti is more intimate and approachable: {13}

Pictures of the Gone World

It was a face which darkness could kill
                                                      in an instant
a face as easily hurt
                            by laughter or light

'We think differently at night'
                                        she told me once
lying back languidly

                          And she would quote Cocteau

'I feel there is an angel in me' she'd say
                                                       'whom I am constantly shocking'

Then she would smile and look away
                                                   light a cigarette for me
                                                                                  sigh and rise
and stretch
               her sweet anatomy
                                         let fall a stocking

From Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Since the themes of Expressionism refer as much to individuals as movements, they can be of practical help, getting poets to think through to the fundamental aims of their art. Ginsberg had initially great difficulty in being published, but then seemed content to mock and repeat himself. Was that exhibitionism of a limited talent, a shallow theme, or had celebrity turned the poet into a harmless buffoon? Opinions differ, but the demonic energy was sorely missed.


Internet Resources

1. Expressionist Decade (1910-1920) in English translation. Johannes Beilharz. Selections from Lyrik Des expressionistischen Jahrzehnts (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1962).
2. Georg Trakl (1887 - 1914). Evan Goodwin. May 2003. NNA One of an excellent series of literary biographies in Little Blue Light.
3. How Beat Happened. 1995. Steve Silberman. Introductory article first appearing in SF Weekly.
4. The Beat Generation. Levi Asher. Articles on leading figures.
5. The Beat Museum. NNA. Good listings.
6. Beat Poets. NNA.
7. Beat Poets: General Resources. 1999. Short listing on American Literature on the Web. NNA
Extensive list of writers, not all Beat.
8. How Parts I & II by Allen Ginsberg. target="_blank".
9. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Belknap Press, 1987), 548-552.
10. RipRap. Gary Snyder.
11. Pictures of the Gone World. Lawrence Ferlinghetti.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.