Kracow, ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric – Let’s clarify [1]

To accompany ‘Krakow’ from ‘New Chapters, Eastern Europe, 1990’.

Kracow is Here. [All eight chapters are on bandcamp Here].

A few years after the end of the Second World War, Theodor W. Adorno wrote the famous lines: ‘Cultural criticism finds itself today faced with the final state of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.’[2] He was writing in the context of cultural criticism, thinking of ‘barbarism’ in terms of rationality and capitalism. He later wrote: ‘Auschwitz irrefutably demonstrated the failure of culture. That it could happen in the midst of all the traditions of philosophy, art and the enlightening sciences, says more than merely that these, the Spirit, was not capable of seizing and changing human beings.’ [3]

Elsewhere Adorno wrote, ‘Barbarism has now reached a point . . . [where] The abundance of commodities indiscriminately consumed is becoming calamitous. It makes it impossible to find one’s way, and just as in a gigantic department store one looks out for a guide, the population wedged between wares await their leader.’[4] More recently, Terry Eagleton is shocked by, ‘the wholesale reduction of culture to a commodity.’[5]

Edmond Jabès, an Egyptian Jew, commented, ‘To Adorno’s statement that, ‘after Auschwitz one can no longer write poetry,’ inviting a global questioning of our culture, I’m tempted to answer: yes, one can. And, furthermore, one has to. One has to write out of that break, out of that unceasingly revived wound.’[6] Adorno later admitted: ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.’ [7]

  • A survey of young adults 18-39, 23% in the US believed the Holocaust was a myth, had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.
  • More than a quarter of young Britons do not know if the Holocaust happened.
  • More than 40% of Americans don’t know that Auschwitz was a Nazi concentration camp.
  • The survey, touted as the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Generation Z, showed that many respondents were unclear about the basic facts of the genocide. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust Z[8]

Rosmarie Waldrop writes, ‘No matter where, in cafes, in the metro, while walking, at dinner, on little bits of paper, on matchbooks, napkins, on his memory, Edmond Jabès writes. Because life is a book that needs to be written at any moment. All his life he practices death, the death at the end of each book, each poem, when the work no longer needs the author and rejects him.’ [9]

Matthew Del Nevo comments, ‘For Jabès, as a poet, Auschwitz is not about awful statistics, the clash of impersonal forces, historical determinants, ‘Germans’ versus ‘Jews’. It is about the human. In particular, Auschwitz is the about the inhuman, which is not the opposite of the human, but the reduction of the human to what it is not and the reduction of death to what it is not, of both to the realm of godless abstraction, generality and indifference where torture, inhumanity and atrocity become the rule. But from the poet’s point of view, the confrontation with the inhuman must still be human; that is to say it must always be personal and unique.’[10]

I didn’t visit Auschwitz:
I refused to go
because I’m a poet
and would have used the occasion to write a poem,
unable to name all those slain by celebrity killers . . .   From ‘Krakow’

A Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, Dov Shilansky was determined never to forget or let Israel forget. In 1989, Shilansky then the Knesset speaker, urged lawmakers to read the names of each Holocaust victim, despite six million being an incomprehensible number.

‘Every Person Has a Name’ is now part of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies across Israel and named after a poem by Zelda, inspired by the atrocities.

‘Every person has a name
Given to them by God
And given by their father and his mother
Every person has a name
Given them by stature and their way of smiling . . .’[11]

To go beyond the enormity and huge numbers, families read the names of their relatives murdered in the Holocaust and personalise their stories. The whole country comes to a standstill at 10am for two minutes.

Let’s not forget the 250,000 disabled people the Nazis murdered[12], and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 European Roma[13], and all the others, homosexuals, religious leaders, pacifists, the list goes on.

I went to a Catholic boarding school run by monks, and had no interest or contact with Jews or the Jewish faith, or Roma (or gay people that I was aware of, despite it being boys only). As it happens, five of the eight texts in ‘Eastern Europe 1990’ encounter the sad Jewish history of the 20th Century.[14] And we were never taught about genocides in history or the devastation we are wreaking on the natural. Now attention is being paid to our barbaric treatment of the natural world and our momentum towards eco-catastrophe.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote the diverse texts that make up the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ during the Second World War: ‘What we had set out to do, was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism . . . Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world . . . Nature, stripped of qualities, becomes the chaotic stuff of mere classification, and the all-powerful self becomes a mere having, an abstract identity.’[15] They argued that we use science and rationality to understand the world only with the motive of conquering and extracting the spoils.

Just over a decade ago, Robert Hullot-Kentor wrote, ‘More than a half century after the publication of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, we know ourselves the addressee of Adorno’s work in a way that we could hardly have realized a decade ago. For the interregnum of the post-war years is over. We are experiencing a return of the great fear, as if it never ended—and perhaps it never did. We are, without a doubt, the occupants of the most catastrophic moment in the whole of human history, in all of natural history, and we cannot get our wits about ourselves.’[16]

The artist Suzi Gablik is clear, ‘Many artists now see their role as sounding the alarm, and have felt the need to alter the direction of their art so that it is more socially and environmentally defined . . . As many artists shift their work arena from the studio to the more public contexts of political, social, and environmental life, we are all being called, in our understanding of what art is, to move beyond the mode of disinterested contemplation to something that is more participatory and engaged.’[17]

Ai Weiwei is one of the bravest living artists. He believes, ‘An artist must also be an activist – aesthetically, morally, or philosophically. That doesn’t mean they have to demonstrate in street protests, but rather deal with these issues through a so-called artistic language. Without that kind of consciousness – to be blind to human struggle – one cannot even be called an artist.’[18]

On the other hand, one of my favourite artists, Andy Goldsworthy rejects the view that his eco art should explicitly tackle environmental problems: ‘If I was thinking: ‘I’m going to make a work that’s going to address an environmental or ecological issue,’ I wouldn’t make a great work. It would be the wrong premise. The day I start preaching through my work is the day it stops having any meaning.’ [19]

Adorno made the comment, ‘Sartre’s candid doubt about whether Guernica had ‘won a single person to the Spanish cause’ certainly holds true for Brecht’s didactic drama as well.[20] Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’ with the well-known lines, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ appeared in The London Mercury April, 1939, a few months after, and in response to Yeats’ poem ‘The Man and the Echo’, published in the Mercury the month he died, asking if his play made people die in Irish rebellion.

If I write about and post texts and photographs of beautiful/ interesting natural environments, don’t they help a general awareness of what is worth saving? Can I not believe this?

We are witnesses, and could be advocates. We can use our skills, knowledge, energy and economic capital to work in various ways to preserve biodiversity. We have responsibilities to act, purely as citizens of this planet, from weekly recycling to occasional voting to taking part in forest actions and civil disobedience. And many will want to use their skills as writers, artists, musicians to try and achieve change. Though George Steiner worried whether art and literature can helps, wondering, ‘If I have spent the day teaching King Lear or Bach, or in front of Goya, I come home and it may be that the cry in the street is muffled; that it reaches me less directly than if my feelings and responses had not been trained to a deeply passionate involvement with fictions – in the widest sense. If this is so, we must find a way of sharing aesthetic, philosophical experience which makes us more responsive to human pain, and not less.’[21]

As humans/citizens, we all have a responsibility to respond to a cry in the street and do something about the ongoing eco-catastrophe. I suggest that poets and artists have a triple-accountability – to the poem/artwork, their audience, and to the world, which poems and artworks become part of. Jed Perl writes. ‘The artistic vocation is the artist’s world. But it’s a world that contains many worlds – embracing political, social, religious, and erotic experience, but in its own way, in its own time.’[22]

The war correspondent Anna Badkhe observes, ‘You don’t have to choose between painting beautiful landscapes or documenting crimes against humanity. You actually have the capacity to hold both, and the obligation.’[23]


How can a poem weaken force? Simone Weil wrote, ‘To define force, it is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.’[24] How can a poet not try and fight with words, an artist with sound or images?

J Baird Callicot believes Aldo Leopold’s land aesthetic can help awaken our aesthetic appreciation of nature, which is vital for public issues, since, ‘our conservation and management decisions have been motivated by aesthetic rather than ethical values, by beauty instead of duty.’[25]

‘The great collective project has presented itself. It is that of saving the earth – at this point, nothing else really matters.’ Suzi Gablik [26]

[1] James Schmidt is helpful. See ‘Poetry After Auschwitz – What Adorno Didn’t Say’, May 21, 2013.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Culture Critique and Society’ (1949) in Prisms 1955. A collection of essays.

[3] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Meditations on Metaphysics’ in Negative Dialectics, Continuum, 2005, p358.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, Verso, 2005, p119.

[5] Terry Eagleton, ‘Structurally Unsound: The Slow, Uncertain Death of Post-Structuralism’, Times Literary Supplement 10 June 2016.

[6] Edmond Jabès, From the Desert to the Book: Conversations with Marcel Cohen, trans. Pierre Joris, Station Hill Press, 1990, p62.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Meditations on Metaphysics’ in Negative Dialectics, Continuum, 2005, ‘After Auschwitz’, p354.

[8] Harriet Sherwood, Nearly two-thirds of US young adults unaware 6m Jews killed in the Holocaust’, The Guardian, 16 Sept, 2020. Paul Majendie, ‘UK poll reveals striking ignorance of Holocaust’, Reuters, 20 Jan 2007. Frank Vogl, ‘Holocaust Ignorance: Today’s Dangers’,, April 22, 2018. Kit Ramgopal, ‘Survey finds ‘shocking’ lack of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z’, Sept 16 2022,

[9] Rosmarie Waldrop, ‘Lavish absence: recalling and rereading Edmond Jabès, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, vol52: 3-4, summer-fall, 2003.

[10] Matthew Del Nevo, Intro, Edmond Jabès and the Question of Death, New York UP, 2000.

[11] Zelda Mishkovsky, born in the Ukraine, settled in Palestine in 1926, she died in 1984. Translated from the Hebrew by Ayala Emmett



[14] Krakow is one of eight pieces with soundscapes and music by John Laidler which give snapshots of my (JB) experiences in what was Czechoslovakia (Trenčín is now in Slovakia), Hungary, Poland and Germany (including ancient Greece, now Turkey). At Bandcamp you can hear all eight chapters: /

[15] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, preface Dialectic of Enlightenment, (1947) trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford UP, 2002, p1, 6.

[16] Robert Hullot-Kentor, ‘What Barbarism Is?’, in Culture Industry Today, ed., Fabio Akcelrud Durão, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

[17] Suzi Gablik, ‘The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art’, New Renaissance magazine Vol8: 1, 1998.

[18] Tim Lewis, ‘Ai Weiwei: ‘An artist must be an activist’,’ The Guardian 22 March, 2020.

[19] Patrick Barkham, ‘Branching out: why artist Andy Goldsworthy is leaving his comfort zone’, The Guardian, 3 Aug 2018.

[20] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Commitment’ in Notes to Literature, Volume II, ed., Rolf Tiedemann; transl., Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Columbia UP, 1992.

[21] Maya Jaggi, ‘George and his dragons’, interview The Guardian, 17.3. 2001. Walter Benjamin warned, ‘Our cultural treasures, have an origin which [one] cannot contemplate without horror… There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Ed., Hannah Arendt, Schoken Books, p256.

[22] Robert Boyers, ‘Authority & Freedom: A Conversation with Jed Perl’, Salmagundi 216-217, Fall 2022 – Winter 2023,

[23] Anna Badkhe. ‘Writing in Times of Dire Need: An interview . . .’ interviewed by Jori Lewis, Orion, November 13, 2022.

[24] Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad or, The Poem of Force’, (1940) trans. Mary McCarthy, Politics, November 1945, p321.

[25] J. Baird Callicott, ‘The Land Aesthetic’, Renewable Resources Journal 10, 1992, p12-17.

[26] Suzie Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, 1991.

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