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Modern German Poetry

I’d Rather Be a Poem

Some people see poetry as somehow inferior to ‘larger-scale’ literary formats like the novel or the short story. But this belief is unfounded. On the contrary, the German poetry scene is diverse, vibrant and popular.
House Drawing
© Tommy Reinhardt

Poems are perfect for impatient readers. Their often short form means they slot easily into everyday life: you can pick just one or a few poems out of a volume to read at a time. But poems are also perfect for the patient reader: a carefully composed poetry collection takes a long time to truly ‘finish’. It takes concentration and contemplation to fully appreciate the poems and the composition of a collection, and perhaps also to understand them in the context of the author’s other work.

The German-language poetry scene is impressively vibrant and diverse. Not only in Germany, the ‘land of poets and thinkers’, but also in neighbouring Austria and Switzerland, a great many authors contribute to this vibrant scene through their writing and their appearances at readings and festivals. Many of them translate poetry from other languages. They take part in festivals such as the Poesiefestival Berlin, the Poetry on the Road festival in Bremen, the Lyrikertreffen Münster, and Poetica in Cologne, as well as symposiums, workshops, and readings in schools. As poetry lecturers at universities and colleges, they reflect on their role as authors and on the writing process. Publishing houses also contribute to this vibrant literary landscape by making space in their lists for poetry, despite sometimes low sales figures. In many cases, a great deal of thought goes into the design of these poetry volumes.

German Poetry, Award-Winning

In Friedrich Ani, Marcel Beyer, Nora Bossong, Esther Kinsky and Marion Poschmann, Suhrkamp Verlag publishes a whole range of authors who write both novels and poetry – some of them very successfully indeed. Two of the most prominent examples are Marcel Beyer, who was awarded the Peter Huchel Prize for poetry in the German language for his collection Dämonenräumdienst in January 2021, and Marion Poschmann, who won the Huchel Prize in 2011 for her collection Geistersehen. Poschmann’s fifth collection, Nimbus, also enjoyed extraordinary success. It won three prizes in one year: the Orphil Poetry Prize awarded by the city of Wiesbaden, the prestigious Hölty prize and the time-honoured Bremen Literature Prize.

Carl Hanser Verlag is another great champion of poetry. It even has a German Nobel prizewinner on its list, in the form of novelist and poet Herta Müller, and its sister publisher Hanser Berlin publishes the Georg Büchner prizewinner Jan Wagner, whose 2015 collection Regentonnenvariationen was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair prize and went on to become a bestseller with sales running into six figures. In the ‘Edition Lyrik Kabinett’ series, produced in collaboration with the Munich-based Lyrik Kabinett foundation, Hanser publishes particularly beautifully designed volumes both in German and in translation.

The broad spectrum of contemporary German­language poetry is enriched by other large and medium-sized publishing houses too, such as C.H.Beck (whose list also features an annual poetry calendar), DuMont, Matthes & Seitz, Schöffling, Wunderhorn and Wallstein, imprints such as Luchterhand and Piper, and small presses like Elif, Edition Azur, Hochroth, Kookbooks, Limbus Verlag, Parasitenpresse, Poetenladen, Secession, Verlagshaus Berlin and Voland & Quist, some of which are run by just one person or a handful of people.

Many of these publishing houses also place particularly strong emphasis on the design of their titles: Kookbooks works exclusively with the graphic designer Andreas Töpfer, and the collections published by Verlagshaus Berlin and Edition Azur often feature graphic illustrations produced especially for the volume.

© Zara Teller - Voland & Quist

Nora Gomringer’s Gottesanbieterin features expressive illustrations by Zara Teller. The book comes with a special audio CD of Nora Gomringer reading her own poems.

Poetry Meets Design

The many places where poems are shared and discussed include newspapers, radio (and sometimes television) programmes, a diverse range of magazines, various online poetry portals (including Signaturen and Lyrikkritik), and private blogs. An extensive network of literature houses, cultural centres, prizes and stipends also have an important role to play in promoting poetry and good working conditions for writers. For several years now there has even been an Academy of Poetry Criticism (the Akademie für Lyrikkritik) attached to Berlin’s Haus für Poesie, to help budding critics hone their craft.

To come back to ‘good working conditions’: not many poets write poetry full-time, since it’s so rare to be able to make a living out of it. But the poet Elke Erb, born in 1938, is one of the few who have managed it. Like Friederike Mayröcker – born in Vienna in 1924, and probably the ‘longest-serving’ female poet in the German-speaking world – Erb trained as a teacher but went on to forge a career as a poet in East Germany. To this day, Elke Erb publishes her poems and prose almost exclusively with small presses. In 2020 she was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize for her literary oeuvre. In Das ist hier der Fall, an anthology of her poems compiled by Monika Rinck and Steffen Popp, we find a cross-section of Erb’s work.

Elke Erb
A major award for poetry: Elke Erb received the renowned and lucrative Georg Büchner prize 2020 (worth 50,000 euros).© Andreas Reeg

Many interesting voices in contemporary German-language poetry are women. As well as the grandes dames Erb and Mayröcker, poets of the ‘middle generation’ – like Ulrike Draesner, Esther Kinsky and the recently deceased Barbara Köhler – and younger poets such as Nora Bossong, Nora Gomringer, Nancy Hünger, Nadja Küchenmeister, Kerstin Preiwuß, Monika Rinck, Silke Scheuermann and Uljana Wolf also deserve attention.

We can see a trend emerging among these younger authors: many of them, having immigrated from another country either alone or with their parents, do not write in their native language but have switched to German entirely, or experiment with their multilingualism in their poetry. Among them are Dagmara Kraus, born in Wrocław, Poland in 1981, Alexandru Bulucz, born in Alba Iulia, Romania in 1987, and Yevgeniy Breyger, born in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1989.

From this perspective, it is easier to identify the issues and themes that crop up in contemporary German-language poetry alongside love, death, nature and urbanity. It is hard to consider the form and content of poetry in isolation from each other. But one issue which is becoming increasingly prominent in a globalised, digitalised world, and which is also reflected in contemporary poetry, is the identity of the narrative voice in a poem. Who is speaking? In which language, or languages?

Müller Collage
© Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, München

‘I wanted to send word to my friends,’ writes Herta Müller. ‘But the postcards were all such hideous colours. One day I bought some white index cards and a glue stick, and I sat there on the train cutting words and a black-and-white picture out of the newspaper with a pair of nail scissors.’ From then on, she did her writing with paper and scissors.

If this has sparked your curiosity about poetry, you’ll find you’re spoilt for choice. Anthologies are a good place to start – like the Jahrbuch der Lyrik, published annually since 1979, or Im Grunde wäre ich lieber Gedicht, published by Holger Pils and Michael Krüger in the ‘Edition Lyrik Kabinett’ series in honour of Ursula Haeusgen, the founder of the Munich institution which has done so much for the poetry scene. Alternatively there’s the anthology Cinema, featuring poems by 64 different poets published by Elif Verlag. These are just a few examples of the many anthologies – some designed as festschrifts, some based around a particular theme – that testify to the glorious diversity of contemporary German-language poetry.

© Beate Tröger

Beate Tröger is a freelance literary critic, presenter and jury member. She studied German, English and theatre and film studies in Erlangen and Berlin, and lives and works in Frankfurt am Main.

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