Poetry was in the thick of the events of 1989: from the placards out on the streets to the national newspapers where Volker Braun’s ‘My Property’ crystallised the mood of a nation and was published multiple times. Poets like Braun himself, the late Heiner Müller, or Michael Krüger, have, for all their differences in tone, produced a distinctive body of work, often melancholic or angry, sometimes unexpectedly irreverent, that has profoundly marked the last three decades.
It was clear that the reunification of Germany would trigger the search for new voices. Durs Grünbein first took the crown, winning the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 1995 and seeming to offer a pan-German vision, urban, learned and sardonic, brilliantly captured in Michael Hofmann’s Ashes for Breakfast (2005). But in truth Grünbein is a truly European poet, whose recent poems offer a more subjective, lyrical journey and a profound engagement with the past. He, along with Ulrike Draesner, Thomas Kling (posthumously translated by Andrew Duncan), Barbara Köhler and Marcel Beyer, have taken poetry into new areas: charting its relationship with science, the classics, art or music. One could even speak of a renaissance of the poeta doctus.
The long tradition of German nature poetry has also been given a modern edge: by Lutz Seiler, for example, who conjures the decaying uranium villages of his youth in the former East in haunted verses, or in recent anthologies that chart the urgent anxieties of the Anthropocene. We have also seen the reanimation of the philosophical concrete poem, in the work of Ludwig Steinherr (translated by Richard Dove) and Jan Wagner.
Wagner is something of a phenomenon: he won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2015, the first time it has been awarded to a volume of poetry, and arrived in English courtesy of Iain Galbraith’s Self Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, which won the Popescu Prize in 2016. His poems offer brilliantly distilled close-ups of the everyday – a teabag, a mushroom, a garden weed – that open on the world like paper flowers in water. As in prose, some of the most arresting debuts have been among the post-migrant poets, like Zafer Şenocak and Yoko Tawada, both of whom have inflected German with new grammars, rhythms and sounds.
One of the distinctive aspects of the contemporary German poetry scene is the presence of many small independent publishing houses that have brought a new generation to voice. Poets like Steffen Popp, Björn Kuhligk and Ron Winkler turn to a world of the familiar apparently, but only apparently, without poetic airs.
In truth, though, this is the moment of an unprecedented flowering of female voices: Nora Bossong, Marion Poschmann, Monika Rinck, Uljana Wolf, and, with one foot in the spoken word or music scene, Ulrike Almut Sandig (who I also translate), who shows that stellar performance and a profoundly musical sensibility do not mean that the poetry, thirty years on, has lost its ambition or its political bite.
By Karen Leeder
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Karen Leeder is a writer, translator and academic, and teaches German at New College, Oxford University. She also translates contemporary German literature into English, and her most recent translations include Michael Krüger’s The God Behind the Window (2019) and Evelyn Schlag’s All Under One Roof (2018).