It is difficult to situate poems in time and space. Some seem resolutely “of the moment,” presenting us with a reflective mirror of our present. Other poems situate themselves in an indeterminate space, simultaneously present and past. And others—as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote—are always our future, always voyaging out ahead of us, whenever they were written. For this German poetry selection—which is not meant to be a definitive presentation of the vast contemporary scene, but only a small selection of its voices—the chosen poems partake of all of these categories.
Above all, the dynamic and vibrant German poetry scene attempts to situate itself in the fragile present. The postwar period has passed, even though—as words and images in these poems attest—National Socialism continues, and will continue, to cast its long shadow. In the poem “Bee-Folk or the Good State,” as in many of Daniela Danz’s verses, the weight of history and myth is lifted by an almost physical feeling for rhythm and meter. Within her work—as well as that of others—we observe a merging of poetic and public spaces, and an attempt to discover a language that might decode the sources of power.
In this selection the phenomenological present is also reflected in poems by Durs Grünbein and Jan Wagner, though they too are not devoid of warnings. Durs Grünbein’s “Artichokes,” whose descriptive accuracy Elizabeth Bishop would have appreciated, is nevertheless a catalogue of our potential savagery. In Jan Wagner’s at times disorienting space of the present, we are always at risk of sudden accidents and stalled trains. The effect of such poems is to heighten our awareness of what is directly before us, even if it remains difficult to interpret and full of encoded mystery.
In other contributions, such as Lutz Seiler’s “homeward,” high stylistic intensity enacts a flight from dictatorship into the world of childhood—that unspoiled realm with its assumption of individual choices in life. Andreas Altmann’s language is simple and direct, yet the images hover like a profile briefly glimpsed in a dream.
One of poetry’s most fundamental encounters is that with elemental nature, a force we will never fully master—neither its threat nor its creative beauty. Nature knows things that we do not. Against the backdrop of our repressed civilized world—in the poems of Sarah Kirsch or Esther Kinsky—this secret knowledge is magically evoked. The verses of Austrian poet Peter Waterhouse, however, translated by Iain Galbraith, revel in language’s materiality and possibilities, creating poetic works that defy gravity and directional orientation.
Two poets of older generations, Christine Lavant—from the pre-war period—and Günter Kunert—a well-known poet of the postwar period—provide two types of codas for this selection. Kunert reflects on the vanity, follies, and terrors of the human condition, whereas Christine Lavant belongs perhaps to that group of poets who—while having existed before us in chronological time—are still somehow out ahead of us, in a future where a bit of the transcendent still breaks into our humanly realm.