Jan Wagner

“The Greatest Possible Freedom within the Narrowest Space” – the Poetry of Jan Wagner

Jan Wagner; © Berlin VerlagJan Wagner; © Berlin VerlagJan Wagner is one of the most important German-language poets of the younger generation. His poetry has been often honoured for its precise language, harmonious imagery and effortless play with forms. Wagner afforded Goethe.de a glance into his writing workshop.

Mr Wagner, in what does the magic of poetry consist for you?

A few centimetres of white paper, printed with a handful of words: you don’t need more in order to surmount vast distances of space and time. I turn a page – and a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty suddenly speaks to me from the heart.

A poem brings into harmony, into chime, a maximum of linguistic devices in the smallest possible area, a maximum of music and meaning. It unites opposites and paradoxes, brings together the seemingly irreconcilable. And all the while it preserves the fundamental poetic virtues of surprise, joy in play and breaking rules – and so embodies the greatest possible freedom within the narrowest space.

Glove in the gutter

Cover of `Guerickes Sperling`; © Berlin VerlagSome titles of your poems are “anti-freeze”, “dung”, “salad” and tee-bag”. Can you write poems about anything?

That would of course be marvellous, but can’t actually be said in all certainty. What is certain, however, is that basically a poem can be written about anything. Particularly the supposedly most banal things, the things that are so easy to overlook in everyday life, can all at once reveal unimagined poetic qualities – perhaps precisely because of their being unimpressive at first glance.

Whoever sets out to write a poem about an immense subject like freedom is very apt to fail, perhaps getting stuck with tripe. But whoever concentrates entirely on a glove dropped in the gutter may end up bringing off a magnificent poem about freedom.

From magic to dirty rimes

You are said to have an “amazing mastery of form”. What occurs to you first, the idea of the content or of the form?

It’s similar with form as with the big subjects: my experience has been that the resolve to write a sonnet or a sestina harbours the danger of failure, because then you conceive the poem from its ending, only filling in the form, instead of letting the poem become form.

I also write free verse, but at the same time infiltrate old forms. Unlike many other poets, I feel the older forms not as a restriction but rather as an expansion of the possibilities of expression. It would be a loss of freedom if poets no longer remained open to such variants. If these supposedly restrictive forms are taken not as duty-bound, but rather as games, they become corsets in which you can, paradoxically, breathe especially freely.

So it tends to begin not with the big form, but perhaps with smaller formal ideas: a breath-takingly dirty rime, an enjambment, a pun.

Treat all words equally

Cover of `Probebohrung im Himmel`; © Berlin Verlag What must poetry be if it is to please you?

Surprising and fresh, because poetry says something as it has never been said before. And it should still seem as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say it in this, and only in this, way – as if it had only been neglected up to now to see and express it so, but been always felt that it must be so. Unpretentious, but drawing on all resources. Manifold and many-levelled, but not arbitrary.

And don’t run square to the point, that is, don’t misuse the poem as the vehicle for an opinion or point of view. In poems that I like an awareness of the medium, of the possibilities and impossibilities of language, shines through – without this being explicit or even the poem losing thereby its sensuousness, its relation to the world.

Why do you write all words in your poems without capital letters?

For two reasons. One, so as to treat all words equally and accord none more importance than the others through its mere appearance. Two, because precisely in this way I have the possibility of drawing on certain ambiguities that accrue to the benefit of the poem – for instance, when the word “regen” can be read as the noun for “rain”, as the verb sich regen (i.e., to be stirred up, excited) and as the adjective plural of rege (i.e., brisk, animated).

Come up short on Lüneburg

Cover of `Achtzehn Pasteten`; © Berlin VerlagYour fellow poet Harald Hartung has written that “Wagner can do a great deal, and it is wise to realise that he cannot do everything”. What can’t you do?

There’s quite a lot I can’t do. Of course, there’s also much that I haven’t even tried, about which I fortunately don’t have even an inkling. I lived for half a year in Lüneburg and worked on a series of poems about the city without achieving a single satisfactory result. Obviously I can’t write poems about Lüneburg: so much seems certain.

In what lies the future of poetry?

Always in the next, not yet written poem. And there is always only this one poem that doesn’t yet exist and to which everything is urging you.

Selected bibliography

Probebohrung im Himmel. Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2001. ISBN 9783827000712.
Guerickes Sperling. Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2004. ISBN 9783827000910.
Achtzehn Pasteten
Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2007. ISBN 9783827007216.
Der Wald im Zimmer. Eine Harzreise.
(In collaboration with Björn Kuhligk.) Berliner Taschenbuch Verlag. Berlin 2007. ISBN 9783833304378


Dagmar Giersberg
conducted the interview. She is a freelance journalist living in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2009

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