View into the german literary scene

Poetry is Booming!

Quelle: Goethe-Institut © Thomas Wohlfahrt
Thomas Wohlfahrt © Thomas Wohlfahrt
Thomas Wohlfahrt
Director “Literaturwerkstatt Berlin"
That is borne out by a growing number of poetry events and festivals in most European countries.
Regarding the low sales of poetry books, however, little has changed. In Germany, for example, poetry accounts for less than one per cent of the book trade’s total turnover according to information from the booksellers and publishers association.
Yet to the same extent that the large publishing companies are giving up or radically cutting back their poetry productions, small print and audio publishers are springing up everywhere, devoted exclusively to the art of poetry.

These contradictory phenomena clearly indicate that our understanding of poetry needs to be readjusted.

The romantic notion of poetry as the queen of belles-lettres and part of a triad that also includes prose and drama has never corresponded to the reality. Drama in book form also achieves similarly low sales figures to poetry books. But drama has no need for books. It wants to go on stage. That is its place. That is where it reaches many people. Prose, however, does need books! Thus, there are publishing houses and trade fairs. Prose achieves the best sales figures. Books are its medium, and it is in books that prose has its place.

And poetry? Books are a wonderful medium, but not ideal for poetry. When a poem is only read, its defining qualities, the lines of sound and rhythm and its rhyme or internal rhyme scheme can only be perceived to a limited extent. Like a musical score, poetry needs an instrument. In the case of poetry, this instrument is usually the human voice. When poetry is spoken, possibly by the poet, a memorable live experience is instantly created. What the poem aims to signify semantically and cognitively is achieved through the interplay of many aesthetic elements, including the melodious sound of language, lines of rhythm, worlds of images and rhymes. Language combines all these things in a poem. Poetry festivals and events are thus enjoying growing popularity all around the world. Seen in media terms, poetry needs a double performance – it needs to be read and heard.

Thus, poetry has found its place - a gathering of people who eagerly and intently listen to the poet and in the process are encouraged to read or reread. That explains the current poetry boom. The poet Brigitte Oleschinksi calls this receptive behaviour “a mimetic return to the oral musical beginnings of poetry and at the same time its further development in today’s mediatised entertainment culture“ (Brigitte Oleschinki, “Frage nach den Sirenen", p. 15).

In our institution (the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin – editor’s note) we have set up a digital archive of contemporary poetry,, which is growing all the time. More than 830 poets can currently be read and heard on this website, and through more and more translations into more and more languages, they can be understood by more and more people. Nearly eight million visitors from all around the world have used’s service to date. is the world’s largest online archive of contemporary poetry, enabling it to be exchanged internationally. Have a look at which poets you can find there from your country or who translates into your language and can be discovered.

When poetry became available in print, it gained complexity but lost its social place, the market place. Collective perception of a poem was transformed into the private act of reading. Poetry changed from this time onwards, becoming more complex, but also more introverted. It gained subjectivity, but also became more hermetic, more intimate and less accessible. (A special chapter could be devoted to teaching poetry in schools).

Defying all the supposed hostility to poetry and proclamations that it is dead, poets continue to write poetry and have not allowed one of humanity’s oldest art forms to be taken away from them. The poet Monika Rinck is right in confidently declaring that we who are alive today have no right to sign the death warrant of a cultural technique that goes back 5,000 years.

Poetry is an autonomous art form with its own rules. In setting up World Poetry Day in 2000, UNESCO clearly recognised the distinct place of poetry as a cultural treasure that deserves special protection and raised the social status of poets. In many European countries, including Germany, that has been inadequately translated into cultural policy.
But poetry is also a cross-genre art form. As the French painter Eugène Delacroix put it, "There is no art without poetry". All the other art forms have come to poetry to work with it and continue to do so. Why? Because they recognised themselves in it. Music responds with a Lied or a song, and has produced the chansonnier or singer-songwriter. Dance works with the rhythm of language and breathing and the visual arts adapted the graphic structures of letters long ago. And poetic films have existed ever since films were first made. The oldest of them, made in 1905, is called "The night before Christmas", and Apollinaire is known to have made a film in 1910.
It took the computer, however, to make poetry films into a global genre. Now film is also able to give a structural response to poetry, switching second by second from reality to virtuality, phantasy/animation, spirituality etc.
The new technical possibilities have led to what has been called "digital poetry", in which modern poetic forms, such as sound poetry, visual poetry, but also concrete poetry are discovering new possibilities for development.

Poetry may be defined as the artistic form of language. Its art is based on linguistic means and signs that may be written, oral, sonic, body-language or graphically fixed and applied. Thus, it is intrinsically multimedia in nature. Poetry’s reduction, in the sense of concentration, also makes it well-suited to present and future multimedia developments in our societies. As a linguistic art form, poetry always cultivates language. And it has not only done so since publication of the book “Gehirn und Gedicht. Wie wir unsere Wirklichkeiten konstruieren” (Poetry and the Brain. News from inside the mind) by Raoul Schrott and Arthur Jacob (Carl-Hanser-Verlag, 2011), which demonstrated the existence of “poetic thinking". By using poetic language, one can penetrate highly complex connections, thereby revealing their essence by means of associative language, for example when things are said or named differently, or when they are redefined by the format given in a poem.

In poetry, a media process of differentiation takes place before our very eyes. It not only changes poetry’s forms of production, but also their connection and integration with the media. A contemporary example is Gerhard Falkner’s “Pergamon Poems", which are being feted for their combination of poetry, excellently staged and spoken language and cinematic rendition. They use text as a scanner that moves along the huge altar in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, enabling it to be rediscovered through the ears and eyes of viewers (see YouTube).

Spoken poetry and poetry slams emerged as part of the black and Latin American protest culture of the seventies. As a format, they certainly may be seen as alluding to the Dionysians in Ancient Greece or the medieval singers’ wars or troubadours.
Slam poetry is very narrative and strongly rhythmic, and it makes reference to dance. Its very intensive and direct treatment of social grievances on the one hand and its emancipative pathos on the other convey to very wide and, above all, very young audiences a strong awareness of language and of its abilities and competence to deal with all of life’s concerns. As one poetry slammer also discovered, he has to bring along many important elements for the performance of the text in order to train and develop his own language and voice for an audience. Many of today’s leading poetic voices in our countries acknowledge the performative strength of spoken poetry or have developed a relationship to it, sometimes a dismissive one.

Let us rediscover poetry and a zest for poetic thinking and let us get to know one another better in the process!
Thomas Wohlfahrt
directs the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin,,
the poesiefestival Berlin and the ZEBRA poetry film festival.

Autumn 2012
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