Poetry by Jan Wagner
Magic of the second order

Jan Wagner
Jan Wagner | Photo: © Lesekreis CC0 1.0

The poet and Büchner-prize winner Jan Wagner is often ridiculed and criticised as being backward-looking by purists. Unjustifiably so, according to the poetry connoisseur Michael Braun.

On the contemporary literature scene, so-called ‘favourites of the Gods’ are given a hard time. The poet Dürs Grünbein experienced this to a painful degree when he was awarded the most prestigious German literary prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, in 1995 at the age of only 33. Soon numerous scoffers piped up, dismissing the prize-winner as a literary lightweight.
This ritual was repeated in 2017. When the poet and translator Jan Wagner, born in 1971, was awarded the Büchner Prize, a general embarrassment could be sensed among his colleagues. No one seemed tempted to express spontaneous enthusiasm. Instead, rumblings could be heard among the poets – a case of lasting attention disorder. While literary critics praised the prize-winner for his awareness of tradition and consciousness of form, many in the social networks branded Wagner’s work as the epitome of a reactionary concept of poetry and a supposed comeback of Biedermeier.

Misunderstood as nature idyllicism

The form-conscious poet with “perfect manners” (literary critic Denis Scheck), who is also an outstanding translator of English and Scottish poetry, is suspected by his own colleagues of being a fussy retro-poet because of his preference for historical requisites. He is also misunderstood as a nature idyllicist, who spells out all the flora and fauna from pussy willow to white fig and from the olm to the otter.
Georg Diez, a columnist for Der Spiegel, had already campaigned against Wagner’s poem das weidenkätzchen (pussy willow) some time ago, lamenting a “passion for the countryside”, a “sentimentalizing of nature” and the omnipresence of the pretty. Yet the poem merely tells the story of a dreadful death by asphyxiation. Delicate natural phenomena in Jan Wagner’s poems are never an artistic end in themselves. Instead they clash with the brutal facts of a murderous reality.

Enigmatic antiphony

In not one single line is Wagner the dutiful traditionalist he is sometimes derided as being. On the contrary, his poems are artistic evidence of a formal awareness that, with great skill and precision, explores both the wealth of tradition and the allure of the present. Wagner once said that, “progress is what one makes of the term”, and he tests this motto on all historical poetic forms.
This can also be seen in the poem from the volume Australien (2010) in which Wagner cites the theologian-poet Paul Gerhardt. In a “song or consolation” he invokes the man who wished to help despairing married couples by advocating profound piety. Wagner translates Gerhardt’s hymn into an enigmatic antiphonal song, a story of an individual transformation that – as once in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – takes the form of a tree.
paul gerhardt:
»der mann wird einem baume gleich«

bevor er ausschlägt, hat er schon das rauschen
von laub im ohr. das überraschen-
de knarren, wenn er redet; wenn er schreit-
et dieses knacken der gelenke: jeder schritt
sehnt sich nach erde. nachts unter laternen
ertappt er sich dabei, wie seine hände
aus schatten lettern formen und die wände
der schlafenden beschreiben. krähenschwärme,
ihr dunkler kreisel über ihm, die kinder,
die ungefragt auf seine schultern klettern
und äpfel klauen. im jackett aus rinde
steht er auf freiem feld, wenn ihm ein regen
im herbst die letzten grünen blätter
poliert. so wächst er seinem sturm entgegen.
Here the man resembling a tree loses his autonomy. This poem enables us to share in a charming paradox: the biological rootedness of the self is identical with its uprootedness as a subject. This is a fascinating image of a metamorphosis that grants man new qualities according as he forfeits power over himself. At the same time, it is the image of the uprooting of a form.
Jan Wagner has concealed a sonnet in the 14 lines of this poem: two quartets and two tercets that have come apart and only betray their roots in the sonnet at one point, in the rhyming couplet, hände – wände. In his most recent volume of essays entitled Der verschlossene Raum (The locked room, 2017) Jan Wagner remarks in passing that poetry is “a magic of the second order”. Like almost any other poet today, Jan Wagner possesses the stupendous gift of permanently creating that magic of the second order.


was born in Hamburg in 1971 and lives in Berlin, His first volume of poetry Probebohrung im Himmel (Test drilling in the sky) was published in 2001. He has received many awards for his work: the Anna Seghers Prize in 2005; the prize of the 2015 Leipzig Book Fair for his Regentonnenvariationen (Rain barrel variations); in 2017 he will receive the Georg Büchner Prize. Wagner also works as a literary critic and translator from English; he is a member of the PEN Centre Darmstadt.

Talking to Jan Wagner