Durs Grünbein The Unpoet

Durs Grünbein numbers among the most important German-language lyric poets and essayists, but he refers to himself as an “unpoet”.
Durs Grünbein numbers among the most important German-language lyric poets and essayists, but he refers to himself as an “unpoet”. | Foto: © picture alliance / Erwin Elsner

Durs Grünbein numbers among the most important German-language lyric poets and essayists. The Georg-Bücher prize winning author’s body of work refuses to submit to simple categorisation.

If Durs Grünbein’s genre as a writer were classified based on his body of work, he would have to be described as a multi-media artist. An essayist and translator who has worked on interdisciplinary projects with visual artists, Grünbein even records audiobooks of his own work. He refers to himself as an “unpoet”, perhaps because of the wide spectrum his creative output spans. And while he never limits himself to a single medium or genre, so far he has given the novel a wide berth. “For a long time, lyrical poetry was my way of rejecting the novel. Gaining time through brevity, coupled with a different sense of authority over reality.” Unpoet Grünbein is quite simply an artist who describes his world and enjoys employing poetic and other means.
Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962, just one year after the construction of the Berlin Wall that sealed Germany’s fate as a divided country. After the wall fell on November 9, 1989, opening the border between the western Federal Republic of Germany and the eastern German Democratic Republic, Grünbein began travelling the world in what he describes as a phase of “almost hysterical travel in the interest of making up for lost time.” Later, he lived abroad for longer periods that took the award-winning lyrical poet and essayist to the USA as a guest of New York University’s German Department and as visiting scholar at the Villa Aurora artist residence in Los Angeles. During a ten-month fellowship, Grünbein also had the opportunity to work with artists from the fields of architecture, the visual arts, literature and music at the Deutsche Akademie’s cultural institution, the Villa Massimo in Rome. A Villa Massimo grant is one of Germany’s highest honours and recognises artists for exceptional work.

The spark turns over the motor

Zündkerzen (i.e. Sparkplugs) is a collection of 83 of Grünbein’s poems published in 2017. What is actually set in motion when the sparkplug emits the first spark that ignites combustion in a motor? What is the essence of the spark? Grünbein’s volume of poetry isn’t about theoretical ideas and doesn’t propose any concepts: sparkplugs are things, things to be described.
The poems in the collection are very flexible in meter and verse, appearing as sequences, prose poems, and sonnets. Overall Grünbein relies on traditional forms and rejects avant-garde games. The reader is not confounded by complex hermetic lines, and can relate to what moves the author: the past, transience, and ultimately reality. In “Dekolleté“, for example, he involves the past in a vivid warning: “Sometimes a collarbone,/ Falling into a pair of eyes – / Is enough to inflame pain/ Beyond all surrender and loss / In a human being’s life./ It reveals: the brevity,/ Peak season is almost over.”
This association of transience and remembering the past with the flare up of pain is a central theme in Grünbein’s Die Jahre im Zoo. Ein Kaleidoskop. (i.e. Years at the Zoo. A kaleidoscope.)

Authority over reality

While Grünbein has explained his preference for poetry over the novel as rooted in a feeling of authority over reality, his densely atmospheric work Die Jahre im Zoo, published in 2015, resembles an essayistic, autobiographic book infused with lyrical intervals. In it he describes his childhood and youth in the garden-city suburb of Hellerau just outside Dresden. At the start of the 20th century, the Garden City movement attracted people interested in reform who wanted to unify life and work, culture and education. But Grünbein’s 400-page memorial to Hellerau is ambivalent. He describes his childhood as a “Pandora’s box”, an “old tin full of earthworms:/Opened it releases the scent of childhood, of discontent.”
Yet regardless of how banal his childhood and uneventful his youth might have been, Grünbein’s memories oscillate between abhorrence for the past and a warm sense of security often associated with nostalgia: “Happiness is when memory grazes your temples/ like blades of grass.” Memories graze the author and perhaps the reader in the present, conserving happiness, at least for the moment.
Memoirs like Die Jahre im Zoo arouse a great deal of interest in uncertain times when the secure suddenly seems at risk. It sates a hunger for reality by bringing back the authentic as worth remembering. As a multi-media artist, Grünbein adds another level to his memories. In Die Jahre im Zoo, old photographs illustrate the text, as in the Koloss im Nebel (i.e. Colossus in the Fog) volume of poetry. This interdisciplinary trick helps him freeze his Hellerau in time, and he successfully creates a monumental description of the image of his hometown, almost as if he were describing a painting.
Grünbein uses the same method in exhibitions as well. Together with artist Via Lewandowsky, his mixed-media events bring the visual and literary arts together, where Lewandowsky provides the images and Grünbein the texts.

Durs Grünbein lives and writes in Rome. He was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in 1995, and has been a professor of poetry at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf Art Academy) since 2005. In 2009, the Federal Republic of Germany honoured Grünbein with the Great Cross of Merit with Star.