Contemporary poetry Blossoming in a niche

Jan Wagner
Jan Wagner | Photo (detail): © Lesekreis CC0 1.0

Recent German poetry can boast of many talents. In the literary world poets receive plenty of attention, but in the bookshop poetry is seldom a success.

For over ten years now the German poetry scene has enjoyed an upsurge. Of talent, it seems, there is no shortage. If you want to list the most notable poets of recent years you soon have two dozen names, ranging from Carolin Callies, Steffen Popp, Jan Volker Röhnert, Sabine Scho, Björn Kuhligk, Nico Bleutge, Arne Rautenberg and Ann Cotten to Silke Scheuermann, Marion Poschmann, Jan Wagner, Uljana Wolf, Alexander Gumz, Ron Winkler, Monika Rinck, Anja Utler and several others. The recipient of the Leipzig Book Prize at the Book Fair in the spring of 2015 may serve as the most recent indication that this is no sham blossoming, because for the first time in the history of the highly regarded award the jury opted for a poet: Jan Wagner, born in 1971, was honoured for his book of poems Regentonnenvariationen (i.e. Rain Barrel Variations), leaving well-known prose writers such as Norbert Scheuer and Michael Wildenhain behind.

Tribute on the big stage

In the arts pages this choice was almost unanimously welcomed. All in all the view prevailed that Wagner presumably received the award as a representative of contemporary German poetry as such, which now had been accorded what it had long deserved: a tribute on the big stage. That Wagner had already received nearly thirty literature prizes and fellowships for his literary work seemed hardly to count, for though all these awards contributed significantly over the years to securing his livelihood, none enjoyed even a fraction of the media attention bound up with the Leipzig Book Prize. This highlights a paradox: a poet such as Wagner enjoys amongst literature juries and funding committees a recognition many times greater than that he has in book shops and amongst readers.
  • Ann Cotten Foto (Ausschnitt): © Amrei-Marie - CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons
    Ann Cotten
  • Jan Volker Röhnert Foto (Ausschnitt): © Alexander Paul Englert - CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons
    Jan Volker Röhnert
  • Ron Winkler, Berlin 2011 Foto (Ausschnitt): © Perrudja - CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons
    Ron Winkler, Berlin 2011
  • Silke Scheuermann Foto (Ausschnitt): © Amrei-Marie - CC-BY-SA 4.0 über Wikimedia Commons
    Silke Scheuermann

Short runs, high pressure to succeed

Wagner’s is certainly not an isolated case. The proportion of books of poetry in the total turnover of the German book trade is less than one per cent; customary are sales of 200 to 500 copies; in many cases a thousand copies sold already counts as a success. Although poetry has by no means disappeared from the programmes of the major trade publishers such as Hanser, S. Fischer and Suhrkamp, it has a much harder time than before. The pressure for profitability that weighs on every book has increased and more and more puts the principle of cross-financing in question. Many small publishing houses are engaged in a more or less permanent struggle to survive. Two years ago the publisher Urs Engeler, who publishes Elke Erb and other well-known poets, was forced to shut his doors and now sells his programme under the label roughboooks exclusively at his own website. His books are no longer available at book shops. No poet today can even approach the triumphs of an Erich Fried, whose books in the 1970s and 80s reached runs of six figures and alone could bring Wagenbach Publishers through a difficult year. But can this be changed? And how much can a single award contribute to the longed-for economic turnaround?

Discourses on the “essence of literature”

Criticism of the Book Prize for Wagner came from only one quarter: from poets themselves. The objections from colleagues such as Sabine Scho were that Wagner is too conservative, too well-behaved, to tradition-loving, too little experimental. Where, please, was the innovativeness? There was even talk of a missed opportunity for contemporary poetry. This criticism should not be dismissed as a mere reflex of envy or lack of aplomb. For it shows that the young poetry scene, which is looked upon as extremely well networked and discourse-inclined, is anything but homogenous. Even the basic question about a definition of the concept of poetry for the twentieth century leads to a wide variety of answers. Arne Rautenberg, for example, speaks of a “world-wide and timeless code of the sensitive and subtle”; for Wagner poetry is “the essence of literature”; for Ulf Stolterfoht “a reflection of language on itself”; while Steffen Popp clearly rejects the tradition of experimental poetry: language analysis as an end in itself is fleshless and dead. Some conceive of experimental poetry as hermetic and apolitical; others all too quickly scent nothing but convention and the desire for linguistically padded comfort where they find lacking the will to language scepticism and innovation.

The multitude of initiatives and discussion forums for poetry that have been formed is astonishing: there is the online poetry workshop gdreizehn, the poetry and event platform lyrikline and the website babelsprech, a project for networking contemporary poetry. The Website Timberpoetologie documents a debate about the relationship of poetry and politics, and the journal Gegenstrophe, founded in connection with the Hölty Prize awarded since 2008 in Hanover, sees itself as a yearbook for poetry. These are only a few examples. There is much to discover. The hope that the Leipzig Book Prize for Jan Wagner’s Regentonnenvariationen could suddenly free contemporary poetry from its niche existence will not be fulfilled. But the niches where it can flourish are many, and there is life in them. That is the finding, and it leaves no room for doubt: there can be no question of a mere sham flowering in recent German-language poetry.