20 April 2005


The Poet’s Role: Lyric Responses to German Unification by Poets from the GDR
by Ruth J. Owen
Amsterdamer Publikationen zur Sprache und Literatur 147
(Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2001), 366pp

The book is available from Rodopi or Amazon

Main chapters:

  • The Poet’s Role in the GDR 1949-1989
  • History and Poetry: ‘Wende-Zeitgedichte’
  • ‘Die Stimmen der Verlierer’: Post-Unification Poetry by ex-GDR Poets
  • The End of a Role: Volker Braun’s Post-‘Wende’ Poetry
  • The Beginning of a Role: Durs Grünbein’s Post-‘Wende’ Poetry
  • Outline:
    This study of contemporary German poetry represents the first comprehensive examination of lyric responses to the unification period. It demonstrates, by means of close textual analysis, how the political Wende was also a literary turning-point, and it assesses diverse ways in which GDR poets wrote the revolutionary events of 1989 as well as their first lyric responses to newly united Germany. Two central chapters investigate the poetry of the Wende and unification as a corpus of work in which recurring themes, motifs and techniques point to poetry’s function as a witness to otherwise marginalized aspects of history. The volume sets post-1989 reassessments against the background of literary production and reception in the GDR (between 1949 and 1989) and argues that poetry from the Berlin Republic articulates a crisis in ex-GDR poets’ understanding of their role. After identifying broad trends across a wide range of individual poems, collections and anthologies, single chapters analyse in greater depth the post-Wende work of Volker Braun and Durs Grünbein as two contrasting types of lyric response to unification. A concluding chapter addresses the issue of a separate GDR literature in view of the perpetuation of GDR identity in poetry after 1990.

    This book is on the reading list for the undergraduate course Ge13: Aspects of German-speaking Europe after 1945, at the University of Cambridge.

    Reviewers’ comments:

    “This wide-ranging study, the first of its kind, provides a detailed survey of that exceptional burgeoning of East German poetry which was occasioned by the ‘quiet revolution’ of 1989. […] All the necessary relevant background to an understanding of [the poets’] difficulties, as well as their earlier careers, is succinctly provided in Dr Owen’s information-rich opening chapter, while a further strength of this book is to record and explain another aspect of the complex background to this poetry – the many references to contemporary events, to the slogans, personalities and concepts, which are already becoming hard to understand. […] We find a very clear overall structure, meticulous attention to detail (the footnotes are a mine of information, and the well-organized bibliography is outstanding), thorough investigation of every issue, balanced judgement, clear lines of argument, careful analysis of every quotation, and no short cuts in argument or explanation. […] There is nothing of importance she has missed. […] Owen has performed an outstanding service in tracing the manner in which these figures recorded the deep social, psychological and emotional issues raised by events, and although more specific analyses of individual poets will certainly follow, it seems unlikely her general analysis can be superseded.”
    Peter Hutchinson (University of Cambridge), Journal of European Studies, 33 (July 2003), 83-85

    “It is important that Rodopi have now published Owen’s extremely detailed and meticulously-researched thesis. Owen analyses a vast selection of poetry written between 1989 and 1996 by ex-GDR poets, and also extends her review backwards to 1945 and forwards to the present day where necessary. […] Chapters 5 and 6 review the work of two of the most important poets of the period, Volker Braun and Durs Grünbein. Representing different generations of GDR writers, and their different trends within contemporary poetry, these chapters offer Owen the chance to develop in more detail the arguments of previous poetry chapters. […] I especially appreciated the enquiries into the ways in which certain motifs, such as the window (Chapter 2) or slogans from the demonstrations of 1989 (Chapter 3), are used by different poets at different times.”
    Beth Linklater (University of Swansea), Modern Language Review, 98 (January 2003), 248-249

    This study represents an important attempt to establish a longer-term critical perspective on the heated debates about poetry and politics that broke out after the Wende. [...] The study's strength lies in its appreciation of poetry as a genre with a history, rather than simply a medium for ideas.
    Forum for Modern Language Studies
    , 39 (2003), 347

    Poets whose work is considered in the book:
    Anderson, Sascha
    Bartsch, Wilhelm
    Becher, Johannes R.
    Biermann, Wolf
    Böhme, Thomas
    Braun, Volker
    Brecht, Bertolt
    Brinkmann, Hans
    Cibulka, Hanns
    Czechowski, Heinz
    Döring, Stefan
    Drawert, Kurt
    Faktor, Jan
    Fühmann, Franz
    Gerlach, Harald
    Grosz, Christiane
    Grünbein, Durs
    Grüning, Uwe
    Hensel, Kerstin
    Hilbig, Wolfgang
    Holst, Matthias
    Jansen, Johannes
    Jentzsch, Bernd
    Kachold, Gabriele
    Kahlau, Heinz
    Kirchner, Annerose
    Kirsch, Rainer
    Kirsch, Sarah
    Köhler, Barbara
    Kolbe, Uwe
    Kunert, Günter
    Kunze, Reiner
    Mensching, Steffen
    Mickel, Karl
    Müller, Heiner
    Papenfuß, Bert
    Pech, Kristian
    Pietraß, Richard
    Rathenow, Lutz
    Rennert, Jürgen
    Richter, Armin
    Rosenlöcher, Thomas
    Schacht, Ulrich
    Schedlinski, Rainer
    Schmidt, Kathrin
    Stephan, Peter M.
    Teschke, Holger
    Tietze, Oliver
    Tragelehn, B. K.
    Wenzel, Hans-Eckardt
    Werner, Walter
    Wolf, Christa
    Wüstefeld, Michael