Prior to my thesis, I published a first article, ‘The Ex-GDR Poet and the People’, which analyses laments for the lost relationship between GDR poets and the general population. It examines poems which express how, at the Wende, writers were swayed anew by abstract ideals, which at first matched the aims of the civil demonstrations, but ultimately led to writers being toppled from their pedestals.
My doctoral thesis, published as a monograph in 2001, investigated lyric responses to Germany’s unification of 1990. Examining poems written between 1989 and 1996 by ex-GDR poets, the study treated the portrayal of the Wende as, for instance, a natural disaster, a magic trick, a rupture in time, and investigated the dominant thematization of the poet’s role. I was concerned to show that 1989 was not only a political turning-point but also a literary one, and also to explore the particular possibilities of the genre of poetry to respond to revolutionary events – something that had not previously been addressed by scholars.
As a result of my thesis research, I was invited to write two chapters for edited books. The first, ‘The Colonizing West’, demonstrates how Heiner Müller’s posthumously published poetry, the Berliner Elegien of Steffen Mensching, and Bert Papenfuß’s epic mors ex nihilo make striking rejections of capitalism and write unification in terms of conquest by the West. My argumnent is that even as it makes its gestures against western neo-colonialism, however, this poetry itself seems to become overrun and occupied by the language of western commerce. The second, my chapter in Memory Traces: 1989 and the Question of German Cultural Identity, demonstrates how poetry memorializes the German Wende as a death. It particularly analyses poets’ bold use of biblical and Classical mythologies to counter a sense of defeat, as well as their compelling employment of poetic technique to expose tired binary thinking on German unity. The depiction of memories in the poetry draws links to film and to the museum, as rival models for the preservation of the past.
Outside academia, my research on contemporary poetry has been disseminated through a radio interview for Deutschland Radio in Berlin and in an article commissioned to survey contemporary German poetry and introduce some of the key figures and most successful collections to a non-specialist readership. It presents German poets as international flâneurs, whose work thematizes global travel, science and media, alongside Germany’s recent historical caesuras.
Drawing together chronologically disparate poems to conceive of them as shifting reflections on the nature of time, my essay ‘Time in Volker Braun’s Poetry’ examines how this major postwar poet variously inscribes the temporal moment. Readings of five poems spanning the period between 1964 and 1996 reveal contrasting constructions of the bodily experience of time in terms of presence and absence. They also posit relationships between time and the work of art which indicate a radical poetological shift after Germany’s unification of 1990.
One of the most striking characteristics of Raoul Schrott’s and Durs Grünbein’s poetry is a thematization of natural science. Originally a seminar paper, my article ‘Science in Contemporary Poetry’ identifies Schrott’s scientists as poet-like figures who see the world in a new way, extending perspective and providing an example to the modern-day lyric subject. For Schrott, science is a set of metaphors, a benign language of poetry. In Grünbein’s poetry, however, science is a threat, a dominant, sanitising influence on modern life which, far from raising up humans as adventurers and explorers, diminishes them. Science here reveals only the serious meaninglessness of life and is taken up in the poetry for bravura provocation. Of my articles to date, this one has had the greatest resonance with other scholars in the UK, USA and Germany.
Exploring a particular manifestation of the city-poem, my article ‘Eine im Feuer versunkene Stadt’ traces how Dresden became a topos in German poetry after 1945. Identifying a complex of associations and motifs reveals poets’ concern with commemorating the devastating war-time fire-bombing of the city. I examine how traditions established in the 1960s and 1970s have been developed by a subsequent generation, writing the city in the 1980s and 1990s. The representation of Dresden in relation to various histories (national, personal, aesthetic) returns repeatedly to the tension between what passes away and what is preserved in perpetuity. Whereas earlier poems tend to read the city as history made concrete, later poems focus on abstract forces and the city’s supernatural power.
Originally a conference paper, ‘Germania im Bunker’ argues that contemporary portrayals of urban landscapes share a complex of associations and motifs that centre around mortality. Identifying the predominance of violence and war in these representations of environments, it examines various versions of the subterranean or submarine anti-Heimat, and suggests that the Berlin cityscape beneath the surface is a repressed national past. The urban landscape is interpreted in terms of a Classical Hades and a Freudian consciousness, with references to models of the city in German literature of the 1920s and the 1950s.
My ongoing project The Body in Modern German Poetry, to culminate in the publication of a monograph, attracted a prestigious fellowship from the Alexander-von-Humboldt foundation. In 2004 I wrote a first essay, published in the US journal Monatshefte, ‘The Body as Art’, focussing on poetry from the early twentieth century. In this period, pre-existing art objects are a primary source of body images, allowing poets not only to circumvent taboos by presenting erotic desire as aesthetic reception, but also to explore questions of body production, in particular the making of a perfected body unlike the fleshy, begotten version. Poems are hyper-aware that the body is not only a reality but also a conceptualization: they play with the material substances of which imitation bodies can be made – stone, paint, plastic, flowers – in order to reject intellect and evade the speaking body. At the same time as they lose language, the represented bodies of sculpture, paintings and flower arrangements retain fleshy abilities to flirt and entice. The essay analyses these second-hand images of the body as art, highlighting the poems’ critique of spectatorship.
My chapter ‘Bodies in Contemporary Poetry’, written on a visiting fellowship at the University of London, was invited for the volume Contemporary German Poetry, edited by Karen Leeder. Work by three poets who have articulated corporeal poetologies, Anne Duden, Durs Grünbein and Ulla Hahn, is at the core of the primary material I examine here, alongside body poems by Ulrike Draesner, Barbara Köhler, Brigitte Oleschinski and Albert Ostermaier. The selected poetry inflates corporeality as the location of being; ever-monitored bodies become exhibits. Self-knowledge from autopsy involves travelling the hidden interior. In instances of pre-written bodies, altering where lyric voice is assigned exposes their status as rhetorical constructs. My article demonstrates how such bodies in contemporary poetry represent volatility in both their meaning and form.