26 June 2005

Introduction to late-20th-century poetry

Postwar Germany’s golden age of poetry began with Die sächsische Dichterschule in the mid-1960s, received new impulses from the Berlin Prenzlauer Berg generation in the early 1980s, and was sustained by the up-and-coming poets of the newly unified Germany. GDR poetry has often been judged in terms of extremes of aestheticism – seeing writing as an end in itself – and political commitment – seeing it as an instrument for the achievement of other purposes. And it is only since the inception of the Berlin Republic that other readings have begun to be fully explored. Still, as in many areas of cultural history, the East has become the forgotten Germany. This is especially remiss in the case of poetry, as the most vital and compelling work of the postwar period emanated predominantly from the poets in the GDR or émigrés who once lived in the GDR.

Collections such as Günter Kunert’s Unterwegs nach Utopia, Volker Braun’s Training des aufrechten Gangs, Sarah Kirsch’s Zaubersprüche and Reiner Kunze’s Sensible Wege made the GDR seem the place it was happening in poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. The GDR experience, in all its phases, seems to have led to a heightened sense of the frail assumptions that underlie any system of civilisation. Poetry became extraordinarily interrogative, but its intramural coding does not alienate a later audience. The anthology Ein Molotow-Cocktail auf fremder Bettkante: Lyrik der siebziger/achtziger Jahre von Dichtern der DDR presents a compelling cross-section of work by numerous poets. Individual highlights of the 1980s included Uwe Kolbe’s Bornholm II, Steffen Mensching’s Tuchfühlung, Kerstin Hensel’s Poesiealbum 222 and Wolfgang Hilbig’s die versprengung. Such collections sample writing of persistent effort, with a strong topographical imperative, stylistic aplomb and playfulness. Collections by poets from the GDR went on to dominate the new German poetry scene in the early 1990s: three of the most innovative and impressive collections were Barbara Köhler’s Deutsches Roulette, Durs Grünbein’s Schädelbasislektion and Kathrin Schmidt’s Flußbild mit Engel.

See also: Poesiealbum