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This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

An incomplete history of contemporary German-language poetry Matthias Fechner
The history of poetry in German has been embellished with misjudgements. In 1797, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would graciously advise a gauche and somewhat limited poet, whose name he later remembered as ‘Hölterlein’, to concentrate on short poems depicting topics of human interest.1 Gertrud Kolmar, arguably one of Germany’s finest poets, was barely published during her lifetime. And Paul Celan’s emphatic reading of ‘Todesfuge’ [Death Fugue] at the 1952 meeting of Gruppe 47 would cause bewilderment among his demure fellow poets.2 Against this background, it seems a quixotic task to concisely narrate the short, changing and controversial history of contemporary poetry in German, which – due to its lively and provisional character – appears to elude prosaic definitions even more.

Since the patient refuses anaesthesia, let us begin then at one of history’s turning points, when the end of an era spread out against the sky over East Berlin’s and Leipzig’s half-deserted streets. In November 1989, the implosion of East Germany’s political system led to a stunning erosion of cultural standards. While the people of East Germany clamoured for advice on market economy, bookstores and wholesalers hastily emptied their magazines to make room for glossy West German guidebooks promising instant success, from house cleaning to stock jobbing. Poetic shelf huggers were shovelled onto the backs of lorries, driven to the opencast mines near Espenhain, outside Leipzig, then dumped into the muddy pits. Verse by Elke Erb (b. 1938) or Stephan Hermlin (1915–1997) could not be incinerated, which would have been more practical. ...

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