During the last few years, Durs Grünbein has emerged as the contemporary German poet whose name is most likely to be recognized by American readers. Born in Dresden, in the German Democratic Republic, in 1962, Grünbein won the Georg Büchner Prize—Germany’s most prestigious literary award—at the age of thirty-three. Since then he has continued to write prolifically, producing many collections of poems and essays. Ashes for Breakfast, a selection of his verse translated by Michael Hofmann, was published in the US in 2005. Now it is joined by The Bars of Atlantis, a selection of Grünbein’s essays, as well as a short volume, Descartes’ Devil, made up of three prose meditations. These books, which have appeared in English with lavish endorsements from poets like John Ashbery and Adam Zagajewski, are only a sample of Grünbein’s work—Descartes’ Devil, for instance, is a companion piece to a three-thousand-line verse novel, On Snow, or Descartes in Germany, which has not yet been translated. But they offer a valuable chance to become acquainted with a poet who is frequently described as the best to emerge in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
One way to gauge Grünbein’s stature is by the responsibility he feels to be the public face of poetry, which often means defending it against condescension and indifference. “When the average intellectual today reflects on the artistic and cultural achievements of the last century,” Grünbein writes in “The Poem and Its Secret,”
he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. Impossible to imagine that a poet should be among them. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery of the likes of Pessoa, Cavafy, Rilke, Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, and Machado will cross the mind of the historically minded thinker…. It is as if the art of poetry, of all things, were the blind spot in the cultural memory of modern man.
The point is debatable—T.S. Eliot, at least, might well appear on many people’s lists of modernist masters—but Grünbein’s basic intuition, that poetry has lost its former cultural prestige, is inarguable. To appreciate the full extent of this decline, Grünbein suggests, we actually have to go back much further than the twentieth century—all the way to ancient Athens, where the philosopher first usurped the poet’s rightful place as chief interpreter of the world. In the golden age, he writes, wisdom was found in the works of the poets, who gave the Greeks their “heroic epics and myths of origin,” while philosophy was merely “arabesque and commentary” on the poet’s visions. With the pre-Socratics, however, philosophy “rose up” menacingly against its parent, and with Plato it committed parricide. “The beautiful and the sublime had been subordinated to the rule of ideas once and for all,” Grünbein complains, and “for over two thousand years now, every poet’s biography has witnessed to …