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 the success of this coup.”
Grünbein is aware that his claims for the authority of the poet might strike the reader as grandiose. In fact, he is sometimes too aware of it. In his introduction to Ashes for Breakfast, the translator Michael Hofmann shows that Joseph Brodsky is an important influence on Grünbein’s poetry, and the influence clearly extends to his prose: the proud defense of the poet’s honor is a major theme for both. But what makes Brodsky’s defense so effective is his lordliness. When he writes (in “A Poet and Prose”) that “poetry occupies a higher position than prose, and the poet, in principle, is higher than the prose writer,” his tone convinces us not only that he believes it, but that we wouldn’t dare to deny it to his face.
Grünbein, too, is certain that poetry is the highest art form, not just the most philosophical but also the most durable. Since Homer, he writes in “Why Live Without Writing,” the poet has been “the observer, who would finally convert his collected silence into the one and only commentary that survived the wreckage, some unforgettable line of song, some key scene of an epic or heartbreaking elegy.” But Grünbein is also conscious of the skepticism of contemporary readers—poets today, he notes, write “in the face of slight and resistance, in an age of universal knowledgeability”—and it forces him into a retaliatory defensiveness, which sometimes takes the form of whimsy. “Incidentally, what does it mean to finagle one’s way through life as a poet?” he writes in “The Thinker’s Voice.”
More often, however, it takes the form of protesting too much. Grünbein is continually offering new metaphors to explain the way poetry works: “In poetry, the word is translated into a higher state of oscillation”; “within it, speech is taken to its limits”; “the poem penetrates the nethermost spaces of memory”; its “entire purpose is to set off fireworks in the reader’s psyche.” None of these images is especially concrete or explanatory, but they share an insistence on the superlative. Whether it is penetrating or oscillating or exploding, the poem is doing something extreme, something no other art form can do.
The problem with this sort of hyperbole, as a rule, is that poets don’t trust it (no one is less likely to rhapsodize about poetry than a group of poets in private conversation), readers of poetry don’t need it, and nonreaders of poetry won’t listen to it. If there is too much of it in The Bars of Atlantis, this is surely owed in part to the exigencies of translation—editors and translators, dealing with a famous poet, will naturally favor work that deals explicitly with the subject of poetry. This is no less true of the verse in Ashes for Breakfast, where a number of poems are about the writing of poems, like “Monological Poem #2”:
From time to time
I have these days when
I feel like embarking
on a poem again
of a kind that still isn’t
all that popular….
The most interesting thing about Grünbein’s praise of poetry is his choice of metaphors, which are usually drawn from the realm of science. In The Bars of Atlantis, there are sympathetic essays on Rilke and Hölderlin, but the writer whom Grünbein writes about most intimately is Büchner, the early-nineteenth-century prodigy who produced the dramas Danton’s Death and Woyzeck before his death at the age of twenty-three. He was also a student of biology, the author of a scientific paper, “On Cranial Nerves,” and Grünbein sees his dissection of the nervous system of fish as directly related to his literary work. In both realms, Grünbein feels, Büchner “turned this lining of nerves inside out and made it flash forth in the spoken word, in the frozen moment of shock.” The two cultures of science and literature are united by what Grünbein, following Karl Gutzkow, calls Büchner’s “autopsy compulsion.” In this phrase, we are meant to hear not just the modern meaning of the word, the cutting up of a corpse, but the sense of the original Greek, “seeing for oneself.”
Autopsy, in this double sense, is a key term and value in Grünbein’s work. It appears as early as his second book, Skull Base Lesson (1991), where he concludes one poem:
With walled up frontal bone
Every refuge is left behind you.
Will it be too late
By the time the autopsy sheds its
bit of light?
The attraction of poetry, for Grünbein, is that it enables the poet to perform a nonviolent autopsy on himself, to illuminate the secret workings of the “walled up” cerebral cortex. In his essay “My Babylonish Brain,” he evokes and explains the mysterious title of that early collection when he writes that “it’s as though [the poet] were watching his own brain at work. His secret is the lesson that arrives in a split second at the base of his skull.” Where Sir Philip Sidney’s muse adjured him to “look in your heart and write,” Grünbein rephrases the same idea in quasi-neurological terms: “a poem trots out thought in a sequence of physiological short circuits.” And what neurology is to the brain, phenomenology is to the mind: Grünbein describes artists as “an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries.”
Reading formulations like these, one might expect Grünbein’s own poetry to be preoccupied with the grammar of thought and perception, rather like Jorie Graham’s. In fact, his work is much more talkative and urbane than that. Hofmann draws a comparison with W.H. Auden, and there is something quite Audenesque about the tone and rhetoric of a poem like “Greetings from Oblivion City”:
Yes, the film’s the thing. Out of shy introverts
The auditorium makes
immortals who star in
Gifted grandsons, distracted uncles,
Daughters slim as models,
This sounds more like Auden’s later poetry—which Randall Jarrell complained was written with “the top of the head” only—than like the kind of poem that “arrives in a split second at the base of [your] skull.” Like Auden, too, Grünbein frequently works in long sequences—“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)” has twelve parts, “Variations on No Theme” has thirty-nine sections of thirteen lines each—and such forms encourage discursiveness rather than concision.
If there is something like a “physiological short circuit” taking place in Grünbein’s poetry, it is at the level not of perception but of meter and diction, the elements that can give a poem the feeling of mysterious rightness and inevitability. But this is the hardest element of poetry to translate, and Hofmann’s English versions can give no more than a hint of whatever perfections a German reader hears. If that much: in his unusually frank introduction to Ashes for Breakfast, Hofmann professes himself unable to “cope with the finickiness and the perfection” of Grünbein’s German, and offers instead his own “idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness.”
The phrase “not Collie,” for instance, is Hofmann’s own joking addition to Grünbein’s title, meant to underline the fact that the border the poet is writing about is not Scottish, but the one between East and West Berlin. That sequence is sardonically dedicated “To the memory of I.P. Pavlov/And all the laboratory dogs/Of the medical academy of the/Russian armed forces,” and it draws a harsh comparison between Pavlov’s obedient dog and the docile citizen of the GDR:
…umpteen years of service
with a view of barbed wire fence,
Trotting back and forth upcountry and down,
only a dog could endure,
Captivated by his lead, trained to
behave from infancy.
Later in the sequence, Grünbein remembers “the lingo/Printed on flattened wood pulp, the mush/It takes plenty of cunning not to gag on,” and demands of himself:
Have you forgotten where you’re from?
Is it starting to dawn on you how much damage was done
By so many years of humiliation and slapstick?
It is easy to understand how autopsy, seeing for oneself, could become the supreme moral value for a poet growing up in the GDR, with its culture of repression, indoctrination, and surveillance. Yet by the time Skull Base Lesson was published, the Berlin Wall was already down, and the East Germany of Grünbein’s childhood was no more. The “Border Dog” sequence testifies to the disorientation that ensued: “Now nothing is left to recall the trick/By which a strip of land became a hole in time.” Inevitably, then, one of the major themes of Grünbein’s work, in both verse and prose, is his attempt to understand and pass judgment on the new world of unified Germany, and of the capitalist, pacific, cosmopolitan new Europe that it leads.