/ 5 July 2019

The Week of the Festival: Hausacher Leselenz, Hausach, Germany

My Household Gods

A Sidelong Glance at the Poetry Anthology “Aus Mangel an Beweisen [For Want of Evidence]”

Household gods offer reliable, lifelong companions. They protect us from unwelcome intruders and the encroachment of enemies.

For more than forty years, my household gods have been—or need I already say were—poetry anthologies. They permit me entry into the universe of poems, revealing—if not how life works—at the very least, how language can be transformed: into fascinating, floating entities, autonomous organisms of noise, rhythm, tones, and word combinatorics. 

In 1977 and 1978, with my heart pounding in my chest, I studied the anthologies of the wise Hans Bender (In diesem Lande leben wir [We Live in this Country]) and the wuthering Jürgen Theobaldy (Und ich bewege mich doch [And I Move Anyway]), fascinated by the political and aesthetic heresies I encountered there.

In 1987, I published an anthology of poems myself for the first time—together with poet and translator Hans Thill. We titled it Punktzeit [Time in Point]. In its afterword I wrote, “The time for great and pivotal gestures in poetry has definitively expired, the formative decisions have been made. We are living in a decade of recapitulations. Each new avantgarde summons the demons it seeks to surmount.” This was perhaps somewhat cheeky and overblown; a bit too shot-through with end-time sentiment.

And it didn’t stop Hans Thill or myself in the coming decades from our efforts at documenting exploratory movements in poetry through three further anthologies published by Verlag Das Wunderhorn. No new literary revolutions have come to fruition since 1987. There have been any number of spectacular departures, but no genuinely new approaches to language. In the 1990s, Ernst Jandl summarized the developmental potential of modern and postmodern poetry with three simple words: “very small transitions.” The new actors who have appeared on the lyrical stage since then have, however, further refined and differentiated the spectrum of poetic language. Linguistic-archaeological reflections on both the possibilities and limitations of speech and the skeptical examination of traditional artistic media have intensified, grown more obsessive. The nature poem has acquired new contours through contemplation of the Anthropocene. Even that most suspect of genres, the political poem, has made a comeback: fortunately, on a level which has left the old teething troubles of political poetry behind.

Grown poorer in its pretentions, the contemporary poem can now concentrate on its sensory particularities and the labors of its many layers: descriptive detail, the epiphany of incendiary words, spectacular combinations of verbal stimuli, the perceptual shock of digital data streams, each unique and fleeting moment.

In our most recent anthology, Aus Mangel an Beweisen, published in 2018, our goal—as provisional as it was fallacious—was to create an inventory of lyrical styles for the emerging 21stcentury. Our model for composing this inventory was—as with our preceding anthologies Punktzeit (1987), Das verlorene Alphabet [The Lost Alphabet] (1998), and Lied aus reinem Nichts [Song from Pure Nothing] (2010)—Walter Höllerer’s ingenious, 1956 collection, Transit: “a book of poems for the mid-century.”

In Transit, Höllerer showcased what for him represented the ideal form for exhibiting modern poetry: “to serve as a mosaic of many fields in which each constituent part compliments the others in mobile, innovative proximity.” In accordance with this tradition, Aus Mangel an Beweisen doesn’t seek to compare and contrast literary ‘schools’ or bring ‘generations’ into conflict with one another—‘inheritors’ vs. ‘forebearers.’ Interest, instead, lies in the individual poems—in their corresponding motifs and in the intertextual references which tie them to one another.

Aus Mangel an Beweisen brings together texts from a total of 180 authors. Punktzeit, by way of reference, anthologized only 78. 

Originally, we had planned a very rigorous, concise collection of 50 authors at most—an anthology to establish a strict canon. And of course, in doing so, one which would have excluded a great number of writers and a great number of nuances in lyrical articulation. Upon examining the richness of the contemporary poetic landscape, we decided instead to go for the panorama: a poetic pluralism which would showcase traditionalist conceptions like the sculpted art of Jan Wagner, the unabated trust in the magic of poetic language (authors like Christoph Meckel or Manfred Peter Hein), as much so as modern experiential modes through contact with digital surfaces (as in the poetry of the youngest author in our collection, Christiane Heidrich).

A chapter of poetic essays written exclusively for the anthology by Yevgeniy Breyger, Franz Josef Czernin, Dagmara Kraus, Brigitte Oleschinski, and Uljana Wolf testifies to the state of ‘contemporary professional poetry,’ while the final chapter of the anthology is designed as a poetic memorial: presenting poems as remembrances for authors who passed away between 2008 and 2018. For us, as editors, Renate Rasp and many of her fellow writers could also serve as poetic household deities: Arnfrid Astel, Gregor Laschen, Günter Herburger, Hans Bender.

A few years ago, the poet Gerhard Falkner attempted to establish a new foundation for nature poetry with his fiery “Bekennerschreiben” [letter of confession]. His lampoon begins with an attack on contemporary nature writers in the Information Age—no longer capable of “distinguishing between a hedgerow and barbed-wire.” The modern poet-subject, according to Falkner, stares at a mobile phone or other screen during every free minute. In contrast, Falkner offers his concept of a “language impassioned by presence of mind.” Its bold constructions provide a glimpse of the existence of humans and nature: “Poems are not for dreaming, but for waking up.” 

Our anthology, as well.

English translation by Jon Cho-Polizzi


Born in 1958, literary critic Michael Braun lives and works in Heidelberg, Germany. His most recent publication, the anthology Aus Mangel an Beweisen. Deutsche Lyrik 2008-2018[For Want of Evidence: German Poetry 2008-2018] he co-edited with Hans Thill, was published in 2018 by Verlag Das Wunderhorn in Heidelberg. He was awarded the Alfred-Kerr-Preis für Literaturkritik in 2018.