The lovely Wiebke Porombka writes about poetry in Germany in today’s FAZ. Apparently it’s going through a boom in terms of productivity. Only nobody seems to be noticing apart from the usual suspects.
I have to admit I feel rather akin to the classic anecdotal poetry pooper Porombka cites in her article. German poet Gottfried Benn talked about a journalist who told him she didn’t care for poems – and certainly not for verse. Fortunately, the anecdote works better in German, which has a nice show-offy synonym for poetry: the liltingly pretentious term Lyrik.
Anyway, to get back to me, German poetry is not my strong point. I did try for some years to like it, but have rather given up now and resigned myself to a life of lowbrow literary philistinism. I will attend events at which poetry and prose are offered up alongside one another, but a pure poetry evening is now out of the question. Sorry.
This is terribly embarrassing and inconvenient, as I do now know the odd poet. Suffice to say, if you see me at a German poetry reading I either owe the poet a huge favour or I really, really like them as a person. And there’s a reason for that. Despite what Porombka claims, I don’t find that my uncertainty towards German poetry usually vanishes into thin air as soon as I hear poets reading their texts or talking about them. And nor do I find that most German poets manage to present their work in an unpretentious and readily understood way.
In fact I often find poetry – in either German or English – absolutely unsuited to the medium of the public reading. Many of the poets I’ve seen live here are the very opposite of good performers, mumbling their way through the show and then descending upon a beer to relieve the pressure. Please note, however, that I don’t mean this as a criticism as such.
By its very nature, as Porombka points out, poetry takes longer to read than your average prose. My mind, schooled as it is in spontaneous interpreting, is nevertheless incapable of processing poetry when it is read to me. I am easily distracted at the best of times, but put me in a room with a number of vaguely attractive peers and get someone to read poems out loud at the front, and my eyes and mind will wander almost instantly. Which is not an unpleasant activity, but it does make me feel a bit like a tone-deaf groupie. If I must, I will read poems at home. To myself.
But there’s a drawback to this inherent paper-boundness, and that’s down to the way the German literary business works. Its flourishing culture of literary events means writers can often earn a meagre living from their readings. Yes – they actually get paid to do it, once they reach a certain prominence level. There are writers who don’t have a literary agent but do have an events agent, and German writers are often taken aback when asked to read abroad for no fee.
So imagine you’re a struggling poet, living in a garret and applying for winter residencies on remote islands to save on heating costs. As the FAZ article points out, book sales are hardly going to see you through – if you’re even earning anything from them in the first place. You too would be tempted to venture into the public eye for €250, I’m sure. Only to look out at the audience and see a freckled lady quite obviously busy with other activities.
It’s a dilemma. Poetry is never going to make money. In fact much of the literature I admire is never going to be a profitable enterprise. That’s a good thing in one way, because an art form shouldn’t have to be a viable commodity. I hope poetry and literary prose will always find a way to survive, either in small presses run by self-exploitative individuals, supported by state arts funding, or subsidised by more commercial books as in the traditional German publishing model.
But what we have now is a culture of precarious poetic existences, in which a small handful of privileged – I won’t call them successful – poets can scrape by seemingly without taking on a full-time day job. And these are the poets who are forced to thrust themselves in our faces, commodifying if not necessarily their poetry, then at least their readings of it. Of the “young talents” Porombka lists, I’ve seen all but two of them reading their poems – and sometimes the exact same poems – several times over. And remember, I don’t even like poetry.
I sometimes think we might be better off if all German poets had to go out and get a proper job, much like the expat poetry scene in Berlin, whose work I find much more accessible. Of course I’d never say it out loud for fear of sounding like Norman Tebbit. Is it wrong to assume that poets whose existence revolves around poetry itself become self-indulgent and lose contact with everyone else’s reality over the years? Are self-indulgence and a lack of contact with what the rest of us call reality bad things? But as I listen for the fifth time to the same poem about water surfaces or personal insecurities or very possibly both, I do long for a more down-to-earth approach.
Lars Arvid Brischke, for instance, is an environmental scientist by day and writes his poetry in his spare time, and it doesn’t seem to suffer for it. Not knowing a great deal about poetry, I can’t come up with any more examples. But no doubt there are many and no doubt they have a different kind of input and possibly a different kind of output. Certainly I’d like to see more of them, see the part-time poets paid more attention in the press.
I like to hope I’m in the minority. I like to hope nobody else in the room is mentally criticising the poet’s hairdo or keeping tally of pseudy comments, let alone choosing which individual at the reading to procreate with, should the immanent end of the world be hailed by a surprise alien invasion. Perhaps the rest of the audience, utterly untroubled by linguistic issues, are communing with the verse and interpreting each word as it’s spoken. Because if that’s the case, perhaps poetry might even catch on.