What people are made of poetry

Reading poems (1)

When did you read your last volume of poetry? Or even purposefully bought - and then read? A non-representative survey on my part in my environment showed that that was a long time ago for most of them - if it ever happened at all. Not wanting to read poetry is fine at first. But I believe that poetry has something ready for everyone, even if it takes a little effort to recognize it at first. Today I throw all the literary theory barrels overboard (they are sometimes quite a hindrance) and write from the perspective of someone who likes to read and write poetry and how I became that someone.

"The genre that nobody wants anymore"

This is how my favorite lyricist Oskar Pastior describes the poetry in his 2006 Büchner Prize speech. And as sad as it sounds, it also feels a little bit like that. At least in the mainstream of Thalia bookstores, literary programs and newspaper columns, the response to poetry is rather low (apart from a few exceptions) and it is otherwise neglected by the literature business. Poetry was the predominant genre in European literature for centuries, until not so long ago it was overtaken by epic - and there especially the novel. If I were a culture pessimist, I would definitely find that bad. But it is completely okay that the tastes of the public have changed over time and with them the ideas and expectations that we have of and about literature. Perhaps today we would just prefer to read coherent, narrated stories instead of falling from verse to verse with our eyes, only to throw the volume of poetry into the corner after the third attempt. The story could end here: Poems were once cool, today they are no longer, not bad, because we have replacements. But that would only be half the story, because: They still exist. Poetry has become the little Gallic village of literature and nobody bothered to attack it. But maybe something has been brewing for a long time, unnoticed by us?

"Poems are not for me."

This is a very common answer I get when I ask people if they read poetry. To my ears it sounds like “I don't like red foods” - there are so many! Berries, apples, beetroot, tomatoes, peppers, steak! Ballads, sonnets, concrete poetry, comic poetry, language games, expressionism, symbolism, Dada! With such a variety, we cannot completely reject a certain form across the board, but we do it anyway. It is - so my assumption - much more to what we associate with poems and what experiences we have had with them. And most of us have these experiences at school, where we should use metric tables and a list of rhetorical means to find out what the “lyrical me”, or even “the author” (sic!), Wants to tell us. The best then is a baroque poem or a romantic poem by Eichendorff and we are bored to death, and rightly so. We learned in school to reduce the poem to its interpretation. And we have learned that interpretations work like toolboxes: We take rhetorical device A and attach it to verse B with meter C and draw the conclusion D from it (e.g. "Eichendorff was a complete idiot."). This handling of texts often enough also affects other literary genres, but it is symptomatic of poetry. However, we leave out those aspects that are fun: the joy of language, the joy of text.

This problematic approach to poetry is primarily characterized by the expectation of having to understand everything. If we do not understand something about a poem (also: a work of art in general), we try to interpret it and translate the elements we do not understand into understandable ones. However, this only works as long as the symbolism remains decipherable (e.g. red rose = love) and that is precisely why it has to be constantly updated (which literary studies are happy to use). However, poems are primarily linguistic works of art and should therefore be treated as such. They are therefore not tied to a specific meaning at all, because language does not work that way (we notice that from simple misunderstandings in everyday conversation situations). To want to invent a set of instruments like the above-mentioned toolbox, but which tries to do just that, seems downright absurd.

Away from understanding

But now we are no longer sitting in the German exam and have to interpret metaphors when we open a book of poetry. Nevertheless, I believe that this idea has become very firmly established in our heads: I'm reading a poem, it sure wants to tell me something, but I don't know what - stupid poem. But that is exactly the idea that we have to get rid of. Some poems want to say something, some poems mean something. Others don't. We must not expect or assume this for everyone. At this point I always like to draw a comparison with abstract painting: I may very well like a picture that does not represent anything figurative, although I do not know What or if it represents. So a poem is first and foremost a language that I don't necessarily have to understand, but that I can still enjoy. Why is secondary, if not irrelevant. By taking this pressure off the poem, I can get closer to it, look at it, and perceive it. This has the inestimable advantage that I can read “difficult” poems without getting angry, because understanding them is not my goal at all.

I've been writing poetry for over ten years, and I've only really started reading poetry in bulk in the last two years. I first had to learn my way of reading poetry (v) to be able to enjoy reading them in large quantities. In the meantime I almost consume them, read several volumes at the same time and actually always have one with me to leaf through in free minutes. Poems often have the inestimable advantage that they are short: one or two poems before going to bed always fit and a friend stores her volumes of poetry on the toilet so she can always read a few of them in the toilet. So it wouldn't be that difficult to give poetry a little space in our lives.

The resistance of language

I like poems when they show me the limits of language - and even break them. When they make me aware of language in its inadequacy as a medium and when I have to rub my eyes in front of word and form games. This is of course not for everyone, but it does show that poetry can be a great field of experimentation. A playground where we can let off steam until we are completely exhausted and happy that we can speak sentences when we want to. These aspects of the lyrical use of language are what attracts me to poems and what I also want to explore in my poems. This resistance of language materialized in the poem is what turns a text into a poem for me. And for me it is precisely this resistance of language that we talk about when it comes to the difficulties of gender-sensitive language, for example.

Perhaps the general swan song for the lyric is not a real one at all. I believe that poetry has long since crept into our lives in the form of the aforementioned lyrical use of language without us noticing it. We encounter it, for example, in advertising, but above all online: the poetry blogs are innumerable and, above all, many use Twitter to add something poetic to their tweets. And yes, some forms of gender-equitable language also have a lyrical quality for me - in the most positive sense. Twitter is also very well suited as an example of this resistance of language and with some tweets there is actually no real border between “tweet” and “poem” for me - and ultimately, one might ask polemically, a poem consists of more than more than a series of very good tweets? We spend more and more time in front of screens, which the language literally brings us back to our eyes. That's why I don't worry about poetry: it will always be there. It has been around for a long time, even if we don't read books of poetry, because it has already found other forms in which it is present. Ultimately, what Ernst Jandl said about poetry applies: “The vengeance / the language / is the poem”.

This post is part of a mini-series. The second part of Nicole will appear soon.

By the way: You can ensure that less than three receives this year's Grimme Online Award for texts like these. You can vote for us here.

By Daniel on


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10 responses to “reading poems (1)”

    • oh, thank you very much for the suggestion! szymborska goes straight to the list. :)

  1. Indeed, if the term poetry is taken a little broader, then many people memorize poetry; want to see poems recited; hear poetry daily and even pay for it; There may even be posters of poets hanging on the wall: in pop songs, rap, slam poetry, spoken word, etc., poetry has long since found another face.

    • I see it the same way! wanted to add these examples, but then forgot about them. :)

  2. Interesting and thoroughly inspiring views, even if at first I had to wonder why Eichendorff of all people was cited as an example of boring school poems, whom I feel as a lyric magician of almost universal comprehensibility and still appreciate today. As mentioned by brent, I see the future of poetry less in volumes of poetry than in song texts, poetry slams, social media poetry and the like. Forms of incarnation. It is to be hoped that poems of earlier generations could perhaps also be breathed new life in this form. Poems by people like Tucholsky or Kästner seem just as fresh as they did fifty years ago. Sometimes the label under which something operates is also decisive, so if you free poems from the stuffiness of poetry books and textbooks, then even those who don't like poetry (to which I tend to belong) might get in the mood for the adventure of poetry.
    I look forward to more articles in this series.

    • Thank you for the flowers! eichendorff simply had to serve because it was simply the first thing that came to mind. but i think it is a good example of kaputt interpreting that i encountered regularly in school and at university.

  3. I love poetry and of the last ten books (I love books!) I bought eight volumes of poetry (W. Wordsworth, R. Burns, D. Thomas, Th. Rosenlöcher, R. Frost, M. Angelou, Th. Fontane, L. v. Strauss and Torney). I'm reading Wordsworth right now, Burns still ahead of me. I muddled through Dylan Thomas and I love Thomas Rosenlöcher more than anything (absolutely recommendable)! I've read half of Robert Frost and read the thoughts of the wonderful Maya Angelou to my children - just like Theodeor Fontane's ballads. I was interested in Lulu von Strauss and Torney because of their involvement in Nazi ideology (sometimes really scary stuff!). At the moment and mostly there are more volumes of poetry than novels on my little bedside table. My mother-in-law finds this extremely irritating; she says she could never just read through an entire volume of poetry in one go. I can do this and I love it! :) As long as there are poets like Sarah Krisch and Thomas Rosenlöcher, poetry has not died. PS: Anyone who puts poetry slams on the same level as lyric poetry also considers André Rieu to be classical music. ;)

    • Theodor Fontane instead of Theodeor Fontane, Sarah Kirsch instead of Sarah Krisch. Maybe I should read the Duden in between ...

    • It may not be so much about putting something on a par with judgment. So in the sense of a hierarchization based on categories such as E and U culture, which then creates an exclusive lyric term in which there is no room for slam poetry. And poetry is not just a canon from Fontane to Wordsworth, but also things that you would not lay on your bedside table or read.

      • Sure, Sure. I also only look at an overweight “I'll read you now
        my diary in front of "lyrics and" Let me have a few funny ones
        Perform word games ”poems at poetry slams. That it is there too
        There are other and better things that - even if I don't like it - a lot
        I don't want to at all, but still has its raison d'être
        deny. And in fact, with Claudius, Ringelnatz and Co.
        also poets of the “classical spectrum” who worked similarly.
        Maybe because of my love of poetry, I make sense of them
        easy (or - hopefully not! - any newfound) level of this
        Art form lost and now swing the iron instead of the waxy
        Club against the slammers ...