This is not intended to be an academic guide to modern German poetry. It simply includes the big names that I particularly like and the living poets that I have most enjoyed so far. I know that Brecht, Benn, Krolow and very many others have been left out. This is deliberate: I don't like their poetry, or at least not enough of it to warrant including them on the list.
Go here for a list of recommended outlets for German books.
Rose Ausländer (1901–1988): Gedichte (8 volumes, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt. About 2,400pp in total. Each volume approx €20-35, where still in print).
Ausländer knew the younger Celan in Czernowitz and, like Celan, went into exile after the war, in her case to the USA, where she also wrote poetry in English. She eventually came to live in Germany and died there in an old-people's home in the late 1980s. Her spare, finely-wrought lyrics owe a little to her younger compatriot, but the sensibility is all her own. The complete eight volumes—expensive and only available in hardcover, if available at all—are strictly for enthusiasts like me, but there are assorted selections available in paperback, none of which are representative, however, and none of which can safely be recommended to a new reader wanting to get an idea of the poet's range, preoccupations and development. A translation by Jean Boase-Beier did appear from Arc in the UK under the title Mother Tongue and is an adequate introduction, in English only. The inexpensive (€12.45) Materialien volume has useful background information.
Ingeborg Bachmann: Sämtliche Gedichte (Piper Verlag, Munich, 1978. 229pp, pb, €8.95); Darkness Spoken: The Collected Poems (tr. Peter Filkins, Zephyr Press, Brookline, MA, 2006. 644pc, pb, $24.95); Last Living Words: The Ingeborg Bachmann Reader (tr. Lilian Friedberg, Green Integer, Los Angeles, 2006, 350pp, pb. o.o.p.)
Bachmann (1926–1973), who died young in an accidental fire (she fell asleep with a lighted cigarette), has increasingly become a touchstone figure in German letters. Proto-feminist, a fine poet, short-story-writer, novelist, and all-round woman-of-letters. To compound this, she also had difficult love affairs with two literary giants: Paul Celan in the 40s and 50s, and Max Frisch, in the 60s, who appears not to have treated her well. The German paperback is not complete but does include all the published work. Completists will need Vol 1 of the complete works, also from Piper, which includes the uncollected poems. Bachmann is undervalued in Britain, judging by the lack of books here, but in the USA, she has been granted a major bilingual Collected, which I find to be a good and useful volume. Some of the translations are weak, but the poet has not been traduced by these versions. Inevitably the more formal poems come off worse than the free-verse poems. The Green Integer book has unaccountably gone out of print with 2 or 3 years, but was a useful intro to the oeuvre. Translations of the major prose works ( the novel, Malina, The Book of Franza, the short stories) are also available in the USA at varying degrees of affordability. Most recently her correspondence with Celan has been published, and is essential reading for all who admire her work, and/or the work of Celan. Details below under Celan.
Jürgen Becker: Die Gedichte (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1995. 748pp, pb, o/p); Journal der Wiederholungen (Suhrkamp, 1999. 97pp, h/c, o/p).
Becker started off as an avant-gardist, creator of happenings in the sixties etc, but his style has developed quite strangely into a rolling avuncular narrative, above all in his long meditative poems. The collected paperback edition is real value for money and the Journal shows no diminution in quality. These two volumes constitute the author's complete poems outside the joint ventures with his artist-wife Rango Böhne, which seem to be still in print and which are worthy ventures also. Alas, the two major collections have gone out of print, but one can always hope that they will reappear, or go to second-hand outlets like abebooks, which has a German offshoot.
Marcel Beyer: Falsches Futter (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1995. 79pp, pb, €7); Erdkunde (DuMont, Cologne, 2002. 113pp, h/c, €16.90).
I translated some poems from the earlier volume for the Chicago Review German issue and they were amongst the toughest translations I've ever done. Extraordinarily tight poems, gnarled language, allusive and elusive, they are not what you might expect from a very successful (& much admired) young novelist. The poems in the newer volume have 'easier' surfaces and represent an engagement with the former eastern bloc, above all the eastern part of Germany, where the author now makes his home. 'Easier' does not make for a diminution in quality however.
Johannes Bobrowski (1917–1965): Gesammelte Werke 1 - 4 (DVA, Stuttgart, pb. Vol. 1 o/p, Vol. 2 €19.90).
Volume 1 consists of the published poems, Vol. 2 the unpublished. Essential reading, but then so are the novels and short prose that make up the other 2 volumes. There is a wonderful volume of translations by Ruth & Matthew Mead too: Shadow Lands (Anvil Press Poetry, London, 206pp, pb, £7.95; also New Directions, New York), which I cannot recommend highly enough. Bobrowski is one of the very great post-war poets, whatever the language. In the USA, New Directions has published translations of the novels and some of the short fiction; don't miss them either.
Paul Celan (1920–1970): In German, there's no substitute for the boxed-set softcover edition of the Gesammelte Werke (ed. Beda Allemann & Stefan Reichert; ca. 3,500pp €80—above left) in 7 volumes published by Suhrkamp, who are responsible for all the other German volumes mentioned here, except where otherwise indicated. The seven volumes include two of translations from other languages, but these too are necessary for anyone studying Celan's work. For serious students of the genesis and development of Celan's style, the two critical editions would also be of great use. The Bonn edition (Bonner Ausgabe, slowly being published since 1990) is the expensive one (ca. €80 per volume), hardcover only, fully annotated and intended for the dedicated specialist. For others who just want to see how the texts developed through various iterations, the softcover Tübingen Edition (Tübinger Ausgabe, ed. Jürgen Wertheimer, Sprachgitter pictured above) is very useful indeed and is much more affordable at around €35 per volume. The series is complete in 9 volumes, which can be had as a set for around €300. For those who want something simpler still, and cheaper, there is now a one-volume "kommentierte Ausgabe" (Die Gedichte—an annotated edition; shown centre, above), 1,000 pages long in paperback and costing €20—although there is also a hardcover version that can be had for the very reasonable price of €49.90. At those prices it's a steal, and the print isn't too small. The notes there will be sufficient for most readers.
Biographical studies are available and the best by far are John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale University Press, London & NY, 344pp, pb, £11.99), which covers the whole life, and Israel Chalfen's Paul Celan: Eine Biografie seiner Jugend (translated and published in the USA as Paul Celan: A Biography of his Youth). Also useful are various volumes of correspondence, most significantly that with his wife (Paul Celan / Gisèle Celan-Lestrange: Briefwechsel, also available in French as Correspondance (Eds. du Seuil, Paris), and the much briefer volume covering the correspondence with Nelly Sachs (Briefwechsel), translated by Christopher Clark as Correspondence (Sheep Meadow Press). 2006 saw the publication of the correspondence (Briefwechsel—h/c only, €19.80) with Peter Szondi, Celan's best interpreter/critic during his lifetime, which is also very much worth having, and, crucially, in 2008 Suhrkamp issued the correspondence with Ingeborg Bachmann (Herzzeit, Briefwechsel, h/c 400pp, €23.18. A paperback version of this book is due in late 2009).
Lit-critical volumes are available by the metre and inevitably are of varying levels of interest and/or intelligibility. Indispensable for an understanding of some of Celan's problems and the development of his early work is Paul Celan: Die Goll-Affäre (ed. Beda Allemann, 925pp, h/c, €82, pb, o/p), an astonishing achievement which once and for all clears up the absurd and pernicious plagiarism charge that dogged Celan for most of the rest of his life.
Franz Josef Czernin: natur-gedichte (Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 1996. 90pp, h/c, €13.29); elemente, sonette (Hanser, 2002. 159pp, h/c, €17.90).
The first of these is an astonishing book of nature poems, but this is pastoral as you've never seen it. Immensely difficult in places, but very rewarding. elemente is the more recent collection and it is just as unexpected as its predecessor: this time it's a book of, er, innovative rhyming sonnets. Honestly. They're very difficult for a non-German reader, but the ones I've fought my way through have been worth my while. This man is an absolutely fascinating poet. He is also a trenchant literary critic who is also worth reading when he wears that particular hat.
Michael Donhauser: Sarganserland (Urs Engeler Editor, Basel, 1998; 86pp, pb, €12, sFr 24) and Das neue Leben (Residenz Vlg, Salzburg & Vienna, 1994. 32pp, h/c, o.o.p.), Von den Dingen (Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 1993. 118pp, h/c, o.o.p).
Michael Donhauser lives in Switzerland, but is of Liechtensteinian origin. The three volumes selected here are all fine in their own way, but Sarganserland is the pick of the bunch, and is the only one still in print. Short-lined poems in long sequences, these are really quite different from most contemporary German-language poetry: quite ethereal at their best. Das neue Leben is a collection of three-liners, almost haiku-like, while Von den Dingen is a good collection of prose-poems.
Ulrike Draesner: gedächtnisschleifen (Suhrkamp, 1995; 2nd edition: Lyrikedition 2000, 2001, 106pp, pb, €9.90; 3rd edn, Luchterhand, pb, €9.90); für die nacht geheuerte zellen (Luchterhand, 2001, 136pp, pb, €10); kugelblitz (Luchterhand, 2005, 91pp, pb, €7.48).
Three volumes of superb poetry that use all the resources of the language—and then some. Draesner uses several post-modern techniques but all in her very own way. The two Luchterhand volumes are an immense achievement, and there are several translations from the first of them in the Chicago Review New Writing in German special issue. kugelblitz is the author's third collection and it amply repays the reader's close attention: it's the kind of book you keep hoping for, but seldom find. Ms Draesner is one of the current crop of younger German authors that badly needs to be translated, in order that the Anglophone reading public can discover what's missing from their own literatures.
Oswald Egger : Nichts, das ist (suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 2001; 158pp, pb, €8.00); -broich (Edition Korrespondenzen, Franz Hammerbacher, Vienna, 2003; 83pp, h/c, €62); Room of Rumor: Tunings (translated by Michael Pisaro; Green Integer, Copenhagen & Los Angeles, 2004. 97pp, pb, $9.95).
Egger is a fascinating figure, his work lying completely outside of the current norms and fashions of German poetry. Experimental, restlessly exploratory, his work is quite a shock, but a salutary one. Pisaro's translation / re-creation in the Green Integer book is quite brilliant, and the English-speaking reader should probably start with this volume. The Suhrkamp book, like its out-of-print predecessor Herde der Rede is neither poetry nor prose, and it stretches the reader along with the form and the language. Egger is a poet to be reckoned with, deeply serious and exploratory. You will have to work hard if German is not your native language, but the effort is worthwhile.
Günter Eich (1907-1972): Gesammelte Werke. Bd. 1: Die Gedichte. Die Maulwürfe (Suhrkamp, 622pp, h/c, €62).
Available singly, which means you don't have to get all the radio plays as well. There is also a slim hardcover selected called simply Gedichte (Suhrkamp, 140pp, h/c, €12.80), edited by the poet's wife, Ilse Aichinger, which makes a good introduction. Eich's very beautiful poetry is almost unknown outside Germany, and it should be given its due. A Selected Poems in translation would be a good place to start: interested, anyone?
Elke Erb: Mountains in Berlin (tr. Rosmarie Waldrop, Burning Deck Press, Providence, RI. 94pp, pb, $8). Mensch sein, nicht (Urs Engeler Editor, Basel, 1996. 130pp, pb, o.o.p. ) and Sachverstand (Engeler, Basel, 1999, 101pp, pb, €13.50).
An under-rated poet from the old GDR, now showing signs of some influence from Friederike Mayröcker, and none the worse for that. The Waldrop translations are wonderful, and make a good place for non-German newcomers to start. there is a big new collection 92007), Sonanz from Engeler, which looks at first glance to be well worth exploring. When I get the time to go through it in more detail, I'll add more information here.
Gerhard Falkner: X-te Person Einzahl: Gesammelte Gedichte (Suhrkamp, 1996. Pb, 181pp, €8.50) and Endogene Gedichte (DuMont, Cologne. 123pp, h/c, €18.80).
The Suhrkamp book covers his earlier period, before he stopped writing for ten years. The DuMont book documents his return. Falkner is at the thornier end of the experimental spectrum, but is still eminently readable and is a significant poet. Oddly enough the only study of his work is in English, although it's published in Germany. It's out of print, but can sometimes be acquired through abebooks as a second-hand book: Neil Donahue: Voice and Void: The Poetry of Gerhard Falkner (Universitätsverlag C. Winter, Heidelberg).
Durs Grünbein is currently the most highly-rated poet of the younger (40 and under) generation in Germany, but seems to be suffering from his celebrity. His first three Suhrkamp collections were almost uniformly fine: Grauzone morgens (96pp, pb, o/p), Schädelbasislektion (157pp, h/c, €14.80) and Falten und Fallen (127pp, h/c, €17.80). Later collections have been too long and too frequent, and it would be good to see the level of control evident in his early books beginning to return. Make no mistake, Grünbein is a fine writer, but he's suffering from the curse of being told by everyone that he can do no wrong. Even the greatest writers can find that a difficult learning curve. All of his books are published by Suhrkamp. The most recent—Erklärte Nacht and Porzellan—range from average to outright bad. The good news—which I hadn't realised until two years after the book came out—is that the first three collections have been reissued under the title Gedichte. Bücher I-III (Suhrkamp, 2006; ISBN 978-3518417362, 400pp, €25). Good value from all perspectives.
Farrar have now (2005—UK edition from Faber, 2006, pb £12.99) published Ashes for Breakfast, with translations by Michael Hofmann—a surprising choice in some ways, given that his own work shows little of the precision that Grünbein shows at his best. This large collection (some 250 pages), priced at $27, is a splendid recognition of someone who is one of the most highly-rated poets in Germany today. Hofmann's versions are better than I expected from his introduction, where he seems to confess to some difficulty getting into the poems, but are still marred by some very awkward domestications of the angular originals. It's as if Hofmann just couldn't trust himself to let the poems go as they should. This is a poet whose difficulties should remain difficult, not glossed over. I am also disappointed that Farrar should have gone with Hofmann, notwithstanding the fact that he's a poet, a fine prose translator and fully bilingual, when there were already some very fine versions of Grünbein's earlier work available by Rosmarie Waldrop and Susan Bernofsky.
Peter Huchel (1903-1981): Die Gedichte (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt. Pb, 491pp, €12.50); The Garden of Theophrastus (tr. Michael Hamburger, Anvil Press Poetry, 2004. ISBN 0 85646 344 2. Pb, 208pp, £10.95, $18.95).
The Suhrkamp edition is an excellent cheap edition in paperback. Huchel was one of THE major post-war figures. Michael Hamburger's sure-footed translations, a republication of his Carcanet volume from the mid 1980s (but much better presented and printed), are recommended. Hamburger knew Huchel well and catches the tone of the originals as well as the lexical meanings. My impression is that Huchel's reputation is not entirely secure in the west, but he was a hugely influential figure in the former GDR—at least he was until he left for the West. Lutz Seiler (see next page) has written movingly of the impact Huchel's work had on him when he began to read and write poetry.