Friday, March 14, 2008

Kurzer Bericht an einer Akademie

Zeilen wie diese überrollten mich, bevor ein Verständnis sie auffangen konnte. (Durs Grünbein, "Kurzer Bericht an einer Akademie")

Lines like the Hölderlin passage he has just cited "rolled over him before an understanding could catch them," says Grünbein in his "Brief Report to an Academy," the speech he gave in October 1995 at the Darmstadt Academy. He was being given the Georg Büchner Prize, for which he gave a different speech; this "brief report" was presented the evening before, when the new members of the academy are asked to introduce themselves (and then the Büchner Prize winner gives a reading from his or her work).

This passage caught my eye when I was rereading the "Brief Report" this week: it so strikingly captures how the experience of poetry comes before any understanding of it. The mystery of the lines "rolls over" the reader and, if the poem is working, suspends the problem of understanding.

This does not mean that "understanding" a poem is not important, though: a poem that cannot be understood at all eventually becomes boring, even if the lines are overpowering (see Clive James on Ezra Pound; my comment on it is here). But the process of understanding is a secondary step; it comes after an experience that makes one want to understand.


I was at the Büchner Prize ceremony in 1995. I met Grünbein that day, and Michael Krüger, whose novel The Cello Player I later translated (and who published my poems and an essay on W. G. Sebald in Akzente). But the most memorable event was the self-introduction of the new members. Grünbein's speech was very memorable, as were those by Thomas Hürlimann and Odo Marquard, both of which I can still talk about in detail until this day.

You can ask me about them over a beer sometime. :-)

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