Free The Blog: Found in translation - Durs Grünbein
(This was originally posted at Free The Blog, part of Free the Word, this year's International PEN festival).
I was looking for something to commemorate, or at least preserve in my mind, the previous weekend’s trip to Berlin. That I hoped to find it in Borders on Oxford Street was perhaps over-ambitious.
But I did. And I’m very glad that I did. Because I can’t think of a book that has so influenced the course of a year of my life the same way that Durs Grünbein’s ‘Ashes for Breakfast’ has.
I had, very tentatively started writing poetry again, in the proceeding few months, but everything I wrote was precisely that: tentative, hesitant and reflecting a fundamental unsureness as to whether I could make anything more than mere dabblings.
Quite why this particular volume leapt off the shelves at me, I’m still not sure – the slate-grey and green Faber cover still doesn’t fill me with the same possessive warmth that other titles from that venerable house do. However, I certainly was taken with two stanzas that caught my eye while in the shop: “From time to time / I have these days when // I feel like embarking / on a poem again”.
It was only when I got back to the office that I started to discover just how gifted, insightful and waspish Grünbein could be. He seemed to have the ability to echo precisely the sort of voices that I’d been hearing on the weekend, the weary, the slicksharp urbanites having kaffee und kuchen in the cafes, playful and serious all at once.
And there was an innate ability, as in poems like ‘No Fun’ and ‘Accept It!’, to find the smallest human drama in the city streets and magnify it into an universal truth, a truth which was even more universal due to Berlin's past as history's crucible.
Grünbein is probably one of the best poets to emerge from East Germany, and would be worthy of your time anyway. What also makes this particular volume worth investing in is Michael Hofmann’s essay on translating him: his feeling that they are some sort of kindred spirits, and the tricksiness of doing him – and poetry more widely – justice in a different tongue.
I think for my next trip to Berlin I won't bother with a guide book - this volume will be all the prompt I need.