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Speech delivered by Heiko Strunk to commemorate the 10th anniversary of

Posted in about us by Heiko Strunk on 26. October 2009

Dear Mr. President,
Dear Ms. Köhler,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Friends and Colleagues, is celebrating its 10th birthday, and it gives me great pleasure to address you on this occasion.

Inger Christensen, a great poetess, said that language is a natural extension of the world. Whether we want to or not, each of us must determine our relationship to the outer world, at the same time ordering our internal existence and creating an equilibrium between the emotional and the intellectual, between rational and spiritual impulses and needs.
In this quest, language is the decisive resource. The relationship between individual and world is realized via language, and without it, the inner structuring of the individual is virtually inconceivable as well.

But poetry is not just the element which endows language with structure – it is the memory of language as well. My daughter has just turned two, and each day, I follow her progress as she acquires language and plays with it. My point is that every human being grows up with poetry, in the form of onomatopoeia, rhymes, wordplay, and songs.

That poetry is a structured means of directing the gaze within was a point emphasized by UNESCO with its inauguration of World Poetry Day in 2000. Poetry, said UNESCO, constitutes a social need and a societal instrument, one capable of motivating young people in particular to turn their attention toward their own roots. As the bearer and medium of oral tradition, then, poetry is simultaneously medium and message. For these reasons, poetry should be recited aloud, should find its voice.

And there is more to be said on this topic:
For Georg Büchner Prize recipient Oskar Pastior, the voice was the poem’s real generator of meaning. Through the voice, it becomes clear what makes a poem a poem: the phonetic structures moves into the foreground, sound and rhythm emerge as decisive. For French poet Michèle Métail as well, recitation is the poem’s authentic form of existence; for her, the poem is realized only in the act of recitation.
This is why the book cannot be the sole medium for poetry today, and why lyric poetry must be manifested in two different media, must have its own space of resonance. And precisely this is the function of I will return to this point.

In declaring World Poetry Day, UNESCO also called our attention to the unfulfilled aesthetic needs existing in the contemporary world – needs that can be satisfied by poetry once its social function of fostering communication between people has been recognized.

And has this capacity been widely recognized? Do our contemporary poets receive the public and medial attention they deserve?
The sentence: “Germany is a land of poets and thinkers” may be true with regard to production. But it becomes genuinely meaningful only when poets are read and heard.

But it is not a question of generating greater medial attention to poetry, but instead of recalling the importance that must be attributed to poetry when it comes to conveying human values and ideas.

This is a key objective of, which today generates access to international poetry in an unparalleled way. For 10 years now, has provided access to recordings of poetry on the Internet: poems to listen to and to read – both in the original and in translation.

This project was initiated in late 1999 by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, and at this point, I want to mention its creator and spiritus rector, a man without whom would never have come to be, a man who recognized early on what this new medium could mean for the art of poetry. We owe him a debt of gratitude. Many people in this room know whom I mean, namely Thomas Wohlfahrt, the director of the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, who is recovering from an illness, and who, regrettably, could not be here with us this evening.

Thanks to the alternating sponsorship of the German Federal Government and the Federal State of Berlin, has grown into a highly successful international platform for German and international poetry. Thanks to, German poetry is once again experiencing an international response, while conversely, international poetry has become more accessible within Germany. We have seen the construction of many poetic bridges between languages and cultures, and at the same time an optimal medium of information for those interested in literature, whether in Germany or abroad.
This week, we are celebrating not just poetry, but everything that is associated with it, and everything that has been accomplished over the past 10 years – and this means a network of partners which covers more than 40 countries, each dedicated to a single idea.
This working platform is the basis for multilingualism and for a multiplicity of voices, and it provides opportunities to experience poems both in the original and in translation. With more than 6,600 translations, is also one of the largest translation projects anywhere, and it would be as inconceivable without the meticulous contributions of our translators as it would be without the work of the poets themselves.

At this point, I want to convey my heartfelt thanks to our international partners for their confidence and for their long-term collaborations. My thanks also to my colleague Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre, who has been responsible for the international network for the past three years. Joining the network on Saturday will be partners from Finland, Nigeria, and Malawi.

It should also be mentioned that this year, a number of partners are also celebrating anniversaries in their own countries, for example Serbia, Québéc, Croatia, Greece, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Hungary.

As I mentioned earlier, attention must be called to the practical relevance for life with which poetry is endowed when it comes to conveying human values and for communication between people.

A relevance William Carlos Williams perhaps sought to capture in the following verses:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

(from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)

And I am convinced that in our globalized world, the task of this “rediscovery of poetry’s contribution to life” can only be realized in an international context. This work has already begun, and will be carried further at an international meeting of partners taking place at the end of this week.

On the occasion of our 10th anniversary, we have asked our partners to tell us what they would like to see politics do for poetry and for Their replies can be grouped into three requests:

1) The network would like to see the long-term safeguarding and continuous sponsorship of this international project, in which the partners themselves have invested a considerable degree of labor, energy, knowledge, and funds.

2) The network would like to issue the eminently practical request that a number of our international partners be provided with recording devices, which will enable them to participate in the network. A number of countries, for example many in Africa, have indicated to us that they lack the resources to record readings by their poets.

3) The network would like to see the creation of social conditions that would enable poets to live from their work.

Daniel Samoilovic, our Argentinian partner, on the other hand, has reversed the question of what poetry can expect to gain from politics. According to him, it is not poetry that requires assistance, but instead the rest of the world. It is not politics that is required to assist poetry; instead, politics can learn from poetry.

Whether poetry can bring about a better world, as he asserts, is a question that cannot be resolved today.
But certainly,, is a welcome effort in this direction. Poetry MUST find its way back into interpersonal communication and social thought, and may no longer be allowed to languish as a neglected art form.
The art of prose has created a marvelous publishing scene for itself. Prose is at home there, and finds its readership. Drama is conceivable in the absence of the book, and yet it has a marvelous theater scene available to it as a space of resonance. As a hybrid art form, that is to say, one that is intended to be heard as well as read, lyric poetry accounts for a vanishingly small percentage of book sales, and has no space of resonance available to it. As a consequence, it has virtually disappeared from public consciousness.

And if poetry appears only in small editions issued by small houses, then this is all the more true for translations into other languages. In light of this circumstance, it is hardly surprising that the “land of poets and thinkers” can boast virtually no contemporary poets who have achieved genuine recognition internationally.

Here as well, political action is required.

Please allow me one final deliberation: constitutes a point of reference on the Internet, one that brings together poetic forces meaningfully on an international level. Do we not need something similar on the national level? A place where poetry is recognized as an independent art, and at the same time engages in dialogue with the other arts: with theater, dance, music, and painting – entirely in the spirit of Eugène Delacroix, who wrote in his journal: There is no art without poetry?
Do we not require a “German Center for Poetry,” one capable of assuming all of the above-mentioned tasks? Our proposals for such a center are available.

To mark the occasion of the opening of the Festival, we are showcased to a number of new poetic voices:
In the edition “The Audible Legacy,” you can now hear the voice of Hermann Hesse; in the edition “Poetry for Children,” you can admire Nadia Budde’s wonderful illustrations . And not only is Africa represented by new voices from Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa. With the entry of Antjie Krog, Afrikaans now enjoys inclusion as our 50th poetic language.

Before we listen now to an excerpt of a poem by Hermann Hesse, I want to thank all of my colleagues for the preparation and planning of this festival. And I thank all of you for your attention.

Thank you.

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