What is the present? The quick cigarette outside in the rain break at the beginning of July in Corona times. Or the memory she conjures up while pondering. War and end of war in Erfurt before returning to Cologne with his father. Or the acute trouble with the car that the TÜV had sent to the workshop. Every moment, however brief, has another in its wake, and the longer a life lasts, the more they overlap and the harder it is to tell them apart.
Perhaps that is why people smoke so diligently in Jürgen Becker’s poetic work: on the more than a thousand pages of his “Collected Poems” edited by the poet Marion Poschmann, four decades his junior, a total of 34 times, which, measured against the 69 mentions of his favorite cipher, the poplar, is a respectable number. The cigarette as the epitome of becoming and passing away in three minutes – and as a symbol of a writing that traces the magic of the first time no less than the satisfaction of the hundredth. “A memory repeats itself,” says his most recent volume of poetry, “The Return of Habits,” “but it seems to have changed, for now it tells everything quite differently.”
Jürgen Becker, one of the last survivors of Gruppe 47, is the greatest memory artist in German literature. For this, too, he received the Georg Büchner Prize in 2014. A writer who, as a narrator and author of radio plays, but above all as a poet with a penchant for long poems, explores the mechanics of consciousness processes in theory and practice – and does so with a sensuality that draws everything it suggests as inner movement from the details the outside world wins: “Late Sunday afternoon; still and warm / the air stands between the rowan berries. The buzzing / behind the bushes tells me that there is / an afterlife that I know no more / than a sound.”
The secret of Becker’s “Chronicle of Moments” hides on the surface, and no matter how much one has to get involved with its proliferation that traverses times and spaces in the twinkling of an eye, like the root system of a tree it creeps under all obstacles and even the most carefully laid sidewalk bursts open, it takes so little effort to understand the methods and perspectives of Becker’s writing. The blurbs, mostly written by himself (and sometimes by his former editor Elisabeth Borchers), which can be found in the appendix to the “Collected Poems”, contain a good deal of his poetology.
The 90th birthday, which he celebrates awake and curious this Sunday, is no age for a writer whose texts want to capture the traces of a whole century and beyond. At first it only bears witness to a memory that continues to accumulate year by year, the personal and historical layers of which the author only has to re-sort year by year.
At the same time, one’s own finiteness, which has definitely been made a theme, is the greatest threat to this textual network of recorded and associated material, which is open in all directions and tends to be endless.
As always, the news of the day mingle in Becker’s non-hierarchical transcript of the real. Where he once quoted the weather report from the Tagesspiegel, today the pandemic and the post-colonial renaming of streets are included.
However, the most recent poems in particular show how they want to transcend themselves and their times: “- as far as / our breath lasts and every path becomes shorter, we / go as far as we can come, relieved not to have a goal / in mind .” They are tied to a consciousness that expects its extinction, but also understands each line as an objection to death: “The connections are / like undergrowth that doesn’t stop growing /. I need more time to unravel / than we have, regardless of things like money and / how long it lasts.”
With increasing age, Becker also shows in his poems how much memory is only formed in writing. Wrestling with the vaguely remembered and half-forgotten, it has a fictional side. Already in the last volume, “Grey Geese over Toronto”, it said: “The memory of something that does not appear in the memories; Greylag geese over Toronto.”
It can also not be ruled out that Becker played tricks on the supposedly accurate memory in places where he would never suspect it.
With all sense of the verifiability of data and facts, Becker shows in any case that factual and imaginary often cannot be clearly distinguished in one’s own memory chambers: “There are places that one has to invent / if one wants to see them again”.
In the perceptual gear of these texts there is a back and forth between different instances. There is an abruptly autobiographical I that serves as a gateway for Becker to construct his experiential spaces. A you with which it addresses itself or looks for a counterpart. A we that sees itself as part of a generation. A man already aiming for a suprapersonal experience. And an id free of any consciously acting subjectivity, which often does not even appear as such, but hides in passive constructions and lets things call the shots: the creeping change in landscape and urban architecture that he has been seeing from his apartment in Cologne for decades and his country seat in the Bergisches Land on “Odenthal’s coast”.
His writing experienced the most decisive change when he was able to travel back to the places of his childhood in Erfurt. A year before the Wall fell, he had already published “The Poem of the Reunited Landscape”, a five-movement suite that dreams its way from the Cologne Bay to Thuringia. In “Foxtrott im Erfurter Stadion” in 1993 he examined what was left of his memories. Since then there has been no other German author who has illuminated the history of the division of East and West in the atmosphere as he has.
He recently described prose volumes about his alter ego Jörn Winter as “journal novels”, such as “Snow in the Ardennes” or “Now the area back then”, the title of which aptly describes the tension between present and past typical of Becker, using topographical features as an example. The first “journal poem” was added with the “Grey Geese over Toronto”, a designation which “The Return of Habits” now also claims for itself.
No beginning, no, a sudden slip-in in the present participle after a dash: “–continuing the soliloquy, and as it emerges / from the shadow of what has been said before, on a long leash / from something called a continuum. // Rainfields, February / begins; daytime light in the houses. / Whether you notice it or not, an epoch comes to an end almost every day. With Marion Poschmann it could be said that they form the basis of a lyrical writing that forms into a single large poem.
The changes can best be seen by looking at an early mentor, companion and finally friend, Helmut Heissenbüttel, eleven years his senior, who, like Becker later, earned his living as a radio editor. Becker extended the preoccupation of language with itself into a world-creating and world-internalizing area in which Helmut Heissenbüttel no longer wanted to follow him.
One can follow Becker’s departure into the subjective, which never went as far as with the sensitive Peter Handke or Nicolas Born, in the revealing volume “Korrespondenzen”: personally addressed, but also critical of literature, which strives for sober distance.
Becker already described himself as an analogue fossil in the “Gray Geese”: “You have to change your medium; decide / for a social portal … without Faber-Castell in hand / but I can’t think of anything. Outside, the dog is barking again. Hot milk with honey in the morning.” In fact, to this day he only works with a pen and typewriter.
But to say that reality is now being recorded on Facebook, Instagram or TikTok would only be half the truth. The kind of reminiscent self-assurance that Becker pursues is entirely tied to the medium of writing, even where it creates powerful images. If you get involved with them, you can still be amazed by Jürgen Becker’s latent culture-critical attitude, even in the most colorful shimmering.