Elke Erb wins the Büchner prize for literature

Posted: July 22, 2020 in John Stammers Page

German writer, poet, Elke Erb won the Büchner prize for literature in May.
This is a prestigious German writer’s prize, and a prestigious literature prize overall.

She has lived most of her life in East Germany, managing a living working on translations from e.g. Russian and Soviet writers in German.

What first grabs me about her poetry is the pared-down and essentialness of the writing. She address that most fundamental question in writing, that of how to address the voice, to whom do we write, and how is that voice pitched. These considerations determine the range and type of imagery appropriate to the the poem, as well as the psychological impact and invitation of the poem.

Take, for instance, Incomprehensible (1)

‘Between the gas stove and the table the thought

a lonely donkey at the edges of a field
a distant – Bulgaria! – memory
Apparently lonely donkey –

Between the gas stove and the table the thought
that we die
– …………..’

(Translation by Rosemarie Waldrop, for Poetry International.)
Many of Elke’s poems are available at:


This poem excerpt gives so much:
the basic setting, and the ranging memory;
the simple, single-person address, and the fundamental realisation of all our personal dying.

The donkey did belong to someone, we find. It was a working donkey. Here we get the impact of contrasts between the industrial, modern, urban, world, and the seemingly unmechanised world of the east European life-experience.

This in itself is an illusion that we collude in: our lives, no matter where or how we live: East, West, are propped up on these building blocks of how we are seen and read by others; how our lives depend on others, whether machines or animals; how our whole economic and industrial systems are formed from our bodies and minds in space, in place, and in ordered functions.

We can read here how the simple domestic setting and activity can also release the mind, the memory, the creative faculties. This is something that has bubbled away in the back of my head for quite some time. It was while washing up the breakfast dishes I found time to think through the implications of these five and a half lines.

In Elke’s writing another technique she uses is that of repetition. A recursive process is in motion. We could read this as how the mind wanders, and is repeatedly brought back, or grounds itself again and again in what is unclear, not understood, ‘Incomprehensible’.
Recursive loops are also part of neuro-phenomenology: how the body and sensory import of the world weave a sense of self in the world.
Is this part of Elke’s references? we cannot dismiss or rule-out it out, but look for signs elsewhere in her work.

‘the mind fell silent
self-love at an end’

she ends her poem …Where After the Town

Neuro-phenomenology, existentialism, and post-Marxism – awareness and immediacy, the self in the world.
Her writing continually seizes on the concrete, the hard world and its shadows. There is almost objective-correlative at work here, but the distance between T S Eliot’s concept, and the 21st century experience, is too great, too difficult to get a clear signal, if there really was one.

In Theme, she writes

‘potter round: then you become things. Their prey.
Take care or your eye
as you potter will pop.

The light of your eye: a lantern. Outside.
Good for the night. And passenger traffic.


I find this constant switching of register: the private thought-voice, the public and outward brought in, quite invigorating.
It requires a quick ear, an attentive ear.

I am all ears.

  1. João-Maria says:

    Michael, I could be entirely wrong, but I do think her name is Elke Erb. I know of her because I study translation and she was important in the reception of some Russian poetry back during the USSR, though I wasn’t aware that she wrote poems as well. I’m glad she does.
    These lithe introductions are marvelous; you organise thoughts with enviable parsimony and efficacy. I particularly enjoyed, well, not the donkey, but the paragraph on the fundamental questions of poetry: that of how to address the voice, to whom do we write, and how is that voice pitched. It’s funny, but only now have I begun pondering these mode extensively, and I find myself often stuck on the second.
    To whom is a pestitential question, mostly because one always feels inept among the tides of the answer.

  2. You caught me out!
    For some strange reason I automatically added the ‘e’ all through. I thought I had caught them all before posting. It is always the most obvious one you miss.
    So glad that you know of her from another direction.
    Best wishes. Keep yourself safe.

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