Where the Rhine leaves the Rhenish Slate Mountains, a flat plain begins that extends into the Netherlands. It is the Lower Rhine lowlands, the south-eastern part of which merges into the Cologne Bay. From the hills of the Bergisches Land, Jürgen Becker sometimes looks down on this plain. In the sky, as he described it in a short text in 2009, not only mighty cloud formations can be discovered, but also figures made of steam that rise from the cooling towers of the power plants, “from the chimneys of the industrial plants lined up next to each other”. Above that, the vapor trails of the many planes heading for Cologne Bonn Airport.
The perception of landscape, of terrain determined by civilization, runs through Jürgen Becker’s writing from the very beginning. It is no coincidence that his first books, all of which were written in the 1960s, have titles such as “fields” or “environments”. In one of the fragmentary texts of “Fields” Becker tried to topographically determine his point of view of the Bay of Cologne. But the impressions pouring in at the same time make any fixation impossible. Snow on the hills, suddenly the taste of tea and honey, the sound of a typewriter, and flashing memories: “Perceiving everything that is happening, present and past, makes every fixed place (…) disappear.”
But even if the idea of a fixed place dissolves in the end, it is the perception of the staggered landscape that Becker uses as an image for his collage-like writing. Seen from above, the landscape itself has the form of a collage, as he noted almost 50 years later: “In their contrasts, in the juxtaposition and intertwining of components that form a contradictory connection between the foothills of the big cities, old village remains and new conurbations, arable land and concrete roads, forested areas and clusters of high-rise buildings, mining dumps, quarry ponds, river courses, vegetable plantations and commercial areas”.
“Imagine now: you just go to the train station.”
Although he doesn’t really like to travel, Becker has noted that depending on the places and areas he’s in, he feels “there’s something here that moves me, that makes my inner voice speak.” And there are quite a few of these places. Jürgen Becker was born in Cologne in 1932. When the war begins, the father is transferred to Erfurt. It is not a happy time for the family, the parents separate, then the mother dies. In 1947 Becker returned to the West with his father. After breaking off various studies, he worked as an advertising assistant and as a lecturer in publishing houses. In the early 1970s he stayed in Berlin and New York for a long time before heading the radio play department of Deutschlandfunk for a full 20 years. The writing always goes hand in hand.
Becker has often described the turning point and the first few years after as a decisive turning point in his biography. He was finally able to visit the places and landscapes of his childhood again. It was then that his idea that writing was a process of discovery was fully formed. So much material had accumulated on his visits and research trips that new literary possibilities beyond the ever-present poems, primarily novels, had to be tried out.
Over the years, Becker has become a writer who could write a seventy-page “Poem of the Reunited Landscape” (published in 1988!) with the same literary breath as a shimmering prose book called “From the History of Separations” (1999). In this novel, Jörn, the narrator, drives back and forth in the villages between Thuringia and the Baltic Sea. Sometimes he almost feels at home, sometimes he notices a fog between himself and the other people, a “zone of strangeness that history has left behind”.
East and West, moment and memory, landscape and consciousness, thinking and feeling – such supposedly polar ideas permeate each other in a peculiar way in Becker’s work. “Imagine now”, begins a small text from his prose book “Telling to Ostend” (1981), “imagine now: you simply go to the train station.” In fact, it is this combination of perception, memory and imagination that gives Becker’s writing its full power.
Every moment counts. And the association whose “debris” leads from one to the other. From the very beginning, Jürgen Becker’s writing is designed as a transcript, as a journal, as he calls it himself, that captures even the most inconspicuous idea. A picture on the wall can set the impulse, the sound of a car at night, playing on the radio button. At the same time, historical remnants shoot in, memories of nights of bombing, of hunger, sometimes just of a single handcart that the speaker pulls behind him. But also voices from the TV, the Internet, quotes from other writers.
Some of them can now be viewed again in compact form in the volume “Collected Poems”, which Suhrkamp Verlag is giving to its author, who has been awarded the Büchner Prize, on the occasion of his 90th birthday. But just in time for the anniversary, a new book of poems has also been published. In it, Becker shows again how precisely he deals with the moments and associations. The snapshots never stand for themselves, but are always embedded in contexts, sometimes “like in a scrub” that are to be discovered in writing.
Becker’s most important process is a sophisticated editing technique that transforms every moment into an atmosphere of presence, and which he occasionally marks here with almost comic-like sprinklings like “cut” or “plop”. There is also a new preference for list-like poems that make the structure of associations even more open. And who, with catchwords such as “Paris Bar”, “Group 47” or “Höllerer’s Circus” call up stations in Becker’s life story that are also characteristic of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time and of the West German literary scene.
Every material, every motif leaves behind something hidden, says Jürgen Becker, “a huge remnant of untold history, lost memories”. The new book also ends with such a residue. And so one can only look forward to all the explorations of the inner and outer landscapes that are yet to come.