Poet and scientist Dirk von Petersdorff in the garden of the Frommann estate.

Finding comfort and joy in poetry

Dirk von Petersdorff–scientist and poet
Poet and scientist Dirk von Petersdorff in the garden of the Frommann estate.
Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

Dirk von Petersdorff is a poet. Prof. Dr Dirk von Petersdorff is a university teacher. In addition to his seminars and lectures in German Literature, he also offers courses in creative writing. How does he balance his own artistic work and university life? This is the portrait of a multi-faceted man.

By Stephan Laudien

What signals are being received by his pencil? What inspiration fuels his work? Where does he get his ideas from? Dirk von Petersdorff does not live in a poet’s cave, detached from a world that he merely explores in rhyme. The man is very much involved in life as a university professor and father. Of all things, Dirk von Petersdorff teaches German literature, a subject in which he too could become the object of academic interest. After all, the 55-year-old, who has been teaching at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena since 2008, is one of the most famous German poets. He even won the Kleist Prize in 1998 for his works »Wie es weitergeht« and »Zeitlösung«. Dirk von Petersdorff endures the conflictive nature of his situation. »I don’t teach contemporary poetry, though, because I’m simply not neutral on that topic«, he says. But he’s much less apprehensive in his creative writing course, where his initial scepticism has since given way to fruitful synergies: »The courses are designed to help students work on their linguistic sensitivity—and sometimes they help me too!«


But the white clouds, those shaggy creatures,
reach into the blue, like mighty paws
at the window to a new homeland,
my silver pencil is receiving signals.

Excerpt from »Short Biography« by Dirk von Petersdorff

Joint lectureship with Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Dirk von Petersdorff published his first volume of poetry at the age of 26. »Wie es weitergeht« was published in 1992, but he discovered an interest in poetry well before that. Dirk von Petersdorff, who grew up in Kiel, cites his mother’s passion for poetry as his first source of inspiration. His work with poetry went down a new path when one of his teachers introduced him to Ingeborg Bachmann, Bertolt Brecht and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. »I didn’t understand some of the poems at first, such as those written by Bachmann«, says Dirk von Petersdorff. But that’s exactly what awoke his curiosity. He would later meet Hans Magnus Enzensberger in person and even shared the Tübingen poetics lectureship with him in 2013.

Dirk von Petersdorff describes his poetry as being »close to life«. He is currently writing about family, children growing up, growing old, loving and dying. For him, it’s always about trying to capture special moments and memories, and keeping them alive through poetry. The trick is to translate one’s own experiences into exemplary situations: »I try not to gloss over my experiences of pain and suffering, but rather to transform them in such a way that my writing can be a source of comfort«. He draws inspiration from various sources, especially conversations, pictures, songs and observations. »I have lots of wild pieces of paper and a large notebook full of observations and ideas. Some of them are used, while others are discarded«.

The mind roams free in the morning hours

Peace and quiet are essential ingredients for his work, says Dirk von Petersdorff. When everyone else has left the house in the morning, he sits down at the living room table with a sharp pencil and an eraser. In the morning, his head is free and his thoughts can wander. This flow of thoughts is best captured with a pencil; once the words have coagulated and solidified, they are printed on paper and fine-tuned. When is something deemed successful? Dirk von Petersdorff lets his finished pieces settle and detaches himself from them. He also finds it helpful to »read out loud, quietly«, which Dirk von Petersdorff also advises the students to do in his creative writing course. Although he takes a critical view of his own work, the texts are first read by his wife and three to four friends. The first official critic is currently Martin Hielscher, the editor at the Beck publishing house: »I appreciate every critical piece of advice!« But the same cannot be said for negative reviews, which »really hurt«.

Dirk von Petersdorff started his academic career at Kiel University. As the son of two pedagogues, he himself completed his teacher training in German and history before obtaining his doctorate in 1995 with a thesis on »Mystery Speech. On the Self-Image of Romantic Intellectuals«. In retrospect, he thinks it was an »unbelievable, very nice coincidence« that he wrote about Novalis and Jena Romanticism in his thesis. His next stop was Saarland University, where he spent time as an assistant. He taught in Saarbrücken for twelve years, and that is where his children were born. His first were twins, a boy and a girl, who have just finished high school, and then he had a second son. Dirk von Petersdorff has now been teaching in Jena for many years and is still fascinated by Romanticism: »this new form of writing, this expanded view aimed at the infinite«. He believes the new, highly dynamic and emotive language reflects people in motion.

Dirk von Petersdorff isn’t keen to list role models for his own work. He would rather talk about his influences, such as the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, whom he almost met before the coronavirus foiled his plans and Zagajewski passed away in March this year. Dirk von Petersdorff also finds inspiration in music. For example, he listens to Tocotronic and Element of Crime. »I don’t see any dividing line between poetry and song«. The best example is Bob Dylan, the singing poet.

The poet is driven by his more modest works

What remains of Dirk von Petersdorff’s poetry? The poet seems relaxed. It’s no secret that volumes of poetry are never going to top the best-seller lists. The print runs are still rather modest. However, Dirk von Petersdorff does have a successful booklet that was published in 2017: »Wie schreibe ich ein Gedicht? Kreatives Schreiben: Lyrik« [»How Do I Write a Poem? Creative Writing: Poetry«]. This is where he marries his two careers in poetry and university education. The poet says: »I think it’s good that you can find editions featuring a poet’s most successful works«. There must be quite a few editions on Goethe, but Gottfried Benn only picked out »three to five« of his own poems. For his part, Dirk von Petersdorff likes to sift through his poems and tends to quarrel with his less successful texts instead of taking delight in his successful ones. However, this does not lead to frustration; it drives him to keep receiving signals. This work ethic is reflected by the title of his latest volume of poetry: »Unsere Spiele enden nicht« [»Our Games Don’t End«].