The Art of Topiary

“In our most violent of centuries: here is the poet who is willing to stop, and stand still, in the intense brief moment of being, and see the largesse in the smallest of astonishments.”—ILLYA KAMINSKY
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A dual-language collection of vivid, tightly knit poems from one of the most important contemporary poets writing in German.

The Art of Topiary is the gorgeous product of a long collaboration between Jan Wagner and American poet David Keplinger. With the care of master gardeners tending their plants, Wagner and Keplinger have shaped Wagner’s originals—acclaimed internationally, now in English for the first time—into precise, delightful, and highly modern translations.

Along the way, the collection unfolds dialogues between discipline and freedom, sound and sense, faithfulness and improvisation. In these poems, formal structures are a corset loosened by each line of verse, a garden always pleasurably at risk of being overrun. Yet for all Wagner’s wit and sharp poetic detail, The Art of Topiary is written with an intimate earnest: a swarm of gnats take on an urgent mystery as they hum in code around the speaker’s ears, a bird atop a rhino’s leathery back becomes a fragile porcelain cup, and the antlers of an elk reach for the air like a champion for a trophy.

Compact, lightfooted, and curious, The Art of Topiary is the exciting American debut of a stunning and joyful voice in global literature.

Publish Date
5.5 × 8.5 × 0.4 in
7.2 oz

Jan Wagner

Jan Wagner is a German poet, essayist, and translator. He is the author of The Art of Topiary, translated in collaboration with David Keplinger. The editor of two influential anthologies of German language poetry, Wagner is also the German translator of several British and American poets, including James Tate, Matthew Sweeney, and Charles Simic. In 2017, he was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize. He lives in Berlin.


David Keplinger

David Keplinger is the author of Ice and Another City. His collections of poems also include The Most Natural Thing, The Prayers of Others, The Clearing, and The Rose Inside. His translations include Carsten René Nielsen’s World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors and House Inspections, a Lannan Translations Selection; his most recent translation is Jan Wagner’s The Art of Topiary.

Praise and Prizes

  • The Art of Topiary is a poetry collection of indescribable wonder… . The contrast between the openness of Wagner’s words and the tight adherence to form only makes each more beautiful. David Keplinger’s care in translating these from the original German never demands to be felt, and yet is inescapable. The Art of Topiary will stick with you long after its poems have been thoroughly devoured.”

    The Atlantic
  • “David Keplinger’s translation of Jan Wagner’s The Art of Topiary seems to rise out of a love of language that’s almost mathematical in music and pace. Thus, each line is well made, composed of lyrical density and movement, and the reader experiences this—not as conceit, but as actual. Each poem feels alive with intention, teaching us how to listen to its music. Here control becomes part of meaning. The mechanics of nature—where the organic becomes metaphysical, or the natural sculpted—are primary to the collection. This masterful accretive affect works in The Art of Topiary. Wagner’s vision has been exacted with care and know-how as Keplinger carries into translation the truth of a gesture, and this is where poetry resides.”

    Yusef Komunyakaa
  • “To say that Jan Wagner is the best German poet of his generation would be true—but what does it mean? Perhaps we should first ask: what does it mean to be a poet, in our time of migrations, violence, hybrid wars? Where does one find a moment in which ‘melodies unheard’ still startle us? His Art of Topiary isn’t the practice of mere formal clippings of the natural world according to our own most current notion of beauty—but finding the ageless intensity of tenderness within each thing he sees. In our most violent of centuries: here is the poet who is willing to stop, and stand still, in the intense brief moment of being, and see the largesse in the smallest of astonishments.”

    Ilya Kaminsky
  • “It’s the precision that impresses so much, the delicacy and the relish by which objects—usually objects—are detailed and transcribed, and the playfulness also, nearly always culminating in some igneous and entirely persuasive image. Jan Wagner has the timing and presentation skills of a close-up magician.”

    Simon Armitage
  • “The longer Jan Wagner writes, the more choreographed the scenes seem to be, the restraint, the historical, the remote material are more present and less sought. The effect is impressive: Jan Wagner is close to a Master of Delight.”

    Süddeutsche Zeitung