Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Twentieth-Century German Poetry, by Michael Hofmann (ed).

I’m reading this now, and want to review it even before I’ve finished it. Can you ever really finish an anthology of poetry, anyway?

Michael Hofmann has selected a wide and diverse pool of poets from the last century of German verse. Included are many poets known, at least by name, to English-speaking audiences: Rilke, Brecht, Grass. But the bulk of this almost 500-page book consists of the varied and diverse poetry written by poets unknown in this country, and their work, which spans a century of style and form, history and theme, is astoundingly familiar, fresh, and vital. You can flip through these pages at will and find gems such as this short poem by Inge Müller:

“You promised me you would walk with me”

You promised me you would walk with me
In the sun
And by the river, where the trees
Are still in leaf

The trees have been in leaf
Four times since then
Days off are as rare
As sun in late fall—
Leaves rustle
On our desks.

Müller’s economy and imagery call to mind Chinese poetry, and the subject is universal and heartfelt. A few pages later, you can find concrete poems, poems about war and guilt, protest poems, experimental poems, poems about exile and loss, about love and travel, a poem adapted from Joseph Conrad (Heiner Müller), and everywhere, poetry and lines that have the power to slay:

“Wenn sie weint, sieht sie aus wie neunzhen.”
(When she weeps she looks nineteen.)
- Hans Magnus Enzenberger, At Thirty-three

“So geht das all diese Jahre,
Strukturen, Fröste, Eulenflug, Kriege im September.”
(This is how it is every year, structures,
frosts, owl flight, wars in September.)
- Jürgen Becker, Autumn Story

I’ve chosen to include the original German in these few examples because the original is shown side by side with the translation. This is a powerful tool towards understanding the language and the translation itself, and it deepens the reader’s understanding of the poet’s intentions. It is particularly helpful in Ernst Jandl’s transliteration of Wordsworth, where the German line read aloud – “mai hart lieb zapfen eibe hold / er renn bohr in sees kai” – becomes the English line “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky.” Without the literal translation of the German, a German monoglot would only read “may hard dear cone yew fair” without understanding the poetic device or the poem’s meaning.

This collection is a distillation of a century of verse and Hoffman makes no claim that it is complete; indeed, he refuses to apologize for whatever faults the anthology may have. Scholars may choose to pick apart this anthology and seek weakness; I, instead, will return to it again and again for inspiration and strength.

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