April 2007

Olivia Cronk


Twentieth Century German Poetry edited by Michael Hoffman

“The mouth of a girl who had long lain among the reeds looked gnawed away.
As the breast was cut open, the gullet showed full of holes.
Finally in a cavity below the diaphragm
a nest of young rats was discovered.
One little sister lay dead.
The others thrived on liver and kidneys,
drank the cold blood and
enjoyed a lovely childhood here.
And swift and sweet came their death also:
They were all thrown into the water together.
Oh, how the little muzzles squeaked!”

                        -from “Morgue” by Gottfried Benn (trans. Babette Deutsch)

“[T]the poems here are meant to travel: they are great in the original, or good in English, or there is nothing like them in either language, or in many cases perhaps all three.”

                        -from Michael Hofmann’s introduction to Twentieth Century German Poetry


Michael Hofmann’s new anthology is at once authoritative and digestible. Himself a poet (in English, though West Germany-born), Hofmann’s tender handling of the project is infectious. His introduction alone is worth a good read and re-read -- chatty, informative, critical. Hofmann outlines the shape of the book (the big shots are here -- Rilke, Brecht, Celan, etc. -- as well as wonderful surprises) and makes some great arguments about the organization of an anthology. In particular, this one has been curated with an ear for intended and unintended echoes. The introduction elegantly and efficiently lays out the various patterns we see as writers respond to one another. And while recognizing the issues related to translation, Hofmann nonetheless offers a delightful piece of evidence in favor of such pursuits. Similarly, there is attention paid to both the limitations and possibilities of the anthology as a form. The notion of Expressionism in literature is briefly handled, the unavoidable and painful relationship between Germany’s history and its writers is threaded throughout Hoffman’s comments, and a funny little piece of information (the poets here so often did other things -- visual art, pharmacology, novels, radio dramas, medicine, translation) further endears the material to the reader. Finally, Hofmann considers the historical effect of twentieth century German poetry on English and American poetry. None, he concludes (rather honestly and unassumingly), “except, in a shallow and mistaken way, for Celan and Rilke.” And there are several interesting jabs (my term--Hofmann is much too warm of a writer to stoop so) at the Confessional poets. In speaking of German poet Gottfried Benn (“one of the consummate poets of the century”), Hofmann says: “What all the mid-century American poets -- Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Berryman, Roethke, Snodgrass -- half-officially set themselves to be, “heartbreaking,” Benn simply is. There is no one harder and no one softer.” Just look at the excerpted piece above. Hofmann also notes that Robert Lowell’s translation of a Franz Werfel poem “sounds altogether more like his own poetry of fifteen years later (and indeed contains a phrase that appeared in Life Studies).”

Once you get through the introduction, the book offers a choose-your-own-adventure collection of stuff to look at it. It’s one of those anthologies that feels so airy, almost like you can actually dwell on the page with author and translator (as well as watchful, giddy editor Hofmann). Although I spent a big portion of the beginning of the book moving in chronological order, I was at ease jumping from Table of Contents to random dog-eared page. As mentioned above, the royalty of German poetry are given plenty of space to shine. And it’s well done. Bertold Brecht, whose name I associate primarily with the stage, is a ride. He is much quoted in Hofmann’s intro, and rightfully so. As with the intro, a reader just can’t help but go a little gaga for Brecht. The same goes for Rilke. But the real treats are the surprises. Kurt Schwitters, for example (whose fabulous surrealist assemblage home was wrecked by the Nazis -- see: cathedral of erotic misery), a true member of the avant-garde, lingers in about five pages’ worth of oddities, including: “Composed Picture Poem,” a square image of letters and shapes. Hans Arp, the surrealist collage master, is here as well: “...who’ll now eat with the phosphorescent rat at the lonely barefoot table.” Additionally, there are plenty of unknown names (for me) that now glitter a bit in my brain. Gunther Eich: “Nettlebush./ The burnt children/ wait behind the cellar windows... Their parents are gone a long time.” Johannes Bobrowski: “I, unbearded, a fool,/ lurching against the fences,/ my black hands strangling a lamb . .” Ernst Jandl: “...(e) even sex-hexed men mend nets... ever seek ether... sweet herbs sweeten sweeter elements...” (Look, also, for his “surface translation” of a William Wordsworth poem.) Hofmann’s own translations appear throughout the book and a stunning little gem is the following poem by Inge Muller:

            When I went to fetch water
            The house collapsed on top of me
            We supported the house
            The abandoned dog and me.
            Don’t ask how we did it
            I don’t remember.
            Ask the dog.

If you see a trend here, it’s not just because of the quotes I’ve selected. And it’s not just a chronological thing. Contemporary poet Sarah Kirsch: “Then I’m angry up to the eyelashes/ I hiss the street empty/ and sit down among honest seagulls.” Or even more contemporary Hauke Huckstadt (the name alone screams jelly cookies and gin): “I hung around in front of the window --/ a piece of wood getting in your light.” But if all these little nuggets cannot convince you of the most awesome power and glory of Hofmann’s project, perhaps you need a little Trakl in your life. My husband had previously introduced me to Georg Trakl as perfect Halloween reading -- spooky, grim, dramatic, a little wry, maybe even disturbing. Trakl was a pharmacist at the turn of the century, during wartime, with (apparently) a drug habit and a possibly inappropriate crush on his own sister. His work has seemed a bit of a secret until recently. Thankfully, though, Hofmann has chosen some beauties. Again, if I have not yet convinced you to adore this anthology of German-ness... if the previous examples shed not a bit of light on the very strange strange-ness of the previous century’s German poetry... then try Trakl on for size.

            September evening: mournfully the dark cries of the shepherds
            Ring through the dusky village; fire spits in the forge.
            A black horse rears up violently; the girl’s hyacinthine locks
            Snatch at the ardor of its crimson nostrils.
            Softly the cry of the doe freezes at the edge of the forest
            And the yellow blossoms of autumn
            Bend speechlessly above the blue countenance of the pond.
            In red flames a tree burned down; bats flap upward with dark faces.

*As a final note, I’d like to mention a cinematic complement to this book. The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, though of a separate place in time (1960s and '70s), share something of an aesthetic and a concern with the way complicated histories shape the art that seeks to unravel them.

Twentieth Century German Poetry edited by Michael Hofmann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0-374-10535-8
ISBN: 0374105359
511 pages