Tuesday, 4 May 2010

New poems from old East Germany

I rarely like the poems in the London Review of Books but the issue I'm up to in my pile, 25th March, has ‘Five Poems by Günter Eich translated by Michael Hofmann’. I've come across Eich before because some time in the early 1970s the journal Modern Poetry in Translation had an event at the Royal Festival Hall. I think that’s where my then wife and I saw the magical combination of Pablo Neruda, six-foot Chilean ambassador to Paris with native Andean nose and fine brown suit, who read his poems in Spanish, and Alastair Reid translating into his own fine verse in a rich, soft American voice. Perhaps as a result of that we bought the anthology published by Carcanet, Postwar German Poetry in Translation, translated by Michael Hamburger. I wish I still had it but it seems unobtainable, though I have since bought a volume by one of the poets represented, Peter Huchel, again translated by Hamburger. Günter Eich was in there too.

The volume was full of lovely stuff, some of which was well received by my 1st and 2nd year pupils (11-12) at Walworth School. Perhaps I'll put some in this blog later -- I have copies of the ones I typed out for them.

According to Hamburger, the general idea of this postwar German poetry was ‘minimalist’: after the horrors of the Nazis and the Second World War, rhetorical flights and elegant verse-turnings seemed out of place. The barest means sufficed: no similes, no ‘poetic’ vocabulary, no sentiment. The style of bureaucratic prose might be employed, as if it’s all that’s left to us, as sometimes (and for the first time?) in
The Waste Land (I think -- need to check this) and certainly in Auden-Spender-MacNeice (been re-reading the latter -- wonderful): e.g. Eich: There are times I know that God/ is most concerned with the fate of snails; or Whoever is on a reasonable footing with horror / can expect its coming with equanimity.

Here are a couple of the Hoffmann’s new Eichs -- I hope he’ll forgive me if I add his plug at the end:

The moors we wanted to hike have been drained.
Their turf has warmed our evenings.
The wind is full of black dust.
It scours the names off the gravestones
and etches this day into us.

End of August
The white bellies of dead fish
loom among duckweed and rushes.
Crows have wings to enable them to escape death.
There are times I know that God
is most concerned with the fate of snails.
He builds them houses. We are not His favourites.

At night, the bus taking the football team home
leaves a white trail of dust.
The moon shines in the willowherb,
in concert with the evening star.
How near you are, immortality – in the wings of bats,
in pairs of headlights
nosing down the hill.

Günter Eich (1907-72) was a poet, translator from Chinese and writer of radio plays. Angina Days, a selection of his poems translated by Michael Hofmann, is due in May from Princeton.

It’s on order. If it arrives in time I'll take it with me to Berlin later this month.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love readding, and thanks for your artical.........................................