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There is a moment in Ann Cotten’s poem ‘An Induktion To The Blues’, translated here as ‘An Induction to the Blues’, where the narrator feels “desolate, analogous, / as helplessly enfurrowed as a wax cylinder, / revolving sentimentally.” She goes on: “Failing the dancefloor [why not on the dancefloor as in the original?], // choliambic in the alcaic beats. Alcaic beats? / I hadn’t reckoned on such subtle bass. / True, also hadn’t looked over at the dj yet, / was only startled by the anacreontic mood.” This playfulness, combining (Ancient Greek) poetic terms with disco beats within a (double) sonnet, and mixing languages within the poem, thus transgressing centuries, form and borders, is an indication of where German poetry could be heading.
In 2003 an anthology edited by Berlin poets Bjoern Kuligk and Jan Wagner was published by Dumont Verlag in Germany with the title Lyrik von Jetzt (Poetry of Now ). This marked the emergence of a new generation of German poets, those born since 1965. Of the 74 poets featured in that anthology, several have since published at least one collection and/or won important awards for their work. Lyrik von Jetzt created such a momentum that the editors brought out Lyrik von Jetzt 2 (Berlin Verlag) in 2008 with a further 50 emerging poets (including Cotten), none born before 1970. It was launched in Berlin with a reading for which the audience ran into hundreds and included a veritable Who’s Who of younger contemporary German poetry.
This book presents some of those poets, along with a few more established, older ones, in English translation. Dichten= [number ten] is, as the title suggests, the tenth in an (almost) annual series brought out by burning deck books. The series features contemporary German poetry in English, excellently translated by Rosemarie Waldrop, from Friederike Mayroecker in the first to Ulf Stolterfoht’s witty Lingos I — IX in the most recent. Unlike the previous numbers, this number ten is not a single-poet issue, but a mini-anthology featuring sixteen poets currently writing in German and translated by Waldrop herself and others, including Andrew Shields, Tony Frazer and Nick Grindell. Of course, this cannot do more than skim the surface, but it does give some idea of the range, diversity and quality of what is being written now.
The poets range in age from Franz Josef Czernin, born in 1952:
later then the night stands by
the night, circles black
as blight, resplendent
as eight kites in flight
and broke as darkness
the trend towards sight, accent
and accident and did not mention bent
and had not broken any
sound from any fright
or had already squandered
any pay and shot
its wad on a Chev-
(‘proceeds. (rent)’, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
Michael Donhauser, born in 1956, with his grammatical fracturings (so difficult to translate effectively!):
So and praise to the plum trees which
And as if regained so delicate, so overhanging,
So distributed in rows, I and have searched for, so
Lost in these the streets, the language jails that
As if back and turned and an under their branches I
Now and am released
(from ‘Praise Poem’, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
and Bert Papenfuss, also born in 1956, who was a well-known underground figure in pre-Fall-of-the-Wall East Berlin (though his work was available in West Germany in anthologies from the 80s) and until recently managed Kaffee Burger, one of the city’s poetry hotspots:
In the dark yurt
a rotting boot rolls.
The moon is shining. The water is boiling.
From the middle
of the hot pond
bald heads rise up.
Ice freezes and melts.
A dappled horse
strikes the frozen mountain.
The jackdaw picks frozen dung.
(from ‘Fathers and Sons’, from ‘two ethnographical poems extracted
from riddles of a Siberian tribe’, translated by Andrew Shields)
to Cotten, born in 1982. Strictly speaking, I suppose, Cotten’s poems here are not really translations as such at all. She is bilingual, having been born in Ohio and grown up in Vienna, and (apparently with some help from Waldrop) provided her own English versions. Or are these the originals? Bilingual variant originals, perhaps? The blurring of definitions and categories — what is a poem/a sonnet? what is a translation? is a poem really just a translation of itself? — certainly appeals; the sense of camp fun is evident. German poetry is sometimes perceived as being rather, well, stodgy. Ain’t true. Cotten is nothing if not iconoclastic:
Without your voice you no longer bewitch me.
Beauty’s enough, though, to make me perish, not
in ice, nor yet in heat, just in a sea
of inane darkness, stubborn visuality.
As your voice in the dark sealed my enchantment with your face,
its beauty makes its case: it’s you will have to ditch me
(‘Sirens in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’,
English by the poet and Rosemarie Waldrop)
And should you perish or just go away
thanks to this crib I know all that is true.
New generations will approximately see you
and I shall always recognize a summer’s day.
English by the poet and Rosemarie Waldrop)
Interestingly, at both ends of the age range represented here, both Czernin and Cotten play fast and loose with the sonnet form. Czernin’s sonnet variations ("a variation on the preceding sonnet: a sonnet staggering with the effort at meaning") and Cotten’s double sonnets are evidence of a concern shared by all the poets here with form and with language as material that is every bit as alive here as in Anglophone poetry.
Here, too, we find Monika Rinck’s wry, often self-deprecatory humour:
today, around lunchtime, I saw my thinking,
it was a meadow, grazed bare, with hummocks. though
it could have been foothills of moss-covered mountains,
the kind of fuzzy green carpet fed on by reindeer.
(Monika Rinck, ‘my thinking’,
translated by Nicholas Grindell)
Hendrik Jackson’s vivid imagery and whispered (parenthetical) asides:
Torn open the blue in the sky, dark streak, the string of an eyepatch.
A slight gust among papers, blinking a sheet sails from the (half-near) satchel.
On the paved banks: blackbird (trill, shift, roll), a valley enclosed.
The cube turns (time): new figure, the movement slows.
(translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
Ron Winkler’s closeness to the natural world:
we love this cold fractal grammar.
the fine-boned tumble of snow through the air.
the complex prancing of fine-boned snow through the atmosphere.
(‘surrounding Schnee’, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
and Raphael Urweider’s exploration of dark spaces:
seeing wind on dark screens
in green letters on ships in headquarters
in the lee while spindrift sprays stemwards
(translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
… plus there are Ute Eisinger, Daniel Falb, Marget Kreidl, Steffen Popp, Farhad Showghi, Hans Thill, Anja Utler and Uljana Wolf, some of whom are a discovery for me, too. Not quite gender parity at ten men to six women, for those who are counting.
A relative newcomer to the poetry publishing scene that has already gained a huge reputation is Daniela Seel’s kookbooks press. Of the poets featured here, Ron Winkler, Monika Rinck, Steffen Popp, Uljana Wolf, Hendrik Jackson and Daniel Falb (all of whom live in Berlin) have collections in its beautifully-designed series, though this does not mean that there is a house style. Each of these poets is developing a distinct voice, as these translations go some way towards demonstrating.
Monika Rinck is one of the most interesting younger poets writing in German at the moment. While her frame of reference is not necessarily wider than that of other poets, her eye and ear for the absurd don’t allow her to take herself too seriously. She can take in mathematics, physics, religion, philosophy, and indeed the whole gamut of disciplines, without the slightest pedantry, and make them simply part of the structure of the poem’s situation, as in this poem:
out went the mixer of poisons in early evening
i trailed her or she tailed me.
impossible to decide in the quantum
mechanics of the present.
(‘not having: substances (this is for paddy)’,
translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
or in the delightful monologue of a pompous priest in a taxi:
you know what, my actual job is church father,
this passenger thing is just a disguise. and so i say unto you:
as well as the five senses that point outwards
you have, according to origen, five more senses
that point inwards – a bit further down
wilsnacker strasse – …
(‘the fount of teachings’, translated by Nicholas Grindell)
A new departure for kookbooks was the publication in 2007 of its first foreign poetry, a selection of poems by New York poet Christian Hawkey, with translations by Uljana Wolf and Steffen Popp. For this book, Hawkey has returned the favour, translating Wolf and Popp. Wolf’s poem in the book, translated by Hawkey, riffs off Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Here is an extract:
in woods in woods the mosslit paths
horny and lined with bloodlines
plotted with the buried drives there
called victory and roman honorandglory
there in woods they unleashed vengeance
their dicks printing a message on the moss
(‘forest master rod’)
There is also a bilingual collaboration between Wolf and Hawkey, ‘erasures’, originally published in the magazine manuskripte, which was executed on a bilingual edition of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese translated by Rainer Maria Rilke. Picking out random words by erasing the rest and allowing meanings to flit between languages from highlighted and out-of-context clusters: using not just language but existing works as material.
Some of these poets are also accomplished translators in their own right. I have already mentioned the work done by Uljana Wolf and Steffen Popp on translating Christian Hawkey; Wolf also translates from Polish and other languages, and Hendrik Jackson translates from the Russian, while Ute Eisinger has translated, among others, Ken Babstock, Hans Thill has translated Apollinaire and others, and Michael Donhauser has translated Rimbaud and Michael Hamburger. Ron Winkler has co-translated and edited Schwerkraft (Gravity), an anthology of contemporary American poetry in German.
Yes, poetry in German is thriving. The 1970s were the last time there was such a rich mass of poetic activity. A great deal of what was being written at that time dealt with everyday situations and social and political “reality” in everyday, even banal, language: what was known as the New Subjectivity, a reaction against what was perceived as the elitist, out-of-touch hermeticism and unreadability of Paul Celan and the like. But even towards the end of that decade, there was a return, with poets such as Friederike Roth, to a richer, more poetic idiom, language combining metaphoric resonances and associativeness with readability, which has fed through into the work of today’s poets.
It is a translator’s lot to straddle languages, connecting cultures, and remain practically invisible. Obviously, though, a poet can only be judged in another language by the quality of the translation. Good translations can enhance interest in poetry in other languages. And the reverse is obviously true too. Admittedly, including the original poems in a bilingual edition would either double the size and production cost of the book or restrict the number of poets and poems featured; it is difficult to say anything about the poems themselves in the absence of the original, while, on the other hand, it does allow the translations to stand alone and not serve merely as cribs for reading the originals. That, too, has its uses. That said, these stand-alone translations, at any rate, give a very good impression of the original German poems, as free as possible and as literal as necessary to work as poems in English.
Sometimes the quality of the translation as poetry can even seem to exceed the original. Take this for example:
September, you say and gesture vaguely
toward the sky whose chameleon color
sways pale in the dusk.
open seams, I reply, my eye
on the sagging overland power lines
tipped with swallows waiting.
(from ‘September Album’, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
The wistful musicality of the vowel sounds in this piece is not really present to the same extent in the original:
September, sagst du und machst eine vage Geste
in Richtung Himmel, dessen Farbenchamäleon
blass in der Dämmerung schwankt.
offene Nähte, antworte ich mit Blick
auf die aushängenden Überlandkabel,
bestückt mit wartenden Schwalben.
While at other times the sheer force of crashing consonants would leave any translator floundering; Anja Utler’s joy in the sound language makes is almost impossible to translate, but Tony Frazer has done a great job here, as this excerpt shows:
ist entäußert ganz stürzt: er ihm – schließlich – entgegen
und quillt es entgurgelt entkreischt ihm – ein ächzen –
und vorerst nur er: vom entsetzen entbunden wird marsyas wird –
endlich: entströmt er ins harrende land er
entrinnt nicht: entspringt
is inverted he just – finally – plunges down and
bursts forth gurgling away shrieking – a groan –
and for now only he: marsyas is delivered from horror is –
lastly: he pours away into the expectant land, he has
no escape, is the source
(from ‘marsyas, umkreist’ / ‘marsyas, encircled’)
Not that any translation can of course be the final word on the matter; there can only ever be one original, but multiple translations are possible as variant readings. Anyone interested could look at an alternative translation of, say; ‘prolongings’ by Monika Rinck (as ‘extendings’) in Fire 29/30.
No anthology of this kind can ever be inclusive. While it seeks to be representative, there will always be omissions. I would just mention Ulrike Draesner, Durs Gruenbein, Norbert Hummelt (who has recently translated Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ and ‘The Waste Land’ into German), Barbara Koehler and, if being alive did not seem to be a criterion for inclusion, Thomas Kling, who died tragically young in 2005 and whose importance and influence for an entire generation cannot be underestimated. Any interested readers can, however, find an abundance of translations in English of many of the poets featured here and many more besides on the websites http://www.lyrikline.org/ and http://www.no-mans-land.org/, just as a starting point.
So poetry in German is gaining interest in the English-speaking world, not least due to the work of Rosemarie Waldrop and others over the years. Magazines like LIT, SHAMPOO, the Atlanta Review the Chicago Review the USA are bringing out German poetry special features in the near future and UK magazines like Shearsman, PSR, Great Works and Litter have featured translations of individual poets, and presses like Carcanet, Arc, Bloodaxe, Green Integer and the Sulphur River Literary Review Press have published books, such as Mark Terrill’s translations of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Like a Pilot from Sulphur River. Perhaps what is needed now is a major anthology of contemporary German poetry in English for the 21st Century, something like Michael Hamburger’s German Poetry 1910-1975 a generation ago, which is now out of print. By concentrating translations from discrete sources into one place, this engaging book goes some way towards that. A useful addition to the shelf of books of German poetry in English translation, it is an important window into what is being written now.
Catherine Hales lives in Berlin. Her poetry and translations have appeared in several magazines in print and online. Her first collection of poems and a book of translations of selected poems of German poet Norbert Hummelt are in preparation.