Saturday, September 15, 2012

your blond poet may be going insane


Georg Heym (1887-1912), Georg Trakl (1887-1914), August Stramm (1874-1915), and Alfred Lichtenstein (1889-1914). The least-known today, to English-speaking poetry readers anyway, are Stramm and Lichtenstein. A Selected Heym in English versions was published in the UK recently, and Trakl of course has been presented in several book-length translations.

Heym died in an iceskating accident before The Great War, which murdered the other three.

Stramm’s poetry is so idiosyncratic that it doesn’t translate well, and Lichtenstein died so young that his poetic career had barely begun.

Here are two translations of Lichtenstein’s “Die Dämmerung” (1913):


A fat boy is playing with a pond.
The wind has trapped itself in a tree.
The sky looks wan and pale
As though it hadn’t found its make-up.

On long crutches, bent crookedly, two lame men
Creak and chatter across the field.
A blond poet may be going mad.
A little horse stumbles over a lady.

At a window a fat man is stuck.
A youth is going to visit a soft woman.
A grey clown is pulling up his boots.
A baby-carriage screeches and dogs curse.

(trans. Victor Lange)

the next is by Roy F. Allen, from his book, “German Expressionist Poetry” (Twayne, 1979):


A fat boy is playing with a pond.
The wind has gotten caught in a tree.
The sky looks dissolute and pale,
As though it had run out of make-up.

Bent crooked on long crutches
And chattering, two cripples are creeping across the field.
A blond poet is perhaps going mad.
A pony trips over a lady.

A fat man is sticking to a window.
A young lad wants to visit a supple woman.
A gray clown is putting on his boots.
A baby carriage screams and dogs are cursing.

This mode, this method, is taken, the experts all point out, from “Weltende” (1910) by Jacob van Hoddis, which is historically and famously “the first Expressionist poem.” (And which I assume everyone is familiar with.)

Die Dämmerung

Ein dicker Junge spielt mit einem Teich.
Der Wind hat sich in einem Baum gefangen.
Der Himmel sieht verbummelt aus und bleich,
as wäre ihm die Schminke ausgegangen.

Auf lange Krücken schief herabgebückt
Un schwatzend kriechen auf dem Feld zwei Lahme.
Ein blonder Dichter wird vielleicht verrückt.
Ein Pferdchen stolpert über eine Dame.

An einem Fenster klebt ein fetter Mann.
Ein Jüngling will ein weiches Weib besuchen.
Ein grauer Clown zieht sich die Stiefel an.
Ein Kinderwagen schreit und Hunde fluchen.

Chubby boy to fat man, pond to window.
Sans make-up, the horse keeps tripping over that lady.
And the young man of course is on his way toward sex.
The pregnancies that ensue from these encounters may fill the Kinderwagens with Pegasi or blond poets going bonkers.


But the method here, the one-liners, the sequence of seemingly nonsequitirs—

Victor Lange: “The Expressionist technique . . . juxtaposes not, in the symbolist manner, resonant metaphors but static images. . . . We find [this] technique of stringing together a number of almost self-contained statements, each striking but without lyric resonance, in Kafka’s earliest prose text, “Description of a Fight.” written in 1902 or 1903, and published in 1909: ‘What days are these? Why is everything so poorly built? Houses collapse without any reason. . . . People fall down in the street and lie there. . . . The tip of the town hall tower moves in small circles. All window panes rattle. The lampposts bend like bamboo. The cloak of The Mother Mary on the column flaps and the air tugs at it. Does nobody see it?’ ”

Lange introduces Lichtenstein’s “Twilight” by saying something like (I’m paraphrasing it):
“One Expressionist procedure [technique, method] is the attempt to present a succession of syntactically simple statements which, in their taciturn manner, produce an almost mythical effect. Lichtenstein’s “Twilight” is an example of this. . . .”
(These Lange quotes are from the Review of National Literatures, Volume 9, 1978).

Another translation, from Michael Hamburger:


A flabby boy is playing with a pond.
The wind has got entangled in a tree.
The sky looks like the morning after, drained
And pale as though its make-up had run out.

Athwart long crutches, bowed and chattering
Across the field a pair of lame men creeps.
A fair-haired poet may be going mad.
Over a lady a small horse trips up.

A man's fat face sticks to a window-pane.
A youngster wants to visit a soft woman.
A greyish clown is putting on his boots.
A pram begins to yell and dogs to curse.

(Particularly admirable is how Hamburger has reproduced the iambic pentameter of the original.)

Born in Berlin in 1889, "the son of a factory owner, a Prussian Jew," Lichtenstein in 1939 would have been 50 years old, perhaps at the peak of his poetic career, or probably dead instead if he hadn't made it into exile like Brecht and others—

Those blond poets not only went insane, they (or some of them) became Nazis.

Lichtenstein wasn't the greatest poet slaughtered in the Great War, not even the greatest German poet, but—

Here's another Hamburger rendering, of Lichtenstein's "Der Lackschuh":


The poet thought:
Enough. I'm sick of the whole lot!

The whores, the theatre and the city moon,
The streets, the laundered shirtfronts and the smells,
The nights, the coachmen and the curtained windows,
The laughter and the street lamps and the murders—
I am well and truly sick of the whole lot,
To hell with it!
Happen what may . . . it's all the same to me:
This black shoe pinches me. I'll take it off—

Let people turn their heads for all I care.
A pity, though, about my new silk sock . . .


A "plain prose" trans. of Die Dämmerung by R. S. Furness:

A fat boy is playing with a pond. / The wind has become entangled in a tree. / The sky looks pale and debauched /As though its make-up had run out. // On long crutches, crookedly bent, and chatting, / Two cripples crawl about a field. / Perhaps a fair poet will become insane. / A pony stumbles over a lady. // A fat man is sticking to a window. / A youth wishes to visit a soft woman. / A grey clown pulls on his boots. / A pram screams, and dogs curse.



1 comment:

  1. Hi Bill
    You might be interested in this: