Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's nice, but is it German?

Remember the post about enjoying poetry in languages you don't understand?

It turns out I have company, and fairly distinguished company at that

I believe my favourite country's German.

I wander in a calm folk-colored daze; the infant
Looks down upon me from his mother's arms
And says - oh, God knows what he says!
It's baby-talk? he's sick? or is it German?
That Nachtigallenchor: does it sing German?
Yoh, yoh: here mice, rats, tables, chairs,
Grossmutter, Kinder, der Herrgott im Himmel,
All, all but I -
all, all but I -
speak German.

Have you too sometimes, by the fire, at evening,
Wished that you were - whatever you once were?
It is ignorance alone that is enchanting.
Dearer to me than all the treasures of the earth
Is something living, said old Rumpelstiltskin
And hopped home. Charcoal-burners heard him singing
And spoiled it all....And all because -
If only he hadn't known his name!

In German I don't know my name.
I am the log
The fairies left one morning in my place.
- In German I believe in them, in everything:
The world is everything that is the case.
How clever people are! I look on open-mouthed
As Kant reels down the road im Morgenrot
Humming Mir ist so bang, so bang, mein Schatz -
All the nixies set their watches by him
Two hours too fast....
I think, My calendar's
Two centuries too fast, and give a sigh
Of trust. I reach out for the world and ask
The price; it answers, One touch of your finger.

In all my Germany there's no Gesellschaft
But one between eine Katze and ein Maus.
What's business? what's a teaspoon? what's a sidewalk?
Schweig stille, meine Seele! Such things are not for thee.
It is by Trust, and Love, and reading Rilke
Without ein Worterbuch, that man learns German.
The Word rains in upon his blessed head
As glistening from the hand of God
And means - what does it mean? Ah well, it's German.
Glaube, mein Herz! A Feeling in the Dark
Brings worlds, brings words that hard-eyed Industry
And all the schools' dark Learning never knew.

And yet it's hard sometimes, I won't deny it.
Take for example my own favorite daemon,
Dear good great Goethe: ach, what German!
Very idiomatic, very noble; very like a sibyl.
My favourite style is Leopold von Lerchenau's.
I've memorised his da und da und da und da
And whisper it when Life is dark and Death is dark.
There was someone who knew how to speak
To us poor Kinder here im Fremde.
And Heine! At the ninety-sixth mir traumte
I sigh as a poet, but dimple as ein Schuler.
And yet - if it's easy is it German?
And yet, that wunderschone Lindenbaum
Im Mondenscheine! What if it is in Schilda?
It's moonlight, isn't it? Mund, Mond, Herz and Schmerz
Sing round my head, in Zeit and Ewigkeit,
And my heart lightens at each Sorge, each Angst:
I know them well. And Schicksal! Ach, you Norns,
As I read I hear your - what's the word for scissors?
And Katzen have Tatzen - why can't I call someone Kind?
What a speech for Poetry (especially Folk-)!

And yet when, in my dreams, eine schwartzbraune Hexe
(Who mows on the Neckar, reaps upon the Rhine)
Riffles my yellow ringlets through her fingers,
She only asks me questions: What is soap?
I don't know. A suitcase? I don't know. A visit?
I laugh with joy, and try to say like Lehmann:
"Quin-quin, es ist ein Besuch!"
Ah, German!
Till the day I die I'll be in love with German
- If only I don't learn German....I can hear my broken
Voice murmuring to der Arzt: "Ich - sterber?"
He answers sympathetically: "Nein - sterbe."

If God gave me the choice - but I stole this from Lessing -
Of German and learning German, I'd say: Keep your German!

The thought of knowing German terrifies me.
- But surely, this way, no one could learn German?
And yet....
It's difficult; it is impossible?
I'm hopeful that it is, but I can't say
For certain: I don't know enough German.

- Randall Jarrell 'Deutsch Durch Freud'

Meanwhile, right on cue, the New York Review of Books has a Rilke poem:

Komm du, du letzter, den ich anerkenne,
heilloser Schmerz im leiblichen Geweb:
wie ich im Geiste brannte, sieh, ich brenne
in dir; das Holz hat lange widerstrebt,
der Flamme, die du loderst, zuzustimmen,
nun aber nähr' ich dich und brenn in dir.
Mein hiesig Mildsein wird in deinem Grimmen
ein Grimm der Hölle nicht von hier.
Ganz rein, ganz planlos frei von Zukunft stieg
ich auf des Leidens wirren Scheiterhaufen,
so sicher nirgend Künftiges zu kaufen
um dieses Herz, darin der Vorrat schwieg.
Bin ich es noch, der da unkenntlich brennt?
Erinnerungen reiß ich nicht herein.
O Leben, Leben: Draußensein.
Und ich in Lohe. Niemand der mich kennt.

- Rainer Maria Rilke [1]
Actually, it seems to be the season for dead poets. Over at Blackbird, there's a newly discovered Plath poem. Ach, du.


[1] Translation:

Come, then, my last and latest acceptation,
pain in this fleshly web beyond all cure:
as once in mind, see now my conflagration
in you; the wood no longer can abjure
agreement with that flame which you're outthrowing:
I feed you now and burn in you as well.
My earth-born mildness in your fury's growing
a fury not of earth but hell.
So pure, so planless-free from all to-come,
I climbed this dizzy faggot-pile of pain,
so sure I'd nowhere sacrifice, to gain
a future, all this heart's uncounted sum.
Am I still that, unrecognisably
consumed? I snatch no memories inside.
O living, living: being outside.
And I in flame. And no one knowing me.


Space Bar said...

completely OT, but the Minstrels link (on your sidebar) isn't working. have they moved? disappeared? translated themselves into an unsearcheable language?

Anonymous said...

Completely unrelated (it seems to be getting a little too frequent), but..


Anonymous said...

Ok I am probably terribly biased here but German??!!! Bleh!!
It has to be one of the harshest languages on Earth.
I can imagine readin poetry to myself in would be like I am scolding myself or some such....

Falstaff said...

space bar: ? It seems to work fine for me.

N: Thanks for pointing me to that. Good stuff. Though I have to confess to never managing to be that enamoured with Ancient Egypt. Give me the Greeks any day.

Szerelem: I disagree. German in the hands of a master can be genuinely beautiful - read Rilke, or, even better, listen to Schubert.

Space Bar said...

it's working today...sigh. yesterday, when i was trying to link to a whole bunch of poems for a post on my blog, it didn't work. that's the way it goes.

The Black Mamba said...

lol! how many times do english poets get to write - I climbed this dizzy faggot-pile of pain,and get called "genuinely beautiful". :) It just the language that lets you express so many emotions that are left unexpressed in many many others -- other than, yiddish, perhaps :)

for me, this probably sums it up best - It's baby-talk? he's sick? or is it German? perfect.

I-always-knew-you-had-a-thing-for-Germans said...

Endlich. Someone else agrees that there's no point in 'learning' German. Even though it's generally so much more of a cerebral-logical language than an emotional one, personally advocate imbibing it from Rilke( hopefully with better translations than this one), soap operas and err other creative-ideally madly attractive- sources:)

Anonymous said... I said I am probably biased. And I am not saying that German doesn't lend itself to beauty. But hearing it spoken is always a bit unpleasant for me. Even my German friends joke about this, but finding someone who can make the language sound lyrical rather than cold and harsh is rare. Give me French or Italian any day =P

Falstaff said...

BM: Yes, I know, I loved that bit as well. The dizzy faggot-pile of pain did jar a bit, though the image is an exceptional one - it's only the translation that's the trouble. I'm not sure who translated this - and i don't know enough German to really judge - but it seems to me the translation is fairly poor.

well-for-german-speakers-anyway: Agree. Or from soap operas involving aforementioned creative, madly attractive people.

szerelem: Ah, but that's exactly the point. Any halfwit can make, say, Urdu sound beautiful (though writing good poetry in it, is, of course, a whole other matter) and you could be haggling over toilet paper in Italian and it would send lyrical. But to take a language like German and convert it into some of the most profound and touching songs ever written takes real talent.

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MockTurtle said...

A "faggot-pile" is a pile of fire wood. In this context I'm guessing its the pile of kindling used to burn people at the stake.

The Black Mamba said...

turtle: awh, now now, you mean it is a pile of wood and not a whole bunched of preening homosexual men? tsk... sad. ;)