Marvellously thoughtful and well-informed review of my (fairly) recent translations of the poems of Peter Huchel. Also recent winner of the Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Translation 2020.
Many thanks to Rebecca DeWald and to Reading in Translation.
To mark the shortlisting – for the Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize 2020 – of my Peter Huchel translations, published by Shearsman Books, I’m posting here a piece I wrote about Huchel’s poetry which first appeared in Acumen 98 (September 2020). Peter Huchel’s work has its place in the tradition of the greats of twentieth-century German poetry – Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, Benn and Celan – but he is also, as Karen Leeder has argued, a “one off”.[i] Iain Galbraith also lists Huchel among a “handful of essential post-war poets” in German, but his poetry is far less well known than it deserves to be. His presence in English at all is thanks to Michael Hamburger’s 1983 translations published by Anvil[ii]. I came across isolated examples of his work a few years ago and was immediately drawn to his startling observations of the natural world which function often as “metaphors [to] take us deep into the social and historical landscape” of his era (Galbraith again). I believe he is a poet with important things to say to us in our own conflicted times and my translation of Huchel’s best collection, These Numbered Days (1972), was published last year by Shearsman Books. Here, I put Huchel’s work into the context of the great events in Europe in the twentieth century.
Huchel’s description of Pe-Lo-Thien, the poet, social critic and sometime exile from the Tang Dynasty, is intended also as a portrait of the poet himself – a dissident figure, an “outlaw, / who lives beyond the wall / with his cranes and cats” (‘Pe-Lo-Thien’). It’s no surprise that the spare, impersonal, often lapidary quality of the poems in These Numbered Days was remarked on by Karl Alfred Wolken as offering the reader something of a Chinese book in German.[iii] The poet himself, carefully scrutinising the natural world – the perception of which constitutes the substance of so many of his poems – tries to descry “Signs, / written by the hand / of a Mandarin” (‘No Answer’). If such allusions suggest a minimalist and tight-lipped quality to Huchel’s poems, this is precisely what might be expected from an artist forced to play, as he did for so many years, the role of inner émigré.
For readers of British and Irish poetry, the term ‘inner émigré’ will be familiar from Seamus Heaney’s use of it in his 1975 poem ‘Exposure’. Discussing the idea, Heaney acknowledged the term’s specific meaning in the 1920/30s in Soviet Russia as referring to a dissident who had not actually gone into exile but remained at home, disaffected from and under the surveillance of the authorities. Heaney saw himself in this light in relation to Northern Ireland. He also associated the idea with the position of George Seferis, concluding that “poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster”.[iv] This same sense of confinement, wrestling with conscience and the frequent resort to codification which results from such a compromised position is the best way into Huchel’s work as a writer whose life and historical circumstances astonishingly led him to play the role of inner émigré twice over.
He was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Alt-Lichterfelde, now part of Berlin. Due to his mother’s chronic illness, the boy was taken from the city to be raised on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. As an adult, Huchel was fond of quoting St. Augustine on the importance of memory as a “great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds”.[v] Huchel argued that it is “the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years”.[vi] But if this period seems to have had something of the idyll about it for the 11 year old boy, it was dramatically shattered by the death of his beloved grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.
After his country’s defeat, the 17 year old Huchel took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment of the German government’s agreeing to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. Huchel was wounded in the fighting associated with this failed coup but it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed. His very early poems can be linked to the sort of art fostered by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. He has said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”.[vii]
By 1932 he was working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt. His first collection of poems was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). But with the rise of Hitler, Die Literarische Welt had to cease publication and it is at this moment that Huchel developed the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’. He published very little, eventually deciding to withhold Der Knabenteich. He was deeply troubled that the Nazis liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. So, by 1936 he was refusing permission for any publication and he did not publish any new poems during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Rather, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside. His response to tyranny was silence and non-cooperation, though he was eventually drafted in 1941 and ended the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.
With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots for the reconstruction of East Germany. His short-lived faith in land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years is consistent with his earlier social concerns. He now began working for East German radio and in 1948 at last published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’). In 1949 he became editor of the influential literary magazine Sinn und Form (‘Sense and Form’). Though Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and socialist undercurrents, they did not satisfy those who were soon demanding much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered equivocal support at best for the governing regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than a modern revolutionary transformation of human society) were judged to fall short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.
With the poet’s increasing sense of disaffection from the direction of GDR society, Huchel was once more forced to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’. The tone of his work becomes increasingly sombre and melancholy, his poetic diction grows more clipped and cryptic, his palette narrowing. In his work at the journal Sinn und Form, he was determined to maintain editorial freedom and the publication flaunted an international outlook with contributions from Aragon, Bloch, Brecht (two special issues), Camus, Eluard, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Neruda, Sartre, Yevtushenko and Zweig. Increasingly, he came into conflict with the authorities and was put under immense pressure to conform. He resisted for 13 years – in large part because of the determined support of Brecht. Brecht’s death in 1956 left Huchel exposed and he was asked to resign his editorship. He refused and so compelled the East German government publicly to force his resignation.
A year after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel was banished at the age of 59 to effective house arrest in Wilhelmshorst. It was at this moment that his second collection of poems, Chausseen, Chausseen (‘Roads, Roads’), appeared. He published it – in bold defiance of the GDR authorities – in the West. It was much praised in the author’s absence. Henry Beissel describes the leanness and density of these new free verse poems: “images are more insistent on turning concreteness into a code; sadness emanates from a sense of the inevitability of loss and from a world bent on self-destruction”.[viii] Huchel’s images from nature are left to speak for themselves; his is often an impersonal poetry of a particularly haunted and pessimistic kind. Yet there is stoical survival too; the poems remain marvellous acts of observation.
The poem ‘Hubertusweg’ vividly portrays this period of his life, from 1962 to 1971, living in isolation, under Stasi surveillance. Gezählte Tage (‘These Numbered Days’) appeared in 1972, the title suggesting the counted days of Huchel’s time under house arrest, his poems recording them, marking them, but also a residual sense of them actually counting towards something, his legacy as a poet, his hoped-for release. Huchel repeatedly applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife and son and in this he was supported by PEN in an internationally orchestrated campaign.
Eventually, in 1971, the Ulbricht government granted his release and he lived first in Rome, then in a borrowed house near Freiburg in West Germany. But like many GDR artists who moved to the West, Huchel was equivocal – to put it mildly – about what he found here. Because the GDR had failed to bring about a truly democratic and socialist society did not mean that he had given up his ideals and the West’s materialism, egotism and faithless profiteering were repellent to him. There is a spiritual emptiness everywhere as in ‘Subiaco’, set in Italy, where Pilate’s bowl stands emptied of water so the taint of guilt cannot be washed away. Huchel’s gloom is partly determined by his own nature, partly by his background, by political persecution and by his divorce from his Brandenburg homeland. The poet bears witness to the inadequate present.
In Huchel’s few remaining years he was lauded in the West but perhaps this was just another form of exile, though one in which he was able to speak and publish. Even so, his final collection, Die Neunte Stunde (‘The Ninth Hour’) which appeared in 1979, is a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament. The ninth hour is the hour of despair, the hour in which Christ died on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Huchel himself died in 1981, aged 78. Contemporary readers can hear something of his more personal voice – so finely attuned to the natural world, but gifted only a tragically powerless place in history, yet driven to labour and bear witness against the odds – in the words of the unnamed peasant who narrates ‘Middleham Castle’, one of Huchel’s more explicit and terrifying portraits of tyranny:
Familiar with the ways of great forests –
the year streaked with the jays’ colours,
painful brightness of frosted boughs,
the winter hair of deer stuck to bark,
fawns huddled together at evening,
warming themselves in the cloud of their breathing –
up the gorse-clad hill with rope and horses
I haul tree trunks to Middleham Castle.
London July 2020
[i] Karen Leeder, Introduction to These Numbered Days, Peter Huchel, tr. Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman, 2019).
[ii]The Garden of Theophrastus and other poems, tr. Michael Hamburger (Anvil Press, 2004).
Iain Galbraith’s really skillful translations of the German poet Jan Wagner have just won the Popescu European Poetry Prize. Wagner’s poems brew a formal brilliance (Karen Leeder remarks in her Introduction to Arc’sSelf-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, that“virtuoso” is the compliment most often applied to him) with an intense concentration on really existing things. In the German tradition, of course, such a meticulous and sensual evocation of things (‘die Dinge’) harks back to Rilke’s advice in the ninth of his Duino Elegies (1922):
Perhaps we are here to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –
at most: column, tower . . .
Rilke’s cycle of poems arrives at this conclusion (“Praise this world to the angel, not some / inexpressible other”) not at all in the spirit of defeat but in a celebratory mood because it is only through honest interaction with the world that we define and refine our sense of ourselves. Equally and dialectically, through, our emotional and artistic responses to the world of things we are able to translate the inanimate and unconscious world into something more significant, lasting, spiritualized.
And these things, which live by passing away,
acknowledge your praise of them, as they vanish,
they look to us to deliver them, we, the most
fleeting of all. They long for us to change them,
utterly, in our invisible hearts – oh, endlessly,
to be within us – whoever, at last, we may be.
It is just this ebb and flow between self and other, each re-defining the other, each growing in response to the other, that Wagner seems intent on recording. But it’s not always an easy process as the poem ‘Mushrooms’ suggests. The narrator must listen for the snap of a twisted stem as if cracking a safe, “hoping for the right combination”. But when the right balance (I’m afraid it has to be this dull-seeming word) is achieved between active exploration and passive sensitivity then two worlds are miraculously joined.
But we need not get too po-faced about the process. Wagner suggests a tea-bag might help us envisage it. In two haikus, he wryly evokes both facets of such communion in a religious visionary and a rope-dangling, Indiana Jones-type adventurer:
draped only in a
sackcloth mantle. the little
hermit in his cave
a single thread leads
to the upper world. we shall
give him five minutes
Wagner reflects the often rebarbative nature of the process partly through typographical choices, abandoning capital letters throughout (a far more disturbing move in German, of course, which capitalizes all nouns, all things). It’s also reflected in the choice of fruit in ‘Quince Jelly’. Knobbly and ugly, even ripe quinces are inedible when raw, astringent and tough. Wagner acknowledges the “tough and foreign” quality of the fruit and its taste which makes “our palates baulk”. Yet the human work invested in the transformative domestic process yields great rewards:
quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on
shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for
harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they
shone, are still shining.
Such meticulous observation and sensual details held in the form of verse ensure Wagner’s things are always more than themselves and here the quince jelly is a poem, much like Wordsworth’s daffodils, an accumulation of “wealth” to flash upon “that inward eye” in days and years to come.
Wagner also chooses a ‘Chameleon’ to represent the poet. Describing the creature’s curved tail as a “pastoral staff” raises the spiritual stakes with a wonderfully light touch. The animal’s perceptive acuity is likewise explored with its tongue like a “telescope”, snapping up the “constellation” of a dragonfly. Its eye is a “fortress” yet contains a flickering pupil; an indefinable restlessness is suggested by its shed skin like “an outpost or long-discarded theory”. Most tellingly, the chameleon’s independently moving eyes enable Wagner to suggest the balance of both centrifugal and centripetal thrusts of the true perception: the animal gazes “simultaneously at the sky / and the ground, keeping his distance / from both”.
The title poem of Arc’s selection (taken from 5 collections between 2001-2014) is another portrait of the poet. ‘Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees’ has the narrator wearing an ever-accumulating beard of swarming bees. The risks and dangers are part of the point but the poem focuses on the accumulating “weight and spread”, suggesting the swarm extends and adds to the narrator in some intrinsic way. Indeed, he becomes “the stone-still centre of song”. In the next quatrain, the passive singer is converted into an “ancient knight” arming for battle, yet he does not either advance or retreat:
just stands there gleaming, with barely a hint
of wind behind the lustre, lingering breath,
and only vanishing becomes distinct.
This teasing last line (“und wirklich sichtbar erst mit dem verschwinden”) is best understood again through Rilke. Auden affectionately ribbed Rilke as a poet whom “die Dinge bless, / The Santa Claus of loneliness” but it is in the challenge to self confronted through honest encounters with the world of things that we re-make and re-define our sense of self. Here is the idea expressed in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus, 2, 13:
Volker Braun’s Rubble Flora (tr. David Constantine and Karen Leeder (Seagull Books, 2014)) was one of the commended texts in this year’s Popescu Translation Prize. I was surprised it did not make it to the final shortlist. His passionate and abrasive voice (in these excellent translations) is certainly worth sampling as a model for poetry engaging with political change. Here he is writing from the GDR after the Berlin Wall has come down.
That’s me still here. My country’s going West.
WAR ON THE POOR GOD BLESS THE PALACES.
I helped it out the door with all the rest.
What paltry charms it has it gives away.
After winter comes the summer of excess.
And I can go to hell is what they say.
I don’t know the meaning of my text.
What I never owned, they’ve taken even this.
What I never lived, I know I’ll always miss.
It was hope that came before this fall.
My property, you flog from stall to stall.
When will I say mine again and mean of all.
(tr. Karen Leeder)
Braun was born in Dresden in 1939. His childhood was spent in the post-war ruins of that city which he describes as a locus of re-birth as much as devastation: “Fiery lupins and / Widows in the ruins set up house and home” (‘Rubble Flora’). His early work reflects the pioneering spirit of the foundation of the GDR, though a poem like ‘Demand’, with its vigour and idealism expressed through bold exclamatory phrases, already runs counter to the growing repressiveness of the state. Braun consistently relishes the provisional:
Don’t come to us with it all sewn up. We need work in progress.
Out with the venison roast – in with the knife and the forest.
Here experiment is king, not fixed routine.
His urge to move forward becomes an unhealed wound. ‘At Dawn’, in its entirety reads: “Every step I’ve still to take / tears me apart”.
There is also a strong streak of sensuality throughout Braun’s work and eros is celebrated in contrast to what ‘Afternoon’ terms “the pre-printed schedules / And fully synchronised reports” that constituted ‘really existing socialism’. Karen Leeder’s Introduction discusses Braun’s ability to “manoeuver within the [Communist} system” and, feeling the pressures of history unfolding, ‘Fief’ expresses something of a stoical attitude: “I’ll hold out here, find succour in the East”. By the 1980s, Braun’s hopes for a fitting fief were also taking the form of Rimbaudian flights of fancy as here in the landscape of ‘Innermost Africa’:
Under the soft tamarisks
Into the tropical rains that wash
The slogans off, the dry memoranda
Also around this time, Braun alludes to Goethe’s idyllic images of lemon trees in bloom from his 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’. Here they flash past in a fragmentary manner, alongside other literary references, prose passages, graffiti-like capitalised phrases and seeming non-sequiturs. Both Leeder and Constantine deal brilliantly with the challenge such a style presents to its translators. In this way, Braun’s work betrays the pressures of speaking in a repressive regime and so it is interesting that the more lucid lyrics of The Zig-Zag Bridge (1988) pre-empt the fall of the Berlin Wall and the possibility of speaking out.
But Braun’s visions of the fulfilled life were hardly advanced with the advent of capitalism. The changes of 1989 are repeatedly portrayed as a false dawn. The magnificent sequence, ‘West Shore’, roars with hopes and disappointments in the embrace of the new ideology:
the abrupt come-down
Of the roped-together
From the north face of the Eager
As above, ‘Property’ sees the old GDR “going West” yet the poet is bewildered even by his own “text” as everything gets “flog[ged] from stall to stall”. Braun pursues intertextual effects with Eliot-like allusions as in ‘O Chicago! O Contradiction’ where he draws on Brecht’s 1927 poem ‘Vom armen B.B.’ (see my earlier blog and translation of this poem) and Hamlet to evoke “the chilly byways / Of market economics”. But after 1989, such allusions are more frequently to brand names and consumer goods as here in the mock-jaunty optimism of “Socialism’s out the door, but here comes Johnnie Walker”.
Neither communism nor capitalism nurtures the life Braun seeks and he turns his vitriol on the new world where “King Customer” rules (‘Common Ownership’), where the “supercontinent [. . . ] COCA COLA” rises from the ocean (‘West Shore’) and fashion shows in ‘Lagerfeld’ show capitalism making people “more beautiful but not better”. It’s Helena Christensen who stalks the catwalks of this poem only to arrive at:
the throwaway society
The arena full of the last screams Ideas
Rome’s last era, unseriousness
Now watch the finale ME OR ME
If Braun still finds pleasure in the world it is despite political change not because of it. ‘Art’ asks torturedly, rhetorically, “How / Is it possible that things the way they are / Are dancing?” Rubble Flora concludes with work since 2005 and there is more Rilkean “praise [of] the world as it appears” (‘When He Could See Again’) and this affords some relief from the “stifling / Of [the] ability to be human” (‘Conversation About the Trees in Gezi Park’). One of the “things” still dancing for Braun is the erotic. The loss of desire is the sole subject of ‘My Fear’ and the hope that “some gentle breast might fasten for a while / And quicken my blood” (‘Findings’) offers some counterbalance to the almost deafening, continuing “twitter-storm” (‘Wilderness’) of injustice, greed, poverty and violence in the world generally, more specifically in his own “re-disunited Germany” (‘De Vita Beata’).
This review originally published in Poetry London (March 2015)
Last Friday night I read briefly (partly from my Worple Press book: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/a-hatfield-mass/) at the LRB bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL (in fact just doors along from Enitharmon Press’ new offices). It was the launch of Magma magazine’s new issue (http://magmapoetry.com/). Magma really has become one of the must-read magazines in UK poetry and the event was one of two national launches (the other is on Thursday 11 December at 7pm at the Lit & Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE, with guest reader Sean O’Brien). The LRB is a spectacularly good bookshop but you feel acutely the vanishing of bookshops elsewhere – to be surrounded by shelves of ‘proper’ books is a real pleasure, distressingly beginning to take on the quality of a sepia-tinted memory. Yet, as one of the readers commented, this is a dangerous place to visit if you’re not prepared to part with hard cash: so many temptations. It’s also a good place for a reading: chairs from front to back on the ground floor, seating well over 50, and on Friday it was packed.
Magma 60 is edited by Rob A. Mackenzie and Tony Williams (one of the good and distinctive things about the magazine is its rolling editorship) and 19 poets were asked to read a couple of poems each, with Kei Miller putting in a longer shift at the end as guest poet. Among others, Peter Daniels’ poems evoked a quiet, desperate sense of things not holding, of wider societal failing (‘you might discover you’re painting the house / while the other side’s on fire’). Jacqueline Saphra remembered being seventeen and then dealing with her own seventeen-year olds, boys and girls, the latter crying from their rooms, ‘Come in, I won’t let you in, Come in’. Michael Henry recalled Finals exams and wanting to write about Brecht, which he does in his poem ‘Agent provocateur’: ‘The Brechtian grape is a dry white grape / and it tastes like the white corpuscles in blood’. Martha Sprackland and Jasmine Simms found common ground and a source of poetry in drifting off in science classes at school (I remember it well).
John Greening read about visiting the archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo and an intriguing poem about ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which knowingly fails to offer ‘an explanation // of what happens in the end [. . .] about how whatever it is was broken’. DA Prince also evoked an earlier age with ‘The bell-makers’ reminding me of sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966): ‘the brilliant blistering light, / that cataract of blazing air, the stream / of liquid pain’. Karen Leeder presented new translations of German poet, Volker Braun. Braun was writing in part through the upheavals of 1989, exploring the triumph of capitalism: ‘EVERYTHING AND NOTHING / Was it ever really yours? Fuck you, fantasist. / The encore: all that you could never need!’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rubble-Flora-Selected-Seagull-German/dp/0857422189/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417365225&sr=1-1&keywords=volker+braun).
At the end of the first half, Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works in secure hospitals,talked about her work and love of Philip Larkin’s poetry and read ‘Talking in Bed’ (one of my own Larkin favourites; see below). Kei Miller’s live delivery illuminates and energises his own words on the page. I’ve written more about his prize-winning The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet) on this blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/10/22/kei-millers-cartographer-and-friels-translations/). He read several of the Place Name pieces, the poem where the Cartographer asks for directions and gets indirections instead (‘all true’ Kei said), the ‘Hymn to the Birds’ and the 28,000 rubber ducks poem which moves (almost imperceptibly) from children’s bath toys to captives lost overboard on trans-Atlantic passages years ago. Miller finished with his short poem ‘Distance’ which seemed to be something of an answer to Larkin’s poem chosen by Gwen Adshead; here are the two of them. . .
Talking in bed
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
Distance is always reduced at night
The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far