18 May 2012

The holy - and holy shit.

I just had my first encounter with poetry from Franz Josef Czernin, born 1952. As there’s no published English translation to quote from, I’ll quote the first four lines of his poem sonnet, with the plough taken from his 2002 collection elements, sonnets in my own translation:

with flames. tongues, out and playing at us, up, wild lashing
and edged vivacious wheels which are hot in our hands,
what heaves us up to heaven, fiery in their prompting
until it off it flies, reveals, far off and still akin:

This sonnet sequence is built from, as the title of the collection suggests, the four antique elements and aims – according to Michael Braun writing in the latest issue of the literary newspaper Volltext  - at embodiments of star constellations in concrete poetic material. Braun reads Czernin as writing using the poetics of the early German-language romantics – Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis to your man on the street) & Clemens Brentano. Not really knowing these writers myself, Czernin reminds me above all of Gerald Manley Hopkins on first impressions – the way stressed syllables appear to be crammed into a line (the original first line has got 8, my impromptu translation 7), the alliteration, the readiness to break with colloquial idiom & grammar for poetic effect.
Czernin hasn’t only been interested in poetic effects, but also in the subject of affectedness, how the standards with which publishers & literary establishments judge texts in any given period constantly need to be questioned. That’s what lead him to write and publish, in conjunction with Ferdinand Schmatz, a book of purposefully bad poems at the start of his career: Journeys. Around the World in Eighty Poems (1987, Residenz Publishers) tricking his own publishers in the process – a piece of holy shit, in other words. It only became clear that Czernin & Schmatz had done this when they brought out, later the same year, an exposé of what one may have been nothing more than a clever publicity stunt: The Journey. Into the Whole Deep Ditch in Eighty Squashed Dogs (1987, Droschl); - I guess Residenz didn’t have the guts to publish the exposé after the first book had left them looking foolish. Shame.
Is bad poetry, or to go a step further, intentionally bad poetry, possibly just as rewarding & useful to read as the poetry that they’re claiming is good? And what if Czernin enjoyed that early confidence trick of his so much that he’s simply gone on playing it with his audience & his reception into the literary establishment, writing on through his acceptance into the Darmstadt German Academy for Language and Poetry – continuing to write what many readers will experience as in some way holy, though it might only be holy shit? My gut feeling is that Czernin isn’t doing this; but I’m going to keep close tabs on his future poems. And if these turn out to be the latter of these two holys I may keep it up my sleeve; it’s often better to let Squashed Dogs lie.

04 May 2012

To those who we have not yet wikipedia 'ed

Christian Morgenstern (1871 - 1914) is a poet who I've as yet only read and heard accidentally, when his work has chanced my way. It appears that the poems can be split into the mischievously humorous and the ethereal, Christian mystical. Discount store shopping last night had given me enough of reality; I didn't want to push it by continuing with the epic realism of the David Foster Wallace novel I've got on the go. Instead, I went for the slim 1940 original (German) edition of Morgenstern's collected poems, whose title translates as Time and Timelessness.

The first Morgenstern I ever heard was ' The Architect ' in English translation, in 1999, during the London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar, taught with gusto by Brien Masters, in the dress trousers with strong middle crease & the smart striped shirts he wore, with even the top button still done up. ('An architect who saw this thing / Stood there, one summer's evening / ….. / And built his castle's in the air.')

Anthroposophists like Morgenstern, partly cause they like conventional metres – Morgenstern's steady iambi – and end rhyme: far easier to get a class of 30 kids -  (teaching being the obvious vocation for an anthropop) - reciting Morgenstern or Wordsworth, then to get them declaiming Don Paterson en choral mass.

So no surprises that my next Morgensterny encounter was also at a anthroposophic institution, this time the Institute for Steiner-Waldorf Education in the Ruhr conurbation. In this poem 'Falling leaves' the mood had shifted from the moral quippery of 'The Architect' to an extollation of stoicism, which, after the 9th recitation in the theatre class wore thin:

   …. / strips clean the final branches. / You but, who with heavy heart / Who'd like to wail to wake the dead / Stay strong, stay strong and silent! '

My first emotions with the 1940 edition were of enjoyable incongruity. The poems are backed by a short note from Margareta Morgenstern in which she explains that while some of the pieces published are taken from previous collections, the majority are published for the first time. Here in the middle of a still strong totalitarian state, Nazi Germany, people were going out to buy poems of romance & whimsy. The fraktur type face is also a welcome distraction to those who aren't used to reading it at normal speed. While you're deciphering whether a B, W or S is meant, you're forced to slow down, allowing a-modern images to float by you. Not anti-modern, or pre-modern, but rather in determined ignorance of modernity. Like these ones in the poem Autumn Evening (p.22 of the 1940 edition):

' The stove snuffles like a dog in a dream.
    The breeze passes like a mood from the room . .

That breeze that's come from distant stars
    That's eavesdropped by my soul with love. '
And after a few poems like these, equally memorable     or forgettable depending on your attitude to a-modern whimsy, you stumble upon this what follows (p. 18 of the 1940 edition); it gives you the creeps, & somehow, with hindsight, you thought you saw it coming:

' To Germany
As seen from Norway

There you sleep far from my sight  . .
While I lie sleepless in the night
Yet dream up still to the clear stars
That which does make my soul delight.

You great wolf, for whom I rhyme,
You highest good of the love I give,
Whichever way my thoughts are turning
I'll remain your flesh and blood.

And if I should, with heart and head
into eternity dissolve
noone in that air, those pains
will understand me like you did. '

Well, why not. In a poem written c. 1912, why shouldn't Morgenstern make such nationalistic statements? Perhaps M. can remain in the ranks of the unsullied dead, one who we've had as yet no reason to wikipedia.