Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

It was love at first sight – truly.

The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.


The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live).  The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it.  And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.


But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth.  What other treasures was I going to discover?

As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired.   The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces.  Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers,  the second the  imaginary animal reader.  Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)


The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world.  Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read  before.  So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz,  Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky)  I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach!  The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.

As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here.  As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on  book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.

I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser.  Rather I kept taking diversions.  So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.

Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up.  Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up.  In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.


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Eugen Roth’s poem Bücher (Books) tells how books, separated from their pals on the shelves, stored in bags, ready to vacate the premises work on the mind of their potentially-soon-to-be-ex ….. who takes another look, and then for reasons of beauty or content (I remember now why I wanted to read you) returns them one by one to the shelves, rejoicing in the act of self-sabotage.

The object lesson for book cullers is to remove the bags from the premises immediately before, as in the current case in point, 75 become 65 for all the reasons Roth mentions in his poem.  What Roth didn’t have to contend with, however, is the world of book blogging and reviews which then result in further search and rescue missions.  All I can say is that the remaining 64 (books not bags) are leaving the premises today before the number reduces even further.

Caroline, I’ve said it before, you are such a bad influence! 😂😂😂 It was your review of The Devotion of Suspect X what did it!  This poem is for you.

(Apologies to non-German readers, I can’t find an English translation, though Google Translate will give you a hazy idea of meaning, if you care to try it.)

Eugen Roth: Bücher

Ein Mensch, von Büchern hart bedrängt,
An die er lang sein Herz gehängt,
Beschließt voll Tatkraft, sich zu wehren,
Eh sie kaninchenhaft sich mehren.
Sogleich, aufs äußerste ergrimmt,
Er ganze Reihn von Schmökern nimmt
Und wirft sie wüst auf einen Haufen,
Sie unbarmherzig zu verkaufen.
Der Haufen liegt, so wie er lag,
Am ersten, zweiten, dritten Tag.
Der Mensch beäugt ihn ungerührt
Und ist dann plötzlich doch verführt,
Noch einmal hinzusehn genauer –
Sieh da, der schöne Schopenhauer…
Und schlägt ihn auf und liest und liest,
Und merkt nicht, wie die Zeit verfließt…
Beschämt hat er nach Mitternacht
Ihn auf den alten Platz gebracht.
Dorthin stellt er auch eigenhändig
Den Herder, achtundzwanzigbändig.
E.T.A. Hoffmanns Neu-Entdeckung
Schützt diesen auch vor Zwangs-Vollstreckung.
Kurzum, ein Schmöker nach dem andern
Darf wieder auf die Bretter wandern.
Der Mensch, der so mit halben Taten
Beinah schon hätt den Geist verraten,
Ist nun getröstet und erheitert,
Daß die Entrümpelung gescheitert.



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I had intended to write this post as a translation duel but decided I would have to quote full poems and their translations to do it properly.  I don’t think Rilke would mind but the translators might be upset me quoting their copyright translations in full (particularly when I wax less than lyrical).

It would appear that since the inaugural German Literature Month during which Emma passionately advocated her admiration of Rilke the man, I, who had never read him, have been collecting modern English translations.

All three have one thing in common.  They all present the translation in parallel to the original poem. I like that. I can appreciate Rilke in his own words, admire just how beautiful German can be (a revelation at times) and admire the solutions that the various translators have conjured. I’m sure I would admire them more if I could appreciate metre, but I’m afraid I’m metre-deaf.  Still I can understand allusion, simile, metaphor and meaning, so all is not lost.

Two of the volumes are collaborations: The Oxford volume (two Rilke experts: Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland) and the Essential Rilke (Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize winning, non-German speaking poet and Hannah Liebmann, a native German speaker).  In Pure Contradiction, Ian Crockatt, a Scottish crofter, translator of Old Norse skaldic poetry and poet in his own right, flies solo.  His critically acclaimed translation won the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize.

There is an extensive introduction in each book with explanations on how the translators approached the task and their objectives.  These introductions serve as excellent references to what makes Rilke so difficult to translate: his purposed vagueness, his subversion of German formations, his casting of several stanzas into one sentence. It’s no wonder that there are so many translations of his work, or that the results are so different from one another.

The results depend upon the translator’s ethic.  Whether they wished to create a translation as true to Rilke as possible (Kinnell/Liebmann) or wished to create a modern English alternative (Crockatt).  Not that Crockatt makes that claim; that’s how I read them.  Given that I abandoned the Ranson/Sutherland volume for adding flourishes and meanings that I didn’t see in the original, often to preserve the metre, Crockatt’s translations didn’t sit well with me.  The final straw was his translation of Leda.

Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat,
erschrak er fast, den Schwan so schön zu finden;
er ließ sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden.
Schon aber trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,

bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins
Gefühle prüfte. Und die Aufgetane
erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane
und wußte schon er bat um Eins,

das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand,
nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder
und halsend durch die immer schwächre Hand

ließ sich der Gott in die Geliebte los.
Dann erst empfand er glücklich sein Gefieder
und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoß.

Now we know that this describes the rape of Leda by Zeus.  Yet Rilke choses not to portray the event in an explicitly violent way. He could have; the German words existed. Yet Crockatt’s poem reads like an x-rated movie.  (And thus do his sales figures soar.) A non-German speaking reader appreciates his translation more than me.  In this particular case I dispute his claim that “Where I have created some new metaphor,or taken a direction he (Rilke) does not take, it is to bring to life and clarity the apparent significance of the poetry for 21st century English language readers, not to deliberately replace or distort his thought or expression”. Nor did I find this an isolated case.

I much prefer the Kinnell/Liebmann collaboration; the collection where the final translations were shaped by a non-German speaking poet. They are more literal; hence more accurate.  Yet they preserve the imagery, subtlety and grace of the originals.  Why mess with the master?

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life 2014

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It all started with the publication of Hamish-Haswell Smith’s An Island Odyssey. (See my review on Shiny New Books.) and the irresistible pull of Island 14, Staffa,  the lure of Fingal’s Cave.  Staffa is uninhabited – now – and it is necessary to travel via Mull.  So, one fine sunny weekend in June, bags packed, appropriate reading material excavated from the TBR, where this fine anthology has languished for some 3 years, off we set.

Looking out to the Sound of Mull

It was an inspired choice of reading material.  As the editor Kevin MacNeil says in the prologue “I believe the poetry in this anthology is among the best that the UK has produced since the beginning of the 20th century.  Even the most objective critic will appreciate that a high proportion of the finest and most important poems of recent years have had a connection with one or other of the Scottish isles: Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, Hugh MacDiarmid.  And although all those “big” names are male, I hope this collection will go some way to remedying that gender imbalance, as it also showcases the strength of the great female island voices, so often underrated.”

Besides balancing gender, this anthology also spans language containing compositions originally written in English, Gaelic and Scots. The Gaelic poems are translated into English, but the Scots ones are not.  This, I thought an oversight, for Scots really isn’t that easy to read. I may have lived in Scotland for 25 years, but I haven’t picked up enough of the vernacular to understand some of the longer poems.  The poems I did understand were delightful and true companions as I meandered my way around just 2 of the 800 Scottish Isles.  They chart island culture and its loss through emigration of the younger generation to the mainland.  They chart the landscape of human emotions as well as the landscape of the islands themselves, and it was this theme that stood out for me during my first trip to the Inner Hebrides.


(Myles Campbell – translated from Gaelic)

Islands rise from the sea,
their foundations hidden
in ancient experiences.

Islands are in and out of time,
guides for the wanderer,
or submerged in time long gone.

Some are well established,
high and dark in the flood.
No storm will affect their well-formed front.

Some in lava and sulphurous grief,
sea children of torn heart.
And others, icebergs, coldly moving in the water.

Some will stand silent,
lonely – inwardly as rock –
unassuming in the heat of the day.

And there is an island in the dusk,
assured, dark, and repelling,
its foundations in a fading time.

And this island in the sunset,
island watching another island.
You decide your own form.

These tangible differences between the islands were clearly demonstrated on the trip from Mull to Staffa.

The leafiness of Ulva

The basalt stacks of Little Colonsay 

The Dutchman’s Hat of Bac Mór

 The sight of Bac Mór on the horizon and this poem are now permanently fused in my mind.

Slate, Sea and Sky 

(Norman Bissell)

An island on the rim of world
in that space, between slate, sea and sky
where air and ocean currents
are plays of wild energy
and the light changes everything.

And finally to Staffa, formed by the same slow-cooling volcanic activity as the Giant’s causeway.  Spectacular.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.


Staffa – Entrance to Fingal’s Cave

Staffa – Basalt Columns

Staffa – Hexagonal formations

Staffa – Fingal’s Cave


Inspiring.  Certainly something to sing about. If you want to invent a lyric to Mendelssohn’s overture, feel free.

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Animation credit: poetryreincarnations on Youtube

I am a firm believer in Anne Boleyn’s innocence. Although this poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, one of her alleged lovers, who fortunately found a protector in Thomas Cromwell, does make me think twice ….. Wyatt claimed poetic licence. Let me just add the word exquisite.

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I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I haven’t read much poetry this month but I have read many words about the English Romantic Poets. Two works of non-fiction and a literary homage. This is the start of a themed read that’s likely to weave its way throughout 2013. Anyway as I was reading I looked up the odd poem here and there and this 1818 sonnet by Shelley, inspired by an ancient Egyptian statue, felt very modern. How many times in recent years have we seen gigantic icons of political leaders, toppled and left lying in the dust?

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goblin marketI herewith declare this Folio Society Appreciation Week. First I featured the Japanese Short Story Anthology and now it is the turn of their volume of Christina Rossetti’s poems.  Every now and again the Folio Society outdo themselves. All their books are beautiful but some are exceptionally so. This is one of them. Cue my amateur photos or link to the Folio Society page where the illustrations are reproduced much more luminously. The latter, of course.

I read this for January’s poetry project and I’m so glad I did. I discovered some wonderful poems although I have to say CR’s preoccupations with failed relationships, regret, death, death and more death make for gloomy reading. Still it is the bleak midwinter here and what could be more appropriate?  I’m not going to critique them. A year of participation in the Poetry Project hasn’t furnished me with the skills to attempt that. I’ll just agree with Virginia Woolf’s assessment:

Your instinct was so sure, so direct, so intense that it produced poems that sing like music in one’s ears – like a melody by Mozart or an air by Gluck.

Shall I point to a few favourites?

3) What would I give?

2) After Death

1) In an Artist’s Studio which is obviously about the red-haired Lizzie Siddal, is it not?

Consider this the first poem of the month – a new feature to this blog. After a year of consciously reading some poetry (a 100% improvement of what went before), I’ve noticed that some of the most enjoyable poems don’t get mentioned here because I may have read the poem on a blog, in a newspaper or magazine and I tend only to write about full collections read. Well, from here on in, on the last day of the month, I will feature the poem I enjoyed the most in that particular month. I may only post the text but hopefully, this series will build into my personal poetry scrapbook.

And on that note, I shall leave you with an amazing recital of In an Artist’s Studio by none other than a virtual Christina Rossetti. Enjoy!

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