Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology

Michael Hofmann (editor)

translated from the German
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013
Michael Hofmann touches on the highlights of modern German poetry in a useful six page introduction, otherwise the only ancillary information provided in this anthology are dates for the poets, who are presented chronologically. The poems — not themselves dated — are allowed to stand for themselves, with German originals on the left facing English translations on the right.

Nineteen poets are represented by just one poem, but most are represented by several — at the other extreme, there are nine poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, ten by Gottfried Benn, nineteen by Bertolt Brecht, ten by Paul Celan, and fourteen by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (including the longest inclusion, the nine page "Foam") — which gives a feel for the breadth of their oeuvres. The poetry ranges from classical forms to free verse, from the playfully frivolous (Morgenstern's "Night Song of the Fish") to the Holocaust serious (Celan's "Deathfugue"), and from the well-known (Hofmann "didn't want to leave out great poets just because one can find them elsewhere, or great poems either") to the (at least to me) obscure.

Many different translators are involved and the translations are sometimes quite free. So Jerome Rothenburg chose to use all lower case for Enzensberger's "the end of the owls" although the original has no such feature: "i speak for none of your kind, / i speak of the end of the owls. / ..." And with one poem, Franz Werfel's "The Fat Man in the Mirror", I had trouble convincing myself that the German original matched the translation given at all. But mostly they are close enough to be usable as linguistic support by language learners, and this anthology is a fun way to learn some German for those who can cope with the syntactical irregularities and semantic uncertainties of poetry, in a foreign language.

Of Hofmann's attempt to be "readable, objective, and unfair", I can only judge the first goal: Twentieth-Century German Poetry is an accessible and powerful selection. Reading it has convinced me that German possesses one of the great poetry traditions of the twentieth century.

Note: The British version of this anthology, published by Faber as The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century German Poems, has just the translations, without the original German poems. This seems wrong-headed: it is true that the market for dual-language books is small, but the fraction of people interested in twentieth century German poetry who would have enough German to find the original texts interesting must be quite high.

May 2013

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%T Twentieth-Century German Poetry
%S An Anthology
%E Hofmann, Michael
%M German
%I Farrar, Straus & Giroux
%D 2006
%O paperback, dual language
%G ISBN-13 9780374530938
%P 511pp